Goals for the 2011-12 School Year

Following on the heels of my last post, here are my goals for the upcoming school year:

Teaching (The first two are also my “official” school goals that are being used to guide observations)

I will improve the way I give feedback to students.  Formally, I hope to develop a system to give students feedback about writing that meaningfully a) tells students where they are, b) what they need to do to improve and c) is efficient enough that I can provide frequent and timely feedback to all students.  I also need to make sure I am giving informal feedback more frequently to all students.  (I hope that moving to a Standards Based Grading system will enable these things to happen organically).

Students will have multiple opportunities to rethink and revise their answers to large essential questions throughout each unit, and will also reflect on and revise all major work.

I will solicit bi-weekly feedback from my students to ensure they understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and to give them a voice in what happens in the class.

The Social Studies Critical Friends Group will meet once a month, and will be valuable for its participants.

100% of my new advisees will either graduate or earn at least ten credits by June.

100% of my advisees will be accepted to college, and will have a plan to pay for it or whatever else they choose to do next year.

Personal / Professional Development
At least once per week, I will write and publish a piece of writing about teaching social studies, be it about my practice or teaching in general.

Every two months, I will write and publish a self-evaluation of how I am doing on these goals.

Hopes and Fears for the 2011-12 School Year

I feel like I should be feeling a little weirder about starting at a new school this week, but I really haven’t.  The transition thus far has felt natural and like a logical progression from my last school.

Last year at this time, I had a lot of hope coming out of what I then thought had been my most difficult year as a professional.  I don’t know if, overall, last year got better or worse.  It was definitely my best and most enjoyable as a classroom teacher, and I thoroughly enjoyed and grew from the many opportunities to interact with more teachers outside my school through organizing, the union, the media, and as a professional developer.  I also enjoyed the relationships I developed as an instructional coach.  At the same time, I was miserable at my school when I wasn’t in my classroom or coaching teachers.  Things weren’t made easier by my choice to move to Brooklyn last summer, which meant I had over two hours of subway commuting each day (though I did read Remembrance of Things Past, so that’s off the bucket list), and the extended search for a new school took more out of me emotionally than I could have predicted.

I am really excited about a lot for this year, but at the same time, I think I have a much healthier and realistic outlook on things.  Whereas my primary investment and scope of analysis for the past five years has been trying to build and improve a school, a monumental task, this year I am looking forward to “just” being a teacher again, and focusing my in-school work entirely on my students.

Following my format from last year, I’m thinking about things I’m excited for and fearful of in four different areas of my professional life:


I’m really excited to be teaching a traditional government and economics course for the first time.  Much more importantly, it’s the first time I’m teaching a year long course that doesn’t end in a state exam.  The freedom to finally be able to value depth over breadth is exhilarating, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the planning I’ve done so far.  I know things will not go perfectly the first time around, but I’m hoping I’m laying a strong foundation this year for a course I can teach for years to come.  I am also incredibly excited to be implementing a full Standards Based Grading system in my class! Without any impediments in my way, I’m eager to unleash everything I’ve learned about planning and helping students learn, while being able to fine tune some of the smaller aspects of my game.

My fear is that I won’t fully take advantage of this freedom.  Sometimes I worry that teaching to a test has domesticated me.  Last year I came across a unit on US Expansion I wrote as a senior in college that was exponentially better than any unit I wrote when teaching a Regents history course.  I’m worried concerns about my students passing the Regents curtailed my creativity and my focus on the valuable knowledge and skills students need for life, and that I will need to unlearn a lot of what I’ve learned these past seven years.  I’m also big on plans, and hope I will be able to drop everything to deeply address current events as they come up, something I’ve never felt like I’ve been able to do.


For the first time in five years, I don’t have a formal leadership role at the school level, and I’m thrilled about this.  I think I need a break from leading the adults I spend every day with.  With that said, I’m thrilled at two outside of school opportunities that hopefully will come to fruition.  I haven’t heard anything official, but I’m really hoping to continue the work I’m doing with teachers around NYC’s new teacher evaluation system, whose pilot is expanding from 11 to 160 schools this year.  I’m also in the process of creating, along with another teacher I met this summer, a Critical Friends Group for experienced NYC social studies teachers.  We’re still working on details, but given that we already have 8 people signed up, it looks like it’s going to get off to a strong start.  I’ll be writing more about this throughout the year, especially as part of the group will involve regular reflective writing.  I’m looking forward for having some of the interaction and camaraderie I’ve found online with an in-person group that can push me much further as a teacher.

