Utilizing the Backward Design Model

In my last post, I discussed L. Dee Fink’s A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning, and the impact is has had on my teaching and learning strategies and beliefs.  What Fink’s research provides is an outline of desired course outcomes, keeping his six-part taxonomy in mind (Fink, 2003).  This week, I’ve had the opportunity to research another beneficial tool in the planning and designing phase of classroom units and modules, taken from Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s work in Understanding by Design.  What I’ve essentially been doing is designing course units, modules and projects with the Backward Design Model at work.

If you remember from my last entry, I created a 3 column table of a storytelling project with my Betas, putting to work Fink’s beliefs of tying together foundational knowledge, application, integration, human dimension, caring and learning how to learn to create a significant learning environment.  I have used the same storytelling project and applied it to my UbD template discussed by Wiggins and McTighe.  Both of these tools are very similar in that the teacher, or designer, has first addressed what the desired outcomes for the learner are for the specified project or unit.  As opposed to thinking about what new tools might be used in the classroom, what projects might take place, the teacher must first rethink the purpose of the unit.

What do we want our students to understand in this unit?  What will they have learned and what will they be able to do?

three-stagesOften times, we get sidetracked from our initial lesson because of new gadgets, programs, crafts or activities, but it is important to keep our goals at the forefront of our lesson.  Wiggins and McTighe go into detail of “the twin sins of traditional design”, the activity-oriented approach and coverage-oriented approach.  As an Early Childhood teacher, I found myself fall into the error of activity-oriented design.  In any particular unit, I found myself multiple times engaging my class in these great hands on activities that I initially thought worked wonderfully with what was being taught, but I now find myself rethinking alot of our crafts and activities in our units, asking myself “how is this going to enhance learning for my Betas?” Once we have laid out our desired outcomes, only then, can we move on to acceptable forms of evidence of learning and class activities and instruction.  This approach to planning is referred to as “backward design” (Wiggins, McTighe 2005).

In both examples, I’ve started with my desired end goal to help keep me on track with the rest of the planning.  I found both tools to be highly useful and beneficial in the planning of course units, however, I found the UbD template to be incredibly detailed and a bit overwhelming.  Keep in mind, I come from a school that does not require lesson plans to be turned in for review.  There is, however, a lot of grade level planning that takes place, we are just not required to turn them in for review.  I really embraced the concept of the 3 column table because I felt it addressed all the aspects of significant learning, while giving me the opportunity to further the lesson beyond classroom application.  I really like how Fink’s work allows us to think beyond foundational skills, application and integration.  An important focus of the education we provide at our school is how our teachings help build the character of our students and not only their minds, and I believe the 3 column table allows me to tie in our core values with instruction through the human dimension, caring and learning how to learn categories.

I think both of these tools have given me a deeper understanding of the importance of effective planning.  Too many times, we fall victim of the “twin sins”.  Either we have these grand crafts and activities with no real learning taking place, or we are trying to cover all the required material, leaving out valuable learning goals.  I have already been applying both of these models to my innovation plan in middle school.  Now that I will be piloting the student ePortfolios in my class next year, I plan on sharing my UbD template for student portfolios with the rest of my middle school colleagues and administration.  Although I just commented on the super detailed and overwhelming aspect of the UbD template, I feel like this would be especially beneficial in getting the rest of my colleagues on board.  I already have my Director of Fine Arts excited about this implementation in my class, but since my goal is to have all middle school students utilizing the ePortfolio, I know some of the other middle school teachers might find this to be one extra thing they need to incorporate.

Backward design planning has proved to be very successful in the classroom and in life.  As with anything- sports, a job, a project or unit… we need to keep our eye on the prize and not get sidetracked by all the “extras” that are around us.



Fink, L. D. (2003). A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning. Retrieved June 23, 2016, from A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning

Hamilton, M. & Weiss, M. (2005). The Power of Storytelling in the Classroom. Children Tell Stories: Teaching and Using Storytelling in the Classroom.  Retrieved June 24, 2016 from https://www.rcowen.com/PDFs/CTS%20Ch%201%20for%20website.pdf 

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding by design [2nd Edition].  Upper Saddle River, New Jersy: Pearson Education, Inc.


