In my last two posts, I explored examples of Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions (EUs and EQs) within units that I created using the Understand by Design framework. For me, however, appreciating the value of this framework and beginning the actual process of incorporating it into my planning felt like two entirely different tasks. In this blog post, I will share how I took an existing unit back to the drawing board to “UbD it” through workshops, feedback, and simple trial and error.
My Multicultural Folktale unit began as a passion project using the resources of Lucy Calkin’s Reading and Role Playing: Fairy Tales, Folktales, Fables and Fantasy, and various reader’s theater scripts. Anyone who has worked with third graders knows their passion for performance. Every few months, we would take a break from our regular reading curriculum to have students read, practice, and then perform reader’s theater scripts. Since these scripts are frequently based on well-known folktales, it felt natural to include performances during our Fairy Tales, Folktales, Fables, and Fantasy unit.
One student jumped excitedly when her group received The Tortoise and the Hare. “I have a folktale my parents always read to me about a tortoise at home!” she informed us. “Can I bring it in?” The next day, the student brought the traditional Malaysian folktale Kancil and the Crocodiles to share with her classmates. The story was fantastic, and we quickly turned it into a reader’s theater script for her group to perform for their classmates. Her idea was contagious! Suddenly, many students brought their favorite bedtime stories to share. As our collection of folktales from around the world grew (including stories from India, China, Africa, Sweden, and more), students began to notice similarities. While the folktales often included different settings, animals, or ecosystems, many had similar characters, such as evil stepsisters or wicked witches. Others had similar moral lessons about working hard or being honest. Students loved comparing folktales, discussing their meanings, and performing them. That first year, this unit grew serendipitously from the excitement of my students — it was magical. I knew, however, the unit could be even more impactful if I took the time to capture it as a UbD unit to teach in future years.
As always with backward design, I began at the end: 1) What did I want them to be able to do long term? 2) What big questions did I want students to grapple with? and 3) What understandings did I want them to take away? I wanted students to appreciate the diversity of folktales worldwide, as well as their similarities. Exploring stories outside of the Western canon allows students windows and mirrors into cultures and experiences worldwide. It is crucial for students to see themselves represented in lessons, as well as to gain perspective and wisdom from communities outside of their own. I also wanted the third graders to explore why folktales exist and their purpose. And finally, I wanted them to connect the performance of oral storytelling (as replicated by reader’s theater) to the age-old tradition of passing stories down through generations. This, too, would support them in their own journeys as storytellers.
For this particular unit, I was not starting from scratch. I was building off an existing unit on storytelling concepts, diversity, and common threads within folktales. But honing them into concrete EUs and EQs allowed me to align my teaching and assessments around them, making each lesson more intentional.
EQs and EUs should be considered foundations to build upon through continuous learning — otherwise, we are simply back to asking a student for the correct response. EQs provide students with an entry point to complex ideas. Through discussions and reflection on them, students reach EUs. In developing the foundations for understanding, it can be helpful to formulate EQs and EUs side by side.
For the Multicultural Folktale unit, I began with these EQs and EUs:
|Essential Questions||Enduring Understandings|
|Why is it important to learn and care about folktales from other times and places?||Exploring a diverse range of stories within a genre allows us to understand its characteristics and common traits better.|
|How and why do people all over the world tell folktales?||Folktales have a variety of purposes, whether they teach us lessons, amuse us, or explain a phenomenon.|
|Do folktales tell universal truths?||Folktales reflect the geographic location and culture of their creation, though they can offer insights that are universally relevant.|
|How does a story change when passed down orally, rather than written down?||Oral storytelling is an age-old tradition intended to entertain and teach. Folktales shift and adapt over the years and favor simple, repetitive plots.|
From there, I planned summative and cumulative assessments, day-to-day activities, and necessary resources around these learning objectives. This process took time and feedback and is still an ever-growing work in progress. When grappling with questions about what to assess, what lessons and activities to include in the unit, and when to capitalize on the serendipitous learning moments that sparked this unit, my EUs and EQs are an invaluable compass to make sure we’re headed toward deep understanding.
“UbD-ing” a unit does not have to mean changing every action or plan. EQs and EUs, help ensure each lesson builds towards enduring understandings, and each discussion helps students have new insights into the essential questions. When I retaught my Multicultural Folktale unit, it was thrilling to feel the thoughtfulness and intentionality behind every moment. This unit was still a student-directed and student-led passion project. Understanding by Design helped me refine and shape it.
Sawyer Henshaw (she/her) is a freelance writer based in Southern California. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English from Scripps College and a Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of San Francisco. Sawyer has worked in education for the past five years, teaching in kindergarten, third, fourth, and sixth-grade classrooms across California.
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