ODU Faculty Summer Institute (and more)
Backward design is a powerful theory. While jogging along the Elizabeth River this morning with my dog Stretch, it occurred to me that backward design, a course design strategy espoused by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design, was evolving into a web of interconnectiveness permeating all of my thought processes this summer. This became apparent to me in several ways this week; first, as I work to turn the theory into practice by designing course objectives for several writing classes; then, during the ODU Faculty Summer Institute sponsored by the Center for Learning and Teaching; and finally, as I reflected this morning on how to order the many tasks ahead as I plan for graduation in the fall.
Synthesizing the lofty course standards for writing classes provided by institutions into condensed and prioritized goals achievable in a classroom of individuals with varying levels of abilities and aptitudes has proven to be a time-consuming, yet rewarding task for this neophyte. The recursive process began for me, after reading McTighe’s and Wiggins’ book, by reading course syllabi written by instructors at various institutions and reflecting on the philosophies of the teachers that I envisioned behind the printed words in their course objectives. Their tones ranged from poetic to mind-numbing; some even seemed threatening.
Most of these class objectives are certainly gleaned from years of experience and the desire to communicate clearly to students what the instructor intends to teach them over the course of the semester, as well as satisfy institutional standards. McTighe and Wiggins, however, suggest that by examining the nouns and verbs in the academic jargon of standard objectives, the “big ideas” and questions can more easily be turned into prioritized classroom objectives and activities that result in deep understanding, rather than just surface knowledge and content coverage. This is the goal of my summer studies and why this week’s conference was so meaningful and pertinent to me.
On Tuesday morning, Dr. Tara Gray, the keynote speaker for the Faculty Summer Institute began by encapsulating the backwards design theory into the overarching theme of the conference; a thoughtful, goal-oriented pedagogy that promotes ongoing assessment and meaningful activities over a teacher-centered lecture “performance.” She presented twelve steps to facilitate an inspiring and interactive classroom. Dr. Gray spoke like a teacher in touch with her philosophy; love your students and take responsibility for your class, and she acted like an accountant, counting each classroom second like precious gold. More important, I watched as experienced teachers around the room sat up straight, leaned forward, asked questions, nodded, and tracked her eyes attentively. In other words, they acted like we want our students to act during our classes.
Teachers are individuals just like students are, but I guarantee that as Dr. Gray moved about the room, she left a net of interconnectedness in her wake. I left that session filled with deep understanding and inspiration as well as a feeling of community with other teachers. Speaking with several teachers yesterday made me excited about graduating next semester and finally getting into the classroom. That makes how I set goals, how I organize and prioritize my tasks, and how I create meaningful, academic artifacts which culminate in a useful and reflective portfolio my major academic focus. That said, the value of deep understanding, personal responsibility, and community is my individual, life focus.
Academic and career advancement isn’t the most difficult task we and our students have to face in our society, life is. This brings me to the value of life experience in any endeavor. As we grow older, we should learn to work smarter rather than harder. As a runner, I can say emphatically that physical strength and stamina will decrease much sooner than one thinks, but I can say equally emphatically that I won’t enjoy the beauty of an early-morning river run any less. I am a life-long learner, and I hope to be a life-long runner. Will I do things the same way I did them in my youth? No, but I’ll do them more reflectively. And therein lays my secret weapon; I can not only design backwards, but I can look backwards. I have a valuable history as well as a valuable future
Wiggins , Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. 2nd. Columbus: Pearson, 2005. Print.