#2 Understanding by Design with Grant Wiggins



Segment I – Background and Inspiration


Tell your story. Where are you from and how long have you been teaching? What classes have you taught? 

– Grant’s first teaching experience was as a sophomore in high school when his math teacher had to attend a wedding and asked him to run the class (back in the day when you could do those kinds of things). Some of his peers gave him grief and it led to an epiphany. It made him realized how difficult it was to teach.

Later, in life he was motivated by the need to make learning an exciting activity, not boring. He taught for 15 years and now is a leader in curriculum development.


Who has helped you in your journey to become a master teacher?

– His father was in the foreign service so he had a diverse experience with school. Then, having gone to St. John’s College, the so-called Great Books school, so he appreciated the importance of Socratic Seminar early on. He saw the power of giving students responsibility at the board or in student-led discussion rather than the teacher telling them what to think. Mentoring became personal with a colleague named Jim, who he did PLC (personal learning community) with before the term had ever been coined. As a soccer coach, Jim once said to Grant, “how come we teacher differently out there than we do in our classrooms.” That has stayed with Grant to this day. Jim was someone who took teaching and learning more seriously than anyone else in the school.


It is important for other teachers to know that we all have had setbacks in the classroom. Identify an instance in which you struggled as a teacher and explain what you learned from that experience.

– A bought of laryngitis forced him to turn control of the Socratic Seminar over to the class and the results showed how much guidance his students needed.  student threatened to throw the desk out the window. In his vocal absence, the students went off on all sorts of absurd tangents. He realized he hadn’t done what he thought he was doing, which was to make them independent. Also, being video-taped for the first time allowed him to see and hear how he spoke to struggling readers. It all made him realize how his good intentions were missing the mark with student understanding. He realized how his soccer coaching experience had to come together with his teaching practice. He had to be more purposeful and deliberate with students in identifying the norms of discussion and the roles they could take in discussion.


Why teach English and the language arts

– Grant would like to see courses called Language Arts instead of English because the danger of teaching “English” is that you can fall back into a tour of certain time periods. He believes that we have a huge problem in this country of engaging adolescent boy readers. A lot of high school English classes are a forced march through books. 


What is one thing that you love about the classroom?

–  He is at his happiest in probing the thinking of adolescents. Having a discussion with kids about meaningful issues is about as fun as it gets in 42 minutes.


Segment II — Digging into the Teacher Bag of Goodies


What book do you recommend to a developing teacher?

 – Grant believes you can’t go wrong with the master, John Dewey’s, Democracy and Education. It is one of the best books you could read. It is a clarion call to remind ourselves of why we teach. 


What is one thing a teacher can do outside the classroom that can pay off inside the classroom?


– Plan better. Understanding by Design, Expanded 2nd Edition. Its just a no-brainer that no matter your style, there is nothing better than unit planning and backward design. Everyone needs a plan to cause a difference in the student — in his or her learning.


Is there an internet resource that you can recommend which will help teachers grow professionally?


 TwitterNCTEThe Teaching Channel. He believes people need better search skills. He posts the good stuff that he finds to Twitter. 


What can a teacher can do to make students better writers?

– There is no question in his mind that two things are important: 1. Modeling 2. Feedback. He believes you need to train your students like AP readers are trained. Students need honest self assessment and good models. And then you give feedback against it. 20 years of research prove less teaching– more feedback.


What novel or poem do you love to teach and why?

– Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” he pairs it with two additional readings –“The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Winnie and Piglet Hunt Weasels.” And the essential question for all three is who sees and who is blind?

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