My only fear on this front is that I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut sometimes, so I may have a personal adjustment to being a team member rather than a leader at school.


I’m very glad I found another school that has an advisory system in place.  Unlike my last school, where you stayed with the same students for four years as an advisor, my new school has senior teachers as senior advisers. While I’ll miss the deep relationships I developed with students over four years, I think the new system is probably more effective, and definitely more sustainable.  I’m most excited that college applications happen in advisory at my new school, as I’ve always been interested in supporting the process, but didn’t much at my last school since it happened in a separate class.

With that said, I’m a little apprehensive about being a new teacher at the school, and trying to develop simultaneous relationships as both a teacher and a advisor.  This probably means as an advisor I’ll be a little less personal and casual than I used to be, which is a shame, because it will lessen the degree of connection I can have with students as their advisor.


Given that I’m shifting from a 1+ hour subway commute each way to a 20 minute bike ride, there’s nothing but excitement on the personal front.  My quality of life will be much higher, and I hope I can enjoy every newfound minute in it.

Supercharging the DBQ Essay

The Document Based Question Essay is one of the more ubiquitous secondary social studies assignments in New York, and I imagine, in the US. It is a requirement on both New York State Regents Exams in History, each a graduation requirement, as well as on AP History exams. It’s one of the few things on standardized tests I do not have a problem with, and would use even if there was no test associated with it. While not a truly authentic assessment, DBQs accomplish exactly what most timed assessments should: it simulates the real work of professionals in the field through inquiry. Given that authentic inquiry in social studies takes a lot of time, the DBQ essay provides an appropriate bounded inquiry experience which can be used both as a formative assessment to help students learn more information, but also as means to assess students’ abilities to critically read, construct written arguments, back those up with evidence, access and integrate other knowledge, and write in a clear, organized manner. For the couple hours it takes, DBQs give teachers a lot of bang for their buck.

Since becoming a part of the pilot for new assessments to be used as part of NYC teacher evaluation last January, I’ve been thinking even more deeply about the uses of DBQs. Starting from the brilliant Historical Thinking Matters, the DBQs from the pilot forced students not only to construct arguments based on evidence, but they also asked students to learn to think and read like historians, by presenting them with contradictory evidence about the causation of events. This is something the NY DBQs never do; all documents can be read and used merely as a statement of fact. It also pushes students beyond the thinking of most AP DBQs, which focus on obviously subjective evaluations of the effects of historical actions, as opposed to forcing students to take an objective stand on the causes of events in the face of unclarity and uncertainty. Still, with all sources being primary documents, a key component of the work of modern research was missing.

Last year, it dawned on me that I could use the DBQ structure to teach and assess students’ abilities to evaluate all sources. On a DBQ I constructed about the French Revolution, I threw in a “document” from Wikipedia. I did not want students to simply discard the information — there was really good stuff in there — but I hoped students would question the trustworthiness of the source in writing rather than just citing it as fact (some did). The most astute readers even picked up that there was evidence in another primary document included that contradicted part of the Wikipedia source.

This year, as I put together a senior course that deals with major questions and understandings from government and economics, I’m envisioning using DBQ essays in order to simulate two additional authentic tasks from my students’ lives. One of these uses is a little more obvious: students will have to take a stand on policy matters based on contradictory data, newspaper reporting, and opinion pieces. I’m currently accumulating documents for an essay about the effectiveness of the stimulus for later in the year, and additional ideas would be great.

However, in dealing with seniors, I’m also looking for a way to simulate the experience of a college course, and attempted to construct a DBQ experience to give me an idea of where students are in terms of being ready for that. My first unit looks at identity formation, media literacy, and the connection between the two. So I’m asking students to write a DBQ essay agreeing or disagreeing with the statement, “Individuals‘ identities are created by advertising” using these documents (sorry, it’s a big file). I think this task will simulate the experience of having to take an exam based on course reading. I don’t just want to simulate this experience, though. In order to simulate the lecture hall, I will deliver a formal lecture on models of identity formation, and students will be allowed to use their notes on their essay. The next day, I will attempt to simulate the social aspect of studying in college by splitting up the documents between students, having them read them over, and then share their reading with their classmates. Only then, will students get all the documents, and have a couple of classes to write their essays.

