Backward Design: The Right Kind of Work

Someone saw me outside of school, shortly after leading a dozen of our school faculty in developing a content-based unit of study. “You look exhausted.” I nodded in agreement, even though the most physically demanding thing I did that day was set up lunch.


photo credit: Forward backward via photopin (license)

The concept of backward design was developed by the late Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in their professional resource Understanding by Design (ASCD, 1998). If you are not familiar with their work, they propose that teachers plan units of study by first considering the end in mind.

  • Stage 1: Determine the big goal, essential questions, and enduring understandings for the unit of study.
  • Stage 2: The teacher crafts a performance task that reliably assesses whether or not each student truly understands the content and skills of focus.
  • Stage 3: The learning plan, which is too often the first step in lesson planning, comes last. It is the journey that will lead students on the path toward the ultimate destination, already determined.

Students can benefit from this type of instructional planning because it gives them better opportunities to develop mastery in a specific topic of study. In a follow up to Understanding by Design, or UbD, Jay McTighe and Carol Ann Tomlinson explain in their text the connection between backward design and differentiated instruction.

Far more students would be successful in school if we understood it to be our jobs to craft circumstances that lead to success rather than letting circumstances take its course. Even the best curriculum delivered in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion will be taken by a few and left by too many. (from Integrating Understanding by Design + Differentiated Instruction, pg. 18)

In other words, teachers are preparing instruction that will better ensure all students can experience success in school. While at first glance this may seem like light duty, planning with the end in mind is different and certainly more complex work for our faculty that attended. “I am so used to writing up my plans for the next day based on the previous lesson and how students responded to my teaching,” noted one teacher. Because UbD goes against the grain of what teachers might normally practice, it requires a higher cognitive load for educators to construct situations in which students develop deeper understanding of core content and skills.

Here are a few images from our time together earlier this week:

We started by reviewing our shared beliefs about literacy, and aligning them with our current practices.
We started by reviewing our shared beliefs about literacy, and aligning them with our current practices. This is an activity suggested in Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead (ASCD, 2014).
Using the KWL tool from Read, Write, Think (, we explored what we already know about UbD and curriculum design.
Using the online KWL tool from Read, Write, Think (, we explored what we already know about UbD and curriculum design.

(You can click here to read what we collaboratively shared and documented on our KWL.)

Using an example lesson unit that was not applied to the UbD framework, I demonstrated with the group how to develop a unit on plant life for 2nd grade using this framework.
Using an example lesson unit that was not applied to the UbD framework, I demonstrated with the group how to develop a unit on plant life for 2nd grade using this framework.
Once we developed my unit as a team, teachers worked together to develop a unit of their own. Amy and Val, our music and art teachers, respectively, discuss possible ideas for big goals in their classrooms.
Once we developed one stage of my unit as a team, teachers worked together to develop a unit of their own. Amy and Val, our music and art teachers respectively, discuss possible ideas for big goals in their classrooms (Stage 1). This process went back and forth to ensure success.
Gabi and Renee, 1st and 5th grade teacher respectively, compare their essential questions to determine if they are open-ended and engaging.
Gabi and Renee, 1st and 5th grade teacher respectively, compare their essential questions to determine if they are open-ended and engaging.
Gabi and Michelle, 3rd grade teacher on the right, realize they are both designing a unit on geography and maps. They get together to ensure that they are addressing the correct social studies and writing standards, as well as calibrating the complexities of their instruction.
Gabi and Michelle, 3rd grade teacher on the right, realized they are both designing a unit on geography and maps. They got together to make sure that they are addressing the correct social studies and writing standards, as well as calibrating the complexities of their instruction.

We avoided using technology right away, for the simple fact that getting our thoughts down on paper and pencil was the better way to develop a first draft. I believe there is a tendency to rush this work when bringing in computers right away. They become tasks to complete instead of work worth digging into with others. Computers also tend to increase isolation, as everyone is staring at a screen and not connecting face-to-face with colleagues. Not to say that the teachers didn’t use technology; several staff used the Common Core State Standards website as a reference while working. Also, once drafts were completed and peer reviewed, they wrote them up in a Google Doc to share out.

Unfortunately, I could only stay for the first day. I did bring in a local literacy consultant to guide the faculty the second day on developing Stage 3 of their units of study (the learning plan). I left everyone with an inspirational quote from McTighe’s and Danielson’s text in our work space:

Beyond the Screen: Osmo for the iPad 

We checked this iPad accessory out at our local library. The company describes their product as “a kid’s technology system that brings the physical and digital worlds together.” The kit comes with an iPad stand, reflector, tans, and letter tiles. 

My kids tried out the Words app first. It would display an image and a blank set of letter spaces. You place a tile and it will “speak” with the iPad app. They had to first determine what the item was (lizard, iguana?), and then try to spell it. 


