GPS training

Yesterday, I got to go to a session presented by dedicated fellow professionals here in Coweta County, the purpose of which was to nudge our teachers one more step into getting ready for the GPS.

First, let me say that the information was spot on, very important stuff, and that our presenters were sharp and prepared.

Second, let me say why I think it was not enough.

The purpose of the session was simply to introduce the vocabulary of the new curriculum: performance standard, essential question, enduring understandings, task, elements, etc., etc., etc. This all fell squarely into our View #1 of learning, taxon memory, in which the brain is confronted with what appears to be random, non-contextualized information, and it very appropriately resists learning it.

So here we had a very large room of dedicated teachers, most of whom I wager have been dreaming of a curriculum like the one we’re getting, and yet most of whom I’d wager again left that room still without the basic vocabulary of that new curriculum. Again, not the fault of our presenters.

What would I do differently, if my wand still worked?

  • Smaller groups. Plenty of discussion and sharing. It’s too easy for 100 people to abdicate responsibility for the information when there are 150 people in the room.
  • Examples of implementation at every step. Sure, there’s ELA2R1, but what will it look like when I have to do it with students?
  • Recognition of concerns, rooting out of misconceptions, confirming understanding, you know, the very things we’re supposed to do with students

Sure, easy enough for me to say, but my wand doesn’t work and there’s not enough funding or staffing to do it this way. Ah well.

And I will say this: Backwards design begins at home. Yo, State Department of Education, before we can design instruction that will fulfill these standards, before we can do our performance task, we have to know what the assessment is going to be! I can have all kinds of evidence of understanding on the part of our third graders about the travails of Frederick Douglass and the dynamics of slavery, but what is the CRCT going to ask about?

Page 1 problem

Here’s the problem that crops up immediately in our study of Frederick Douglass: “Frederick Douglass was born a slave.” And what, to a 21st century third grader, does that mean? If our average 8-year-old doesn’t understand what slavery is, the whole point of choosing Douglass as part of our third-grade curriculum is lost.

Here’s a quick experiment:

The Three Kindreds of the Eldar were the Vanyar, the Noldor and the Teleri. All of the Vanyar and Noldor went to Aman. Many of the Teleri also journeyed to Valinor, but twice a host of this people turned away from the Journey in Middle-earth; these two kindreds are called Amanyar, the Eldar not of Aman. The first of these were the Nandor, who turned aside east of the Misty Mountains, and travelled down the River Anduin. The second, the Sindar, tarried in Beleriand seeking their lord, Elwë Singollo.

Got it? Unless you are a Silmarillion scholar (we prefer that term over “Tolkien freak”), you’d find it very difficult to begin any kind of activity based on the knowledge implicit in this one paragraph. For example: Draw a chart showing how the Vanyar, Noldor, Teleri, and Sindar are related. Name the most prominent Eldar of each people. Easy enough, unless you have no clue about the Noldor and the mess they got themselves and Middle-Earth into at the end of the First Age. (Bet you had no idea that Galadriel was an unrepentant rebel, and that’s why she’s still hanging around Lothlorien when Frodo shows up.)

So, let’s look at our Douglass book and how we need to think about getting the kids into it. Page one starts with his birth, his birthname, and the fact that he and his mother were slaves. He was “born a slave.”

Page two tells us that Douglass lived with his grandmother twelve miles away from the plantation. He saw his mother four or five times before she died when he was seven.

Page three: when he was six, his grandmother took him to the “big house” and left him, where he began his life of servitude.

Page four: we learn that slaves were beaten. When Douglass’s “own aunt Hester was tied to a hook and whipped,” he ran into a closet and hid.

There’s our first day of reading. What key context do we need to provide to students so that they can even suggest the obstacles Douglass had to overcome in his life?

Page 1

Having selected David A. Adler’s Picture book of Frederick Douglass as our base text, I photocopied the pages and put them into a notebook. I’ve gone through every page, selecting vocabulary words; creating comprension questions; proposing activities for advanced/gifteed students.

