16: Understanding By Design: liveblogging the reading
The following is part of an ongoing reflection during the reading of Understanding by Design, a textbook on curriculum design. This is an extremely useful textbook, and this reflection documents the attempt to devise a curriculum which is at once accessible and bilingual, for deaf and hearing kids.
My immediate thoughts following the first chapter of Understanding by Design were that I had been following a system sketchily like that which is outlined in these two sections; more importantly, it filled in and organized some things I had been guessing at, but now made sense with a remarkable clarity.
The templates used in the first chapter will be highly beneficial to us as we plan units together for a team-taught course next year. I will be working with my co-teacher at school, also a Fellow, to work with our school’s standards to create “curriculum maps” for the year identifying the goals, assessments and individual skills/understandings we will be achieving, at least for the school’s English classes.
I feel very comfortable with the concept of backwards planning, maybe because it feels similar to my outlining process for fiction writing – start with the major “scenes,” then work your way downwards into the things you need to write to make those scenes work. As a teacher I’m creating a narrative for my students to follow, and if my narrative isn’t logical they won’t understand the story I’m trying to tell. Fair enough.
One disagreement I had with the text was when it states on p. 15 that it’s a mistake to just “throw some content and activities against the wall and hope some of it sticks.” Sometimes I find teaching English literature at this age is a combination of teaching the structure of language and exposing kids to sharp, brilliant pieces so that they get interested for life. For example, during our Valentine’s Day celebration (a long and interminably pink and sticky week,) I held a very simple poetry reading in my 7th grade English class as part of an assessment of their familiarity and skill with reading poetry. The aim of the lesson was, ostensibly, to learn how to read aloud – pacing; what seeing a comma on the page suggested we do while reading aloud, or with ASL; suggested phrasings on the wall, etc. The kids were intrigued by the concept that punctuation had more than one meaning. Then I passed out envelopes randomly; each envelope contained a poem with a different perspective on love. Dorothy Parker had her say and so did Ms. Millay; we even read Annabel Lee.
The kids came forward and read what was in their envelopes and wrote an exit slip with one thing they learned or enjoyed before they left the classroom; that was pretty much the end of it. It was the day of the Valentine dance, so it kept them from exploding: an important consideration in middle school teaching. (Any single event can set off the hormonal insanity.) I found this lesson to be one of the most valuable in the year. It forced students to slow down and think about what they were reading, almost everyone asked if they could keep their copy of the poem they read, and I got some further information about what kind of poetry would be appropriate for this grade level at the beginning of a pretty successful poetry unit. I grant it’s not something you should do every single lesson, but it’s fun.
Remembering this lesson brings up a question. One problem I had with that lesson came when I included the deaf students. We’re a bilingual school, but the rules of ASL/English in school aren’t yet clear: I’m part of a committee set up to help develop these rules. Even so, sometimes we come up against these frustrating SHOULDAREALIZED moments... I had one during this lesson. I have bicultural, bilingual classes. This means that I gave all my students a poem in English to read – but since some of these students don’t speak, they were effectively asked to provide a translation in ASL on the spot. That certainly wasn’t a part of my goal!
Of course, we ask the same miracle from sign language interpreters on a daily basis, but it was an unfair burden to put on these kids. How to resolve it, and still introduce the kids to the wonder of poetry? Next year I’ll give them the envelopes the day before, or a week before, and swear them to secrecy. It’ll make a big difference, and I can differentiate if necessary by choosing specifically the type of poem, and provide video suggestion for the signing too (thank god for MacBooks!) If I do it right, I can give the Deaf kids some pointers about how to use metaphor in ASL poetry, give the hearing kids some exposure to it. If they started in kindergarten like the lovely hypothetical models say they should, it would be the perfect age to expose them to comparative metaphor. (Of course this requires a lot of extra work from the teacher – maybe even a committee of teachers.)
It seems to me, though, that there needs to be a place for this kind of thinking in the structure for planning which Understanding by Design proposes, and I can’t for the life of me decide where it should be placed in my mental “chart.” After all, you need to consider the appropriateness of assessments, goals, lessons, projects… it affects almost everything you do. Having a diverse classroom – in all senses of the word - can be a crazy experience… It’s more than accessibility – for either the Deaf or hearing students - when you’re forced to consider the requirements of bilingual education, far more.