Communicating what you really want students to know or be able to do in- cludes explicitly showing them the performance task you expect them to do at the end of the instruction, ideally with a list of criteria, exemplars of products that are done well, and rubrics for scoring the exemplars. It may also include having students develop their own criteria or having them analyze “not yet” examples, since we all get clearer about what something is by also knowing what it is not (see Chapter 18, “Lesson Objectives”). In addition, it will include checking for understanding of the objective and “unpacking” it at the begin- ning of the lesson as described in Chapter 18. That is to make sure they under- stand the vocabulary in the objective and the outcome it aims for.
So far, we have advocated planning explicitly how to (1) make a clear statement of objectives, (2) show the assessment task, (3) give criteria, (4) share exem- plars, and (5) explain rubrics. Having all these ready up front would be the full- est way to communicate objectives to students in a no-secrets classroom. You don’t need all these, of course, when the learning targets are small. If students are learning the skill of using latitude and longitude to locate a place on the globe, they don’t need a rubric. But many student products assigned (essays, lab reports, stories, oral reports) could have all five of these elements available for students. Math and science problems—that exemplify the skills students are responsible for—can be given to students in advance along with solutions worked out just as you want them to be able to do on the assessment.
If you expect the students to explain what powers each branch of government has and how they check and balance one another, you wouldn’t give them the whole exemplary essay that answers the question in text. You would tell them
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the aspects of checks and balances you want them to be able to comment on and not leave them to guess. For example, “Be able to explain how the legislature uses the confirmation process and the budget process to influence the court; show an example of how the court tests the constitutionality of legislation and can overturn it; be sure to explain how influence is exerted in at least one sig- nificant way between each of the following: legislative on executive, legislative on judicial, executive on legislative, executive on judicial, judicial on executive, judicial on legislative.”
Choosing and communicating objectives in primary-grade literacy and numer- acy looks a little different. If you’re doing guided reading with three first graders on a book at the “E” level, you are working on a developmental continuum with each of the three children. Your records identify different skill elements to focus on with each child. Maisha is ready to work on fluency and reading with more natural speech rhythm; John is ready to master sound blending with “e” and “i” words; Darcy is ready to master the voice changes signaled by periods and commas. Notice we haven’t said “Maisha needs . . .” or “John needs . . .” It’s not that they’re needy; it’s that they are mastering the skills of reading that are next for them developmentally. They’re all reading the same book, seated with you at the same time. As each child reads, you give cues and small pieces of instruction in line with what skills they’re developing: “Now, Darcy, pay attention to the comma in the sentence coming up; I bet you’ll be able to make it sound just like talking!” Note the expression of confidence in her.
Decision 3: Plan How to Communicate the Objective to the Students with Unmistakable Clarity
Check back to Chapter 18, “Lesson Objectives,” for points on student-friendly language and check for understanding of the objectives on pages 471 and 472.
Decision 4: Decide What You Will Take as Evidence of Student Mastery
What’s the test item or performance that, if a student could do it successfully, you would take as evidence of mastery? It may be as simple as looking over a stu- dent’s shoulder and seeing her set up a three-step word problem correctly after reading it. It could be hearing a student explain to you how the executive branch exerts influence over the judiciary through the appointment process. The point is this: it is extremely important for us as teachers to get this performance in mind clearly before we begin a lesson. This performance becomes the anchor for everything else we do in the planning process. Thus when we get to design- ing learning experiences, we will ask, Would question X or activity Y likely lead students to be able to do this performance?
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Having envisioned specifically what performance we want from each student, we are much more likely to assess the children frequently and use those data as feedback for them and for ourselves about the effectiveness of the instruction. Both kinds of feedback are essential to successful teaching, and both have their origin in the planning of lessons.
Decisions 5 and 6: Analyze Evidence and Plan Pace and Grouping
When planning a lesson, we should consult data from the students’ performance yesterday (or whenever we last got data). This information will help us decide about our pace for the class tomorrow. Obviously, if our students show on the quiz (or in the learning logs) that they don’t understand what the purpose of the executive branch of government is, we will not move forward with the judiciary. More likely though, we discover from the evidence that a few students don’t get it and the rest do. That’s the way it is with most things taught at any given time. So now in our planning we have to design something so that the four students, who are still foggy about the executive branch and its powers, can get clear.
