THE CULT OF PEDAGOGY PODCAST, EPISODE 192
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
GONZALEZ: If we want our students to learn as much as they can, ideally they should be presented with learning tasks that are right at their level, or slightly above, so they have to reach a little bit, but they can get there. Making this happen as a teacher—what we refer to as differentiating instruction—is really challenging, because within any group of students you’ll find a huge range of abilities, background knowledge, and interests. To do differentiation well, you need lots and lots of tools. A few we’ve offered on this podcast are playlists in episode 50, self-paced learning in episode 158, and Universal Design for Learning in episode 166. Today I have one more, and it’s one I never heard of until very recently, called backward chaining. It’s an approach that allows a student who struggles with a task to skip some of the early steps in order to experience the later ones.
My guest today is Melanie Meehan, a Connecticut-based elementary writing and social studies coordinator who has written three books about teaching writing and contributes to the phenomenal collaborative blog Two Writing Teachers. Although Meehan uses backward chaining to help students with writing, it’s a strategy that can be used in many, many subject areas, so if you’re not someone who teaches writing, keep listening, because you will likely finish this episode with some ideas for how you can use it in your own classroom.
Before we get started, I’d like to thank Spinndle for sponsoring this episode. Are you looking for a project management tool for the classroom? Spinndle helps teachers co-plan and co-learn alongside their students for any type of project. It’s designed by teachers to not only capture, but optimize a student’s workflow, not just their final work. Visit spinndle.com to learn more about giving your students a safe space to manage their own learning.
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Now here’s my conversation with Melanie Meehan about backward chaining.
GONZALEZ: Melanie, welcome to the podcast.
MEEHAN: Thanks for having me, Jenn.
GONZALEZ: We, we just very sort of at last minute decided that we’re actually going to be doing two separate podcasts, so this is going to be probably the first one of the two. So, and we’re going to talk about two separate strategies. I figured it was worthwhile to separate them so people can find them later if they’re looking for that particular name. Both of these are strategies that we both agree that teachers of any content area could probably apply to their teaching, but your specialty area is writing. So before we get into the strategy that we’re going to start with, tell us a little bit about what you do in teaching.
MEEHAN: So writing has always been a passion of mine, as far as teaching is concerned, from the time that I first started teaching in [inaudible] school for residential kids. So when my district’s writing and social studies position opened up about, I think, 11 years ago now, I jumped on it. And I have been doing that position ever since, and it’s led to writing books and writing blogs and here I am. So yeah, it’s just always, writing has always been my favorite thing to teach.
GONZALEZ: And you, so you do that at, in your own specific work role, but then you also have some online stuff where you also help other writing teachers. So tell us about that.
MEEHAN: Right. That’s part of the blogging world. I do, I kind of have like my compartments of professional life, right, and I write for Two Writing Teachers, which is a completely free online blog. And we just actually took a few new co-authors, so I can’t tell you exactly how many people. There had been eight of us, and now I think we’re up to, I think, 11 or 12. But people take turns and share best practices and favorite ideas through that blog. We love to have that community and share all of our ideas and bounce ideas and strategies around with each other and with everybody. I also, like I said, I, I was lucky enough to get asked to edit or to review book proposals for different publishing companies. And at one point a few years ago, my editor looked at me and she’s like, “When are you going to write a book?” I was like, “I don’t know. What have I got?” And that’s kind of how that, how that led. So I have that book-writing professional life too.
GONZALEZ: Yes, and so the strategy that we’re going to talk about today actually comes from an earlier book that you wrote, because you did just write a book called “Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Writing,” in which you touch on this topic that we’re going to talk about today —
GONZALEZ: — backward chaining, but you said that you actually go more in depth on your 2019 book, which was called “Every Child Can Write.” So give us a quick overview of the new book, but then let’s talk about that, that 2019 book.
