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news & tips

A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Knowing Where You Are Headed

Four days ago we returned to work for a two week planning and preparation stint before our students return.  Floors are shiny. Even the grout in the stairwells is clean.  Bougainvilleas bloom in the planters that line the sidewalk to the front door.  Everything appears to be ready for the start of the new school year.  But do we know where we are headed?

When I begin workshops, I like to ask my participants the following:  Would you purchase a plane ticket if the destination was unknown and only 70% of passengers were guaranteed to reach the final destination?  Many people giggle and guffaw.  Of course not.  But do we expect our students to get on this same ride?

What do we want our students to know?  When we begin the journey of a year of education, we need to understand our destination.  We work in course specific teams to plan units of instruction.  We begin by examining the course objectives and standards critically, paying close attention to the verbiage.  Is this a concept that students should be able to identify or evaluate?  Analyzing the vertical alignment of the standards for the prerequisite course and those in the student’s immediate future, we look at how this course fits into the big picture?  Designing instruction with the big picture in mind helps avoid creating gaps in students’ math skills.  It also helps to prevent us from making assumptions about what students should come to us knowing.

How will the knowledge and skills be assessed?  When planning a unit, we examine every release test item we can get our hands on, trying to understand the objectives in the same way the test creators do.  For students in Texas, though they may be enrolled in Algebra II, the test they need to pass to graduate includes objectives from grade 8 and Algebra I.  It is important that the instruction provided prepares students to successfully pass the state test.  Is it fair for us to only focus on Algebra II without making connections to skills and concepts from earlier courses?  What good will it do for students to pass an Algebra II course and fail the exam needed to graduate?  What job does not require a high school diploma but does require mastery of Algebra II?  As educators we have a moral obligation to meet the needs of our students.

What is the key vocabulary?  Math is its own language.  Add to that, more frequently students enter our classrooms who are not only learning math, but also learning English as a second language.  As a result, we need to pay attention to the academic vocabulary that the students must learn to master the subject at hand.  Direct vocabulary instruction on words related to content has a tremendous effect on student achievement (Marzano, 2004).  We identify the new academic vocabulary and plan how to introduce a new word each day making sure it has a purpose in the lesson.  

How will we teach the content and skills?  Once we know where we are headed, that is the time to decide how to get there.  We strategically design instruction that will meet the needs of the students.  There is always a limited amount of time available; every minute of class time is a little golden nugget.  We need to choose wisely how we will spend our time.  Does the lesson really help students learn the concept or skill?  Or is it something we have always taught or simply like to teach?  We let our data act as our air traffic control.

Important questions we address are: How will students be assessed? and Is this method of instruction the best use of our time? If we are examining trends of graphs, do our students need to take time to create a graph or is it more important to interpret the information?  Spreadsheets are available to help us illustrate data in a variety of ways in the workplace.  So what is the best use of our instructional time?  If entering a series of data into a calculator allows us to spend more time analyzing trends in the information, does that best meet the needs of the students?

What will we do if students do not learn the material?  Coming back to the idea that time is a golden nugget, sometimes we have to decide when to let something go.  As one skill builds upon another in most all math classes, moving on when students have not mastered the necessary material sets them up for failure.  Frequent assessment of their progress helps avoid getting to a place where we realize that we have been on a journey but our students have not followed.  

When planning a unit of instruction, we outline a calendar determining the number of days we think it will take for students to understand a concept or skill (always leaving a couple of buffer days at the end of the unit to help deal with unforeseen changes, such as a fire drill or the last minute assembly).  At the same time, we identify chunks within the unit that we can abandon if required.  On occasion, lessons that we think will only take two days turn into a week long adventure.  Using data from student assessments, we decide if it is more important to take time to re-teach so students learn the concept at hand or if we can address this information differently at a later time without creating gaps in their understanding.

Landing the plane.  Knowing where we intend to take our students before we begin each unit of instruction has allowed us to accomplish the difficult task of not just covering the course content, but making sure students learn the information.  Though this planning process takes a little more time and some getting used to, it is a wonderful feeling when we pull up to the gate knowing we all made it.

Marzano, R. (2004).  Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Anne Douglas is Dean of Instruction for Sam Houston Math, Science and Technology Center, a comprehensive high school in Houston, TX.

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