Honoring “The Why” in Unit Design and Instruction

Shawna Parkinson

Shawna is a Learning Experience Designer at Mason City Schools in Mason, Ohio. You may follow Shawna through Twitter: @ParkinsonLearns.

Over the past few years of teaching English to high school juniors, I have become increasingly aware of the competitive nature of our students’ post-secondary opportunities. With so many students planning to be engineers, architects, accountants and the like, I have realized that I, as a high school English teacher to juniors, have to do more work and spend more time in making my course as relevant to students as possible.

To be honest, I have believed for years now that simply starting the school year with The Crucible and the trends of American literature in the 1600s is not enough. Just like teaching Federalist 10 because it is one of our founding documents is not enough. While history buffs and our students who love to read may find both works immediately interesting, I now believe some students may be left out in the cold if they have not established their own personal why for the content we will explore.  Today I believe that a question like: “How does this course and its content or skills connect to me, my future or interests?” deserves to be explored in order for my high school class to feel as relevant to students as possible.

To begin to make this happen in my own course, I created a new unit for the start of my school year. From the onset, I knew that I wanted to design a unit that would immediately offer students opportunities to:

  1. Express their own personal interests and career fields at the start of the year
  2. Form a learning network with other students who shared similar interests and passions
  3. Apply the learning in my class to content choices that pertained to their fields
  4. Share their learning with other students in an informal setting

With these four initial thoughts in mind, I created a project for students that allowed them to explore how rhetoric and persuasion applied to their future careers.

Using the “Personalized Learning Vision-to-Action Project Planner” from Learning Personalized: The Evolution of the Contemporary Classroom as a guide, I expressed my “educator’s why” to my students in the opening paragraph of the project.  This explanation appeared at the very beginning of the project description. It read:

Rhetoric, or for now we will call it the art of persuasion, exists in politician’s speeches, in columnist’s commentary, in commercials, and even in fictional reads.  In the workforce, rhetoric is used on a daily basis in communication with clients and customers. A doctor may convince a patient that a treatment is needed. A patient may convince a family member that she trusts her doctor.  An architect may convince a school board that the design is appropriate for learning. A school board may convince the community that the school is being designed with instructional values in mind. And on and on. In essence, rhetoric is everywhere.  It’s embedded in all media, in every career, and in our own lives.

Following this initial explanation for the project, I then created the “design problem” that students needed to solve during our project. This “design problem” read like this:

How might we prove that rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, is utilized within our field of interest or our future careers? Why is it important to recognize rhetoric when it is being used? What are the dangers of not understanding the elements of rhetoric? In your everyday life? In a field of interest or career?

This design problem then served as a guide for all instruction and assessment throughout the unit. With this underway, I did feel confident that my students would immediately see that their passions and interests and future careers really were at the “heart” of their learning and my planning.

Where did the unit go next?  What were our essential next steps? 

1) The creation of a learner-to-learner network.

Using Post-It notes, I had each student write his or her name on a Post-It with a future occupation listed underneath.  Then, as a class, we found a quiet place in a hallway, and placed our notes on the wall. With the help of students, we worked to cluster our Post-It notes together to create our own authentic, project groups.

2) The addition of an “I wonder” brainstorming task.

In class, I asked a student to draw a large face on my white board with thought-clouds beside. Then, students imagined how “Mike” or “Lisa” or “Kathy” used persuasion in their career. This created questions such as, “How does Mike use persuasion in marketing a campaign ad to clients? How does Lisa use persuasion to ask for a raise in her sales job?” Or even, “How does Kathy use persuasion to convince patients to eat right and sleep right?”

3) Student-selected readings and videos illustrating the use of rhetoric in the student’s own future career field.

Each student in the group had the task of finding readings or videos in which there was a clear persuasive goal on the part of the speaker. The finding of these artifacts seemed to work best when students considered the current, hot topics in their fields. For instance, once our class’ engineers considered ways to conserve energy, they were then able to find columns and opinion-based writings in which the speakers and writers took a strong stand. The added bonus of this is that students began to explore issues in the news.

4) Student-led small group discussions and choice in the discussion experience.

Using a discussion guide I created, students in each group had project managers who were tasked with leading discussions on their group’s top two readings and/or videos. Students would then choose one to present to the class.