MEEHAN: Okay. So yeah, the new book is, it’s really, it was a boiling down of what are the most core practices that if somebody were to come and say, “What do I need to know to teach writing?” Here are the categories. Those are the chapters. And here are the biggest questions that I would guess that you’d ask, and here are my attempts at answering them. So that’s what that book is. We found that it, while it appeals to a lot of the early career teachers, it also has been appealing to later-career teachers, just because you forget about some of the things. And you read it, and you’re like, “I forgot that.” And so that, that has been really reinforcing with that book. But the backward chaining was, that, that I talked the most about in “Every Child Can Write,” because that, that book is really a study of what are some of the pathways that we can open up for writers who aren’t making the progress that we wish they were. So it initially was one of the whole chapters. It became more of a part of a chapter because it’s a strategy to use in terms of pathways. But I have found that it’s a really powerful strategy with all-aged writers. So basically, do you want me to talk about backward chaining?
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Let’s, that’s where I was heading next. So let’s talk about what this strategy actually is.
MEEHAN: Yeah. So I think that the first time I was ever introduced to the idea of backward chaining was when I was a camp counselor for children with attentional difficulties. And the gentleman, the person who’s in charge of the camp talked about the steps for brushing teeth and how sometimes you have to take somebody way down in the process to have them do it successfully. It isn’t about starting with heading to the bathroom and getting your toothbrush. It’s putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush and putting the toothbrush in the kid’s hand and getting them farther along in the process. So that has always been an idea that has stayed with me, because I think there’s no telling where the gum in the straw might be for somebody getting stuck doing something. So there’s, there are a lot of places to get stuck in writing when you think about the complexity of the steps and all that has to happen in order to produce a piece of written work. So sometimes kids can get going on drafting, but they can’t come up with an idea. So you’ll never know what draft they’re going to do, because they sit there twiddling their thumbs without an idea. So it kind of, backward chaining sort of touches on that.
GONZALEZ: And it’s, so it’s, it’s getting, it’s starting a student further along in the process of any particular task so you sort of do some of the earlier steps for them so that they can practice and get some skill development in a later stage, and then complete it. So you’re going to get some of those steps done earlier for them.
MEEHAN: Right. So if you have a younger child, for instance, and we do a lot of, we do a lot of the workshop models. So children are, really, we hope that they come up with their own ideas and that they see the value in their own lives and that they realize that the time that they picked their hangnail serves has a small moment story. The time that they were yelling outside of the door when Mom was recording an audio and it got told to be quiet and you did is a small moment story. Right? Like, they can write about that. That’s a moment of value. But kids don’t always see that, so what I have done is I’ve created a series for my younger students of pictures of these stories that, that could be important stories. So I have like one of a child catching a fish, and on the first page there’s a picture of somebody putting a fish into the water or putting a line into the water, and second page a picture of him waiting and a third page of him reeling in a fish. I have another one of losing a tooth because it’s sort of a universal thing that happens to young children. Like, “My tooth is loose.” “I’m pulling it” on the second page. “Woohoo! I got it out” on the third page. So, you know, just sort of these three-page little series of pictures that kids can write to if they can’t see the value in their own lives yet. I think that what I do want to just stop and pause and say and emphasize is that any of these ideas within backward chaining are what I would say are scaffolds. And I just want to say loud and clear, scaffolds by definition should be temporary and there should be a plan to take them away. So I am intentionally and purposefully doing work for kids.
MEEHAN: But with the idea that they are going to build their confidence, they are going to build their competence, they’re going to build their curiosity around the whole process, and they’re going to become more willing to go backward in the process to an earlier step.
GONZALEZ: Right, and here’s my question for you. I think that’s a really good point to make sure you’re, we’re clear about. Are you transparent with the students about that? Do they know?
MEEHAN: One hundred percent.
MEEHAN: Yeah. So I will say to kids, I see that this “thinking of an idea” is really hard, and that’s a challenge of being a writer. I get it. And sometimes you just get ideas by working on somebody else’s for a little while.
