What Entry Point? Where? Some Thoughts on Prescribed Curriculum and Backwards Design

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!


Want to effectively integrate technology? Make it invisible.

I facilitate online professional development for teachers on integrating technology in their classrooms, and one of the participants—a high school art teacher—came up with a powerful insight into the whole concept of integrating technology. He said: 

The technology should be invisible.

In that one short statement, he was able to capture the essence of effective technology integration. We don’t want the tool to be the focus, nor do we want the tool to drive the learning. Rather, the goal is to put the learning first and allow the use of the tool to be so seamless, so natural, so smooth as a means to reach the objective, that it is…invisible. 

For example, you may have just discovered PowToons or Quizlet. These are both fabulous tools! However, if you’re thinking, “Oh wow! I want to use those with my kids!” then you’ll want to stop.

If your goal is to use the tool, then the technology will not be invisible—it will be a glaring neon sign that reads

                                     Heyyyy, We're Doing Technology Nowwww

Further, once the novelty has worn off, your students will potentially be turned off to the tool as they will not see its value of transfer. They’ll only know that they “did a PowToon” or “did a Quizlet” in class.
Maybe that’s how we can judge whether or not our integration of technology is effective. If you ask a student, “What are you doing in class?” and the answer is anything along the lines of “I’m making a video” or “I’m drawing a Bitstrip” then, your technology is too visible.

Rather, your goal is to keep the learning as the objective. You want the kid to say, “We’re trying to solve a mystery” or “We’re coming up with solutions to a problem in our community.” 

HOW they look for ways to solve that mystery (through internet research) or share that solution (video, blog, infographic) shouldn’t be the focus. 

So, the question is, how do we make our integration of technology invisible?
       1. Ask big questions. What kinds of questions do you want kids to be thinking about as they move into the lesson/unit? Generally, the use of clearly relevant how, why, or what if questions tend to stimulate more thought.

       Why is there still racial tension in the U.S., today? (high school)
2. Based on those questions and your state standards, create learning objectives. What should the student be able to do by the end of this lesson unit? 

       By the end of this lesson, unit, the student will be able to:

  •  Discuss multiple perspectives on the issue.
  •  Identify at least four valid reasons for the persistence of racial tensions in the U.S.
  • Support their identified reasons with evidence from recent data and statistics.
  • Posit two or more plausible solutions for easing tensions, based on research.

 Standard: Students are able to develop well-reasoned argument, posit solutions with the      
use of evidence from research.

3.  Determine what technology tools will aid the students in reaching those objectives. Even   better, offer students a choice of tools. In the examples above, the most logical technology tools are:

  • A curation tool to gather and house research (Pinterest, Symbaloo, or other)
  • A word processing tool (Google docs, Word, or other) OR
  • Another publishing tool (Podcast, blog, Glogster, or other)

 Nothing fancy. Hopefully, in response to the question, these kids would say, “We’re talking about why there’s still racism,” and not “We’re making a Glogster thing.” 

Make it invisible

You'll find more teaching strategies in our book, Transparent Teaching of Adolescents: Creating the Ideal Class for Students and Teachers. Some former students and I collaborated on the development of best strategies for secondary educators. Check us out!