Posts Tagged ‘Understanding by Design’

Reflecting Back; Moving Forward by Design~

Curriculum Design Meta-Reflection

At the beginning of this course, along with my anticipation of fresh perspectives, up-to-date research and invigorating dialogue, I also expected that I might have difficulty selecting a project topic from a particular content area. In my years of experience moving from parallel special education classes to nearly full inclusion, I have found myself having to redefine my role as a teacher. My somewhat diminished view of myself has been compounded by the fact that for the past five years—I have not had a classroom. My current setting in a school which is only five years old, my colleagues and I continue to advocate on behalf of our special education students to ensure that a “continuum of services” is available.

Fortunately, I have seen many students “rise to the occasion” and perform successfully within the general education setting. The author refers to Vito Perrone, former director of teacher education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who “believes all students—including those assigned to remedial or low-track classes—should have opportunities to reach understanding, not just knowledge, by “making connections among and between things, about deep and not surface knowledge, and about greater complexity, not simplicity” (as cited within Parkay, Hass & Anctil, p. 533). I agree with Perrone and have witnessed the success of students who have been exposed to classes offering “greater complexity”, however, also believe that our high schools must recognize that our students possess of range of needs.

I responded to the discussion question of “values imbedded in the curriculum”—specifically related to the topic of “college ready”. My high school lists on our webpage the mission statement: “…students will graduate college ready. They will be prepared to act as informed citizens in a global society and empowered to care for their community”. A separate line states that “students will complete gateway courses for college enrollment”. Parkay, Hass, and Anctil, in Curriculum Leadership, convey the great challenge before us as educators: “To provide all learners—from those with diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds and with their variety of needs, abilities, learning styles, and prior educational experiences—meaningful and growth-promoting curricular experiences…” (p.). Before our school opened (in response to controversy around the phrase “college ready”) the team of educators and community members crafting the wording to “qualify” the college focus in the vision statement by including the words “post-secondary endeavors.” The concept of differences in student needs is expressed when Inlay writes that “community and belonging” is critical in “creating a safe place that accepts the different qualities of each individual” (p. 44).

I voiced the sentiment in my initial post that although the website displays “inclusive” language—acknowledging that we have a diverse population within our community, the course offerings appear to be heavily geared toward the college bound students. In support of this direction, I note that a surprising number of my students are finding success in their general education classes. I agree with the following research in the article, Authentic Assessment and Student Performance in Inclusive Secondary Schools: “…with more challenging tasks, students with disabilities performed better than students with and without disabilities who received less challenging tasks” (King, Schroeder and Chawszczewski cited within Parkay p. 237). It seems, however, that as standards and graduation requirements continue to increase, the number of options and course offerings that appeal to the “less-likely-to-be-college-bound” students decreases. I sometimes wonder what “imbedded values” some students perceive. Unfortunately, I see a number of students who become discouraged and simply drop out after finding little success in overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Within the article, Engaging the Disengaged Student: Research Shows Why Some Are Immersed in Learning While Others Are Indifferent, author Susan Black, provides suggestions for remedying  issues related to disengaged students. The article refers to what Charlotte Danielson, of the Educational Testing Service, describes a “’distinguished teacher’ as [: one] who has mastered a number of skills in four broad domains: planning and preparation; classroom environment; instruction; and professional responsibilities” (as cited within Parkay, Hass & Anctil, p. 531). Although my role as a special education teacher requires that I advocate for students with special needs and I sometimes voice my concern about unreasonably high standards, this does not mean that I am opposed to encouraging students to strive to achieve levels as high as possible. I agree with the author who states: “ Students stay engaged when teachers create lessons centered on ‘big ideas’ and design assignments at the correct level of difficulty—not too easy and not impossibly difficult—so students are challenged but still able to succeed” (as cited within Parkay, Hass & Anctil, p. 532).

