Design from the Back

One of Lemov’s principles/techniques is based on the concept of backwards design.  Start with what your students should be able to do at the end; and then work forwards until you have a sense of the steps they need to go through to get where you eventually want them to be.

I’ve been doing this with my first unit in seventh grade.  Both classes of seventh grade history are studying early America, at first contact with Europe.  Over the summer they read Blood on the River, an account of the Jamestown colony’s rocky first few years.  It’s a mostly-historically-accurate but mostly-fictional account of the lives of a few of the boys in the colony, most of them servants to the older and more important men in the colony.

Then we read the 437 words on Hernan Cortés’s conquest of Mexico, as found in our official textbook, The Prentice-Hall book, American Nation.  I told them this wasn’t particularly good — and we put the textbooks away.

Then we read — from online sources — translations of parts of Cortés’s second and fourth and fifth letters to King Charles V of Spain, describing how he conquered the Aztecs and overthrew Moctezuma. Then we read selections of Bernal Diaz’s True History of the Conquest of New Spain.  And parts of the Florentine Codex, which tells the story from the Aztec point of view.  We read selections from William H. Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico.

The kids complained. They argued.  They found the reading incredibly difficult.  We learned lots of new vocabulary, and found ourselves challenged by awkward sentence structures and bizarre and almost-unbelievable stories.

Today, I told the class that I wanted them to rewrite a section of the textbook. I handed them back two weeks of homework all at once — everything they’d written and summarized about the conquest.  We pulled out the old textbook, and re-read those 437 words.  Then I told them, “Kids… you’ve read more of the primary sources (in translation) than probably any other kids in America your age.   There isn’t anyone better prepared to tell this story than you are.”  They demurred, put off the compliment… No one was very enthusiastic.

One girl came up to me in the hall about five minutes later.  “Mr. Watt, Mr. Watt!” she said in a state of great excitement. “You already prepared us to write this!” she said. “All those stupid summaries. All those crazy readings.  All those annoying little paragraphs.  We really are ready. We really… are?” She could hardly believe it herself.

Another kid approached me during passing time in a state of minor bewilderment. “All those homework assignments… you weren’t just making work.  You were preparing us to do this re-write.”  I nodded.  Word is filtering through the class — some are figuring it out on their own, some are hearing from classmates.

They’re no longer terrified.  Some are still unhappy.  Some are eager. Some are resigned to it.  But there’s a new resolution in the group.  They don’t seem to feel it’s an impossible assignment any more.

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  1. Nice post.. thanks for sharing. I’m wondering why you didn’t include your students in the backward design process? Would their attitude and approach have been different if they had known the goal at the outset?

    • It’s a great point, and it’s one that I’m making an effort to achieve: How do I include students in the backward design process? Not an easy thing, when I’m not always completely clear at the outset what I want them to be able to do. Two students in yesterday’s paper had direct quotations from primary sources in their text… I want them to be able to use footnotes, and to assemble bibliographies, by the end of the school year. Was I right to introduce those two students to the concept of footnotes, without forcing everyone else to adopt it at the same time? Sometimes it’s easy to include them — the quiz that they’re having today is going to be a sample of what kinds of things are on history quizzes, and then we can talk about how to “solve” for them, like an equation.

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