Anatomy of a Pivot

On Friday’s podcast, Chris and I talked about a pivot I made this past week in my International Problems class. If you didn’t listen to the pod yet, here’s the short explanation: I found myself having to plan on a day-to-day basis, and students just weren’t gelling with the unit, for lack of a better description. In response, I made a pivot to include a bit more choice for them, and more transparency about where the unit was going.

Here, I’d like to go a bit more into the nuts and bolts of the student unit plan I ended up creating. Please know that this unit plan is very much in beta; in other words, because I came up with it in a few hours’ time on a Tuesday afternoon, there are definite flaws that I will work to improve the next time around.

Once I knew I had to make a change in my class, I started thinking about different possibilities, and what I came back to was a structure I had used in my U.S. history classes a few years ago.

Here’s what the first page looks like:

Nuclear Weapons Unit - Page 1

I started with the Driving Question at the top (for more information on our approach to Driving Questions, see this post or this podcast episode), to keep the kids and myself focused on the why of it all.

There are some basic instructions, and then it moves into a grid structure that lays out the topics, objectives, and tasks for the rest of the unit. I’ll be honest: I let the materials I had for the unit dictate the topics and objectives this time around, which isn’t how I prefer to do things. It’s better to start with what students should learn and be able to do, and then seek out the materials that help fulfill those objectives. However, because this was done on the fly, and because this course doesn’t have a lot of guidelines, I made an exception here.

I combed through the reading materials I had for students to use, and the supplementary curricular materials that came with the course. I modified some materials and left out others. So that this unit could be paperless, I built Google Docs for each of the assignments and hyperlinked them within the unit plan. I’m not totally happy with these - they’re basically digital worksheets - but they’ll do for now. I also added two group projects to the list - both variations on a jigsaw activity.

And to wrap it all up, I put a description of their assessment (which is essentially an in-class essay) at the bottom of the grid. I think it’s helpful for students to see where it’s all going, and why they’re working to learn all this stuff.

This took me a couple of hours to put together, but it represents about eight class periods of instructional planning, so it’s a very efficient method for me.

Now, what does it look like in implementation?

On Wednesday, I unveiled the new plan to students, telling them that it felt like things weren’t quite working and that I’d decided to make a few changes. The first was that they could choose their table group (desks are arranged in groups of four in my classroom). This was something new, and it’s a bit of a gamble, but I felt it was important. These students are all juniors and seniors, so it isn’t unrealistic to expect them to choose groups wisely and use collaborative time efficiently. I realize, of course, that some will not succeed at this; they’ll let their need to be cool override their desire to be academically successful. But I can guide them and give them feedback on their choices, and that’s a learning experience, too.

Once students had rearranged whom they sat with, we moved on to an overview of the unit plan, and then the students got working. It’s a mixed bag for students: they have a lengthy list of prescribed tasks, but they get to choose what they want to work on each day and whom they want to work with. For all of the coming week, they’ll have most of the class period to chip away at their list of tasks, and my job will be to weave in and out of those table groups, prodding, encouraging, and answering questions.

Some kids will love this environment, because they like working at their own pace and making choices about how to spend their time. Others will flounder a bit, not knowing how to structure their time effectively. But those kids who flounder will have me there to help suggest methods to help organize their time, and hopefully those skills will be transferable to other situations.

Later, after Chris and I were done recording our podcast episode about this, I realized that my student unit plan really did have a lot of elements of PBA:

  • Driving Question

  • Inputs and Outputs

  • Some student choice

  • Integration of technology

This gives me a direction for my next unit, as I continue to refine this new approach: perhaps I can design a student version of our PBA unit design, that includes hyperlinks to reading materials, note-taking documents, videos, and assessment tasks. And I’ll keep working to PBA-ify what I’m doing by building in more authentic assessments and student choice.

What I’m feeling good about here is that 1) I took an honest look at how things were going in my classroom, knew that it needed improvement, and adjusted, and 2) I’m giving myself permission not to have perfect instructional design on the first try. Of course I want the best learning experiences for my students, but I also know the reality of good instructional design is that it takes time and trial and error.

Don’t forget to let yourself off the hook as well, as you try new things. Be kind to yourself.

Erin DickeyComment