Monday, May 12, 2014

Starting a Unit when Dept Tests are a Reality

As I am about to start a new unit, on the Russian Revolution, I’d like to spend time thinking about some of the decisions I make BEFORE I start teaching a topic, such as this one.
If I am going to improve as a teacher, especially in an environment where I must give dept tests that tend to focus on students knowing a little about a lot, it is important for me to think about all of the decision points in my teaching.
The decisions I make before I start a unit are key, I think, because they determine the direction that the unit will move.
Like many, I suspect, who have a test to give students at the end of a unit, it is natural to look at the test so that you are sure to teach the content and skills that students need to know to do well on the test.
Many beginning teachers often start units with no idea how students will be assessed. Starting with the end in mind is helpful, but, at the same time, it is no guarantee of a successful unit. (And what, it is worth asking, is a successful unit? What are the indicators of a successful unit, as opposed to an unsuccessful unit?)
Knowing what topics to teach because you have reviewed the end of unit test is not enough. Grant Wiggins emphasizes this in his book Understanding by Design. Wiggins stresses the importance of articulating the big ideas and essential/interesting questions that students are going to encounter and, ultimately, be expected to demonstrate competence in by the end of the unit.
From reading his book and reflecting on my own teaching, I can say that I never really engage in this step, in any deliberate or systematic way, at least.
That is going to be what I work on over the next few days, as I am about to begin teaching the Russian Revolution unit. (By the way, I have about 5/90 minute blocks to teach this topic, or 450 minutes, the equivalent of 10/45 minute classes or 7.5/60 minute classes.) I feel strongly that there are significant diminishing returns in a 90 minute block, especially if you are trying to help students learn a little about a lot of topics: topics that they are expected to know from memory on test day, a big feature of our common tests.
What are some of the essential/interesting questions and big ideas that I think are important in this unit?
I will come back and polish this list. But to get it started...
I want students to think about our studies of the French Revolution as we encounter the events surrounding the Russian Rev. This provides us with a chance to review and consolidate what we know about revolutions, as it also gives us an opportunity to see if knowing about one revolution helps us to think about another. What are some parallels to what happened in France and what are some of the essential differences? 
I also want students to think about the decisions and actions of Nicholas II. How responsible was Nicholas for what happened in Russia during and after World War I? Does our textbook seem to express judgments about the causes of the Russian Revolution? How much responsibility does the text place on Nicholas? What about other sources?
Were Nicholas and his family victims of historical forces beyond their control? How are we to know? And if so, why might our text avoid this kind of explanation?
What are some of the essential or topical questions I might use for individual lessons?
Why did Russia fight Japan? Or, why did Russia lose in its war against Japan? What were the consequences of the Russo Japanese war?
Did World War I lead to the Russian Revolution? Or, what caused the Russian Revolution?

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