Unpack the Crap

“Unpacking standards” is one of many educational jargon that make my skin crawl. It mystifies what, essentially, is plain grandma-style common-sense: don’t eat the elephant whole; cut the beast into pieces.

I take a mandated standard, establish when it has to be attained, identify if it is a procedure or content knowledge, and then break it up into learning goals. Learning goals, then, are my focus as I create assessments and activities that should guide my students to mastery of the standard.

Granny used to do that at the cottage. We’d get our pants in a bind over some project dad had given us, and Granny would soothe us with a calm assessment of the job and the individual tasks we could do to get the job done.

Clean out the septic tank? Shoot, we’d whine and crow about it for hours. Granny would step in with an analogy about the outhouse up in Bay City that she’d have to clean out with the help of Uncle Mac when they were young.

Then she’d send Mike to the shed for tools, Rocky to the closet for rags to use as face masks, and me to pace off the distance from the back porch to where the septic tank should be. Kelly manned the garden hose for the inadvertent splashing of goop on open skin.

While observing her workmen, Granny would get Mike digging, Rock would pry the vault open, and I’d stand by ready to start scooping. Kelly gripped the hose like a fireman.

Granny made the crappy job seem doable. That is what we teachers do.

Many of us get the learning goal nailed, but don’t assign activities that get the students where they need to be. Granny knew precisely what steps needed to be taken to get that septic tank cleaned out, and she stuck to them. She might have thought she could make it fun by creating a septic tank scavenger hunt, or by creating a septic-themed vocabulary word search, or by having  us create a sanitary health Moodle. But like a master, Granny assigned only those activities that got that septic tank clean.

In Robyn R. Jackson’s Never Work Harder Than Your Students, I find it sadly apropos that the author devotes the majority of a chapter on learning standards to assessment. Thankfully Granny wasn’t inflicted by an assessment craze back when we were kids (she would not have bowed to it, had there been one), or we might not have gotten a lot done around the house. Although the author is addressing the reality of many of her readership, assessment is a mere sliver of the student-learning pie. Her point is well taken: learning goals should be the floor, not the ceiling, Getting the septic tank clean was our goal. Of course, if we were truly gifted, we could have also re-plumbed the house if we had time left over.

*Note: Page 55 in Jackson’s book is cringe-worthy.  The point she makes is valid: alignment of standards to goals, assessments, and student tasks is essential. But to make that point by way of an antidote in which a teacher is made to feel uncomfortable by the questioning of her observer is not the best of modeling. If I wouldn’t do it to my students, I sure won’t do it to the teachers I mentor.

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