This spring, GCE educators are preparing students to renovate their recreation room (aka: wreck room) via multi-disciplinary lessons on urban renewal. By investigating scientific and mathematical fundamentals of urban planning, drawing upon literary and historical perspectives, and exploring artistic flourishes in progressive design, GCE faculty believe that students will be more likely to contribute in creative, meaningful ways to the improvement of spaces inside and outside their school.

Borrowing from Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design, this entry focuses on how GCE’s master teachers implement backward design to deconstruct-then-construct (with plenty-o’-student help…) unique paths to engaged citizenship. In UbD, Wiggins and McTighe posit three Stages of Backward Design: 1) Identify desired results; 2) Determine acceptable evidence, and; 3) Plan learning experiences and instruction. The following paragraphs demonstrate how subdivisions of these Stages are expressed in GCE’s junior-level Urban Planning unit.

Urban Planning fits the 1st Stage of Backward Design because improving environments is a big idea…in need of uncoverage. As students work in small groups and teach each other about the past, present, and future of urban planning in Chicago, they fill knowledge gaps for each other and spark meaningful connections…genuine inquiry and deep thought, and encourage transfer in sounds and pictures that stimulate generative thinking. Their work is provocative and arguable because organizing audio and visual interpretations requires students to make editorial decisions that frequently arouse debate.

Meanwhile, GCE instructors ensure that appropriate goals (Common Core standards, plus…) are identified in lesson plans that ‘incorporate both short and sustained research, and propagate understanding by synthesizing multiple sources to tell important stories.’ The work is relevant because the class uses prior and acquired knowledge to fuel great ideas for campus beautification.

Regarding the 2nd Stage of Backward Design, students in Urban Planning know that dramatic, local examples provide clues to where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’re going. They learn from past and present urban expressions and feel empowered to make corrections while teachers ply criterion-based scoring tools to ensure that student contributions are recorded, discreet self-assessments are obtained, and critical feedback is provided.

GCE’s students are hooked on the 3rd Stage of Backward Design and engaged in digging into the big ideas. Classes succeed, in part, because students work as collaborative researchers to locate pieces to a puzzle that they’re all working on. It’s essential then that teachers help students define their roles and work with vigor because teammates are relying upon timely inputs. Because student-to-student learning and collaboration are imperatives at GCE, students have adequate opportunities to explore and experience big ideas…for the required performances. They are familiar with the evaluative criteria. Their in-class objectives are clearly expressed and reinforced in common language by the instructors.

Yet another UbD challenge requires a more creative response because students are not often given sufficient opportunities to rethink, rehearse, revise, and refine their work based upon timely feedback. Not within a single class. However, because GCE students create artifacts of their work that are both personal (self-assessments) and shared (classroom presentations, blogs…), they continually access, review and discuss their work with peers, and with instructors—a preferable alternative to the hyperactive temperature-taking that too often disrupts flow and prohibits substantive accomplishments in classrooms.

Throughout the term, GCE’s self-governing students evaluate their work, reflect on their learning, and set goals. They transform ideas into raw materials—building blocks. Their study of urban development becomes personal and their outcomes matter even more. Backward design works.