When I first started teaching, I wanted to work against what John Taylor Gatto called the lesson of the bells–the “unrelating of everything.”
“I teach disconnections. I teach too much: the orbiting of planets, the law of large numbers, slavery, adjectives, architectural drawing, dance, gymnasium, choral singing, assemblies, surprise guests, fire drills, computer languages, parents’ nights, staff-development days, pull-out programs, guidance with strangers my students may never see again, standardized tests, age-segregation unlike anything seen in the outside world….What do any of these things have to do with each other?”
I wanted to work against that fragmentation. We looked for thematic units, inter- and cross-disciplinary work.
So when I read UbD and read this…. I didn’t know what was wrong with it:
For two weeks every fall, all the third-grade classes participate in a unit on apples. The students engage in a variety of activities related to the topic. In language arts, they read Johnny Appleseed and view an illustrated filmstrip of the story. They each write a creative story involving an apple and then illustrate their stories using tempera paints. In art, students collect leaves from nearby crab apple trees and make a giant leaf print collage on the hallway bulletin board adjacent to the third-grade classrooms. The music teacher teaches the children songs about apples. In science, they use their senses to carefully observe and describe the characteristics of different types of apples. During mathematics, the teacher demonstrates how to “scale up” an applesauce recipe to make a quantity sufficient for all the 3rd graders.
A highlight of the unit is the field trip to a local apple orchard, where students watch cider being made and go on a hayride. The culminating unit activity is the third grade apple fest, a celebration for which parent volunteers dress as apples and the children rotate through various activities at stations – making applesauce, competing in an apple “word search” contest, bobbing for apples, completing a math skill sheet containing word problems involving apples, and so on. The fest concludes with selected students reading their apple stories while the entire group enjoys candy apples prepared by the cafeteria staff. (2–3)
It was thematic and interdisciplinary. It hung together. It was interesting. I was unclear as to what was wrong with it. Grant made that clear. But a step beyond interesting is significant. What it was missing were Big Ideas and Essential Questions.
Grant has done as much as or more than anyone to change how classrooms work. In an age in which everyone agreed that the educational system had to change, but few knew what that could look like, Grant and Jay McTighe showed us how it might look
Before UbD teachers led with and covered content. You were hired, assigned a course to teach ( Algebra 2, English literature, the History of Western Civilization) and typically issued a textbook. You proceeded to teach it–the topic, the book.
Teachers said things like:
“We only made it through three quarters of the book last year. ”
“They can’t graduate without having read [insert favorite work or author here: Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Hamlet, The Mill on the Floss …)”
Grant asked us to begin with big ideas & essential questions. Things that mattered to us and to kids. Then to ask “what do we want them to know and be able to do.” Starting there and framing it that way separated the wheat from the chaff in the curriculum. Designing lessons with purpose–larger purpose–and goals, We no longer “covered” stuff because it existed or because it was in the book.
People are creatures of habit. We might all be in agreement that the educational system needs to change, but that involved two nearly impossible tasks: reinventing a centuries-old and very complex system and breaking layers of habit– personal, social and cultural. In new teacher orientation, Stephanie talked about playing school as a small child. (She had her dad build her a chalkboard that flipped). How many of us (and our children) “played school” before we ever stepped foot in a classroom? We already knew the script. We told our siblings or our friends or our teddy bears to sit down. Quiet down. Take out their books or their homework. Raise their hands; pay attention.
Lots of people have known for a long time that those habits and practices had to change. But we didn’t know how to change them or what it would look like. Today we welcome a man who was one of the first and still one of the few who showed us how and gave us a framework to change some of our most fundamental and limiting habits.
Please welcome Grant Wiggins.