Understanding by Decision: When You Can't UbD a Unit

My school has adopted the Understanding by Design (UbD) model of curriculum development - and I love it. Educators first identify Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions. Then, assessments and independent lessons are created to support the Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions. Units become both focused and inquiry-based.

The Problem
No matter how good the planning model, Early- and Middle Childhood Generalists have a huge challenge: they have to write every unit for every curricular area. Over the past five years, my division has used the UbD model to plan literacy, social studies, and science units. Math and religion remain in a lesson-by-lesson format.

So what should I do when I am handed a curriculum binder comprising only a list of individual lessons?
  • I could do my own thing, altering lessons as I feel appropriate. This feeds into Richard Elmore's assertion of the "bane of loose-coupling" (Elmore, 2000). More than that, it feels wrong. When teachers do their own things in their own classrooms, parents begin comparing the quality of education in various classrooms. By "doing my own thing", I cease to be a grade level team player. Since curriculum is my passion, I'm all for horizontal- and vertical alignment of grade level instruction and assessment.
  • I could maintaing the status quo and teach lesson by lesson, following the given activities (whether I think them worthwhile or not). This decision requires the least effort. It's a "sit and wait" reaction. By sitting and waiting, I spend another year teaching a string of disconnected lessons my students may or may not remember. My only rationale for teaching particular lessons is "everyone else is doing it." This is a disservice to my students.
  • I could figure out a connection between lessons and develop some sort of authentic assessment that connects lessons in the minds of students. I've started thinking of this in terms of Understanding by Decision. I don't have the authority to organize curriculum planning days (although I can - and have - proposed them). I can't stomach teaching disconnected lessons for another year. Understanding by Decision means I decide to do whatever it takes to make the lessons meaningful - and share whatever I do with my colleagues.
So when the religion committee leader received a grant and asked for help improving the religion units, I felt like the kid in the front row with her hand raised saying "Pick me! Pick me!"

He asked, What do you think we should do? I answered, "I think we should make sure all lessons are aligned with Essential Questions and Enduring Understandings. I think we should create formative and summative assessments that give us information on student knowledge and level of reflection."

I was told We can't completely change the units and We don't want to spend too much time assessing. Hmmm. So I countered, "What if I try to find some question or idea that links the lessons in a unit?" That was okay. "What if I slightly alter the activities so that they give us formative information but don't take any more time than the activities already in place?" That was okay.

My First Attempt at Understanding by Decision
Most people reading this blog do not teach religion. However, I hope the steps will be useful to others who are handed lesson-by-lesson curriculum in other subject areas (information literacy, physical education, character development, etc.). My thinking is in italics.

Step 1: Decipher what the original unit writer was thinking. Why did the author put those particular lessons together? Can Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions be identified?
The lessons I am working with include: John the Baptist, Jesus Baptism, Jesus Temptation, Jesus Calls His Disciples, and three portions of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. All the lessons revolve around the question of "Who is Jesus?" John the Baptist makes claims about Jesus. The Holy Spirit (the dove and the voice) makes claims about Jesus. Then, Jesus identifies himself and what makes him different. I'm okay with one Essential Question "Who is Jesus?"

Step 2: Decide on assessments. How will I know students have understood the content?
I want to know two things: Do students know the stories? Can they reflect on the stories in relation to their lives? history? the modern world? I need to keep it simple. I can learn this information without tests or quizzes. After reading and discussing each lesson, students can fill in a simple chart - something like this: 

What about the end of the unit? I default to projects, but I promised assessment wouldn't add to the 40 minutes per week of instruction time. What if students created a visual to represent their understanding of Jesus. It can be two- or three-dimensional. It could be concrete or abstract. Students might choose visual layouts from iWorks Pages or Microsoft Word (newsletters, flyers, posters, business cards, etc.) to help explain "Who Jesus is". The super-tech savvy kids might even create an infographic. I can provide them the following materials: electronic access to visuals used in each lesson, electronic access to maps of Jesus' travels, knowledge of biblemaps.org, and Bibles. 


Grading: Students "meet expectations" if they can incorporate pieces from all the stories into their visual, explaining how the stories contributed to a deeper understanding of Jesus. Students exceed expectations if their explanation includes a meaningful reflection on how their understanding of Jesus impacts the world or their life.

Step 3: Eliminate unnecessary activities (activities that are lower-level thinking such as cutting/pasting, answering knowledge-level book questions, etc.).
This eliminates a cut/paste mobile activity (pre-made dye-cuts), word-searches, a cut/bind coloring book that re-tells one of the stories, a true/false quiz, and a crossword puzzle.

What ideas would you suggest for enhancing this unit? What about units you teach?

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Tags: Design, Understanding, assessment, by, curriculum, design, religion, technology

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