A Tale of Two Epiphanies

‘Tis the season and all, but it’s not really that kind of a story. Not that kind of epiphany. Or maybe it is. I guess it just depends on what’s important to you, and for some people “the” Epiphany is a big deal. And since teaching’s important to me, this story of two epiphanies is pretty important personally.

Our story starts in now what is rapidly becoming last month. I’ve worked with several school districts over the past year or so on curriculum development, which should make my alma mater happy since that’s what my diploma says I can do. I got a toehold in that door by first helping develop what Wiggins and McTighe would call performance-based tasks in their model Understanding by Design. I like the notion of a performance-based task as it really says what it’s all about. Students have to perform some sort of task, and by doing so, teachers have an opportunity to determine whether students have mastered certain skills and knowledge.

Coming from the music world, performance is second nature to me. It’s not like I graced the world’s stages nightly with my talents, but kids in my music classes performed again and again. The whole class is geared towards that next big performance. I remember after the final football game my first year teaching high school when I thought, “Whew! No more halftime shows!” Only to realize that a holiday concert was right around the corner and I hadn’t even started to prepare! And so it goes.

In music, and other performance-based classes, the show’s the thing. And it doesn’t matter if you have the timid freshman clarinet player in the same band class with the senior All-State trumpet player. They all have to work together and that work is usually a performance. But that’s not the case in English, or social studies, or many other classes.

 The Wise Man’s Vision

I’m fortunate in that for my teaching career I worked with two good principals. The first not long enough, but Dr. Barry Beers and I had seven good years together at my second school. He’s since published Learning-Driven Schools for ASCD where others get to learn from his wisdom, or experiences, or well, let’s face it, my experiences with him! I like to think I’m responsible for at least a couple of his battle scars.

Anyway, Barry used to observe my class, as principals are wont to do, and would talk to me afterwards and say things like, “You do such a good job of going from whole-class instruction, to small-group instruction, to individualized instruction. I wish I could get more teachers to do that.” I’d probably quip back some smart-alecky comment like, “That’s what we call rehearsal, Dr. Beers.” See? He didn’t get that book for nuttin’.

“No,” he would argue, humoring me, “it’s more than that.” What he was wise enough to realize was that I was providing differentiated instruction. I was providing individualized instruction. It came naturally to me because that’s how I had come through the system. My directors and music teachers had done it for me so I was just doing what I knew. I always have a goal at the end: that performance. Whether we’re performing at Lincoln Center (which we did) or at the local senior center (which we also did), there was a performance at the end and I had to make sure everyone knew their part and could do it well.

He would tell me that he wished we could figure out a way to help other teachers bring more of this “rehearsal” style into their classrooms. We tried a few things every year, but we didn’t come up with a good solution during our time together. I think I’ve found a way, though, and that is through performance-based tasks. (He’s got some more ideas, so check out his book on ASCD.)

 Away on Yonder Star

Flash forward to the future (or not-so-distant past) and I’m working with teachers from a region of districts on the idea of performance-based tasks. Yes, it was cold. Yes, there was snow. But it was very warm inside and we didn’t have to worry about scratchy hay or dodging camel droppings. This was a two-day workshop, which is a luxury. Often districts want to try to squeeze in what amounts to a sea change—if you actually implement it—in a half a day or a day at the most. It’s a long-term process and can challenge teachers in many ways, including philosophically.

I say that often, but I finally have the proof to justify it. I won’t go into the whole process, but essentially it’s a complete curriculum design process that amounts to an overhaul of what most teachers do in their practice. Or maybe, it’s just more of being strategic and efficient. You start by analyzing—really trying to understand—what your content standards are asking your kids to do. From there you come up with true essential questions (which is harder than it sounds). Why is this important? Why do I need to know this? And then you design some real-world task in which the kids spend significant time doing whatever it is that shows them why it is important.

The task comes at the end of a reasonable period of time, like the end of a unit or the end of a grading period. And it usually takes some time to complete. Depending on the task, it can span 1-to-5 class periods. But because of this, it’s important to then work your way backwards to make sure all of the lessons and activities you do leading up to that task, your performance, include sufficient opportunity for students to master the task. That’s the backwards part.

You start with the standards; they tell you where to go. You determine the essential questions that really make it relevant to the kids. Then you design the task—the performance—and then work backwards to make sure you’ve covered all the bases. We had covered this process broadly on day one and had day two planned to spend quality time on developing these tasks and thinking about prerequisite activities and lessons. (The accompanying image is an attempt to wrap that all up in a graphic. It’s better when you see it animated.)


Curriculum Design Process
Repeat the sounding joy

On day two, I asked the teachers I was working with to recap the process we were using by telling me what—if anything—they had learned from day one. This was a good group of teachers. They had met in the past to discuss curriculum. They really worked hard and had some great ideas. They took to the idea of developing performance-based tasks and already had some good ones started. (Can’t wait to see them in action this spring.)

The first epiphany came when one of the teachers shared what he learned from day one. I have not been in this teacher’s class, but I have the feeling he is a good teacher—one you’d want to send your kids to. That’s the barometer I use. He’s very knowledgeable about his content and we had some good conversations around his table throughout the workshop. What he said was, “I’ve never really thought about this working backwards idea and making sure I’ve covered all the standards. I mean, I use the standards and know I have to cover them, but I’m usually so pressed to finish up one activity and get started with the next. I’ve never really thought about how they all work together.” That was his epiphany.

Mine was a split second later. “Wow! You’ve never thought about this?!?” No, I didn’t say it out loud. But, wow! Here’s probably a really good teacher and he’s expressing exactly what I’ve been grappling with. My professional friend Dr. Chris Corallo first shared this idea with me a few years ago when he noted that he believes schools don’t have curricula. They have standards, pacing guides, projects, benchmarks, and a range of other tests, but no real curricula. Add on the pressures of high-stakes tests, and teachers will actually tell you they would like to do your fun little tasks, but they have real work to do. They have to “cover the curriculum,” which is something I’ve actually had teachers tell me.

I’m so grateful for this teacher who shared what I consider a very brave and raw statement. He was laying it out on the line. What I interpreted he was saying was that although he probably does a pretty good job with what he’s doing, he might be spending more time “covering” the curriculum rather than actually teaching it. And maybe he’s not reaching every kid as well as he could. That’s what covering is about. You just have to get it done. Quality isn’t the issue. Neither is relevance nor effectiveness. If you cover it, you get a checkmark.

I was surprised to hear some of the other teachers echo his statement. I told you this was a good group of teachers—very insightful. One noted that she and her partner had been so quick to jump to the “activity,” that they lost sight of the real goals. They wanted to design a fun activity, but once they stepped back and focused on what was essential, they came up with a much more relevant activity, that still sounds like a lot of fun.

And so if I haven’t mixed enough metaphors already, I think I’m going to take on this notion of coverage head on this year. It’ll be my first resolution. We have to help teachers realize that curriculum design can make them more effective and efficient, something that’s not happening just with coverage. And it’s something every teacher can do. It takes some time up front, but there are payoffs in the end. And like this teacher, recognizing this is the first step.

Here’s to all of us being brave in 2013 and tackling change!