Advanced Concepts in Creating & Reviewing Units

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Shout-Out to Verona Staff Members
Mar 15, 2011
Shout Out Archives | Big Ideas Home

Today we are giving a personalized shout-out to 2 members of the Verona School District for their ongoing work in bringing UbD to their school district:


Elizabeth Toriello, Director of Instructional Studies

 &  Gina Venezia, Supervisor of Special Services PreK-12,

Verona Public Schools, Verona, NJ


  Elizabeth has been in education for ten years, starting out as a high school math teacher then as a supervisor of Math and Science, grades K-12 before transitioning into the role of high school principal and eventual director of Instructional Studies.

  Gina has been in education for twenty years, first as an elementary teacher for the deaf, then as a high school English inclusion teacher, and now the Supervisor of Special Services, PreK-12.

  We talked with them briefly last week about their experiences both in education and in UbD:


At what point were you introduced to Understanding by Design? What were your initial thoughts/reactions? How did they change/develop?



I had read Grant’s book Understanding by Design because I had an interest in curriculum writing. The superintendent then approached me to teach an introductory curriculum course to district staff given my masters in curriculum and instruction. That led to him sending me to summer training with Grant Wiggins with several other district staff members in preparation to kick-off a district-wide UbD initiative for the Verona Public Schools and I would be one of several staff trainers. My initial thoughts were that UbD was going to be a tremendous undertaking and I wrestled with determining a starting point – i.e. remapping our standards, focusing on stage 1, etc.


E.T. My initial introduction to Understanding by Design was in one of my graduate course.  My most extensive work with the framework has been in my current role as Director of Instructional Studies for the Verona Public Schools.  One of my primary job responsibilities is to oversee the district-wide implementation of the Understanding by Design (UbD) framework which has included the facilitation of staff development, the initial stages of the redesign of our K-12 curriculum, and the framework’s integration into daily planning and instruction. 


My initial thoughts regarding the framework were that any process that requires us as educators to constantly ask “why?” in regard to the “what” of our teaching is valuable and will only result in a more meaningful learning experience for our students. What I have come to realize over the past several years of working with the UbD framework is that believing in the philosophy of the framework is only the first step while actually implementing it on a district-wide scope is a much more arduous challenge.


What was most difficult for you about UbD? Or what struggles did you have with implementation?


Cultivating an understanding of transfer among our teachers has been one of our greatest obstacles.  Initially, the teachers were still writing low to mid-level assessments and transfer goals and could not completely grasp the true meaning of a transfer goal or activity.  The training team realized that we had been ineffective in communicating this aspect of the framework and thus have made this the focus of our current year of professional development sessions. One of the epiphanies that we finally came to was that a transfer goal and task can require complex thinking without taking an inordinate amount of time to plan and implement.


How was the initial process of writing units/curriculum through a UbD framework?


Frustrating – our initial implementation had limited administrative oversight.  As a result, there was minimal organization to the development of the units to ensure effective collaboration and alignment within departments/grade levels, resulting in a lack of cohesion of the units developed by multiple teachers within a course or grade level. 


However, increased administrative oversight and the implementation of a structure to foster district-wide collaboration for development of UbD units (release time, department/grade level meetings facilitated by administrators, common themed faculty meetings across the district) we have begun to develop coherent, vertically and horizontally aligned course scope and sequence outlines (Stages 1 & 2 of the UbD framework).


Any advice you would give to people new to UbD that you wish someone had given you (or that you’re very glad someone did give to you)?


If you are going to train other educators in your school district in the UbD framework, it is imperative that:

·     All of the district trainers share a common understanding of the components of the UbD framework – attending a UbD conference as a team, facilitated by an expert, was a very valuable experience for us. 

·     In addition, those trainers need to be versed in the UbD process so they are able to tackle the tough questions that come with training the staff. In other words, they need to be able to “talk the talk.”

·      Having teachers as members of the district training team is essential as they bring current firsthand unit writing and implementation experience to the table that administrators do not have


What’s next?

By the beginning of the 2011-2012 academic year, we plan on having an online database containing the scope and sequence documents as well as the accompanying complete UbD units available for access by all staff, with limited accessibility by the community. 


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