I recently sat down with Meredith Hutchinson, a Grade 5 & 6 Music and Grade 8 Social Studies teacher at Clearspring Middle School. She has been exploring ways to reshape her planning and assessment of Social Studies content around essential questions. Please take a look at her current essential questions planning doc before you check out below what she had to share.

Charmaine: What did you do before you began planning like this?

Meredith: In the past I organized my year following the civilizations chronologically, like a lot of teachers out there. Starting with the Early Peoples, then a study of the River Valley Societies and into the more civilized and established groups of Greece and Rome, ending with Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation (and there was rarely time to get to the Industrial Revolution!). Even back in the day I always had in my mind a common thread that linked the course, and I organized each civilization we studied into the same 8 categories – Map Location, Influence of Natural Environment, Tools & Technology, Social Organization, Important People/Events/Ideas, Governance, Art/Architecture/Science and Development of Writing/Communication. Students were then able to observe that each civilization we studied had these elements in common; this also set us up nicely for compare and contrast discussions. 

Charmaine: At that time did you connect your planning to the report card categories for Social Studies?

Meredith: At the time, it was in the back of mind but I did not make it known to the students; it wasn’t at the forefront for them at all. I knew that small assignments, tests, quizzes and unit projects were connected to Knowledge and Understanding, that their textbook and online reading connected to their research mark, and that Critical Thinking was embedded throughout all of their work, but this was not explicitly communicated to students.

Charmaine: Why did you feel you wanted to change from this and move towards planning and assessment around themes and essential questions?

Meredith: As learning coaches started working with us, and we as a division started shifting our thinking to Deeper Learning, I started wondering to myself – what could the big ideas in my classroom be? What do we really want students to learn about that will matter to them? From this big questions came the nitty gritty logistical question: “What does that really look like?”. At this time, my teaching assignment had me teaching both Social Studies and ELA and this pushed me to start thinking about how to combine these two courses together, planning through the Deeper Learning lens. I no longer have ELA in my schedule but I still value that focus on the big “take-aways” that I want my students to leave with. We are studying ancient information, which can be really cool, but it is buried in the past, so how can we uncover a purpose for present day? Just studying cool historical facts would be enough for a lot of students to stay focused and engaged. It’s not like I had bored students who weren’t interested in ancient information. The biggest draw every year always seemed to be the Greek Mythology. I think that was partly due to the popularity of the Percy Jackson series. I had no problem hooking these kids into the learning. It just didn’t feel like I was going deep enough. The learning felt…superficial. Where was the value in these lessons? This is where my journey with the learning coaches began. I wanted their help restructuring my units and helping me think outside the box. Russ Dirks calls it “playing in the sandbox”. I wanted to imagine a history course that wasn’t so tied to the timeline. I craved some essential questions to guide our learning. 

Charmaine: How has your instruction changed because of this plan?

Meredith: One thing I like about this new plan is that I didn’t have to start from scratch. I had some really neat activities, lessons and project ideas and I didn’t have to throw any of that out – it was more a matter of evaluating all that work and re-working the context for these activities and assignments, switching up the order. Now, I always have the essential question visible on the board – it stays up there for the entire unit and I refer to it often, always trying to bring what we did or discussed in class that day back to these questions. I take time in September to do some pre-teaching around these questions as well. I realize the questions aren’t easy and include some complicated vocabulary such as resilience, power, yearning – these are big concepts. We have the whole unit to slowly unpack each essential question but I have found it helpful to do a bit of vocabulary-building before we begin. The essential questions have changed my lesson planning as well. It forces me to bring each thing we do back to that question – okay, so I have these fun facts about Spartans but…what does that mean for us? What can the Spartans teach us about resilience? 

Charmaine: Can you talk me through your thinking around September and October for example? What is the thinking behind what you have on this first page? Human survival is the theme, there are the three report card categories…talk me through this.

