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Thinking About Design

October 6, 2011

Backwards design. It’s something that we think about a lot here, as teachers. Start with the results. What kinds of behaviors and ideas do we want to see in our students after a semester of classes? In Literature, I want to see my students thinking figuratively. I want them to look at the ocean and see more than just an expanse of water that spans 71% of the earth. Though, I want them to see that too. One of my students looks at the sea and thinks about her first memory. In her grandpa’s arms, playing in the waves, he told her that the ocean was the glue that holds us all together. To her, the ocean looks sticky. I want my students to look at the ocean and see the O in Omeros: the white foamy hair of Seven Seas and shells clinking like skulls from bodies lost in the Middle Passage. I want them to see livelihoods there, fishing regulations, conch preservation and conch fritters. I want them to see the first time they were stung by a jelly fish and how that made them feel. I want them to not want to lose these things (even the stingy jellyfish). I want them to look at the ocean see the complexities of an expansive and diverse ecosystem with the capacity to imagine the eventual possibility of a barren waterscape. A floating trash heap the size of Texas bobbing around in the Pacific Ocean. I hope they see that.  When I think about lesson planning, when I think about assessments and end goals, I start at the end: what activities, conversations and assignments will challenge my students to look at the world objectively and think about its complexities. And it’s more than just thinking figuratively, we focus on a building a variety of skills within our curriculum, by first thinking about how to get them there. This is backwards design.

Last Friday a candidate visiting for our Head of School position, asked us to think this way about our semester program as a whole. What kinds of behaviors and ideas do we want to see in our students after a semester of The Island School. Kayak trips. Community meetings. Dorm life. Morning exercise. Advisory time. Ceremonies. Celebrations. Legacy Days. What do we want our legacy to be? How do we teach culture? What do we want a student at the end of the semester to look like? In a year? In five years? And most importantly, how do we get them there? Backwards design.

He arranged for student leaders to organize small groups of Island School students and one group of faculty in attendance, to think about an element of our school’s mission statement: “creating an intentional community whose members are cognizant of their limitations, abilities, and effect on others.” This is one goal of the Island School mission. Each small group, including the group of faculty, was lead by two students. I sat on an old wooden Pres Room chair, in a circle with the same colleagues sitting in the same chairs, that I face every day: morning and evening circles, circles around tables at faculty meetings, stretching circles after exercise; but, as we sat there facing each other, the ideas that encircled us were new. Facilitated by Franky and Jane, we discussed a critical element of backward design: How will we know when our mission is accomplished? We were charged to make a list of questions that we could ask Island School alumni to evaluate whether those individuals were “cognizant of their limitations, abilities, and effect on others.” Groups split up. The faculty all stayed together as one group, as students led by students, began to discuss their roles as students here.

An aside here to note that some educators out there might likely be unsettled at the idea of un-monitored students alone in rooms assigned to accomplish a task without faculty there to supervise. Shocking. But, for the record, I think that it is exactly this kind of activity that cultivates exactly that which we are discussing…

More shocking were the results.  Though I appreciated the chance to sit down with my colleagues and weave our intensions into a blanketed approach, it was when the groups rejoined and students shared-out, that I found myself with an agape mouth and an admiring mind, totally awed at their self-awareness and critical thought.

The following is a list of questions that our students crafted to reflectively and authentically appraise the people they will become when they leave this place: (Any alumni reading might ask themselves how they would answer the following questions)

How does this person help and support his/her peers? How does this person challenge him/herself? Does this person urge others to challenge themselves? Does this student express him or herself as an individual within the community? Is this person engaged fully in activities? Does this person have a flexible outlook on life? Does this person show appreciation for the opportunities that they are given? Does this person actively pursue his/her own passion(s)? Does this person exhibit leadership when the situation calls for it? Is he or she confident in striking up a conversation with anyone in the community? Does he or she contribute to the well-being of the community, even when not asked? Does he or she understand his or her impact on the natural environment and is proactive towards a sustainable goal? Does he/she have the courage to ask questions and go outside of his/her comfort zone? Does he or she accept challenges and execute them to the best of his or her abilities? Does he or she motivate without dictating? Does he or she respect others’ opinions while still staying true to his/her own? Do they respect their peers and elders? Are they appreciative of what they are given? Are they afraid to ask for help? Do they take initiative? Do they give up when challenged? Do they motivate others who want to quit? Do they look at a problem and try to solve it logically? Do they have an open mind? Is the student readily adaptable to new situations? Is the student able to do things outside of their comfort zone? Can you understand your community/culture/sense of place? Can you relate to and tolerate people who are completely different from you? Can you connect with every person in your community? Does the student voluntarily assist others? Is the person aware of all the ways their actions will impact others? Can the student make decisions for themselves? Can the student be considerate of other people’s values and ideas? Has the student ever done something they told themselves they couldn’t do?

