Begin with the End in Mind

I am very excited to be blogging with Teaching United States History and to become part of this vibrant and thoughtful community of teacher-researchers. I look forward to stimulating posts and conversations.

I have decided to adapt one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for my approach to classes this year: Begin with the End in Mind. One of my main goals for this year is to be attentive to how students achieve the skill-based goals I set for our classes this year. I have always been a stickler for crafting organized lesson plans with clear skill and content-based goals. I use the new bloom’s taxonomy to move between lower and higher order skill-oriented activities. At the end of discussions, I sometimes wondered if students got the point. We had followed the steps of the lesson plan, and performed the skills I intended, but could students appreciate that? So this year, I am committed to not just scaffolding learning so students perform the skills that I want them to practice and sharpen, but also to moderating skill development in the course of the class. Following are three ways I have begun thinking about achieving these goals.

Begin with the End. With these goals in mind I have shifted a bit of how I have traditionally organized my classes so that I can begin with the end in mind by beginning with the end. In this case, the end was to have students analyze an author’s arguments about slave community. I wanted them to dissect the argument. In focusing on the skill-based goal, I abandoned the disciplinary doctrine of ‘foreignness’ of the past (and probably several others) in using a contemporary film to stimulate our analysis.   I used clips from the film 12 Years a Slave to help anchor discussions of slave community and politics in Steve Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet. There are very few cinematic representations of slavery from the perspective of enslaved people and this film allows some discussion of what one slave community was like. Students were able to analyze some aspects of the slave-master relationship, of slave community and religion from the clips and text. We were able to examine some of the textures of experience in a way that the text gestures toward. And what was most important, in my view, was that students also began to find specific citations from the text to juxtapose with the film’s representation. In this way, the film clips facilitated the analysis of the text by offering a kind of foil.

Listen differently. In my lesson plans, with discussion questions laid out in a logical sequence, I usually have my teacher’s answer key, with some expected responses. Then in class, I would listen out for some of the expected responses as a gauge of how much students were gathering from the readings and as an indicator that our discussion was going according to plan. I have started to listen differently—less for the specific responses I can anticipate, because the real beauty is in hearing the unanticipated response, the new formulation, the original interpretation. And I heard more of these as I was listening for students to pull out specific examples from the texts, and to analyze the author’s approaches to the text. I may not have anticipated or agreed with their conclusions, but I heard them doing the analysis and asking questions of the texts and each other. This is much more aligned with the skill-based goals I have set for my course.

Trust.  Since class meetings are so fleeting and discussions leave little if any concrete evidence of their happenings—notes jotted in a student’s notebook, or an outline or list on the board, might be what remains—it can be hard to capture what took place in a class discussion. And the skill demonstration is even more difficult to capture for posterity. I realize that some of the challenge, then is to trust that over the rest of the term, as we continue these discussions of different documents, events and people, and as we begin writing about them, that students will be able to repeat these skills over and over again and become more adept. While I trust that they will do these things again, I will add to my practice, a habit of naming what we are doing, or what we just did, so that students will become aware of when they are analyzing, contextualizing, evaluating and all the other myriad thinking skills I want them to strengthen over the term. And I will refine my sense of how these skills look when expressed in their highest iteration.

What are your goals in your classroom discussions? How do evaluate achievement of those goals? How do you evaluate and foster students’ skill development over the course of the term?

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