Essentially speaking

7 Oct

Wow, time sure does go by fast! Apparently I’m already a month into this whole high school thing. At least that’s what they tell me.

Recently we had a chance, as English teachers, to examine all of the secondary English curriculum maps. One thing stood out, well I guess we better say that two things stood out. The first point was that English teachers are protective. Don’t you dare take my books to that grade level! Just kidding (sort of).

But the main point, at least in my eyes, was that an essential question framing a unit makes a huge difference in how that unit is perceived. I have written about Jeffrey Wilhelm before, but his views on essential questions are starting to spread throughout English teachers in our district because of our work last week.

Essential questions must:

  • Get to the heart of the discipline
  • Be compelling and “sexy” in order to capture the students’ attention
  • Not be able to be answered by Googling it

As part of the seventh grade team of teachers who worked on creating essential questions last year, I was proud to hear the chatter of those great questions. Although using the word “sexy” when describing an English lesson might sound ridiculous to some (we almost had to use earmuffs at one point), it is true! How can we be edgy enough to motivate our students to learn?

Here are the unit titles or essential questions that we came up with:

  • How much control do I have over who I am?
  • What would I give up to be free?
  • How can I get people to do what I want?
  • How can I be a hero?

All important to students’ lives, unanswerable through a Google search, and lead students to important parts of English.

New to the tenth and eleventh grade curriculums (curricula? Apparently they are both correct. Thank you, dictionary.com.), I am trying to create some essential questions that are even more powerful and important to my students’ lives. Here is what I have for quarter one.

In American Lit, my first unit is shaped around the question “What power does a label have over me?” We have looked at labels through multiple This I Believe essays dealing with labels. This week we read about the controversy about yoga pants in a local North Dakota school and how the students were shown a clip of Pretty Woman – some pretty interesting labels were being applied to both males and females there – and a blogger’s response to the dress code. And we are moving towards The Scarlet Letter, one of the most famous labels of all. Supporting that will be a look at a girl named Jada who was raped, photographed, and became a hashtag joke on Twitter. Rather than hide in shame Jada stood up for herself and many others and gained national support. Talk about taking over a label!

Creating a unit like this is fun to teach! When I want to be a student in my classroom, and I get fired up about making a connection from a supporting text to a larger piece, it tells me that something great is going to come of it. It also gives me focus in looking for nonfiction articles to support the larger texts.

The hardest part of essential questions is coming up with them! What matters to students right now? What do you know will get their attention?

Challenge yourself to be more engaging in your themes and units. Your student engagement will show you that it was worth it.

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