Meredith: Russ Dirks lent me a copy of Grading Smarter, Not Harder, by Myron Dueck and I had a chance to look at it this summer and tried to use it to guide my thinking around assessment. With a newly designed unit comes the need for a fresh approach to my assessment practices as well! I was looking for a new way to communicate to the students what the expectations of the course were. What I liked about the materials shared in this book was what he calls “learning targets”. I found they connected very nicely to our report card categories. He had Knowledge Targets – that was an easy match for the Knowledge and Understanding category. I also appreciated that the questions under each target heading were phrased from the students’ perspective. I’m still experimenting with what I feel should be made explicitly clear to students and what isn’t necessary, but certainly a question like “What do I need to know?” is accessible for everyone. His Product Targets would be like asking “What can I do to show and demonstrate my understanding?” This connects with the Research and Communication report card category. His Reasoning Targets fit nicely as that Critical Thinking piece; that higher level thinking that shows a student is going a step above “just the facts” and making some meaningful connections. So I started with those three target categories (matched up with our provincial report card categories) and looked at what we actually do in the year – specific topics and assignments – and placed those in the appropriate columns (based on Dueck’s chart). 

Charmaine: What would you say is some good stuff about this way of planning and structuring assessment?

Meredith: I went through the chart with my students at the start of the first unit but I feel that it’s too soon to know whether looking at assessment this way is helpful. It certainly helps to refer back to it when you get that popular “what’s on the test?” question. I think in my second unit, I just have to refer back to the chart more often. Again, it’s all about exposure. My essential questions have proved extremely successful over the past year and a bit and I think that’s due in part to the constant exposure to it. So now I’d like to do the same with this new assessment structure – I’d actually like to post those student-friendly questions in the classroom so we can refer to it often – what do I need to know? What can I do to show my learning? What can I do to show my critical thinking?  I think that will benefit both the students and me! 

If I think about my overall planning, it has felt like I can actually slow down a bit. The course always felt so busy – we had to rush to fit all the civilizations in. But I also felt that my focus was always very fact-based but really – is it crucial that Grade 8s know every single item of food each civilization ate and what colour jewelry they wore? Probably not. Now that I’m letting the essential questions be the driving force behind my planning, I feel that I’m only leaving room for the facts that connect explicitly to the provincial learning outcomes and will somehow impact and enhance our understanding of the big ideas. It has cleared away the clutter, so to speak. The way I teach the course is now divided into 4 large units – Human Survival, Human Beliefs, Human Authority and Human Legacy. I find this easier than wrapping my head around the 8-10 civilizations as separate entities. I find that looking at these civilizations through a different lens has increased student engagement. Government, for example, in the past felt quite dry. Students weren’t connecting to the material and I didn’t blame them! But now, when we look at different government structures we’re looking at it from the perspective of power and authority and that has certainly changed the focus and enhanced the conversation.

Charmaine: What are you still wrestling with?

Meredith: When I followed the timeline, students were given longer periods of time to fully grasp the nuances of each civilization, whereas with my new plan, we dip in and out of the civilizations throughout each unit. We may talk about Hannibal’s famous military march to attack the Romans in the same class that we discuss how humans survived the Ice Age, since the focus is now on survival/resilience and not so much on how each civilization operated. Focusing on the big ideas, while important, does create a problem in that I’m not sure when to incorporate the details of each civilization. They’re studying an attack on Rome before we’ve really had a chance to spend time talking about Ancient Roman times.

An idea that’s been marinating is a Unit Zero – sort of like a “crash course” in ancient history, where we spend maybe a week in September on each civilization; I could pre-teach important vocabulary and some basic facts about clothing/food/shelter/trade and the rise and fall of society. Then later, when I’m referring more broadly to each civilization as we tackle the bigger ideas/concepts, the students can at least draw on the learning that took place in September and it provides a bit more context. This could perhaps enhance the learning experience even more.

I’m sure it’s clear by now that I am no expert. I’m just “playing in the sandbox” and trying to figure out what the best angle is. And maybe there is no “best”. I think as long as our hearts are in the right place, as educators, we won’t fail our students! I think it’s also okay to be honest with your students – let them know you’re trying new stuff. It’s an excellent opportunity to model the lifelong learning process. 

Charmaine: What is a next step for you?

Meredith: I can’t turn my brain off – there’s always some new idea rolling around in there! I’ve been talking to a colleague of mine here at CMS who teaches Grade 7 Social Studies and the more we talk, the more I feel there are neat connections between Grade 7 and 8 themes. We’ve been playing around with the idea of bringing in some guest speakers that could address both of our classes at the same time, or taking learning trips together. I also want to connect more with the Grade 8 teachers to see what is working with their students. I’m not settled yet with where I am (will I ever be??), so continuing to talk and plan with others is definitely on my To Do list, as well as continue accessing support from the Learning Coaches, since they’ve been the ones with me on this journey from the very beginning!

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