Blank spaces on the top were for incorrect letter guesses. They would take turns offering letters to the front of the iPad, with a little guidance from their dad :-). The game was a digital cross between hangman and Wheel of Fortune. Possible literacy center?

Next, my son started Masterpiece, an app that reflects your drawing on paper to the outline on the screen. Whatever he drew, a virtual hand and pencil drew a line on the app. 

He also enjoyed Newton. This creativity game requires you to draw or create borders in order to get the dropping spheres to hit the targets. They used pencils, drawn lines, and the edge of the paper to complete the levels.

The final of the four Osmo apps is Tangram. It works like the materials you might see in a math kit, except the app provides guidance on shape placement by reflecting what you have created so far. For example, a hand pops up and models for you how to flip or rotate the tan to match the image. Tangram uses math terms accurately.

I looked online and found the Osmo kit for $80. The apps are free. This is definitely technology to consider for primary literacy and numeracy centers in a classroom, as well as for any learner wanting to enhance their drawing and creativity skills.

Close Reading is a Conversation

I cannot proclaim to be an expert on close reading, nor would I want to. Although the skill/strategy/idea (?) of close reading is only briefly mentioned in the Common Core State Standards, it has become a staple in discussions among educators. It is listed first in the anchor standards for reading, if that counts for anything:

Key Ideas and Details:

Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

I explored this concept of close reading a couple of years ago in ASCD Express, titled “Reading Like a Leader”. You can see from the image shared within the article that what our leadership team read was covered in highlights and annotations. This worked for us, because we passed around one article and relied on asynchronous dialogue for learning.

But what about when it is just you and the author, mano a mano? Should learners highlight anything and everything relevant to their purpose for reading?

This has been a very ineffective strategy for me. When gathering information for my first book, there wasn’t a detail that I did not like. There are entire pages in some of the resources I explored where there is literally more text highlighted and annotated on a page than text left alone. Yet when I tried to apply said knowledge to my book, I found myself going back to those same passages I had so diligently marked up and ended up more confused. My additions to the text were really subtractions to my understanding. I was distracted by my contributions, because they interfered with my comprehension.

I have learned my lesson, so to speak. In my current writing project, I am eschewing all of my previous attempts to “cite specific textual evidence” and to “determine what the text says explicitly”. Instead, I am trying to have a conversation with the author as I read. One thing that has helped me is using Thin Strip Post-it G18044_7675notes. If I find a passage in a text I want to remember, I place the note next to the passage and write either a question or a statement on it. The question is sincere; it is more of a wondering than anything. When writing a statement, I am trying to come up with a sentence that could surround that passage or quote, as a way to summarize it or transition toward it within my own writing.

Below is an example of what I am talking about, from Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (2011):

We make our technologies, and they, in turn, shape us. So, of every technology we must ask, Does it serve our human purpose? – a question that causes us to reconsider what these purposes are. Technologies, in every generation, present opportunities to reflect on our values and direction. (19)

Here is my annotation on the Post-it Thin Strip attached to this passage:

Whenever we add something to our plates, something else is pushed off.

I cannot say for certain if this passage from the text will be a part of the final draft for my project. What Turkle shares is profound, but it may not be applicable. This is one of the challenges of close reading – learners assume that whatever they highlight and annotate must be regurgitated verbatim in their written responses to the text. I know this, because it took me a whole book to realize it. I hope today’s students are faster learners than I am.

What I am doing with the above example is not documenting my learning, but rather holding on to a new idea. By responding to the text in my own words, I think I am more likely to come back to the reading and response as I am writing. This is how a conversation works: A back-and-forth discussion around topics that are important to both the author and the reader. I have devoted meaning to my responses, instead of assuming that the text will just naturally mean something to me. I am reading this book because I care about the topics and find the text both informative and entertaining.

There is purpose in my Post-its that extends beyond the room to write my thoughts down. By not highlighting and annotating the text itself, I am not smothering the author’s writing with potential distractions for me as the reader. If I want to reread the passage that I responded to, I am now forced to reading a paragraph or two to locate it. Subsequently, I am revisiting the context in which I found the original passage that struck me as important. In other books I have read for informational purposes, I have been gone as far as simply leaving an asterisk next to the passage I found important, with no response. My thinking might change when I came back to it.

As the title states, close reading is a conversation. It is not extracting every essential bit of information from a text, like you were squeezing a lemon to make lemonade. Reading a text closely is about determining why you want to read a text, evaluating whether the text before you is worth your time, and then finding evidence within the text to hold onto for future reference. It is a partnership in understanding and appreciation between the writer and the reader. Anything less is a recipe for reducing engagement in meaningful inquiries.

Recommended Series: Tom Gates by Liz Pichon

This review is by Brendan and Finn, 2nd grade students in Mrs. Akey’s classroom at Howe Elementary School, Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin.

logo-homeThe Tom Gates series is totally amazing. It is one of our favorites. The drawings are good and there are tons of funny parts.

