Monthly Archives: August 2015

Designing Spiraled Writing Instruction: End-of-Course Reflection for Edu 6150

4.4 Designing Coherent Instruction in the area of Lesson and Unit Structure.  To me, designing coherent lesson and unit structure begins with the “backwards design” process:  First identify the enduring understanding or essential question and focus your learning target on one piece of that “big idea”; Next decide what counts as evidence of understanding and design assessments around that evidence; Then create learning activities that require and reveal understanding of the essential question. (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005)  The unit focuses on one essential question or enduring understanding; individual lessons have learning targets that “break down” the unit’s big idea into specific aspects, elements, or skills.


Notebook for Edu 6150, Image 1

The image above is from my  notebook for Edu 6150.  It records one of my reader responses to Chapter 9 in Wiggins & McTeague (2005). Understanding by Design.  Chapter 9 covers the implications of the backwards design process for organizing curriculum, and introduces the notion of spiral design.  In the notes I reflect on the way in which a writing curriculum I have used in the past embodies spiral design.  The writing curriculum I denote uses active verb vocabulary to build sentence-level, paragraph-level, then essay-level writing skills.  The curriculum returns repeatedly to that active verb “center” as a foundation for student writing, but builds increasingly longer and more complex types of writing around it.  Through my reading and reflecting on Understanding by Design I have come to understand this active-verb writing curriculum in a different way, not only as an effective tool for teaching foundational writing skills, but as a tool for creating student understanding about how and why active verbs build strong writing.

Edu 6150 Notebook Image 2

Notebook for Edu 6150, Image 2

In this section of my reader response notebook I ponder further implications of spiral design for writing instruction.   I come to understand that the “narrative” aspects of spiral design can be applied to the revision process, and to the way in which re-writing becomes a “story of return.”   In this way, the purpose of spiral design (“re-thinking”) informs a new understanding of revision’s role in writing curricula.  Revision is more than a way to improve student writing; it is a way for students to understand how narrative works and why revision creates strong narratives.

In these notebook entries, you can observe my own spiraled learning process.  I have returned to past writing curricula (active-verb based and revision-based) and thought about the potential they hold for increasing student understanding in addition to student skill.  One concrete step I will take to put backwards design principles into practice is to visually imagine lessons as a spiraled sequence.  This will help me to design writing instruction that has a coherent center of understanding as well as of skill, and help ensure that my students grasp the concepts behind specific writing practices.

Reference:  Wiggins and McTighe (2005). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCA)

Careful Assessment Records help Colleagues and Students: End-of-Course Reflection for Edu 6918

8.1 Relationships with colleagues are characterized by mutual support and cooperation. Many factors contribute to cooperative relationships among teachers.  Clear and frequent communication, responding to requests in a timely manner, and sharing teaching resources and information are among them.  One important way to cooperate with colleagues and support student success is by keeping accurate and organized assessment records, so that as students move across grade levels teachers know what type of modification, scaffolding and enrichment they will need to provide for incoming classes.

Figure 1:

Screen shot 2015-08-17 at 11.40.08 AMFigure 1 portrays a concrete description of Professional Standard 3.1 that I wrote for an assignment in Edu 6918, Introduction to Teaching.  The description specifically addresses one way in which teachers can demonstrate knowledge of students. It also serves as an example of how good record-keeping enables professional cooperation. I suggested, “when the teacher has finished grading a set of papers, the teacher can record brief summaries of written comments on student papers in a file.”  Sharing these files with the next grade-level teachers would allow colleagues to note writing issues the teacher worked on over the past year and writing skills next year’s teachers will need to build on or address for their incoming students.  Such files also provide continuity in vocabulary used to teach writing concepts.

 Sharing information on student’s past skills and progress supports student learning as well as professional cooperation.  Donovan, Bransford & James (1999) identify three research findings with important implications for classroom practice: “Teachers must draw out and work with the preexisting understandings that their students bring with them” (p. 15)  By providing summaries of teacher feedback on papers, a teacher allows colleagues to effectively draw out and work with their students’ preexisting writing skills.

One specific change that I need to make in my own teaching practice is to develop an easily shared electronic system for tracking my assessment feedback. Because I have experience tutoring, I know the importance of maintaining careful notes on aspects of student writing that require extra development, modification, or scaffolding,  Digital files will better facilitate accurate and manageable transference of feedback on student writing for large classrooms and across grade levels.

Reference:  Donovan, Bransford & James, ed. (1999).  Ch.2 in How People Learn:  Bridging Research and Practice.  Washington, D.C.:  Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice, National Research Council, National Academy Press.

Cognitive Development and the Importance of Story: Meta-Reflection for Edu 6132

3.1 Teacher recognizes the value of understanding students’ skills, knowledge, and language proficiency and displays this knowledge for groups of students.  As an English Language Arts teacher, understanding students’ skills and knowledge depends on understanding their language development.  One way in which we display our understanding of student language development is through story.  Here I have included a slide I made for a group presentation on cognitive development theories and their application in the language learning classroom.  The slide was created for EDU 6132:  Learners in Context.  Though simple in content, this slide represents my understanding of story as a complex teaching tool.