As module 2 drew to a close, I began to focus on a predominate need in my setting. Specifically–to prepare my students to ask and reflect on the “big picture” questions pertaining to their life beyond graduation. My students must be encouraged to lift their sights beyond the day-to-day activities of high school life and consider the broader scope of what lies before them. While I believe it is true that we should encourage students to pursue training and education beyond high school, we must also keep in mind what Parkay, Hass, and Anctil (2010), state: “…curriculum goals can be clustered into two broad areas, each of which should always be considered in curriculum planning: goals that relate to society and its values and goals that relate to the individual learner’s needs, interests, and abilities” (p.8).

About a month into this course, I experienced an unexpected insight—somewhat strangely related to my understanding the topic of curriculum and backward-design. It came in the form of a highly personal application of keeping the “big picture” or “long-range view” in mind. Learning of the rapid progression and devastating effects of early onset dementia of one of my sisters—I began to come to terms with the perspective of “backward design” as it relates to life in general. As a family we are having to “lift our sights beyond the day-to-day activities and consider the broader scope” as we together consider her “needs, interests, and abilities”—in relation to the future. Somehow the importance of some aspects of life wane and others emerge as “overarching” and take precedence as they come to the forefront of our thinking.

Within module 3 I experienced an increasing excitement and enthusiasm for the curriculum project for this course and greatly enjoyed my focused efforts preparing for the peer review process. Both then and now, I continue to be pleasantly surprised by the transformation in my own perspective and the greater sense of optimism within me regarding opportunities to collaborate with others in my school on behalf of all students. Early in the module, I responded to the following discussion question from my vantage point as a special education teacher: How have the purposes for high school changed, and what should guide communities as they plan new high schools? Author Vivien Stewart in the article, Becoming Citizens of the World, discusses significant and new challenges facing secondary students in today’s schools represented by four major trends: economic, science and technology, health and security, and changing demographics. (p. 524-525). Merely from my perspective as a classroom teacher over the last three decades, I have seen incredible changes in all of these areas—especially considering that when I began as a high school teacher no one had a personal computer and needless to say, the world-wide-web did not exist. Many of my students who struggled in school academically could still find success in more of the hands-on classes such as carpentry and manufacturing. In the midst of the increasing requirements and demands to strive for rigorous standards, I as a special education teacher am concerned about those who are not able to meet with such expectations. Following a long list of skills needed by today’s high school graduates who will be engaged in global commerce and collaboration, Stewart expresses that, “U.S. schools are not adequately preparing students for these challenges….compared with students in nine other industrialized countries, U.S. students lack knowledge of world geography, history, and current events” (Stewart in Parkay, Hass & Anctil, p. 525). If U.S. students in general are falling short, where does this place many of my students?

Other colleagues voiced similar concerns within the posts for this module—although many postings were centered on the expectations for students in the very early grade levels. While reading these posts, I sensed that behind the academic dialogue were the voices of parents concerned about the increasingly demanding expectations for their own children—particularly in relation to the “Common Core”.

I have mixed perspectives on the issue of high expectations. While I believe that all students should be encouraged and challenged to perform to the best of their ability, I am concerned that those who are unable to compete at a high level will sense that they no longer “belong in the race”. I believe that high schools have an obligation to help all students develop themselves in preparation for a realistic future. I agree in particular with the following segment from the Coalition of Essential Schools, 1998: “…Curricular decisions should be guided by student interest, developmentally appropriate practice, and the aim of thorough student mastery and achievement. Students of all ages should have many opportunities to discover and construct meaning from their own experiences” (As cited within Parkay, Hass & Anctil, 2010, p. 522).

My response as a special education teacher is to continue advocating for my students as we together embrace these challenges. Additionally, having “lived through” 30 years of legislative changes and their corresponding effects on service delivery models at the high school level, I have witnessed a wide variety of impacts of these changes on individual student achievements. While inclusion has offered clear benefits for many students, I have found this to be the most challenging model to implement. In the article entitled, The “Three A’s” of Creating an Inclusive Curriculum and Classroom, author, Anctil, clarifies with regard to inclusion that “supports will be brought to the child (rather than moving the child to the services) and requires only that the child will benefit from being in the class (rather than keeping up with the other students)” (Rogers, 1993, p. 2) (as cited within Parkay, Hass, and Anctil, 2010, p. 82).

