Building a Foundation for Teaching – My Story


This is an accounting of where I am in my practice, how I got here and where I hope to go.  This is not a how-to but simply my story.   I will use the work I have done in Physics 11 for my examples.  I have done similar work with Science 8, Science 10, and Physics 12 – each are at different points in the process depending on when I was teaching them.

I am not very good at subtleties; I need things to be explicit.  I think this is true of many of our students.  So what follows is my ongoing attempt to be more explicit, both for my benefit and for the benefit of my students.

Early YearsCopyright Matt Chan

My first few years of teaching were those of survival; similar to that of many new teachers.

I relied heavily on the textbook and resources given to me by my more experienced colleagues.

On days when I was organized I gave students an agenda for the day which informed them of what they would be doing; on less organized days they found out as the lesson progressed.

Some topics I went through too quickly and had to re-teach because I had missed developing a key concept.  Some topics had a lot content and I went through them very slowly because I wasn’t sure what was important to emphasis.  I was teaching using a shotgun approach.

Mid Years

I started to ask myself questions – mostly to do with how I was grading students and coming up with marks for the report card.

About this time I was loaned a copy of “Understanding by Design” and I quickly realized that the key question for me at that point was not how I was grading, but what I was grading.

And then the penny dropped – I was not clear in my mind about the learning objectives I had for my students.

This started a process that I am still working on — trying to figure what is important to learn and how to go about helping my students learn it.

First iteration:  Look at the curriculum closely

I took the IRPs for the courses I was teaching I went in straight to the “Student Achievement” section.  Here I found overviews of the various topics and a listing of suggested “Achievement Indicators”.  These I photocopied and gave to students.  The second year, I typed them up and referenced my textbook to “make it easier” for students.  (more about that later).

The first thing I noticed was that my stress level dropped dramatically.  I was much clearer on what I wanted to focus on in a lesson and what I would be doing in coming lessons.  I was also clearer on what I was going to be assessing.  This felt very good and I was hooked.  Note: this has gotten even better with each subsequent iteration.

Second iteration: Translate IRPs

To move the students to own more of their learning I re-wrote the learning intentions – in some cases simply changing the phrasing or re-wording.

For example:

“draw accurate scale diagrams for both convex and concave mirrors to show how an image is produced”

was re-written as

I can use a scale ray diagrams to show how images are produced by curved mirrors.”

The use of the “I can…” statement was a key piece of this iteration.

At this point I realized the importance of literacy – especially students reading for information.  Note: BC has very detailed performance standards for reading for information.

Recent Years

Third iteration – think about big ideas

At this point, my unit plans consisted of a checklist of learning intentions but lacked a unifying theme.  Damien Cooper speaks of the Essential Questions and Enduring Understandings.  I tried to articulate these for my units with some success but I found it hard work.

Fourth Iteration – preparing for differentiation

This fall I participated in a one day workshop with Cindy Strickland titled “Differentiation of Instruction: Refining Our Practices”.  It was based on the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson.

It was fantastic and I was, after 6 years of reading, attending workshops, trying things out, and dialoging with colleagues I was in a place where I could hear and understand what was presented.  There were many powerful ideas presented, one of which was the K-U-D which provides a framework for differentiation.

In a nutshell (this is going to be hard – it was a full day session for people who were already familiar with the concepts), K-U-D involves looking at a unit and identifying what students are expected to Know, Understand, and be able to Do by the end of the unit.  Note: the Know’s are needed to do the Do’s, and the Do’s show that one Understands.

In my existing Optics Units I identified the learning intentions which were primarily recall based (Know’s) and the ones which were primarily performance based (Do’s).  I did not have any achievement indicators that I placed into the Understand That column.  Instead, I looked at my lists of Know’s and Do’s and thought about the deeper understanding that they demonstrated (understandings that would be equally accessible to a 5 year old kindergartener and an adult Physics Ph.D.)  And then something magical happened… the Understand That’s, which had been sitting hidden for over ten years of teaching, materialized on the paper.

I took all the work and organized in this Optics Unit Plan.  (layout was influenced by a newsletter template that Greg Elliot from Rockridge Secondary in West Van shared with me last year).  Here’s a Science 9 Unit on Reproduction showing four stages of development.

Next Iteration – preparing for inquiry based learning

Building on what I have done to:

  1. go further with DI – being more responsive in my teaching
  2. embed it in Inquiry Based Learning

About J Martens

Educator living and working in Vancouver BC Learning how formative assessment, literacy, inquiry, and technology serve to improve learning and increase engagement (for teachers & students).
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4 Responses to Building a Foundation for Teaching – My Story

  1. Linda O'Reilly says:

    Hi Jacob,

    I’ll certainly be one of the followers of your blog. I’m teaching teacher candidates at SFU this semester and I think that your story is a wonderful teaching tool. Not only will many young teachers be able to relate to your journey, it will help them to make wise choices as they begin their own journey in the Fall of 2011.

  2. linda kaser says:

    love this thinking and the open source communication – most helpful.

    Linda K

  3. VJ Grimes says:

    Scrap of paper on my desk for months, goals of a Collaborative Day about assessment , said look at this link. Finally, ahhh–this IS cool. I like the revelation “stress level dropped dramatically,” I’ll study what is here, links, K-U-D as a method, and go back to the IRP, like you suggest. I’ve been muttering to myself, “It takes ten years to learn to teach,” a speaker last year on drunk-driving said, race car drivers will tell you it takes 10 years to simply learn-to-drive, nothing fancy. That struck me as enlightening–as you say, the first time through is a scramble, then they give you a new course, every year for, well, every year. Finally, there is nothing I haven’t taught in bus ed, so it’s really about getting better. Ideas here, they all interest me, it’s only fun when it gets interesting.

  4. Pingback: The Start of Something Beautiful | Renovating My Classroom

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