Themes and Conclusions

There are many ways to plan a class.

If nothing else, that much is clear.  Reviewing the many illustrations teachers have sent in, we’ve learned that the ways we plan classes are almost as unique as the teachers themselves.  Still, reflecting on the many varied responses, our discussion has surfaced a growing list of themes and tensions we see the various illustrations, and we’ve described a few of them below.

We’re sure this list of themes and conclusions could be much longer, and we’d be interested in hearing from others about what you see in the illustrations here.

Short Term and Long Term Time Frames

Do we see teaching as a day-by-day endeavor? Is the “plan” a lifetime, or career-long, goal? Is a class only one in a string of many, or is it an exploding microcosm of many linear, and individualized, narratives?

Refer to Kayla Corcoran’s, Sara Berndt Moore’s, or Sonja O’Donnell’s illustrations [below]. The narrative of the process winds and weaves, interrelated, across the page. Then turn to Maryann Woods-Murphy or Jael Hernandez-Vasquez: linear, across time, accounting for many of the same variables and complexities but incorporating an entirely different vision of cause and effect. It appears that excellent teachers do not, universally, employ a kind of systematic teaching theology: here, it seems, is where the individual spirit lies.

The same variety of order and disorder applies to those who tackle the project on a day-by-day basis: Sean Keller employs the vision of a race (just one class) where Rebecca Moore sends many wheels spinning across the page to describe the single class period. Even when one amplifies the single class period, the outer processes (where did I come from? Where am I going?) linger.

Similarly, one can zoom to the level of an entire career and still see the intricacies of a day. Mayme Hostetter’s and Rich Bonnanno’s career-level (many tries and you’ll get it right!) perspectives still notice and count the days of effort. They compile Keller’s and Moore’s daily races.

I like the coffee breaks the best: Yanik Nichols, Andy Stallings, and the inclusion (intrusion?) of the instructor’s daily life. That is, it seems, what all illustrations have in common: the tinge of the individual spirit.

Katherine Burd

What is success?

A quick search for “success” on the TED website returns a slew of videos advising viewers how to succeed, among them a video featuring Angela Lee Duckworth’s controversial claim that grit, or, “the sort of self-discipline that’s required to make people persist at something over a long period of time,” is a necessary precondition of success. (Kohn, 2015). With multiple TED talks “revealing” the secrets behind success–“Try something new for 30 days” and “Keep your goals to yourself”–one wonders if success has become just another buzzword that’s thrown around the internet by industry innovators without any sort of meaningful consideration. TED advises that “the first step in success” is “figuring out what success means to you,” and the variety among the planning models that we received for Planning Process Illustrated project indicate that, at least for teachers, there are many paths to success. But what exactly does success look like for educators and how do we know when our processes are successful? At the heart of these two questions is a more simple one: how can teachers tell if they’re doing their jobs right?

Another quick search through our Planning Process Illustrated contributions reveals that only a small number of teachers have defined success in their models. I use “defined” here loosely and also acknowledge my implicit subjectivity when searching through these illustrations. In most of the illustrations, “success” is implied rather than explicitly stated. In Jael Hernandez’s model, for example, learning goals or benchmarks are indicated along the arch of the school year, with the final definition or mark of success being able to “read authentic Latin!” In Samuel Chapin’s model, students are likened to plants; the mark of success here, then, would be growth, or flowering, of the plant. While Hernandez’s illustration of success is literal, Chapin’s is more abstract: is all student growth as apparent as a sunflower blooming? Following Wiggins & McTighe’s model of backwards design, Nils Ahbel begins his lesson planning by designing student assessments and imagining what their success looks like and Sarah Berndt Moore stresses: “Always always always believe your students can succeed. Every. Single. One.”

Central, I think, to the idea of success is asking how educators can know when their lessons have been successful. It is important here to note that success for teachers may look different than success for students. Indeed, success for one student may look different than success for another student, just as Peter Vorkink’s and Katherine Burd’s models, which acknowledge that students have varied needs, illustrate. Both Anna Baldwin and Mary Eldredge-Sandbo include reflective evaluation in their planning processes. Eldredge-Sandbo’s model includes three bullet-points that read: “Assess learning. Modify as needed. Get student feedback.” Eldredge-Sandbo’s model is one of the few that incorporates student feedback, at least explicitly, in the process. Anna Baldwin “check[s] student work to find out if learning goals were met. If not, address!” Frank Henry’s model and Ivory Hills’ model both offer similar responses to the question of measuring success. Henry writes about “alter[ing] what had been there before” while Hills asks: “Do we know more or less about the world at the end of class?” In both cases, these implied definitions of success use students’ prior knowledge and dispositions as a way of measuring how much has changed at the end of the class. These models seem to measure success along a shorter time frame than Hernandez’s and Chapin’s models.