MEEHAN: And a lot of the time, even giving them the choice and again, choice is such an important belief of mine that kids should have. So I give them the choice of stories to write. It’s a way to build in choice even when I’m taking away their own personal stories. But sometimes when I offer them the choice, they’re like, wait, I have something.
MEEHAN: So sometimes —
GONZALEZ: Just having that support can turn the light on for them.
MEEHAN: Yeah. They’re like, wait, I caught a fish! I’m like, well, write about you catching a fish.
GONZALEZ: That’s perfect. So the scaffold just falls away immediately.
MEEHAN: So that’s kind of a cool thing. I think, you know, to that question, it’s a little trickier with the older kids because one of the ways that I use backward chaining for the older kids is, I think one of the things that kids have to do starting in fourth and fifth grade is research, and really integrating a lot of different information and taking notes and putting it together and organizing it. And that is complex, hard work, especially if reading’s hard. So what I will also do, and what I have collections of is take notes and organize them for kids along different steps. So I have my note sets, if you will. And I will listen to kids and pay attention to what they’re interested in, so I’ve got my panda fans and my koala fans.
MEEHAN: Those are sort of give me’s, right? Like most fourth graders and fifth graders like koalas. But there’s also the kids who like Minecraft or who like space or planets. So I kind of pay attention to what they’re interested in, and I will take notes from a few different resources for them and offer those up. What I’ve done with that sometimes is even had kids — and it’s funny because this floats into the seminar idea of kids signing up for what they’re ready for. Like I will say to kids, you know, I want you to sign up. If you feel like you’re ready to have a text set that you can research yourself and take notes on yourself, I have those. If you feel like you need the notes, you can sign up for that, and I’ll give you the notes so that you can get straight to writing. And if you’re like, no, I want to do the whole thing myself. I want to decide on my topic and find my resources and get myself set up, you can do that. That’s kind of like where in the process do you feel like you’re ready to start?
GONZALEZ: That’s so much agency.
MEEHAN: And they make those decisions themselves, yeah.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. And then, and then it seems like that would also take away some of the shame that’s often built in. I think sometimes for kids that get extra help, it’s, you’re making it their decision.
MEEHAN: It’s a goal. It becomes their goal.
MEEHAN: It’s like, if you feel like you need more practice at drafting, and so the notes are going to help you with that, here, have them. If you feel like you want to take on those notes, try it out, I’ll help ya.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. The notes, just to clarify, the note set, so that would be used for a research project. So instead of them reading the text and getting the information, you basically just said, here’s the text. These are the notes that I took on it that you can start to use for your own writing.
MEEHAN: You like crocodiles? Here’s the list of the things that crocodiles eat, because I bet you’re going to ask what they’re going to eat.
GONZALEZ: Right, right. And you’ve got that —
MEEHAN: And here’s even how they eat, because it’s really kind of cool. If you’ve ever read about a crocodile eating —
GONZALEZ: Now I want to go find out about it.
MEEHAN: That gets ‘em going.
GONZALEZ: So these are, and I’m thinking, I’ve got an, I have an argumentative writing unit, and I did this, and I didn’t even realize it had a name. But I was trying to teach older kids how to do an argumentative piece. And instead of having them look online for their research, I actually have an article library that’s already been pre-chosen for topics that have been chosen. Because what I wanted them to do is just practice the skill of developing an argument, citing their sources. So instead of having them wander around online looking for sources, and spend all that time trying to figure out a topic, it’s like, here’s the topic. You have, you can choose between these six. Here are the articles that go with it, and then what I say to the teachers in that unit is that if you want to then spring from there and have them do self-selection after that, great. This gives them that practice, and I didn’t know it had a name. So I’m going to go into that unit now and say, “This is called backward chaining.”
GONZALEZ: It’s got a name.