In the readings for module 5, I noticed Parkay, Hass, Anctil (2010) refer in Chapter 5 to “two dimensions of curriculum: the target and the time orientation”. State standards are seen as “target(s)…at the macro (level) due to the fact that they are geared toward large numbers of students while decisions that are made in individual classrooms are considered to be at the “micro level”. The “time orientation” is found along the continuum of “the present or the future”. A further distinction is drawn between “student-centered versus subject-centered curricula” (p. 251).

I see myself as standing in the gap striving to find that balance between “macro” versus “micro”, “present versus future”, and “subject-centered versus student-centered curricula”–for each of the students on my caseload. Much like trying to stand in the middle on an old-fashioned teeter-totter, I continue to find myself leaning first this way–then that, as I endeavor to sense what is best for each student. I appreciated the suggestion by Parkay (2010) that “student centered curriculum…(which) emphasize(s) the growth and development of students”(p. 252) is most often applicable at the elementary level, however, find this focus seems to be at the core for special educators at every grade level.

In many respects, I see standards as improving student opportunity. For instance, the inclusion model of special education service delivery strongly encouraged by my principal requires that all incoming 9th graders be placed into general education English classes (unless the student’s IEP team determines that this is clearly not the student’s least restrictive environment). The thinking behind this stance is to expose each student to the general education curriculum which is in turn geared toward preparation for meeting standards on the 10th grade state test (which I believe is not simply “teaching to the test”). This is an example of “Standards-based education (SBE) [which] is premised on the belief that all students are capable of meeting high standards” (Parkay, 2010, p. 253). On many occasions, I have observed students with qualifications in the academic areas of reading and/or writing (who in previous decades might have been placed in special education classes), respond well to the challenge. In some cases, students have subsequently tested out of special education as they have been found to no longer qualify for services, based on their three-year reevaluation.

With regard to standards, one particular colleague wrote this week: “If we’re teaching towards mastery of standards, and the tests assess the standards, the phrase teaching to the test means something different than the negative connotations traditionally associated with that phrase” (Lyle, 2012). Expressing my agreement and adding my thoughts to the discussion thread, I suggested that we consider the Common Core English Language Arts Standard for Production and Distribution of Writing: # 5. “Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience”. I then raised the question: Is it even possible to “teach to the test” in the traditionally negative manner when focusing on this type of standard? As with so many things in life–I believe balance and flexibility are key components to consider. I see great benefits to the presence of the standards, yet I also believe there must be room for appropriate “discretion”. I recall hearing professor/speaker, Anthony Gregorc, give an illustration many years ago during a Learning Styles class at Seattle Pacific (1984). Dr. Gregorc stated something to the effect of: “There are many ways to get to Chicago”–stressing the importance of acknowledging alternate ways to achieve the same results.

My curriculum project for this course, entitled: “Advanced Preparation ‘A.P.” for Culminating Project: Senior Portfolio”, began with the focus of addressing the needs of students in special education. Often, IEP students need extra time, struggle with confidence and self-advocacy skills, and lack experience in setting and achieving goals. However, as I have been talking with students who have recently completed their senior presentation, as well as school counselors and teachers who oversee the implementation of the current culminating project, each person has independently voiced that all students would benefit from the advanced preparation toward to 12th grade requirement and the newly designed features I have added to the existing curriculum–based on the Understanding by Design format and the requirements for this course. They have asked if I would share my ideas and products with our principal for possible consideration and inclusion into next year’s requirements. I must say that these discussions have broadened my view of the students within my “sphere of influence”, offered opportunities for increased collaboration, and provided significant personal encouragement. Therefore, the project continues to be a “work-in-progress” as many creative ideas are generated as a result of each new insight that is shared. I am hopeful that this new inspiration will allow me to see with “fresh eyes” my current opportunities in my school and that collaboration on behalf of all students ( “Backward Inclusion”?) will become a reality.

UbD Final Curriculum Project Laurie James


OSPI website 2012, Retrieved on May 1, 2012 from::

Parkay, F. W., Hass, G., & Anctil, E.  (2010). Curriculum Leadership: Readings for Developing Quality Educational Programs, 9th ed. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.