It seems more common for the models submitted to Planning Process Illustrated to demonstrate what success does–or does not–look like for teachers, but fewer models explicitly address the question of what success for students looks like. How would answers to this question vary, I wonder, by educator? In other words, are our educators operating with different definitions of success, or do their planning models indicate different paths by which to access the same definition of success? And, regarding questions of time, what should be the timeline for measuring success? If we use Henry’s model of the “ripple effect,” how many days, months, years out can and should educators look at the reverberations of classes and lessons? Overburdened by advice on success in our TED-era time, how can educators remain intentional about what success looks like as we engage in planning for our classes?

Kayla Corcoran

Starting with Content vs Starting with Students

Given all the hundreds of standards that teachers are expected to set their plans to in the current educational climate, it’s unsurprising that different people prioritize differently. Although changes have recently been made under President Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act, as of the moment that I am writing this, all of the submissions to the Planning Process Illustrated Project have been during a time when educators’ main point of focus is pulled between the collective whole and the individual student – i.e., getting an entire group of students up to state standards versus differentiating instruction. Focus on one of these goals takes away time, energy, and resources from the other, and therefore teachers are often forced to prioritize one over the other based on the needs of their schools, students, or classrooms. The result for our project has been widely varied approaches with ultimately the same goal: Facilitating learning in a safe, productive environment.

Many of the educators who submitted to this project began their planning processes by thinking about material. One very clear example was Pamela Harman’s flowchart, which began under the heading “Unit Planning” with “review[ing] state standards” and “review[ing] notes from previous year.” Similarly, Annice Brave tops her illustration with a large thought bubble labeled “state standards.” These processes seem to be dominated with language indicating an attention to educational policy. Words like “differentiation,” “teacher evaluation,” and “goals” indicate a focus on qualitative methodology in the classroom, meticulous planning, and accountability as a means for success.

Alternatively, other teachers began by examining the needs, experiences, or styles of their students. Kayla Corcoran considers her students “stakeholders” in the learning experience, along with the larger community and the populations she is discussing her in her classroom. Sara Lentricchia lists “do the homework” as a daily activity, so that she can understand exactly what it is she is asking her students to do. When Peter Vorkink looks around his Harkness table, he sees the individual strengths of his students as well as their areas for improvement. Contrasting with the content-focused educators, educators who began by thinking about individual students reflected a tendency to improvise or throw out plans that aren’t working in the moment. Their language focused on collaboration, relationships, and modification.

Of course, there were many educators who exhibited aspects of both student-centered and standards-driven planning methodologies. Mary Eldredge-Sandbo, for instance, specifically separated out thinking about her students and about content standards in her initial planning steps. But for the most part, the universal standards versus individualized instruction methodologies seem to produce very different planning processes. The former supports careful planning and accountability; the latter supports working in the moment.

Mary Eldredge-Sandbo, Des-Lacs Burlington High School
Mary Eldredge-Sandbo, Des-Lacs Burlington High School

Katie Speed

Simplicity and Complexity

How to approach an impossibly complex task?  Can the many dynamics of a classroom be broken down and managed as a process?  Or is it best to identify a key value or principle and let that govern how we plan and execute classes?  The processes we’ve encountered in this project run the full gamut.

On one end of the spectrum are models built around singular ideas.  Charlie Giglio thinks about lighting a fire, a proxy, perhaps, for motivation.  Sheri Kojima modernizes the metaphor with a light bulb, talking about the gap between content and student as being a matter of relevance.  Frank Henry thinks about effecting change in a student, another way of thinking about growth, or adding value—and he is humble in his guess as to how much we can do.  While these first few illustrations think about outcomes as drivers of process, John Van Eps thinks about the learning process itself: bringing students to a point of discomfort or tension, and then resolving it. This approach jumps straight to the experience of student learning regardless of contextual forces.

On the other end of the spectrum are those planning processes built around the complex navigation of the many contextual forces at work in education.  These planning processes consider many factors: goals, objectives, or standards; learning environments; student experience and interest; assessment tools; and more.  John Sharkey tries to navigate all these by asking what students really need to know—and yet even within that question are questions of standards, imperatives, thinking skills, and more.  Mary Eldredge-Sandbo works through the complex experience of learning with a similar complex process of planning, a planning that involves many steps and stages.  For her and others, such as Becky Moore and Susan Barnard, I wonder if this process is an intentional or an intuitive process, one that requires discipline or one that unfolds naturally.

Annice Brave humorously puts it in the way that perhaps many teachers recognize most: sitting at a desk, caught literally in between state standards, assessment strategies, the need for differentiation, and a whole host of other duties: parent contact, evaluations, technological expectations, and more—all while staring down piles of ungraded journals and essays.  And with a cup of coffee.  (It’s worth noting that if these illustrations are any gauge, coffee plays a large role in the lives of teachers.)

Annice Brave, Alton High School (Illinois)
Annice Brave, Alton High School (Illinois)

In theory, the best approach would seem to be to navigate the many complicated and competing factors of a successful classroom.  In practice, however, this may prove extraordinary difficult if not impossible, and it may be that operating by a singular guiding principle is best.  I recall that in some situations what you decide can matter less than that you decide.

Peter Nilsson


One thought on “Themes and Conclusions”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: