Coaching Teacher Clarity Through Backward Planning

Header - Bergin - Backward Planning

Paige Bergin, instructional coach in Oklahoma, walks through a three-step process for helping teachers design lesson plans that articulate learning intentions, relevance, and success criteria for staff and students.


s a coach, it's my job to understand the direction our district and building administration are taking us to support that journey. What became glaringly obvious as we approached the 2020-21 school year, though, was a need for a clear plan for what was to come–which seemed like an impossible task! I mean, who has a plan for unplanned events?!

What we did know and understand were our state standards and what we were learning along the way was our students' ability levels. This then became the beginning of our study of teacher clarity at our site.

The Process

During grade level coaching cycle sessions, we used The Teacher Clarity Playbook from Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey to guide our study.

Throughout the year, and at each session, we studied learning intentions (what we wanted our students to learn), relevance (why they needed this knowledge), and success criteria (how we define mastery). This practice helped teachers get to the heart of their standards and objectives, think about what assessments could look like, and the steps in between. These questions serve as the backbone for our planning:

  • What do I want students to learn?
  • Why do they need to learn this?
  • How will I know when they are successful?

I thought it might be helpful to share what this looks like in action. Below, I'll explain how I worked with two fifth-grade ELA teachers to develop an opinion writing unit with learning intentions and success criteria clearly stated with each daily lesson.

Step 1: Break down the objective

First, the teachers identified the state objective they wanted to break down. Because this was the first opinion writing unit they had done with this group of students, they also knew that they needed to build upon the learning that had taken place the previous year. Here's how they did it:

Students will write opinion essays that:

  • Introduce a topic and state a clear opinion
  • Incorporate relevant, text-based evidence to support the opinion
  • Use sentence variety and word choice to create interest
  • Organize writing in a logical sequence with transitional words and phrases

Step 2: Create success criteria

Next, it was time to create a rubric that represented our learning intentions and success criteria, which meant students would go into the writing unit with a greater sense of clarity.

Bergin - Rubric

This rubric allowed us to see how we could utilize the standard, and from there begin to create the learning progressions. Of course, not every lesson is represented on the rubric, and along the way, we had to adjust our learning progressions based on what we were seeing in class! This rubric helped us to keep the progression in mind while remaining responsive to students' needs.

Step 3: Use student-friendly language

After we had broken down the objective and created our rubric, we began thinking about the sequence of lessons. This allowed us to write our learning intention for each day. One example (which came shortly after students had established their opinion on the assigned topic) was regarding supporting their opinion:

  • "Today I am learning…how writers support their strong opinions."
  • "I am learning this so…that I can clearly support my opinion."
  • "I will know I have learned it when…a reader can identify the 3 reasons that support my opinion."

Here's an example of how this could look in the classroom:

Bergin - Lesson Sequences

By posting these sentence frames in classrooms, both teachers and students gained a greater understanding and a focus for lessons. Students are more engaged because we are sharing the load by consistently posting the sentence frames that invite them into the learning intentions.

Being intentional from the beginning—and by backward planning—has allowed teachers to understand what success looks like, and then articulate that to students. When students have a better understanding of what success is, they have a higher likelihood of actually hitting that target.

Final note

This year, our district has implemented teacher clarity through content area professional development, allowing all teachers to gain the understanding we first learned last year. Teachers I worked with last year have been able to give their work a second look and refine their previous learning progressions.

Our students can better articulate what they are learning, why they are learning it, and what success looks like. That has been a huge shift that has made a big difference!

We are making consistent, transformational changes. While this work certainly takes time, our teachers have experienced a sense of ownership, and a depth of understanding that they had longed for.

About our Guest Blogger

Paige Bergin is in her eighth year as an instructional coach in Oklahoma. She began her career in education as a 5th grade teacher in 2002. She received her bachelor's degree in Early Childhood Education from Oklahoma State University and holds a master's degree in Educational Administration and Curriculum Supervision from the University of Oklahoma. In 2010, Paige was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching for Elementary Math for the State of Oklahoma.

Outside of work, Paige enjoys her role as the only female in her household filled with all males: husband, two sons, and the two "good-est" boy dogs. In addition, she enjoys spending time with her family, walking the dogs, and lounging around with a book or movie.

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