Creating and Implementing Significant Digital Learning Environments

You might remember, if you frequent this blog or have read my “About Me” section lately, that in addition to being an 8th Grade Photography Teacher, I am also a Beta Teacher (Prek 3) at a private school in Houston, TX.  In reality, I am a Beta teacher 90% of the time and go up to middle school every other day for only 45 minutes while my little ones are napping.  You may have forgotten that tidbit since a lot of my focus for my innovation plan has revolved around my middle school class, but for the purposes of this assignment, I’d like to go back and focus on a project that I’d like to expand in my Beta classroom.  At our school, we are already pretty involved in the Rice Literacy and Culture Project, specifically, the Classroom Storytelling Project, but a goal that we had this past year was to incorporate more student stories throughout the year.  My co-teacher and I met our goal for the year, but now I’d like to expand it even further with a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (BHAG).

My BHAG, or Overarching Goal, is to develop and create the Beta Storytelling Museum where learners will identify problems and present solutions in each of their dictated stories, while incorporating descriptive language with the assistance of teacher prompts.  In addition, learners will create digital stories through the use of educational technology and electronic devices to demonstrate effective implementation of their digital learning environments.

taxonomySince the start of my graduate studies, I’ve invested a lot of time in reading and researching educational literature, some of which that have already made a significant impact on my teaching and learning strategies and beliefs.  One of the pieces of literature that I have found to be especially significant is L. Dee Fink’s, A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning.  In his guide, Fink explains, in detail, the importance of designing courses (or learning units, models, etc.) with his six part taxonomy in mind.  He stresses that each of the six kinds of learning, pictured left, are all interactive ways of learning, and must be considered when designing course outcomes (Fink, 2003).  In addition, I’ve been able to build an outline of my course goals by addressing specific situational factors that Fink addresses in his guide.

As a part of our school’s partnership with the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, I’d like to start start a grade level project in which we put on a Beta Storytelling Museum to showcase our Betas dictated and digital story creations.  We will continue to take student dictated stories throughout the year following Rice’s storytelling strategies, however in addition, I’d love to incorporate student created digital stories as well.  This is a creative way to allow students to create a visual for their dictated stories, while encouraging them to utilize our digital learning environment.  Once the learner has a collection of dictated stories and at least one digital story, we will publish them and showcase them in our Beta Storytelling Museum.

Taken from the ShadowPuppet Blog, I’ve included an example of a digital story below.  In this example, a Kindergartner tells us a story while also sharing her art.



Fink, L. D. (2003). A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning. Retrieved June 16, 2016, from A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning

Use in the Classroom. Retrieved June 18, 2016 from http://puppetfeed.com/in-the-classroom







I am a Teacher, But What Is My Learning Philosophy?

I am a teacher.  So, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary app, I am “a person… that teaches something”.  I am “a person whose job is to teach students about certain subjects”.  I am a person “whose occupation is to instruct”.

I am a teacher.  What does that mean to me?  It means that I am to lead by example, to exhibit respect, to spark curiosity, to foster imagination, to encourage play, to promote risk taking, and to be a constant reminder that if we fall down, we get back up.  If we don’t do something right the first time, we try again.

I am a teacher.

I’ve spent a great deal of time researching the many learning theories that are out there, trying to see where I fit in as an educator to early childhood children and where I fit in as a continuous learner, myself.  Do my practices fall under the Behaviorist, Cognitive, Humanistic, or Constructivist theories?  I’ve realized after researching these theories, that before I can “categorize” my learning philosophy, I first need to reflect on my personal learning experiences in life.  Notice, that I say I need to reflect on my personal learning experiences in life, not just in school.  For me, this is an important point to make, because a lot of my life’s learning experiences didn’t just happen in the traditional classroom, and I think this stands true to today’s generation as well.

When I reflect on significant learning experiences in my life, there are a few instances (and people) that immediately come to mind.  I’ll talk about one experience that I like to call Coach Hawley.  Yes, Coach Hawley is a teacher.  In fact, he was my Bible teacher in High School, although the valuable lessons I learned from him weren’t from his ability to simply relay information about the Bible in front of the classroom- although he was great at that, too- but it was from the example he set for everyone through his actions.  From Coach Hawley, I’ve learned the importance of giving back.  He didn’t just tell us to give back, he did it. I’ve seen the difference that he, and the group he works with, have made in Honduras and in Haiti through their Mission Lazarus and Hope For Haiti’s Children projects.  Because of him, my children are now picking up pennies, nickels and dimes from the floor to put in their “Honduras Bottles”.  I also remember how Coach Hawley would have all the boys in the class stand up the moment a young girl or lady would enter the classroom.  These are simple acts of kindness and respect that, to some extent, have dissipated over time, but ones that Coach Hawley strives to keep alive.