On page one, we’re given his birthplace, his birthname (Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey), and the facts that he and his mother were slaves, while his father was an unknown white man, perhaps his owner, Captain Aaron Anthony.

Comprehension questions:

  • Why did he change his name?
  • What does “his first owner” mean?
  • Why doesn’t the book tell us his birthday?

Our lesson plan calls for the class to keep a chart of characters in our narrative, most of whom are mentioned only once. This page has Harriet Bailey, his mother; and Capt. Anthony, his first owner.


  • Start the timeline with Douglass’s birth in 1818.
  • Show Maryland on the regional map. (Students have a regional map, a U.S. map, and a world map.)
  • Use an atlas to find where Talbot County is in Maryland, and show it on the map.
  • Use a chart showing the dates of the states’ admission to the Union and color in the states that were states in 1818.

We immediately have a problem, which I’ll talk about tomorrow.

Selecting a text

Happy New Year!

You may recall that many of the biographies of Frederick Douglass I had been examining were too involved for 3rd graders to use as a text, especially since we had further plans to challenge them as readers with the article from the New York Times. I have gotten our choices down to two: Frederick Douglass: a photo-illustrated biography, by Margo McLoone (Capstone Press); and A picture book of Frederick Douglass, by David A. Adler (Holiday House).

The McLoone text is readable at a 2nd grade level and is illustrated on every lefthand page with a primary source photo or engraving. The righthand page is text.

The Adler text is illustrated on every page with color paintings that are not actually first-rate. The text is superimposed on the illustration, but is legible. Readability is probably at the upper end of 3rd grade.

I think I prefer the Adler text for a couple of reasons. First, the McLoone is very clunky, simply one declarative statement after another. Secondly, the Adler gives a much more comprehensive look at the society in which Douglass lived and the obstacles he overcame, which is of course our main point. Finally, the Adler uses quotes from Douglass himself, which would be easy to expand into a reading of the pertinent sections of Douglass’s autobiography.

The McLoone text might be useful as a remedial text for students whose reading skills are just not up to par.

The real curriculum

The more I work on this Douglass project, and the deeper I get with my QCC/GPS comparisons, the more anxious I become to see the real curriculum, the thing we really have to teach, and by that of course I mean the CRCT [Criterion-Referenced Competency Test], because we won’t know what the state really wants to have happen in the classroom until we know what it is they’re generating standardized tests on.

They can give us interesting performance standards, suggested tasks, and examples of student work all they want, but if their CRCTs don’t reflect a performance-based instructional outlook, they’re not going to get that in the classroom. No one in his right mind would strike out into performance assessment knowing that students are going to be quizzed on discrete facts. And that’s a fact.

What’s unassessed is unaddressed… and vice versa.

Restating the question

Every once in a while, I’ll restate our overriding question just to see if we’ve made any progress.

What is the role of the media center in the curriculum, especially the new GPS curriculum?

Last winter, the media specialists in Coweta County got some ideas together for a strategic plan for this issue. We didn’t get very far, but you can see what we did get here.

I think the most interesting part is on the Strategic Visions & Goals page. (Can anyone tell me why this process never went any further?) On that page, we defined our strategic vision of ourselves as media specialists in the following terms:

We see ourselves…

  • as teachers
  • as leaders in the new curriculum
  • as instructional consultants for our teachers
  • participating in the roll-out as partners in the curriculum design and implementation process
  • promoting reading in a variety of ways
  • designing level-appropriate research instruction
  • utilizing collaborative planning rubrics and assessment
  • bridging the gap between curriculum and information literacy

So… are we doing any of this yet? If you are, please take the time to share what you’re doing at your school. It helps to know that others are acting on our strategic vision of ourselves.

Some websites about performance standards and performance assessment

On Wednesday the CLF is hosting an open house for the faculty here at Newnan Crossing. (It will be interesting to see if any of them don’t figure out that the Curriculum Liberation Front is just me…) I’ve done a nice brochure [PDF] to hand out, part of my general PR plan.