MEEHAN: Yeah, and you can, right, so the behavioral or the behaviorists would tell you you do a cognitive task analysis. So you really sit, and you think, what are the steps that are involved in doing this whole entire task?
MEEHAN: And to do the whole task, you really have to go and find your own resources. Frequently we take that task away. It’s not even asked of kids in the Common Core until sixth grade. Like, in fifth grade they read their resources, or they use multiple resources, but they don’t have to find them.
MEEHAN: So you are finding a text set is well within the fifth grader’s whatever.
MEEHAN: But if you think, what are all of the steps? Then you can start giving them different entry points.
GONZALEZ: Okay. And so that’s what any teacher would do if it’s a complex assignment and you’re noticing that over the years, kids tend to struggle with this, this or that, it probably is an issue of breaking that task down and seeing if you can get some kids further along with some scaffolds.
MEEHAN: It’s another way to give kids access.
MEEHAN: Right? I mean, you are talking and asking about cooking as something, right?
MEEHAN: We were talking about HelloFresh, which is one of those companies that sends you a bunch of different ingredients and the recipes and everything’s kind of measured out, and you have to peel the carrots, and you have to zest the lemon.
MEEHAN: You don’t have to find the recipe and go to the store and get the ingredients and know how much to get.
MEEHAN: So, you know, again, for those recipes, they can give people pretty complex recipes because they’ve given them everything else. So if we wanted to do it ourselves, we could take a simpler recipe. We could do a three-, a three-ingredient recipe and make life easier.
MEEHAN: And have an easier overall task, or we can have some of the steps done for us that come before it.
MEEHAN: And that’s, that’s what this backward chaining idea is all about.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. And the person in that example is still cooking. They are cooking the stuff. It’s not, they’re not getting takeout, but it’s just that they’ve, they’re further along in the process with the help of this company.
MEEHAN: And they might be, they might go to the grocery store in a, with a different lens the next time, right?
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yes.
MEEHAN: You know, my husband now goes to the grocery store and buys ginger where that wasn’t, that wasn’t a known entity to him before.
GONZALEZ: He wouldn’t know what to do with it, exactly.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. You know what that weird little root is when you see it, yeah.
MEEHAN: He can find that.
GONZALEZ: So what about, so outside of the writing world, and outside of the cooking world, like I was thinking that this could definitely work when we’re talking about any kind of sport or athletics, somebody who’s sort of learning a particular skill in athletics. What about other subject areas?
MEEHAN: Yeah. So again, as you think about it more in the real world, and you’ll start to notice it, right? It’ll be like one of those things because it’s like tying your shoes, it’s like my mother with a cast on her arm.
MEEHAN: She could do a lot of things, but she couldn’t get started because she couldn’t open the jars. Like, okay, what does she need us to, what point can she take over? So thinking about, and I want to, again, just be careful to always say it’s not that the steps beforehand aren’t important.
MEEHAN: Like, they are important, and you do want to be thinking, okay, I know I’m taking these away and giving them a leg up, but I want them to learn how to do it and build that confidence. So like if you’re, if you’re wanting kids to practice writing summaries or writing literary essays and do that work of thinking about symbols and themes and crafts and character analysis, but they aren’t able to read at a high enough level to have texts that are high enough to have those literary elements, read aloud is a great option but so are short, short Pixar films, right?
MEEHAN: Like, you could watch, you could watch a short film. So you’re taking out that element of reading complex texts in order for them to write about it, but you’re providing them something that they can write about so they’re going to practice that organization and that recognition of those concepts.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
MEEHAN: You know, I don’t, haven’t taught math in a long time but certainly I think about, like, my own experience with long division. Like, where do I get stuck?
MEEHAN: How, at what point, where, where is the gum in the straw?
MEEHAN: That’s always, that’s like the great analogy, and what do I have to do to kind of move that along? Where, where do I have to cut the straw and give somebody an opening to jump in?
