I always thought I was a pretty good teacher. I focused on the standards and regularly assessed my students to see if they were meeting them. I often gave my students information on their progress in the form of scores and percents on assignments, and periodically gave them a grade report. In my classroom, we were focused on learning science and tried to be as immersed in the learning as possible. But there was always something just nagging at the back of my brain, and it kept saying, “There’s got to be a better way.”
It was during this time that I began working with other science teachers in a network organized and facilitated by the P-12 Math & Science Outreach branch of PIMSER. As part of this network, we began to take a hard look at what our standards really mean for classroom instruction and student learning. Ultimately, we learned to take our standards and break them down into the constituent building blocks that make them up, a process called deconstruction, or more simply referred to as unpacking. Deconstruction forced me to closely analyze my standards to determine the knowledge, reasoning, skills, and products that they call for. Whereas before this process I had what I thought was a good working understanding of my standards, now I had to dig into them and become intimate with them. Additionally, I now had the scaffolding necessary to help my students reach those overarching standards.
I next took my deconstructed standards and had to decide what was most important for my kids to know. It’s difficult determining which of my building blocks are crucial enough that I’m going to communicate to my students that they need to learn them. In an ideal world, students would learn everything; but in the real world, we have to make choices. It wasn’t as if my students wouldn’t be exposed to all the material; it’s that I had to decide what the non-negotiables are going to be. What will all students be required to learn? As my fellow 7thgrade science teacher and I grappled with these decisions we developed a shared vision of the standards and where we wanted to take our students. For perhaps the first time in my career, I had a clear picture of what my standards entailed.
From these building blocks, I next constructed student-friendly learning targets. I took each individual knowledge, reasoning, skill and product piece and turned them into “I can” statements. During this process I had to carefully word the targets such that students could interact with them while still staying true to the learning intention of the original standard. For example, if I had a target that stated,“I can give examples of energy transformations,” many of my students would shut down and decide they couldn’t possibly do something that hard. On the other hand, if I had the target state,“I can give examples of energy changes,” then I’ve lost the critical vocabulary of the standard and my students would be underprepared to show their understanding. A compromise would be to say, “I can give examples of energy transformations. This means when energy is changed from one form to another form.” This doesn’t intimidate the student, while still getting across that they are learning about transformations. The key is I want my students to see the targets as attainable, and ultimately students can hit a target that is clear and they feel is within reach.
Learning targets had a rather inauspicious debut in my classroom. I put them on the overhead, read them to my students, and then never referred to them again with my students during the unit. But instead of being a
non-factor in my instruction, they were really integral to it. Even though I didn’t refer to the targets with my students, I was aware of them. I used them to determine what I was going to teach, and ultimately what I was going to assess. I used them to weed out the frivolous and focus on the important. Essentially, the act of creating learning targets, even when not used optimally made me a much better teacher.
While my journey was only just starting, I could already see its impact on my classroom. My comfort level with the standards dramatically improved. I no longer wondered what they meant. Instead, I was actively engaging with
others to develop a common understanding of their underpinnings. My instruction had a new focus to it, such that things were no longer
just topic matches. My lessons and
activities honed in on the identified, specific learning targets.
There was much more to come and many changes I had to make, but there was
definitely improvement afoot.