One of the shared practices of my new school is the use of three interim assessments throughout the year using the same rubric in order to track students’ growth and to be able to target instruction to the areas where it’s most needed. This identity essay will be the first of my interim assessments, so I’ll post the data and my reflection on it once I have it in early October, as well as continued reflection throughout the year about addressing these specific skills.

Woodcutting: Draft of Unit 1: Identity & Media

After hitting a stumbling block trying to plan my whole course, I dove into my first unit, and am very happy with what I have ready to go to start the year.  The unit plan is based on Understanding by Design, with some adaptations for my new school.

As always, I would really appreciate feedback on any and all aspects of this.  A huge shout out to those who have already given me feedback during the planning process, as it has really helped me clarify what I want my students to take away from this unit.

Unit: Identity & Media, September-October (~45 classes)

Essential Questions: 

  1. Who am I?  Why do I think this is who I am? How does identity influence what people think, desire, and do?
  2. What does it mean to be a real man or woman, or a real anything, for that matter?
  3. Is it possible to be Black? Latino? White?
  4. How do others try to influence what I think, desire, and do? Does what they do work?
  5. Do different people experience the same thing in the same way?

Enduring Understandings:

  1. All media is constructed using a creative language with its own rules; has embedded values and points of view; and is organized to gain profit and/or power.
  2. Different people experience the same media message differently.
  3. Identity and desire are both social constructions, and are intertwined.
  4. Race matters tremendously despite having no basis in biological or scientific reality.
  5. What it means to be a man or a woman is a social construction.

Exhibition Descriptions: 

Where do my ideas comes from? Community Interview Project

In order to investigate where their own identities and beliefs come from, students will develop interview questions for 5 family members and 5 close friends to ask about their identities, morals, and politics.  Students will create visual representations of the extent to which their identities, morals, and politics, and written reports comparing their attitudes and values to those of family and friends, as well as hypothesizing about the degree to which their attitudes and values have been learned from family and friends.

What’s a Real ______?

In order to teach others at school about how identities are constructed through the media and to challenge stereotypes, students will choose a category of identity (race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc) or a hybrid of two (Latin Female, etc.) and create two collages: one entitled “What ‘They‘ Think a Real ______ Is” and a second entitled “Real ______”.  Images will come both from advertisements and from students’ lives.  While most students will produce print work, there will be the option to do video or dramatic work as well.  Students will also produce Artist Statements addressing the relevant Essential Questions from the unit, as well as identifying the connection between the identity and what is being sold to people with that identity.

Make it Plain

In order to teach others about how media is constructed in its attempts to influence others, students will capture an advertisement encountered in their own life and “annotate” it in a variety of ways.  In one version, they will make the embedded target audience, subtexts, values, points of view, and purposes explicit.  In another version, they will alter the ad so that instead of existing to give some person or group power or profit, they will make the ad be for something that makes the world more just.  Students will title their work with a question intended to get people thinking about how ads affect their life.  Students will also produce Artist Statements addressing the relevant Essential Questions from the unit.

Roundtable Presentations of Learning 1

In order to formally reflect on their work and share it with larger communities, students will conduct public roundtable conversations where they: 1) Share 1 of their unit exhibitions 2) Discuss how their views have evolved during the unit for 1 of the unit’s essential questions, and 3) Reflect on how their skills have developed during the unit. Continue reading Woodcutting: Draft of Unit 1: Identity & Media

Woodcarving: Crafting Enduring Understandings

My course is starting to reveal its form. And while of course I imagine a lot of what I decide now in Stage 1 of planning will be revised as I progress to later stages, it seems that the course is going to have 5 main units:

  1. A unit that looks at Media Literacy and Identity
  2. A unit that looks at the function and workings of American democracy
  3. A unit where students will conduct a major research project on a current policy issue and take some action to change policy
  4. A macroeconomic unit, focusing on government economic policy
  5. A microeconomic unit, focusing on budgeting, investment, and personal economics

I’m still playing around with the idea of a brief “Unit 0” to introduce some of the big group problem solving strategies students will need, as well as to focus on thinking outside the box and imagining possibilities beyond what already exists, but I’m not sure what that would look like.