GONZALEZ: Yeah. So doing part of a, part of a math problem for a student and then having them do the last couple of steps, for example, or something?
MEEHAN: And you know, Jenn, so many of these, of the kids that you might be envisioning at this point are kids who don’t always see things to completion.
MEEHAN: And so to give kids a sense of completing a task is kind of a big deal. Like, that they can be like, at the other end, it’s just, it helps those kids whose executive functioning might be hard for.
GONZALEZ: That’s what I’m thinking. It’s, in some cases it may not even be a matter of them not being capable of doing the first few steps, it’s just that they get lost and start getting, their mind starts wandering and they can’t get it done. So you can give them, they never get experience with the last few steps because they don’t get far enough along.
MEEHAN: They don’t ever get there. Right.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, and so it’s a matter of showing them, this is what it feels like to get to the end of this, okay. Now you can start going a little earlier, and yeah.
MEEHAN: Yeah. Like, you want to get to the top of the mountain? Let’s start a little closer to the top, and maybe the next time we can start a little closer to the bottom.
GONZALEZ: Mhmm. I’m thinking any form of, like, guided notes would probably be kind of this too, that you can scaffold that by providing more of the notes for them and having them just complete certain chunks of them on their own.
MEEHAN: One hundred percent, and sometimes I’ll, I’ll purposefully and intentionally take notes on sticky notes. Jamboard has been a great thing for that because it’s recyclable, right? Sticky notes kind of wear out.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, right.
MEEHAN: You’re like, gotta redo those.
MEEHAN: There are programs where you can run sticky notes through a printer. It’s kind of a cool thing.
GONZALEZ: Oh, I think I’ve seen that. Yeah, that’s great.
MEEHAN: Yeah. Like, you can, you can go Google how to write, how to create sticky notes. But again, that’s putting them a little farther down because then I’ve created notes on sticky notes, and I ask them to sort it and organize it.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah.
MEEHAN: When they start moving things around and thinking about how ideas can go together, because that’s part of the process too.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. I keep going back in my head to this idea of, where is the gum in the straw? I feel like that’s such a, it’s just such a great expression. I’ve never heard it before, and it applies to so many teaching situations that we might make an assumption about what’s going on or that the student’s not motivated or that they’re not, you know, that they’re just fooling around, and it really could just be something else that work just haven’t figured out. And if we can figure it out, then we’re there.
MEEHAN: And ask them to help you figure it out.
MEEHAN: Like, where are you getting stuck, my friend? Like, and they can actually, like, they will relate to the phrase “the gum in the straw.”
MEEHAN: Like, if you were going to say where it’s getting stuck here, they can, they get that. And it’s interesting to get their insight.
MEEHAN: And to say to them, like, okay, like, so you either need to really practice that one spot or we need to put you past that one spot so that you can just have some success farther on down the line.
MEEHAN: Which do you want to do?
GONZALEZ: Thank you for sharing backward chaining with us. Tell us, remind us again where teachers can go if they want to find you online and learn more from you?
MEEHAN: Okay, so the most global spot to find me is melaniemeehan.com.
MEEHAN: From there, I’m really good on Twitter, so @MelanieMeehan1 is me on Twitter. And at Two Writing Teachers, you’ll find me along with a lot of other people who love teaching writing. So those are going to be your top places to come up with me.
GONZALEZ: Okay, okay. Great. So anybody who’s listening who likes this, just know that there is another podcast that we’re doing, and I will probably in the outro by, at that point I’ll know what numbers they are that they can go and hear about your seminar strategy, which we’re going to talk about in another episode. So thank you so much for sharing this with us.
MEEHAN: Thank you so much for giving me an opportunity to, Jenn. Thanks.
For links to the resources mentioned in this episode or to read a transcript of our interview, visit cultofpedagogy.com, click Podcast, and choose episode 192. To get a bimonthly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, courses and products, sign up for my mailing list at cultofpedagogy.com/subscribe. Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.