“In a world where I have plenty, many have almost nothing.”  – Steve Hawley

The learning experiences that I’ve taken away from Coach Hawley might fall under the Social-Cognitive Theory, in which people learn by observing others.  There are a few assumptions that accompany this learning theory, one being that learning is an internal process.  Through the observation of actions, the desired behaviors may or may not happen at all  (Study.com).  There is also this assumption of goal-directed behavior.  We might set goals for ourselves in hopes of meeting those goals by exhibiting the desired behaviors (Study.com).  Although thousands of students that have seen and heard the difference that can come from picking up loose change from the floor, this may or may not  push them all to do the same.

When I look at myself as a learner, I know that learning is more meaningful to me when it is engaging, when it is purposeful and when I am actively involved in it.  I cannot just sit down and listen to a lecture for hours on end, I must be actively involved because if not, I’ve lost interest.  I do, however, feel it is important to relay factual information to students, but we need to do so in a way where we’ve engaged our students.  In their report, How People Learn, The National Research Council noted that students come into the classroom already disengaged with their own preconceptions of how the world works (Donovan, Bransford, Pellegrino, 1999).  Because students are already coming into the classroom tuned out, we have the task of drawing out those pre-existing understandings and allowing them to discover new information so that they can see where their new findings take them in relation to their preconceptions (Donovan, Bransford, Pellegrino, 1999).

I would say that there is a mixture of a couple different learning theories that play a part in my learning philosophy.  I do consider myself to be a Constructivist in that I encourage my students to explore the world and to learn through discovery (Culatta, 2015).  When working with very young children, there are many things we do in the classroom that they may have never done before at home.  This can sometimes lead to timidness and/or fear, and so we encourage them to discover things on their own and to form their own opinions, questions, and hypotheses.  I do also believe it is important to tie in technology, when applicable.  Technology has made a vital impact on learning and education in the past two decades.  Notice, that in my opening statement on the definition of what a teacher is, I went straight to my smart phone instead of a dictionary in book form.  The advances in technology have created great opportunities for learners  in that it has become highly accessible to everyone, it has the ability to updated almost instantaneously, and no longer are we confined to a room of four walls for learning to take place.  We are now connected to a network of individuals, not just one person (Siemens 2005).  For these reasons, I see myself also identifying with the Connectivism Theory.  Also, as a mother of two young children and a teacher to children in their most prime years, I strongly believe that children learn valuable life lessons in Respect, Gratitude, Perseverance, Courage, Compassion, and Integrity from their immediate role models, which is why I also identify with the Social-Cognitive Theory.


I have found it interesting when thinking about how these theories apply to me in putting my innovation plan to work.  I will be very much embracing a Constructivist and Connectivist Theory when piloting student ePortfolios in my middle school class.  Since I will be the first to do this at our school, it will definitely be a discovery process for me and my students.  We will be figuring out, together, what platforms work best, and I will be giving my students freedom in creating their websites, within a set of boundaries to keep them engaged.  They now will be apart of a network of students, of all backgrounds, and of all passions, and their learning will have extended out of the classroom.


Annotated Bibliography

Donovan, M. S., Bransford, J. D., & Pellegrino, J. W. (1999). How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice. Retrieved June 8, 2016, from http://www.nap.edu/catalog/9457.html

This was the first piece of research I came in contact with and one of the most important ones in shaping my learning philosophy.  I identified, greatly, with the three Key Findings that their research uncovered and find it more true with my middle school students than with my 3-4 year olds.  The main takeaway, for me, is to continue to foster engagement across all ages of my students and to draw out any preconceptions they may have upon entering the classroom.  

Hawley, S. (2015). By Bread Alone. Retrieved June 11, 2016 from http://stevehawley.blogspot.com/2011/02/by-bread-alone.html

This is the personal blog of Coach Hawley, whom I referenced above as an important role model in my life.  Based on my learning experiences from him, I have tied in a Social-Cognitive Learning Theory in my learning philosophy.

Hurst, M. Social-Cognitive Learning Theory: Definition and Examples. Retrieved June 10, 2016, from http://study.com/academy/lesson/social-cognitive-learning-theory-definition-and-examples.html

I stumbled upon Melissa Hurst’s work while researching “Learning by Observation”.  In my own personal life, I have found that many of my learning experiences have been from a Social-Cognitive standpoint from specific role models in my life.  I believe this to continue to be especially important when teaching children at very young ages, and have included this in my learning philosophy.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A Learning Theory For the Digital Age. Retrieved June 8, 2016, from http://www.itdl.org/journal/jan_05/article01.htm

Siemens’ work has put into writing the undeniable impression technology has had on learning and on education.  Just as I did at the beginning of my post, students now have answers right at their fingertips.  Smartphones and other devices have given us 24/7 access to information that was once bound to the classroom.  It is my hope to be able to tie in technology with learning in a meaningful way- one that engages my students and continues to challenge them.  

