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Curriculum Planning Using Backwards Design

Curriculum Planning Using Backwards Design

“You’ve got to think about the BIG THINGS while you are doing the small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.” -Alvin Toffler

As a community, we’ve spent more than a decade re-thinking many aspects of meaningful teaching and learning, and with the Fall Jewish holidays upon us, the process of Backwards Design is a tool to support educators in planning meaningful and engaging holiday curriculum. The process supports reflection on the leading ideas embedded in each holiday prior to planning learning experiences. When one slows down to engage in a process of Backwards Design it involves spending time uncovering the big ideas of each holiday, followed by asking oneself essential questions to deepen thinking about how to make them come alive for children and families, rather than just falling back on doing what we’ve always done. This is especially important this year as we consider how the pandemic will alter everyone’s holiday experience. I find that no matter your level of knowledge, this all starts with engaging in some new learning around the holiday. Basic information on all the Jewish holidays can be found at Judaism 101 and My Jewish Learning (click the “Celebrate” tab). I recommend researching until you learn something new! Some interesting alternative sources include Ritualwell, Velveteen Rabbi, and CLAL Holiday Toolbox (Jewish Center for Learning & Leadership).

The steps are as follows:

Step 1: Engage in New Learning in the Holiday
Step 2: Identify Enduring Understandings

What are the big/leading ideas? What do you want children and families to understand and take away regarding this holiday? Think beyond just isolated facts. (e.g. Joyfulness is a big idea of several holidays such as Sukkot and Purim)

Step 3: Develop Essential Questions

What provocative questions can we ask ourselves, and the children related to each big idea that will foster and guide both inquiry and understanding? One universal question this year will be “What impact will the pandemic have upon this holiday experience?” The younger the children, the more the questions will be aimed at you and the adults in their lives. (e.g., Related to the concept of joyfulness: What brings you joy/happiness? What does joy feel, smell, sound, look like? etc. How might we bring joy into our celebration? Which parts of Sukkot bring you feelings of joy? How might we represent joy through painting, movement, etc.)

Step 4: Brainstorm/Web Possible Learning Experiences

What are the many possible learning experiences that will enable children to gain understanding of the “big ideas/enduring understandings” of the holiday? Break concepts down into their smallest parts and consider ways in which you can develop a series of learning experiences that lay a foundation for, and build to, the big ideas/enduring understanding. Integrate developmentally appropriate skills and 21st-century skills of creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, character building, and communication into experiences in authentic ways. (e.g., Joy: Document moments of joy in the classroom, display for children and families to see and reflect on. Document other feelings as well for comparison such as surprise, love, frustration, etc.; Listen to different types of music that feel joyful vs. sad. Paint to the different music noticing the differences. Invite families to share reflections and images of joyfulness from their homes.)

Step 5: Determine Which Experiences You’ll Offer

The expectation is not to offer everything on your web, but rather to determine the big ideas you want to focus on and develop your curriculum plan. Remember to observe and be responsive to the direction children take the learning experiences.

Backwards Design flips things around – we start with the end in mind and finish with determining the experiences to provide for the children. You will of course still be dipping apples in honey, building sukkot, spinning dreidels, eating hamantaschen, etc., and building memories of holiday traditions; however, this approach can also result in offering some deeper, meaningful, and enduring experience for children and families. In addition, you just may find it results in a more creative and satisfying experience for you as an ECE educator.

Wishing you all L’Shanah Tova, a sweet, new year filled with hope.