Classroom Tips – for EDU 6136, Content Methods

Gather ’round, my friends.  I mean, if you want to.  Here are a few things I’ve been trying out in order to make my alignment between outcomes, activities, and assessments more prominent for my students.

TIPS Alignment

And here is a page from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, for those of you who may not have interest in the TIPS handout but will likely still benefit from the sage words of a cartoon cat:

walk-long-enough color

Module 2 Reflection – for EDTC6433

I teach a Creative Writing elective. I chose to read Ellen Madden’s article on digital storytelling in search of a tech-savvy (ok, brag-worthy) instructional gimmick that might impress a room full of kids who would rather take their digital tech class again. But what I found was much more practical – and much more exciting – than a gimmick. Madden follows two teachers as they plan and implement a digital storytelling unit on The Outsiders. In this extremely practical overview of how we can use digital storytelling to target English Language Arts CCSS proficiency, Madden describes teacher approach, instructional methods, and the task of teaching the tech alongside the standards and the novel.

Let me explain why this is such a big deal. To start, here’s an example of something I’m trying to squeeze out of apathetic and underserved (but completely delightful) 6th graders in Language Arts:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.5 – Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot.

I want my students to be able to analyze one moment in an unfolding plot, and then tell me how it relates to the bigger picture. To comprehend a novel’s themes, students must drill down into key passages to analyze and make connections. So I might ask my students to analyze one chapter of the novel we’re reading right now, and tell me what that chapter contributes to the novel’s themes. How does the author use Chapter 9 to make some statement about friendship, or culture, or identity?

When I ask questions like this, I’m placing my students across the table from a text or author, in a posture of interrogation. This is great fun for a grown up with an English degree; I know what questions to ask. But many 6th graders aren’t great interrogators – they don’t always have specific questions about plot elements or character change. They aren’t interested in Socratic discovery. They are interested in making stuff.

In 2010, Grunwald Associates LLC reported that, “Teachers value digital media as instructional resources that empower them to engage student interest, promote creativity, and differentiate instruction.” It follows that, when I invite my students to create a digital representation of a text, I’m inviting them to sit next to – not across from – the author. Using a digital storytelling platform (my district uses Microsoft Sway) students look at the text and the author’s strategies as a co-creator.  This kind of creative imitation requires just as much analysis as interrogation, but it’s a great deal more accessible to kids. In other words, it’s fun.

Madden describes how the process of digital storytelling can be broken down into meaningful pieces which more explicitly reveal different elements of the story. The process begins with personal preference and individual goals – students choose the scene they find most compelling, and set out to convey that scene’s unique tone.  Students also manage their own learning throughout the process as they work to meet mini-deadlines, continually evaluating their progress.  Teachers can leverage these deadlines to blend instruction with assessment by explicitly tying all this creative activity to the technical concepts of characterization, setting, and juxtaposition.  Most importantly, students learn literary concepts by rolling up their sleeves and interacting with the text in a personal way.  As students create alongside the author, they confront a sincere need to communicate their ideas well. They are compelled to look more closely at what the author is doing – how the bullets flying in the background highlight the life-giving quality of friendship (or whatever). Re-creating the tone of a scene requires students to choose and consistently fold in repeated contributions to that tone – the way an author does.  They learn what tone is by “doing” tone – this is the very definition of authentic learning!


Maddin, Ellen (2013) Teaching Literary Analysis with Digital Storytelling: An Instructional Approach [PDF]. Retrieved from

Grunwald Associates, LLC (2010). Deepening Connections: Teachers Increasingly Rely on Media and Technology. Retrieved from

Course Reflection: EDU 6150 – General Inquiry, Teaching, & Assessment Methods

4.2 Setting Instructional Outcomes

All the instructional outcomes are clear, written in the form of student learning. Most suggest viable methods of assessment.

Program Standard 4.2 addresses the need for educators to plan lessons with clear and definite outcomes in mind.  An effective lesson is built around specific statements of what teachers want students to know or do.  When such statements are strong, they will naturally identify a specific method of assessing student progress toward the instructional objectives. An insufficiently specific instructional objective like “Students will learn to read better,” won’t help an educator select assessment methods.  An objective that is specific and measureable is easier to assess.

This partnership between instructional objective and assessment method lies at the heart of “backward design,” the curriculum planning sequence laid out by Wiggins and McTighe (1998) who have pointed out that “Teaching ‘moves’ must be made in light of our goals and what they require” (p. 159).  In other words, every decision an educator makes about a lesson should be tied to a clear learning objective.

I’m excited about backward design. I haven’t talked to anyone who isn’t.  Backward design is dreamy.  It’s logical and precise; I almost want to call it sleek.  Perhaps the most exciting aspect of backward design is its exquisite usefulness.

Ironically, backward design is also difficult to execute.  It is intuitive, but it is not simple.

During my first attempt to write a lesson, I forgot all about the principles of backward design, and rattled off various practice activities.  Something about that burst of energy induced a miniature post-traumatic stress flashback to a humbling coaching experience.  The short version is that a group of 10-year-old girls’ had to be rescued from my coaching style.  I was all over the place – my basketball practices featured a turbulent assortment of meticulously thorough, but entirely unrelated, drills.  I was trying to teach a comprehensive theory of basketball through repetition of the game’s smallest movements.  It was zero fun.

You see, I really love basketball; so I like the fundamental pieces of basketball, too.  I can enjoy drills without having any particular goal, without motivation, even without fun.  Unfortunately for an anonymous group of middle school students, I love language arts even more than I love basketball, and am likely prone to the same manic style of instruction I exhibited in the gym.

Before I received some very helpful feedback, my Mid-Quarter Lesson Design featured a two-pronged learning target which failed to indicate a specific task, let alone particular form of assessment.  But somehow, every “practice activity” field was filled in.  Somehow, I wrote out some different things for students work on without knowing what I wanted them to work toward.  My process was nothing like the dreamy backward design I’ve described above.

My first stab (and I do mean stab) at lesson planning has dramatized and reinforced the cornerstone of backward design:  effective lessons are built around clearly defined instructional outcomes.  Writing a solid learning target (or the central focus, or essential questions, big ideas, etc.) is the necessary first step because every other element of the lesson must directly support the objectives specified in the learning target.

Work Cited:

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J.  (1998).  Understanding by design.  Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.