Before generating options for how to handle this situation, consider the attitude this step represents. We are saying that if four students didn’t show evidence of understanding what they were doing in today’s class, it is our responsibility to come up with a plan tonight so they will understand by the end of tomorrow (or soon). We can’t say, “I taught it; they just didn’t learn it” and move on with the rest of the class, leaving four students with this gap or move on with the hope that it will become clear to them through ensuing activities. We have to plan something to happen for them that will make it clear, and if possible, plan it for tomorrow. That’s what teachers are for. That is what professional decision- making and diagnostic expertise are all about. That’s what knowing how to reach diverse learners is all about. If all the job entailed was being a content expert and going through the material, then anyone who knows the material could teach. But if making sure the students learn the material is what the job is about, then the job requires professional expertise about planning and teach- ing. That is the position that stands behind these pages on planning skill.
One option is to set up the class in groups for the first 15 minutes debating whether the executive, particularly the president, has the authority to launch a punitive military strike against a country that has been proven to sponsor a terrorist group against the United States. While the groups are debating the question and coming to a position, you could take aside the four students who still have confusion about the purpose of the executive and reteach yesterday’s lesson in a different way, with diagrams and frequent checking for understand- ing of each of them.
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Another option is to make an appointment with the four students at the begin- ning of class to see you for supplementary instruction during X block, which the school has reserved for tutoring and extra help: “Evidence from yesterday’s quiz shows me you four need another go around from me on the executive branch. We didn’t get it done yesterday. I’m sure you can master this informa- tion, but I must have 30 minutes with you all together during an X block. Does it work better for you today or tomorrow?” Notice the positive attribution state- ment in this language and the joint assignment of responsibility for the teaching and learning between teacher and students.
Here is a third option. All year you have been working on a climate of mutual help and community building in the class. Thus students who have received feedback that they’re struggling with a concept can ask for help from their peers. Asking for and giving help has become a valued and praiseworthy behavior in the class and become scheduled into the rhythms of class routine. So at the beginning of tomorrow’s class, you say, “Okay, before we start, does anybody want help with any of yesterday’s material?” Three of the four hands go up: “Who’s willing to give them a briefing [the term the class has adopted for peer tutoring] at lunch or some other time today?” Hands go up; the students who ask for help pick someone, as is the class routine. You thank and praise all who have entered this process, quickly by name, including the volunteer helpers who weren’t picked.
While this is going on, you walk past Jerome, who didn’t raise his hand for help but should have, and gently say, “What about you, Jerome?” “I’m goin’ to ask my Dad tonight,” he replies. How you respond to Jerome depends on the context variables: whether it’s good Jerome will ask his dad, whether Jerome is an isolate and you’re trying to build connections between Jerome and others in the class, and all sorts of other possibilities. The point here is not how to handle Jerome, but that you have a deliberate plan you decided to implement the night before to deal with what the evidence told you—that four students don’t get it yet.
There are many options besides these three, and no argument is made that these three are superior to others. We are making the argument, however, that a teacher has to come up with something to deal with the situation and that doing so is part of planning the night before.
Decision 7: Pick Materials
This is the favorite part for many of us. In fact, some us like to start planning here because we have materials we love to use, materials the students have en- joyed in the past, and materials we think are engaging and clear. Beware! This is a habit that can lead to engaging activities that are unconnected to what the students are supposed to be learning.
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Maybe, you have a great case study you like to use when you study pollution in earth science. You’ve never seen a better one. And you love to show the movie A Civil Action to drive the point home about corporate responsibility as a wrap- up. But does the case study help you make the main point of the unit—that proactive environmental cleanup has social costs as well as social benefits?
You could use the case to make that point if you had some additional data to go with it. That is, you may find a place for your favorite materials in this series of lessons you’re preparing, but start with the mastery objective and the evidence you would take that students had mastered it. Then go back and see if your favorite materials still fit or if they can be modified to fit the objective more precisely.
Decision 8: Anticipate Confusions
When planning lessons, it is enormously helpful if the teacher’s experience base allows him or her to predict what will be difficult or confusing for students about upcoming concepts or skills. Teachers use those predictions to develop something particularly clear or vivid for explaining that concept, warn the stu- dents in advance that this is particularly hard (thus they should ratchet up their focus and attention), do something to surface the confusion explicitly and ex- plicitly contradict it, or tailor materials and the tasks students are asked to do to address that confusion.