Teacher. (2016). Merriam-Webster, Inc. (Version 3.4.3) [Mobile Application Software]. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/teacher

I used the Merriam-Webster Dictionary app to quickly look up the “official” definition of what a teacher is at the start of this blog post, for two reasons.  One- to reiterate how quick and easy it is for people to go straight to their smart phones to find answers and two- because it really was quick and easy to go straight to my smart phone to find this answer.  Technology.   


Creating My Learning Environment | A Response to A New Culture of Learning

As referenced in my last post, my most recent read was a book called A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas and John Brown.  This is a book that takes a really close look at what learning environments should look like in order to cultivate critical thinking and higher learning, but one will notice within reading the first few pages, that Thomas and Brown’s take on this is not what you would expect.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of decades, you’ve seen first-hand the rapid advancements in technology that are all around us. Anything that we might have a question to can be answered by a quick search on our smart phones.  There’s no need to pull out our Encyclopedia Britannica because we have the accessibility to answers right at our fingertips, 24 hours a day.  Society has adapted to changes in technology with open arms because we are constantly trying to keep up- walk by any Apple store and you’ll see it packed with people looking at the latest gadgets.  So, in a world of rapid development, why are we still teaching our children with the same dated methods our parents and grandparents received?

Just as it is outside of the classroom, things should be constantly evolving inside of the classroom

 Take a moment and think about a child.  If you think about the first 3-4 years of a child’s life, the growth that happens within that time period is immense.  During these years, we see children learn how to crawl, walk, then they might learn how to say a few words, and then by age 4, they are speaking in complete sentences.  How do children master these milestones?  They learn it through exploration and play.  The curiosity that sparks a child’s mind is what leads them to explore things further.  When my daughter was born, my son was 3 years old, so we spent a lot of time outside together.  I remember a time when my daughter was about 6 months old and I was playing with my son in the front yard.  I sat my daughter on the grass, and no sooner than when I sat her down, did her hands go straight to the grass to pick a handful out and stick it in her mouth.  This was her way of discovering.  The feeling of the prickly grass against her body sparked a curiosity in her to want to feel it, and then taste it.

How can we ignite the spark in our own student’s minds in today’s classroom?

Many of today’s classrooms do not produce the sort of learning that needs to take place in the 21st Century, rather, students are bogged down with worksheets, quizzes, textbooks and tests.  This isn’t what I want coming out of my classroom.  I’ve made a conscious effort, in my middle school photography class, to not stand up at the front of the room and simply relay information to my students, but instead to create a space where discussion happens among the each other.  We’re learning digital photography, so everyone has their “tool” (the camera) and they are learning how to operate it in manual by experimenting (playing) with the settings.  I can stand up at the front of the classroom for as long as I want and talk about exposure, aperture and ISO, but the students are not going to be able to learn the information if they aren’t the ones physically doing the work.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 5.33.51 PM

Also in my last post, I gave a great example of how this new culture of learning combines passion, imagination and constraint through a professional development opportunity at our school.  Another example that Thomas and Brown repeatedly referred to as an environment for learning was through MMO games, or Massively Multiplayer Online games.  I’m not a gamer myself, so I found this bit surprisingly interesting because I had no clue as to what all it took to play games like Star Wars Galaxies and World of Warcraft.  I think because I’m not a gamer, I found the information on the communities, guilds, forums, wikis, battles and raids to be a bit overwhelming.

I have to admit, I have always been one of those people that wondered how others could (dare I say!) waste away their time playing a video game.

 I still don’t have much desire to learn how to play MMO games, but my eyes have been opened to the amount of questioning, imagination and play that comes from it (Thomas, Brown 2011).

As I’m reflecting on the fundamental ideas from A New Culture of Learning, I realize that we are on the right path to honoring our students passions and allowing them to connect those passions with things they need to learn in school.  Similar to the “Knowing, Making and Playing” framework that is outlined in the book, Presbyterian School has initiated a “Think-Make-Talk” Paradigm

.  15NovFullFAC

Learning is an ongoing, never ending process.  We are always in collaboration with each other- Thinking, creating and continually talking and reevaluating our work and ideas.  If you’ve been following my plan to implement ePortfolios in middle school,  I’m very excited to say that I will be able to begin piloting student ePortfolios in my middle school classes next school year.  I’m excited to allow the students to explore different ways in building their own ePorfolio website.  I know this will be such a powerful tool that they will be able to take with them even after they leave our school.  As with any new project, this will be a learning opportunity for both the students and myself.  Some of the main challenges we are going to be faced with is space and available computers and/or laptops.  Depending on what blogging platform students go with, once their sites are set up, they will be able to post new content and reflections straight from their iPads.

