As districts and administrators lean more and more towards curriculum demands on teachers, it’s no wonder that the significance of the entry point in backwards design is somewhat lost. It’s also no wonder that many teachers are wondering how they can ever be considered designers of learning when so much of it is “required.”
English teachers are told, “Students need to read Hamlet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Giver.” Math teachers are told, “Students need to be able to calculate the area of a circle, solve quadratic equations, and apply the Pythagorean theorem.” Science teachers must “cover” concepts from Geology, Astronomy, and Meteorology.
So anything to do with real “choice” on an entry point is nowhere to be found. It’s “done been chosen.”
Thus, while planning a general unit might be fine with a requisite entry point, it’s very difficult for teacher to plan units using the backwards design approach because it requires much more thought and careful decision-making. And making careful decisions about something that may not interest you just won’t end up being of the same quality. Though the design might be fine, it lacks the pizzazz of other units we’ve created. So, how can we muster up enthusiasm with prescribed curriculum?
Confession: I’m an English teacher who really doesn’t care for poetry. I do see its significance, and I know how to analyze it ten ways to Tuesday. But when I’m told, teach these poems in a poetry unit, I get a little de-motivated.
Okay, I get really de-motivated.
Okay, okay, I would rather have a root canal.
That’s when I know I need to get creative. That’s when I know I have to get that pizzazz back in designing said unit.
One strategy— if you’re faced with a required entry point of a text, standard, topic, or skill that just doesn’t seem to move you— is to consider what aspects of that entry point are relevant to students’ lives right now, today.
For example, if you’re required to have students write a Rogerian argument paper (a skill required by your district), you’ll want to reach outwards towards their reason for writing the paper (to convince their parents of something that they determine is necessary). More than likely, since the topic is inherent, the students will be a bit more juiced about the focus, which, as you’re planning, will get YOU more juiced and creative in your backwards planning.
If your district requires a particular standard, say, 3.NS.1: Read and write whole numbers up to 10,000. Use words, models, standard form and expanded form to represent and show equivalent forms of whole numbers up to 10,000 in the second nine weeks, and that particular standard is…ehhh…one that you kind of dread, another strategy is to challenge yourself in determining how you can focus on and stimulate students' kinesthetic intelligence. Sometimes, giving ourselves a creative challenge, particularly one that will ultimately benefit under-served learners, is enough of a boost to get us pumped for teaching the unit. The design flows more freely.
Finally, if you’re required to teach a topic that is taught on an annual basis (such as bullying, drug abuse, character choices) and, thus, is likely to garner unwilling, unmotivated whininess from students (“We did this lasssssst yearrrrrr…."), consider where you can incorporate student choice. Students often “tune out” of topics that they think they know all about, so in that instance, planning for them to take charge of the topic is one way to handle it. There is a unique joy to planning a student-led project that allows for greater passion to emerge. You can “see” it happening, and it’s exciting!
Any and all of these strategies might work for entry points. For my dreaded, required poetry unit, I've tried the kinesthetic challenge and life-relevance. Both worked out beautifully separately and in combination. So much more was learned because I took the time to challenge my own creativity in order to spur on my passion.
So, where is your entry point, ultimately? It’s in your enthusiasm, creativity, and passion. Go get ‘em, tiger!