The books were amazing because there were many things that happened to Tom Gates that seemed unbelievable.  For example, he saw his teacher, Mr. Fullerman, outside of school at a concert … and he was wearing LEATHER pants!  Wow!!!

The books were full of funny events, like the time Tom had to wear his friend, Derek’s, swimming trunks.  The funny thing was that the swimming trunks had teddy bears on them, and they looked like Derek had worn them when he was four years old!  Way too small!!!

The drawings in the books are great!  We liked that they are pictures that we could draw ourselves.  It actually looked like a kid drew them!  There are also A LOT of drawings on each page.  Most of them have some sort of label, and that makes the books easier to understand.


Three Ways to Provide Feedback for Digital Student Writing

No discipline has experienced a greater impact from technology than writing.

Photo credit: Unsplash
Photo credit: Unsplash

Blogs, tweets, multimedia timelines, posts, texts…all of these short forms of writing have come about through new digital mediums. Classrooms that adopt these tools during literacy and content instruction are providing learners with more ways to express their thinking and convey information more creatively. I could not imagine schools without them.

Once they are embedded in practice, the next logical step as a teacher is to ask: How can I provide feedback for students through these mediums so their writing improves, as well as to celebrate their work? Here are three ideas.


Recently I have received invitations from our 4th and 5th graders to comment on their writing via Google Docs and Slides. I really like the Comments and Suggestions features. Located at the top right of the file, you can highlight a section of the text and provide feedback for the owner. What the students have shared with me so far are finished products. Therefore, I have made general observations and asked thought-provoking questions to let them know that I read their work carefully and valued their effort.


For younger students without a lot of experience in digital writing, transcribing what they write down on paper and posting it on a blog is a great way to model the writing process. For example, my son and a friend gave me a handwritten review of the Tom Gates series by Liz Pichon. I typed up their thoughts, saved the post as a draft, and then emailed their teacher with specific questions about the books they read. This feedback request was done through WordPress, my favorite blogging platform (see arrow).Screen_Shot_2015-04-08_at_8_25_32_PM

I actually sent the request to their teacher, who will hopefully help them write a bit more about why the Tom Gates series is such a good one to read.


I was on a mission to a classroom when a 4th grade student asked me to read her writing in the hallway. How could I say no? I compromised by taking out my smartphone and scanning an image of her writing with Evernote. This student’s writing was then saved as a note in her teacher’s professional portfolio, which I keep for all of my staff.

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 8.40.17 PMWhen I had time to sit down later, I opened up her note. Having downloaded Skitch, a native Evernote application, I was able to annotate right on her scanned work. This was also a finished piece of writing, so I celebrated what she did well and offered my thinking on possible ideas to consider for the future. This updated note was emailed to her teacher.

What digital tools do you find effective for offering feedback for the author(s)? How do you use them? Please share in the comments.

Do you know how I know my son read his book?

  1. He was asking about the next book in the series before he was halfway through the first one.
  2. The thickness of his book doubled while reading it, due to spilling his drink on the pages while eating and reading.
  3. Creases regularly appeared on the spine of his book while reading it.
  4. The book’s covers were bent because he fell asleep on top of his book one night while reading.
  5. The book’s corners were frayed because my son shoved his book in his backpack every morning.
  6. My son wanted to watch the movie about his book before he was finished.
  7. His classmates wanted to read his book once he finished, after seeing him immersed in it.
  8. My son continued to think and talk about his book, long after he finished it.
  9. My son can identify a related series to his book that he might want to read next.
  10. My son’s love for reading increased after reading his book.


Book Review: No More Summer-Reading Loss by Carrie Cahill, Kathy Horvath, Anne McGill-Franzen, and Richard Allington (Heinemann, 2013)

imgresAt only 65 pages, I was surprised at how rich this book was in research and strategies for stemming summer reading loss. Cahill and Horvath start this text by asserting that “the lack of summer reading is actually a reflection of how well we have taught them to be independent readers during the school year” (4). They follow up this provocative statement with why it is just not conducive to try requiring dormant readers to engage in literature without considering their interests. Motivation is the key.

McGill-Franzen and Allington share the research on motivation and engagement in the next chapter. They frequently highlight the power of having choice and access to high-interest books, both during the school year and over the summer. Maybe the most surprising fact to me was, when schools just give kids free books of their choice over summer, the effect is just as powerful as most summer school programs (and at a fraction of the cost).

Cahill and Horvath round out the text with some practical and economic ideas for facilitating summer reading projects. The use of online tools, such as blogs and literacy-focused websites, were especially intriguing to me. While it is only January as I write this, I thought it is well worth my time to have read this text now and prepare for the reading possibilities in the future.