The units have emerged as I started crafting my Enduring Understandings – the big, transferable takeaways I want my students to leave my class with.  These understandings will also serve as the basis for the learning goals I will use in the Standards Based Grading system I’ll be using in my class this year.*  For those not familiar with the Understanding by Design framework, Enduring Understandings are some combination of:

  1. An important inference, drawn from the experience of experts, stated as a specific and useful generalization
  2. Transferable, big ideas having enduring value beyond a specific topic
  3. Abstract, counterintuitive, or easily misunderstood ideas
  4. Something best acquired by “uncovering” and “doing”
  5. A summary of important strategic principles in skill areas (UbD 2nd edition, p. 128-130)

This is a stage of planning I’ve always struggled with.  It seems just as often as not, the understandings I craft will not end up being the understandings I actually help students learn. I think this is because I forced myself to go through a linear progression of the three stages of planning, which is not actually how backwards planning is supposed to work.  I will try and be better about that this year.

With all that said, here are the 37 Enduring Understandings I’ve crafted for my class at this point.  Most of these will eventually have sub/topical understandings that go with them.  In order to create these, I started with the list of outcomes from my last post, and tried to write an understanding or two for each.  I then looked at the understandings systematically to see where things could be combined or eliminated, before putting through a checklist test of the above 5 qualities.

For anyone who has the time to give feedback, I’d greatly appreciate it.

Woodcarving: Out in the forest

I’ve spent the past couple of days just going through all the resources I’ve accumulated, along with the random notes I’ve been taking sporadically for the past two months since I found out I was teaching this class. I’m in the middle of the messy part, like the woodcarver is when he enters the forest to find the right tree.

I think I now know what I’m looking for.  Last night, I jotted down a draft of what I imagine will be the introduction to my syllabus:

The goal of this class is simple: to increase your power. In order to do so, we’ll focus on empowering you in two main ways:

  1. Developing your critical abilities to find, process, assess, and respond to the many forms of information we encounter in our daily lives, as well as this information’s influence on who you think you are and what you think you want.
  2. Increasing your knowledge of how to get what you want politically and economically, in both the short and long terms. This, of course, involves a level of understanding of how our community, city, state, country, and world work politically and economically. Most importantly though, I aim to convince you that you can exert influence on all these levels of your personal world.

The clarity of those goals stand in complete opposition to the wonderful chaos of what I’ve accumulated: Continue reading Woodcarving: Out in the forest

Woodcarving: Return to Understanding by Design

Part of my ritual of planning is always a return to Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design. When I first decided I wanted to be at a teacher, I had spent a lot of time thinking about the purpose and structure of schools, and it was only when I opened this book (then still in its first edition, parts of which I actually like better than the second and much more widely read), that I learned how to accomplish what I wanted to with my students. Whenever planning a new course, I return. This was either my sixth or seventh time reading the book cover to cover.

Each time I return, I am glad to find that more and more has become my “common sesne.” So much of the ideas from UbD have become ingrained and automatic for me, that sometimes I even forget where the ideas came from. At the same time, the re-reading experience is one that often leaves me wanting to bang my head against the wall, as I find the solotuions for problems I faced were there waiting for me all along. (Though I was reminded recently by one of the professors I worked with at Swarthmore, that sometimes we can only see the solutions when we are ready to).