Concentric circles of questions echo around my mind like the eddies pooling around our bodies the next morning in Swim Track. It is our second extra-long morning exercise block—we have them each Saturday—and after swimming three quarters of a mile along the shore, we enter the The Current Cut. Years ago when they were developing the marina, a long stretch was dredged to connect two small carved-out harbors. Now, as the tide shifts around Powell Point on the southern-most tip of Eleuthera, a fast current pulls water from one end to another. Between pulls the water calms for slack tide.  Then the current picks up, reverses, and the force of the tide causes the river to run backward. Over and over each day, The Current Cut shifts like an aquatic teeter-totter.  The odds were against us as we entered the mouth of The Cut.

Having traversed the small harbor inlet, dragging the big cumbersome swim weenie (one of the mechanisms in place to support student safety in the water) behind me like a buoyant parachute, I came upon AJ, Jamie, and Katie H. standing up on the shallow rocks under the bridge that marks the entrance to The Cut, the current was ripping and they were holding on to the bridge pillars thinking about the impossibility of making it any further through the motion of a swim stroke. Has the student ever done something they told themselves they couldn’t do? I swam up next to them and through the open-eyed protection of my swim goggles, I watch their balancing feet on the rocks below me as I pull harder and harder with my stroke against the current. I passed them, stood, and looked back.

“If I can swim against the current while dragging this big weenie, then you definitely can…” AJ laughs.

“There is no way,” she says, still laughing and nervous.

“What do you remember about swimming against current? What is the best approach?” I remind them of a briefing they were given before the swim. Do they look at a problem and try to solve it logically?

“Stay close to the edge and out of the middle of the channel,” Jamie responds.

“So, where it is bubbling right ahead of us, not in the smooth water in the middle?” AJ confirms. On my skin, I can feel the vibration of the little water circles coming toward us. I point out the crux of the swim, a single corner just ten feet ahead.

“Swim as hard as you can, it’s going to feel like you are not going anywhere, but you will be moving by inches. I promise. It will take a minute or two of sustained sprinting but you can do it.” They look at each other. Is this person engaged fully in activities?

“Okay,” agrees AJ as Katie and Jamie wave their heads in agreement. “Jamie, you go first; you are the fastest,” AJ points out. Does this person exhibit leadership when the situation calls for it? Jamie takes a deep breath and lunges her body forward arms stroking ahead of her pulling forward and barely, just, slowly, moving, forward.  A minute passes like this. AJ and Katie are screaming and cheering, things about how Jamie can do it, and swim harder, and you’ve got it! Does this person urge others to challenge themselves? She makes it to the corner, the crux, and grabs on to the rocks, her body flailing in the water rushing past her like an aquatic windsock. She is breathing and yelling about how hard she was swimming and how impossible it is to make it around the corner. AJ, Katie and I are all screaming and cheering back at her. As she catches her breath, AJ decides it is her time to try. Following in suite, she lunges toward the point where Jamie is recovering, ten feet up stream. AJ is thrashing and pulling and kicking and reaching—which are not necessarily the best strategies to swimming hydrodynamically through the water, but are certainly indicative that she is going for it. Does he or she accept challenges and execute them to the best of his or her abilities? Ready to try again, Jamie’s hands forget the rocks and return to the water rushing past her.  Jamie is moving by the centimeter, AJ creeping up by the inch. Katie and I are cheering.  AJ joins Jamie at the point where the current is almost too strong, they both grab onto the rocks again, to rest, again. Now, its Katie’s turn. Following the path measured out in front of her, she begins inching along.  This time, as their bodies wave out behind them, arms outreached and holding on tight, AJ and Jamie are doing the cheering.  It goes on like this: inches of swims, hands creeping along rocks, lurching forward, current resisting, always cheering.

Along the opposite bank of The Cut another group fights the resistance of the tidal creek. Swimming. Trying. Cheering. Together. I stand waist deep, swim support weenie pulling at the harness around my back, thinking about the incredible level of real support I am witnessing, as students pull each other forward.  Again, I find myself with an agape mouth and an admiring mind, totally awed at what they are capable of.

By the time turn around time comes, all three girls had made it around the corner.  I watch as they reappear beyond the point, enjoying the tidal ride downstream.  They are giggling, exhausted and proud. I hear AJ as they pass: “That was sooo worth it.” Does this person show appreciation for the opportunities that they are given? Feeling the echoes of the questions in my mind, I turn and head backward towards school thinking about our design.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2011 5:54 pm

    Original curriculum ideas of backward design – part of Understanding By Design (UBD) are thanks to Jay McTighe on the Backward Design Framework.

  2. Sally Akerberg permalink
    October 12, 2011 1:42 am

    WOW Thank you Ashley! Again excellent writing.

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