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Goal #4: Content

The content of what children learn in schools is largely determined by standards that have

been determined at a national level. Although adherence to national standards varies from state to

state, these content standards are widely regarded as what drives instruction in schools. While

some states have established documents like anchor standard guides and learning targets to help

teachers translate standards into practice, curriculum planning remains a significant portion of

what teachers do. Having meaningful ways and strategies to define and apply standards to

classroom instruction and student learning goals provides teachers with methods and

understandings to move forward and ensure that their efforts at planning lessons and units refer

back to the standards and constantly inform their own teaching objectives.

In this unit I designed and taught to fourth and fifth grade students on the Civil Rights

Movement, my burgeoning skills at planning and deeply considering the implications of content

reflect an ability to develop thoughtful units that transfer meaningful understandings to students.

I employed a backward design approach in which I considered the big ideas, essential questions,

and core processes through which students could achieve multiple content standards within the

social studies, language arts, and cultural subject areas. As Wiggins and McTighe (2005) explain

in Understanding by Design, learning results and standards can be unpacked to reveal central

ideas, using details to transfer concepts and processes across contexts and subjects. In my unit

design, I identified desired results from the standards, determined appropriate evidence of

learning goals, and finally planned learning experiences and instruction.

In their book Integrating differentiated instruction and understanding by design,

Tomlinson and McTighe (2006) lament the mountains of content the standards dictate teachers to

impart to learners in far too little time. Undoubtedly, teachers make decisions daily about what

content to emphasize in which ways by which methods and through what materials. Adding

complexity to the task of meeting standards, learner diversity poses challenges to proficiency and

achievement. Differentiation in lesson planning is necessary in order to address differences in

learning profiles with the goal of maximizing all learners’ success with the content. Learning

goals and expectations should be the same, but instructional techniques may vary and perhaps

different skill development and performance tasks may be differentiated. Designing

differentiated lesson plans requires flexibility in guiding learners to desired ends. In my unit, I

use variety of transmission strategies and offer multiple entry points for students to access

information, as well as optimize choice in materials and what students place importance on.

Traditional lesson plans are centered around students developing desired knowledge.

While much of what students need to learn is in fact based on facts, Marzano (2007) also

considers more sophisticated considerations and concentrations in curriculum. Once students

gain the basic knowledge a lesson or unit is intended to promote, they should be encouraged to

examine the values and beliefs at the core of the issues involved. They can also begin to form

their own essential questions and construct tasks that allow them to explore areas of personal

interest. The Civil Rights Movement unit was fertile ground in which students were continually

encouraged to ask questions, reflect upon their impressions, and come to personal conclusions

about equality, civility, and discrimination.

Differentiation in this unit is supported by strategies that are intended to help all students

achieve comprehension. Like the strategies outlined and detailed by Harvey and Goudvis (2007),

comprehension in the Civil Rights Movement unit is promoted through varied reading strategies

that are intended to provide multiple entry points to information. I focused most intensely on

strategic reading, using and modeling strategies like questioning, making inferences,

summarizing and synthesizing information, monitoring comprehension, leaving tracks of

thinking, rereading, and more broadly employing a gradual release of responsibility approach.

The close reading document I created for this unit was designed to help students begin to read

with a pencil in hand and ask questions of the text as well as their own comprehension of the

information. I asked reflective questions in the margins of the document that required students to

think deeply and make personal connections to the content. In the introduction of this close

reading activity, I modeled reading with a pencil by thinking aloud and elicited input from

students. I gradually released the responsibility to them by shifting to reading with a partner

before finishing off their completion of the document with independent reading and reflection.

Although it seems that standards have exacerbated the problem of content overload by

losing sight of transferable concepts and processes, giving too broad and narrow guidelines for

learning objectives, educational theorists like Debbie Miller (2013) and Robert Marzano (2007)

point out that the standards don’t dictate how we teach. Nor do textbooks necessitate a certain

way of planning lessons. Teachers have many different choices in how they decide to devote time

to concepts, skills, and application of those skills. Tomlinson (2014) reflects on how even

standards themselves can be categorized as to whether they address facts, concepts, principles,

attitudes, or skills. While some standards imply more than one level of learning, the focus of

each standard can be expanded to develop complex, well-designed tasks that facilitate deeper

levels of learning and higher engagement. Using this approach and Bloom’s Taxonomy, skilled

teachers can embed multiple levels into their lessons.


In the design phase of developing the Civil Rights Movement unit, I used district pacing

guides to help build the framework for the content of the lesson. While it might have been

simpler to continue on as prescribed by the chronological sequence of the textbook I had access

to, I also wanted to make personal connections with students by attaching the timing of the

teaching of this unit to Black History month. I suspected that students may be exposed to this

nationally celebrated month of tribute through the media, and I wanted to provide them with the

framework for understanding the background. Stepping outside of the normally ordered sequence

of teaching historical events, I considered which standards I could address through the contextual

lens of social studies. Concentrating on standards that I found students needed additional explicit

instruction in, I was able to shape a meaningful, standards based, complex unit that required

students to think critically, read strategically, and come to understandings that resonated



Harvey, S. and Goudvis, A. (2007). Strategies that work: Teaching comprehension for

understanding and engagement. Stenhouse Publishers: Portland, ME.

Marzano, R.J. (2007). The art and science of teaching: A comprehensive framework for effective

instruction. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.

Miller, D. (2014). Reading with meaning: teaching comprehension in the primary grades.

Stenhouse Publishers: Portland, ME.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2014). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners.

ASCD: Alexandria, VA.

Tomlinson, C.A. and McTighe, J. (2006). Integrating differentiated instruction and

understanding by design. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.