Screen shot 2015-08-16 at 12.28.49 PM

Self-efficacy requires self-understanding.  Vygotsky’s theory of language development describes a move from external to internal language; for Vygotsky, adult thought is dependent on the development of inner speech (Pressley & McCormick, 2007, p. 154)  As educators, we need to address that “space between” external and inner speech, to help students move from heard language, or words on a page, to the internal voice that makes conversation and reading personally meaningful.  One way to do that is through stories, which create self-understanding  (inner speech) when the reader connects their own experience to the world of the book. One of the books I have pictured on this slide, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, provides just such a story.  In it, a toy bunny, Edward Tulane, begins life as a treasured but self-centered toy.  Over the course of his truly miraculous journey, Edward experiences many different kinds of homes and love.  But it is not until he is loved and needed, until his own gifts are drawn out, that Edward experiences the right kind of love, a love that allows him to become meaningful to himself precisely because he has become necessary to another.

Narrative explores and explains the development of self-in-context, across time.  In order to develop self-efficacy, students also require tasks that are appropriate to their cognitive, social, and moral development.  In accordance with Piaget’s theory, this means tasks that build on prior knowledge and provide “just enough” cognitive conflict for students to modify or expand their original beliefs.  From the perspective of Vygotsky, this means addressing the Zone of Proximal Development.  In terms of fostering self-efficacy, it means matching academic tasks to student competencies because, “Only tasks that are challenging for the learner, but not so challenging as to prevent progress, are capable of providing information to students that increases their sense of self-efficacy and promote[sic] their future attempts to meet challenging tasks.” (Pressley & McCormick, 2007, p. 265)

On a practical level, task appropriateness in the English Language Arts classroom translates into text appropriateness.   The work of a language teacher is literacy, and we teach literacy using texts.  If the text is too difficult, students cannot learn to read, interpret, analyze, conceptualize, or infer from it. Therefore, we need alternate, modified, and “choice” texts. Sometimes those can be texts rewritten and partially summarized for lower reading levels, such as the Early Classics series. Sometimes they can be children’s versions of a classic text, such as Gillian Cross’ version of The Odyssey.  And sometimes they can be a collection of “student choice” texts centered around a common theme, allowing greater student investment in what they read as well as better matching of student reading level to text.  Another of the texts pictured on this slide, The Bluest Eye, provides an example of a text that is available to a wide variety of reading levels and rich enough to provide meaningful comprehension, interpretation, and inference tasks.  But The Bluest Eye serves the student in another important way as well.  It is a narrative about cognitive development, and the attainment of self-acceptance through the ability to view oneself in different cultural contexts over the course of time.

Stories allow students to develop Theory of Mind.  In many ways, we can think about The Bluest Eye as a story that develops egocentric Theory of Mind:  a vision of self seen through the construct of otherness.  But true Theory of Mind requires empathy, i.e., understanding how other people feel and why they feel that way. Theory of Mind includes an ability to understand multiple points of view synchronously.  It is related to Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s stages of cognitive and moral development, since it describes a progression from egocentric thinking towards thinking that takes into account how other people see the world.  Unlike Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s theories of development, however, Theory of Mind postulates that children grow by becoming able to mentally grasp more than one “truth” at a time.  In other words, Theory of Mind requires individuals to hold onto cognitive conflict without resolving it.

So what does Theory of Mind have to do with stories?  Stories require us to fully cross the divide between self and other while maintaining separate and individual selves.  We retain our identity as reader, while experiencing the story through the “I” of the character about whom we are reading, from whose point of view the story is told.  And we experience not only the story, but the emotions and thinking of that character.  The text pictured in the center of this slide, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy provides a text that echoes the reader’s Theory of Mind experience.  Over the course of the story, a preacher’s son (the Buckminster Boy) connects with a new friend, Lizzie Bright.  Their histories and circumstances are radically disparate in terms of race, education, power, wealth, and gender.  Yet their friendship, like an empathetic reader, crosses this chasm of difference on the bridge of shared story.

The final image displayed on this slide is a quotation from a discussion thread I wrote about the difference between cognitive development seen through the lens of brain science and cognitive development seen through the lens of social science:

What I leave with is the importance of both of these types of stories in the classroom:  the story of what we can learn from universal or normative human experience, and the story of what we can learn from those who fall outside the norm, whose lives are defined more by difference than sameness. (Ellen Aagaard, Module 2 Discussion Post)

If I were to choose one way in which I would like to improve my use of stories in the classroom, it would be just this:  to increase my collection of stories.  Stories that allow students to connect with characters who are both like and unlike themselves.  Stories that address variance in language proficiency as well as the human variety that fills our classroom.  Stories that help students understand both themselves and others.

Reference:  Pressley and McCormick (2007). Child and Adolescent Development for Educators. New York:  The Guilford Press