I’ve also thrown together some websites I’ve collected over the last year that deal with performance standards, performance tasks, performance assessment, etc. You can get to that at

Some more thank you’s

This time I need to thank all my fellow media specialists here in Coweta County who sent me biographies of Frederick Douglass to look over. At this point, of course, most of them are not even close to being readable by third graders.

The best so far is A picture book of Frederick Douglass, by David A. Adler (Holiday House), but even so it omits some key elements of Douglass’s life that we would need to have included. I’m waiting for one final biography that I ordered online that claims to have a reading level of 2nd-3rd grade. We’ll see.

I’m also obliged to Loren Hawkins, my 3rd grade partner in crime, for loaning me basal readers and the accompanying workbooks. I want to get some clearer idea, having been a high school English teacher in my dark past, of what would be needed in a three-week period in a 3rd grade language arts scenario.

Besides the obvious reasons for doing so (e.g., I have no clear picture of elementary language arts, never having taught it), we need to make sure that what we’re proposing isa), not so different that it would scare teachers who are more comfortable with their worksheets, and b), would cover the same necessary skills, albeit in a more integrated manner than is currently the case.

A couple of thank you’s

First, I’d like to thank Loren Hawkins, intrepid 3rd grade teacher here at Newnan Crossing Elementary, for agreeing to work with me on this Frederick Douglass unit. As I confessed to her, I don’t think the concept of using social studies readings instead of a worksheet-oriented basal reader is going to get us anywhere, but at least we will have an example of the way learning could be if anyone had the guts to make the significant changes called for by the new GPS curriculum. It can stand as a shining reproach to us all.

Second, thanks to Alison Zimbalist at the New York Times for providing a permanent link to the article “In Africa, free schools feed a different hunger,” by Celia W. Dugger. Check it out!

Loren and I will be working together to put together an instructional unit for the new 3rd grade social studies curriculum which will also cover the language arts standards. It will have media skills embedded, naturally, as well as all the vocabulary/writing/reading skills usually encountered. It will have explicit metacognitive reading skills instruction to use with the NYT article: how do you tackle something like that and make sure you understand it? It will have quizzes, performance tasks, rubrics, differentiation, and all that jazz.

As Hemingway says at the end of The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” Maybe that should be a new CLF mug.

UBD, part 2

Deeper and deeper: I’m filling out all kinds of forms, floundering through the Understanding by Design process, trying to remain open to what it can tell me about instructional design.

It’s similar in a way to composing, just hammering out a melody or harmony, trying to figure out what’s supposed to come next. Or, as Heidi Hayes Jacobs says, it’s creative writing, and like a novelist or short story writer, we don’t always know what comes next.

However, it’s not a comfortable feeling, is it? We know exactly what we’re supposed to be doing and how it’s spozed to be.

One source of my discomfort is the fact that we do have so many standards to embed in the unit, and UBD isn’t really structured for that. I find myself focusing on the two or three that admit of the most “uncoverage,” and not really thinking about all the other social studies standards that are part of the original thought, and certainly not of the language arts standards that I’m fairly sure we can cover in this unit without recourse to a language arts textbook.

I’ve invited the third grade teachers to join me in working on this, but at this point no one has responded to my invitation to cooperate.

So what have I accomplished so far?

Students will know details of Douglass’s life; vocabulary dealing with U.S. history of the period, the character traits, and vocabulary generated from the reading selections (especially the NYT article); factual information about slavery.

Students will be able to compare obstacles in Douglass’s life to those in their own; reflect on the role of literacy in Douglass’s life, in Africa today (from the NYT article), and in their own lives; generate and answer questions about Douglass, slavery, and the Underground Railroad.

Students will understand how Douglass expanded rights and freedoms of all Americans through his personal triumph over social barriers; that slavery was an economic, social, and moral system that had negative impact on all members of society.

At this point, I’m thinking that my two previously proposed essential questions (What was the greatest obstacle Douglass had to overcome? and What in his life most helped him overcome that obstacle?) are still good for this unit.

For a culminating performance task, here’s what I’m thinking at the moment: The student will create a museum exhibit which explains to visitors the student’s response to the essential questions. This could be done in teams, of course.