The “catch” in leading the discussion was that each discussion had to offer students a different experience. For instance, a group could use the discussion questions, and then record their responses in clouds of thought surrounding a rhetorical triangle drawn on large chart paper. Or, students could use voice memos on their phones and record their discussions, without any writing at all. Another option was for students to hold a silent discussion on the questions posed through a shared Google doc. Ultimately, my goal was to provide students with complex questions, but still yet, encourage students to create an experience for their team that was both enjoyable and important to their learning.

5) Interviews with people who actually work in the field. 

Beyond analyzing rhetoric samples for the project, student groups were asked to complete three interviews with career professionals in their fields of interest. When interviewing, students asked questions like: What are moments in your career in which you find yourself using persuasion? What techniques do you employ to persuade others? What are specific examples that you can easily recall? Students had the option of posting their interviews to a class Flipgrid, recording their interviews with voice memos, or scripting interviews as they occurred.

6)  A final, ending panel discussion.  

The assessment in the unit was for students to participate in a panel discussion. Each student in the group was responsible for sharing information and realizations learned during the unit. Students shared why persuasion was integral in their future careers, interesting information learned in the interviews, and realizations learned from columns or videos viewed. Our setting for this panel discussion was, purposefully, slightly informal. My goal was to have students authentically talk to their classmates while sharing prepared information at the same time.

My key reflections and takeaways from this unit:

Envisioning the moments that students will experience in the classroom is an essential tool for personalized learning and instructional design. 

When I plan, I literally “see” the lessons in my mind. I “see” the students paired in groups, the students drawing on chart paper around the room, and the students leading a panel discussion with everyone listening in- as if we are movie-goers huddled together discussing our favorite film. Maybe this way of planning for me is my way of creating a sense of excitement during the lesson-planning process. Maybe it’s my own personalization move for instructional design. I can say with certainty, though, that this visioning process for me offers continuous, fun, and personal challenges throughout the year. And while I know I am (and I would say we all are) a work – in – progress, utilizing these “visions” for planning and instruction is one piece of my teaching life that feels completely essential.

When designing a new unit, listening to the learners around you and having as many “cooks in the kitchen” as possible is beneficial to the entire student experience. 

I found myself in a casual conversation about brain breaks with Learning Experience Designer Aaron Roberts, and Learning Experience Designer Joe Muhlberg designed our class Flipgrid for the interviews. Last, I am fortunate to be surrounded by parents, coaches, teachers and other adult learners who truly invested themselves in sharing substantive details about the importance of rhetoric in their careers. All of the contributions by so many people, undoubtedly, created a learning experience that I never could have designed on my own.

Learning environments matter. It’s not that they matter just because they facilitate a student’s learning style, they also matter because they create “joy bookmarks” in a student’s mind for learning.

As teachers, we need to get out of our classrooms. For students, leaving a classroom for an instructional purpose helps students to recall learning and creates a sense of wonderment and joy in the classroom. For instance, after discussing “brain breaks,” I recently gave a class 4-5 minutes to complete a “walk and talk” in the hallways of the school. When I told them to leave the classroom and circle one floor of the school while they walked and talked about recent content instruction, you should have seen their looks of happy surprise!

As we move into the waters of personalized learning, we have to remember that every unit is an opportunity for growth next year. 

I wish I had created the design problem with the students. I think my plans for the unit and the premise for learning could have been written with the students instead of by me, alone. I take solace in the fact that I’m a beginner in personalization, and that the unit allowed for “moves” and “moments” of personalized learning. For now, that’s enough. I take comfort that when I visit this unit again next year, I can keep this aspect of the unit in mind.

Student leaders can be utilized as project managers; this is essential to managing small groups in any personalized learning process.

As a teacher, I strive to have moments when I facilitate learning, so I have to work to be aware of the number of minutes I am on center stage in my classroom. One solution I have found helpful is to convey goals for small groups to project managers. This alleviates the constant need for whole class instruction, and allows me to express the goals for learning with sincerity as I talk with these small-group leaders in my class.

Opening the door for students to reflect on their learning and then to communicate their progress to each other results in outstanding, impressive moments of leadership.

As the students in our small groups worked towards the final assessment, I asked students to reflect on the goals that were accomplished during a class period. Then, I had them set goals that needed to be accomplished the next day. Last, I asked students to write about one Habit of Mind that should be expressed aloud as a compliment to the group or one Habit of Mind that could be used for goal-setting for the group. Watching these moments of communication between group members brought me true, authentic joy.

This leads me to one final realization: Nothing is better than hearing the authentic moments of students complimenting each other, supporting each other, and motivating each other.  

This is the benefit of sharing the stage in personalized learning.

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