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Teaching essay writing is no simple task:
The pressure is on: this is a skill that students need, are tested on, and will need to harness for the next grade level all the way into college.
Students somehow forget what they’ve learned in between assignments. I mean...how many times do I have to teach you what CLAIM is?!?! We JUST went over it!
There are just TOO MANY skills all depending on each other. Every time we teach an essay, we feel compelled to teach and grade everything, from selecting best evidence to writing a correct MLA header!
No matter whether you love or loathe the long novel you teach, the same struggles pop up every time we come around to teaching it year after year. For me, it’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a 400 page monster! It’s fun dawdling around with setting and making maps of Maycomb and then rolling through Boo Radley anecdotes. Before we know it, August has turned into December. I’m kidding, of course, but time truly does have a way of slipping away as we work through a long text. And there’s nothing worse for kids than dragging out a book for too long! Here are my best suggestions for getting through your version of my Mockingbird.
After teaching for ten years and then switching schools, I was very quickly reminded of how much work goes into writing curriculum from scratch. For a long time, I was in a happy place of continual revision of curriculum that I liked, but was tweaking here and there for relevance, rigor, and for fun.
Now? It’s the Wild West. It’s intergalactic chaos. It’s constant guessing and unpredictability. All that aside, however, it’s also invigorating and exciting. I would call myself “a curriculum person” because this kind of blank slate challenges me in a way that sparks joy in my life, despite the chaos, so I’d like to share with you how to most easily navigate through a first attempt at writing and implementing a new curriculum for a new novel in your secondary ELA classroom.
Teacher burnout is a real thing. Exhaustion from the myriad demands placed on our shoulders year in and year out can make anyone question why on earth they started in this profession in the first place.
As a teacher in the US, the winter break gives me a chance to reevaluate my “why” in teaching. Why do it? Why work so hard? Why work to the point of burnout every single year? When there’s actually time to slow down and remember the answer to that question, the answer is so simple - why? Because I love watching kids learn. That’s it. It’s that simple. And when does burnout start to feel so painful? It’s when the job has become something other than dedicating time to helping students learn and experience new things.
Making Essential Questions ESSENTIAL
(and why your curriculum feels clunky)
Many teachers and districts have hopped on the essential questions trend, but time and time again in my conversations with teachers and administrators across the country, many are missing the point. Writing an essential question is more than just filling in another box on a curriculum map. They’re more than just a way to kick off a unit. Essential questions should be the vehicles that carry students to their essential understandings of each unit.
So where are teachers and curriculum writers taking a wrong turn? From my recreational “research” (casual conversations online and in person with teachers), there appear to be three big issues that are making essential questions in curriculum feel clunky.
1. Essential questions are created without backwards design
Backwards design is a cornerstone in curriculum development. When designing units (and school years), beginning with the end of the unit must be the first step for a team to take. When curriculum teams start building a unit with an essential question and NOT with a conversation about the essential understandings that teachers want students to have by the end of the unit, the essential question itself is doomed to fail in doing its job.
In a freshman English unit, for example, teachers might want students to end a unit by writing a narrative. If this is the case, elements of narrative and narrative-type assessments should be the focal point all throughout the unit. The essential question, too, must drive students to consider how narrative works. Perhaps the question might be, “To what extent can narrative transport a reader?” Now, the question is designed to drive the unit all the way through whatever selected texts are used AND ensure that students are not blindly walking into an assessment disconnected from the rest of the unit. The question also naturally calls for students to develop an opinion about narrative that should evolve across the course of studying the unit. By the time students get to the end of the unit, they should be well versed in the components of narrative that make it transformational for a reader and then able to attempt one of their own.
Instead, we have “required assessments” put in place from district offices. Then, a year or two later, well meaning teachers are told to include essential questions. Instead of starting with the assessment, they start with the themes of the novel they’re studying or a major skill that they perceive to be important. And although now essential questions are on the curriculum map, they’re not driving students to understanding or teachers to instructing.
2. There are too many essential questions on the table
If you’re struggling with using and revisiting essential questions in your classroom, consider this: do you have too many? Wiggins generally suggests having an OAEQ (overarching essential question) and then one other essential question that is a bit more specific. In terms of a English school year, I like to think of one overarching question for the year (all of English 2) and then an essential question that drives each unit. I’ve seen so many curriculum maps with four or five essential questions for just a single unit and wonder to myself so...which one is ESSENTIAL?
For students to delve deeply into the question, there need only be one or two to consider. Make it juicy, make it cultivate curiosity, and make it open to a wide variety of lenses. Then, ask that question over and over and over again as students learn more and see more of the world that you expose to them through the unit.
3. Students never respond to the essential question
They’re on the map, they’re on the handouts, and sometimes they’re even on the school website, but if essential questions are not in front of students to respond to during the unit, then how are they meaningful?
Many teachers start with good intentions. It’s an easy gateway to explore students first thoughts on the question at the start of a unit. But, so often, the question fades into the background and the content takes over. The novel or play takes over. The world war takes over. Intentionally designing opportunities for students to respond to the essential question formally and informally throughout the unit allows them to track how their thinking has grown and shifted. It’s how we help students make sense of why they’re learning what they’re learning.
Getting started with EQs and synthesis writing…
If you want to explore some mini-units that utilize essential questions, I’ve got a few you should try. These mini units provide teachers with an essential question, non fiction articles that respond to the question, a synthesis writing prompt, and writing outlines. As you get more comfortable with essential question units, these questions can incorporate more texts, novels even, and you can sprinkle the nonfiction articles throughout the semester.
When I first started teaching, I remember trying so many different ideas all the time in my classroom. It was exhausting running a new small group scenario or differentiation strategy several times per week, and over my many years of teaching, I’ve come to master a handful of strategies that are versatile and work EVERY time (at least NOW they do!). For me, learning stations are the way to go. I’d say at least once a week, I have my students engaging with content through a learning stations setup and I love it.
There’s a lot more to teaching in the month of December than just cute holiday sentiments. This time of year is challenging for so many reasons; from the looming horror of final exams to the downright awful cold weather (remember, Chicago girl here!), December is a teaching challenge of focus, measuring learning from the entire semester, and finding ways to authentically remember the heart of the season in our classrooms.
It’s true. I confess: I am a high school English teacher and I do not have an operational classroom library. Do I have a classroom full of books and do I grab whatever I can at Goodwill and garage sales? Heck yes. But do I have a check out system, or even an organized system in which I’ve read every book on the shelf and make a point to recommend titles to each of my 125 students every other week? Nope. I don’t.
In order for our students to succeed across subject areas, we must all acknowledge the critical importance of vocabulary instruction. There are so many best practices out there, so many specialists, and so many approaches, it can feel daunting to choose a streamlined and effective strategy for your classroom. No matter your favorite method or style, I have a thoughtful yet efficient strategy for you to try in your class this year.
Have you ever done a Google search for "poetry ideas" to teach in your high school English classroom? Let me spoil those search results for you - THEY'RE LAME! Poetry, especially at the high school level, it too important to be treated as a coloring activity, or worse, ignored completely.