I know and understand the hesitation that accompanies change, especially from teachers in schools.  We are human and as humans, we like routine, however, after sharing my proposal with my Director of Fine Arts, I see the excitement that comes with starting something like this and the results that come from it will be invaluable.  It is my hope that after this year of piloting ePortfolios with my students, that we can expand it to all of our middle schoolers.

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Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace?

Zip, Zap, Zop!

I’m in my fourth class in my Masters program and for this class, there was some reading to be done before the start of the course.  I found Douglas Thomas and John Brown’s book, A New Culture of Learning, to be such an inspiring read.  That book, coupled with the week’s videos have really given me the confirmation that what we are doing in this program (our innovative plans) are exactly what we should be doing.  I know some have already felt like their ideas have been shot down, or maybe they’re not getting the support they need from their colleagues, but as our professor, Dr. Harapnuik said at the beginning of his CSLE video, “Everybody wants to change the world, but nobody wants to change”.  This is what’s wrong with our country right now.  I think everyone knows that our education system has to change, but everyone is too damn scared to START the change.  No offense to anyone.  And for many, the more times you hear “No, no, no..” well that just kills your passion all together.

I love the example that Thomas gave in his TEDx video of the three old child walking down the beach and becomes enthralled by this tree.  He begins to touch the tree bark, smell it and even put it in his mouth.  Although we don’t go around tasting everything, we need to remember that this is learning.  You see the curiosity and excitement in children when they are discovering.  It’s quite sad to hear that administrators in our country are limiting and banding the very things that captivate our attention and actually might help encourage our students to want to learn and want to discover.  But no.. instead we take it away.  This is NOT how we create an thriving learning environment.  Let’s give students tools that they can use to go out and explore the world and document it.  That’s when we see their eyes light up.. that’s when they control their own learning.

When I think about how play combines passion, imagination and constraint, I immediately think of an experience I had today at earlier this week.  Our students got out of school last week, but faculty and teachers returned for our last week yesterday to wrap up our class rooms, have some end of year meetings and even a professional development opportunity.  Our professional development was interesting… and FUN.  We had Kim McGaw, director of professional programs at Rice University’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, come speak with us and we did a lot of different games and activities that encouraged us to play and work together, and also to think about our passions and something we might want to change in this next school year in relationship to our grade levels and/or subjects.  One of the first activities we did was divide into groups of about 10 and we played a game called “Zip, Zap, Zop”.  We basically all stood in a circle, and one person started the game but clapping and pointing (in a sort of “shoot and point” kind of gesture) to another person in the group while yelling “Zip!”.  Then the person they pointed at does the same clap/point gesture to another person in the group while yelling “Zap!”  It went on and on and a repetitive motion and very soon what you heard from each group was laughter.  We were in groups of colleagues, many that we don’t talk to on a regular basis because of different divisions and what not, but we were playing this game, and these were the rules and you had to be paying attention and we might have looked quite silly, but it was fun.  We then played a similar game called “Red ball, yellow ball, blue ball” where in the same circle we were standing in, we throw a “fake” red ball to each other.  You don’t know who the person is going to throw the ball to next, so you have stay on your toes.  Gradually, Kim would throw in a different color “ball” while we were still passing along the red ball. We had to become creative and come up with ways to differentiate which ball was which, because then it just became a bunch of yelling and we couldn’t keep any one ball going.  Some groups decided that they would throw the red ball in a passing motion, and use a kicking motion for the yellow ball and a volleyball bump motion for the blue ball.  This exercise proved to be much more difficult because everything was happening simultaneously but within these rules of the game, there was plenty of laughter.  I think this is a great example of play combining imagination, passion and constraint.  Every group thought of different was to keep the game going.  I think we teachers need to create an environment where our students use their imaginations on projects that matter to them.  This is honoring their passions.  I’m providing a separate link below of Kim McGaw giving a brief summary of her Lego Serious Play workshop that she has also been doing.



Harapnuik, D. (2015, May 8). Creating Significant Learning Environments (CSLE). Retrieved May 28, 2016, from https://youtu.be/eZ-c7rz7eT4

Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace?

Thomas, D. (2012, September 12). A New Culture of Learning, Douglas Thomas at TEDxUFM. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/lM80GXlyX0U