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Uncategorized   |   Feb 12, 2012

The Purposeful Classroom

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

The Purposeful Classroom

By Angela Watson


I remember six years ago when the district officials for my school system first decided all classroom teachers must post state standards and objectives for every lesson taught. I dutifully copied all 200+ standards onto individual chart strips, laminated them (oh, what a waste!), and kept them organized numerically in a long cardboard box. I thought I’d made my work easy–each day, I’d just switch out the old chart strips for the new ones.

Then administration decided that STUDENTS must understand the daily objectives. The language must also be posted in kid-friendly terms, and any adult should be able to walk in to the classroom and ask a seven-year-old kid what the purpose of the activity was, and the student should be able to answer.

A handful of my colleagues were outraged. And all of us were baffled. Getting little kids to articulate (on demand, to total strangers visiting the classroom) what they were learning and WHY in every lesson seemed like an insurmountable task. And maybe an unnecessary one. But the new requirement caused us to ask ourselves some hard questions on a daily basis:

  • Do students really understand whythey’re learning this skill or concept?
  • Can they make a clear connection between the activity and the outcome I’ve told them to aim for?
  • Have I done my best to make this task and its objective meaningful and relevant to students’ lives?

I realized I wanted my students to know what they were learning and its purpose for their own sake, not for accountability to district officials. I began posting my objectives in kid-friendly language and incorporating them into our morning meeting discussions. I noticed students actually started reading and talking about the objectives on their own (“Hey, look, we’re going to learn the multiply by 6 today! Ooh, no more narrative essays, this week we’re doing expository!”) I made an increased effort to help them explore the purpose and meaning of their work, more than I ever had before. But I never felt like I developed my lesson purpose as well as I could have with my students. Like so many other aspects of my practice, I knew there was more I could be doing, but wasn’t sure what or how.


Enter The Purposeful Classroom: How to Structure Lessons with Learning Goals in Mind, a new book by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. Those names probably ring a bell for you: they’ve written tons of other books and I’ve previously professed my obsession with Reading for Information in Elementary School. This time around, the dynamic duo is tackling the issue of learning objectives.

Right at the beginning of the book, Fisher and Frey differentiate between a lesson objective (which is in the mind of the teacher) and the lesson purpose, which is the act of carefully communicating the objective to students. They address the SMART criteria for objectives and even touch on how inquiry-based lessons fit in. I love that they talk about how backwards planning (a la my beloved Understanding by Design) makes establishing purpose easier, and even how purpose works with theme-based instruction. Fisher and Frey explain that students who reflect on their purpose for learning understand and retain material better, and approach their work with more creativity and critical thinking skills.

This is a fantastic book for any teacher who is serious about creating objectives and purpose for lessons. The Purposeful Classroom is  no easy beach read due to the subject matter, but it’s written in a straight-forward, relevant way that addresses the major trends right now in education and ties them all back to creating meaning and purpose for students. Fisher and Frey explain in very simple terms how to write objectives that include both content and language components, and how those objectives fit with pacing guides.They even use the buzz-word du jour “unpacking the standards” in a surprisingly meaningful way.

I especially like the chapters on ensuring that a lesson’s purpose is relevant and inviting students to own the purpose. They discuss intrinsic vs. extrisic motivation as well as fixed versus growth mindsets, teaching kids how to set their own goals, and using “I Can” statements. The book concludes with a discussion of assessment: identifying outcomes related to the purpose and knowing when a learning target has been met (which is not as easy as it seems; sometimes we think the class understands a concept when most kids have actually just muddled through it.)

ASCD has generously provide me with a review copy of this book as well as an additional copy for a give-away. For a chance to win this book, leave a comment on this post before midnight on Sunday, February 19th.  Tell us what YOU find to be the most challenging aspect of purposeful lesson planning. I’ll choose a comment randomly and announce a winner right here in this space on Monday the 2oth. Good luck–this is a book that is definitely worth digging into!



UPDATE 2/10/12: CONTEST CLOSED. The winner is Rebecca, number 110! Rebecca, send an email to angelawatson [at] live [dot] com and let me know what your mailing address is. Thank you to everyone who participated and shared ideas about lesson planning challenge! You’ve raised some really important points, and I’ll be addressing some of these concerns in an upcoming post.

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. My biggest challenge is DEFINITELY the part about making it meaningful and relevant to the students’ lives, and communicating the meaningfulness to them when they are very often short-sighted about these things. Sometimes they’ll fight you no matter how hard you try to explain the relevance, they have an answer for everything. And sometimes they’re right, too – some things you need to teach because it’s on the program even though it’s extremely unlikely they’ll ever need it in life. (proofs that vertical angles are equal…?)

  2. Holy cow! The beginning of this blog sounds like me and te rest of my school! I feel baffled and overwhelmed a lot. I do NOT want to be a frazzled crazy teacher. I really would like to read this book.

  3. I would have to say the most challenging aspect of purposeful lesson planning is finding time to get it all in! I strive to keep the lessons meaningful as well as fun for the little ones, but we have such a vast expanse of learning goals, there just aren’t enough hours in the day! I suspect there are others out there who also struggle to fit it all in, while trying to keep it purposeful!

  4. I feel like my greatest challenge with purposeful lesson planning is breaking down the “teacher language” into ways that the kids can understand the goal. My principal has told several of us that he would prefer us not to use terms such as “dipthong”, “blend”, “diagraph”, etc. in our plans to him because we wouldn’t use that when discussing the lesson with our students. Another thing I struggle with is incorporating goals and objectives for each of my students who require modifications, have IEP’s, etc. They’re not always on the same target goal as the majority so I feel like I’m writing multiple sets of lesson plans each week!

  5. As an instructional coach, I work with teachers every day on lesson planning, finding instructional strategies, and formative assessment. I have read several books by Fisher and Fry and use their work in my professional development sessions. Our school has been working on learning targets for the last two years. This book looks like it would be a great resource to tie our learning targets, formative assessment, and strategic teaching all together.

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