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The Importance of Structured Learning & Intention in Teaching

As a teacher or yearbook adviser, organization and clarity are crucial in every step of the instruction process.

Greetings to all my fellow educators! I recently retired from a 39-year teaching career. Although I have now been out of the classroom for a full year and a quarter, I remain watchful over what happens in the classrooms of my colleagues. Much of my career in teaching was spent accompanying, preparing, and supporting new teachers for one of the most frustrating, fulfilling, tiring, and compelling vocations a person can choose. Usually, you find out whether or not you are a fit for this sort of work when you are smack dab in the middle of it, surrounded by the hopes, dreams, and expectations of the students you mentor.

Teaching and learning aren’t even different enough to be considered two sides of the same coin—both processes are so enmeshed in one another that they become one and the same. I still remember the names of the students who, when I was ready to learn, taught me the most as a teacher. The point is, in order to progress through the complicated dance that makes up each school day, Structure & Intention must take the lead in everything we do. Where should students be at the end of a unit, chapter, lesson, or class session? In other words, how can I, as their teacher and/or adviser, get this group of learners to understand and appropriately apply the concepts or skill sets that are being taught?

Thankfully, my career experience—spent in visual art—primed me to think with end results in mind. Intuitively, I would backtrack through the “how to’s” in artistry, both in creation and in technical process. I then found ways to introduce and relate this experience to students, utilizing any number of points on the art history or world culture continuum. I had previously been designing the curriculum from a backwards point of view, and I was very fortunate, in that I was always inventing curricula to share with my students and their classroom teachers—practice makes perfect. I am such a nerd; I found it loads of fun. And I became good at it, too. My career practice also helped prepare me for Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s breakthrough, Understanding by Design1 (often hyphenated to UbD), which is a framework for designing curriculum. When I collided with this curricular planning model, I came away with some concepts that resonated with what I was already doing, as well as with what I was missing.

  • Know what you want students to take away by the end of a unit or lesson—the Big Ideas and Essential Questions

  • Determine what Formative and Summative Assessments give the best Evidence that students have learned

  • Prepare Learning Activities and match these to the different assessments—be ready to Remediate as necessary

  • Link introduction of new material to what students already know

Notice something? The order seems to be backwards! The end is first! And that brings me back to Structure & Intention. Early on in my career, I knew that students understood what defined a good work of art—especially if they were involved in the same art-making process. So, as part of introducing a new process, I put a selection of artwork in front of my students and asked them to gauge the quality of the work from Exceeding to Meeting to Approaching Expectations. Students would look at each work of art based on the criteria, which was clearly delineated for reference (via rubric). They could then thoughtfully produce a sound sorting of the works with rationale as to why certain selections were made. And, if the students then had that criteria/rubric to guide their own art-making, how many who would’ve otherwise Met Expectations instead pushed themselves to Exceed Expectations? How many might then move from Approaching to Meeting—especially with remediation opportunities built into the learning process? In this way, Structure and Intentionally are vital in assisting in the students’ development of a Growth Mindset. Teaching and learning are part of such a spectacularly rich dance.

Let me be more Yearbook-focused in this next example. Recently, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. John Tuttle and Alyse Mgrdichian—from United Yearbook Printing—on the topic of Writing Effective Captions. Our team’s End Result was to assist teachers/advisers and their staff in writing more engaging captions for photographs. So, we found that the Essential Question to be asked of students is, how do you write engaging captions? Evidence for this would be students writing successful captions for an assignment (Learning Activity), such as through a workshop. For example, Dr. Tuttle recently presented a workshop at Baldwin Park High School. Based on the criteria he provided the students during the workshop, Dr. Tuttle wanted the students to focus on the following Big Ideas:

  • The First Sentence

  • Additional Sentences

  • Quality of Writing

These Big Ideas were defined and examined through lecture, examples, and collective student experiences so that there was a consistent sense of what each of these Big Ideas meant.

So, a rubric for scoring student effort was designed based on the agreed-upon definitions of the 3 Big Ideas, and ended up looking like this:

The beauty of this generic scoring rubric is that it can be used multiple times, providing a consistency over time that promotes a certain quality of product/result. Its use provides practice to develop proficiency among students, remediating their mistakes as needed. Moreover, using rubrics like this across the curriculum creates transparency in communication when it comes to grades, which can sometimes be a difficult conversation. Rubrics are excellent tools for teachers, students, and their parents; rubrics direct students and their parents to points where improvements can be made. And rubrics can be posted with an assignment as an advanced organizer prior to the due date, that way everyone understands what is expected of them before they submit the assignment.

If you haven’t already started using rubrics, I recommend you try designing one. And if you’d like some help, give United Yearbook Printing a call; we are your partners in this.

You’ve got this.

Miss Lucy McHugh comes to United Yearbook Printing via a 39-year career in public and private school education. She was a former yearbook adviser at Xavier College Preparatory High School. She earned a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Nebraska in 2000. And in 2014 earned a Certificate in Catholic School Leadership from Loyola Marymount University. Lucy taught K-12 Art and was awarded the 2001 Nebraska Art Teacher of the Year, and in 2010 she was awarded Nebraska Elementary Art Teacher of the Year. Most recently Lucy was awarded the 2017 CA High School Art Teacher of the Year.


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