As I read, I noted the ideas and checks that I want to be mindful of while I plan:

  • I need to do a better job of making sure my students know why we’re doing what we’re doing. I used to be much better about this, but one of the unintended consequences of greatly improving my classroom management over my carreer is that I’ve taken shortcuts when it comes to making the case and explanation for what we’re doing in class. I need to remember that at all points my students should be able to articulute the answers to the questions:

What are you doing?
Why are you being asked to it?
What will it help you do?
How does it fit with what you have previously done?
How will you show that you have learned it? (UbD p. 17)

  • On a related note, I need to incorporate students feedback as a regular part of my course, not only something that happens at the end of units or semesters. At the end of last year, I was particularly inspired by the feedback Paul Blogush and Larry Ferlazzo got from their students, will be borrowing some ideas from them as models.  And rather than writing the evaluation at the end of the year, I want to “backwards design” my course in someway from what I hope students will write at the end of the year.
  • I need to remember that the “established goals” I begin my planning process with are not just the standards and things out of my control, but are also the course objectives I have identified as being very important.
  • I need to work in opportunities for students to rethink and revise their work and ideas. I no longer have the excuse of “we have too much to learn before the Regents” to not build in time to do this.
  • The goal is always transfer: that my students are gaining understandings they can apply to new situations (often ones that are unforeseeable in the future).
  • Students should not be able to do well on performance tasks only by working hard.

Previous Posts in the Series

Woodcarving: Assembling Resources for Government and Economics

As will become very evident as I continue to write about my planning, I am a devout member of the church of Understanding by Design.  When I first read it in grad school, my response was pretty much, “ok, that’s how it’s done.”  I’ve probably re-read the text a half dozen times since then, and each time I read it, it reminds me that the vast majority of the mistakes I make can be attributed to not listening to the lessons the book has to offer.

So it’s ironic, then, that I started planning my course by breaking perhaps the most important advice the book has.

Rather than beginning with student outcomes, I began by exploring all the print and electronic resources I’ve been collecting for years, as well as trying to get an idea of what’s out there; to a large degree, I started with content and activities rather than skills and understandings.  As this is the first time I’m ever responsible for students learning about economics, and the first time I will teach government outside of a political philosophy course, I wanted to ground myself in what’s out there before reinventing the wheel.  Having done so over the past couple of days, I’ll now set off on my ritual re-reading of UbD over the coming days, before really starting to plan when I get back from a quick trip to the Great White North for a nice long weekend. Then, I’ll reinvent the wheel, though hopefully from largely recycled parts.

Below are the resources I’ve found for teaching government and economics to which I expect to return.  If you have others to recommend, please share in the comments. (Apologies for not feeling motivated for creating hyperlinked titles).  Continue reading Woodcarving: Assembling Resources for Government and Economics

Woodcarving: What I have to carve

As I begin teaching at a new school, I have more freedom to create a course than I have ever had in my career.  This will be the first time in my life I teach a year-long course that does not end in a state exam.  Here are the constraints on my planning:

  • Students will earn “Participation in Government” and “Economics” credit for my course (there is a state curriculum that there is no reason to follow, though I do feel a responsibility to ensure a certain level of civic and economic literacy is learned)
  • I will be teaching seniors, who needs these credits to graduate
  • The school has an internal interim assessment structure that requires me to create a rubric at the beginning of the year which I will use to track student progress.  In collaboration with my new department chair, I’ve decided to track students’ ability to 1) create arguments, 2) use evidence to support the argument, 3) appropriately source the evidence they use, 4) incorporate relevant content into the argument and 5) write clearly
  • The school uses Debbie Meier’s Habits of Mind
The rest is up to me!

Woodcarving: What is your secret?

Over the next month, I’m going to be taking my blogging in a slightly different direction.  I’m going to be doing my best to document all the thought that goes into planning a course.  I’m doing in this in part for myself, to help make my thinking more rigorous.  I’m also trying to make plain what many teachers, including those I’ve mentored, have asked me if I could show them.  If you’re not a teacher, and a high school humanities teacher at that, there might be little of interest in the individual posts.  With that said, I hope you’ll check in periodically to see how I and other teachers spend our summer “vacation.”

Part of my inspiration for documenting this came out of the teacher leadership institute I attended last week.  During one of the sessions, we read the poem, “The Woodcarver,” which I’ve posted below the jump.  It really hit home for me how much of a ritual I have for planning.  There have been times when I, like the woodcarver, have found it difficult to express the thinking behind my planning.  Much like the woodcarver, my experience of what I end up doing in my classroom seems to appear to me.  But in reality, it’s because of the ritual of planning that I go through before each course, and then to a lesser degree, before each unit.  It’s this ritual that I hope to capture in the coming weeks.


Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits.
The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?” Continue reading Woodcarving: What is your secret?