4 Questions to Help New Teachers Figure Out What to Teach

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Shelby, a pre-service English teacher who is preparing to student teach next semester, recently sent me an email with this question:

How did you know what to do within your classroom? I know we have to make sure we hit all of the standards but how do you decide what was more important and what other standards/items you needed to cover?

As a new teacher, I figured out what to teach by doing what the textbook told me to do and Googling lesson plans. I kept my students very busy with assignments and projects, but at the end of the year, when I finally slowed down enough to reflect (1st year teacher + 5 different preps every day = reflective practitioner?! What’s that??), I couldn’t say what I had really accomplished. What would my students take away from their year of Senior English? What did I want them to take away?

My best students were compliant and sometimes enthusiastic about the creative projects I assigned, but they weren’t practicing literacy for their own purposes. And my worst students? They were often brutally frank about the work I assigned and not shy about expressing their opinions. In my lower-level tracked classes, I probably heard some version of “This is stupid” or “This is pointless” every single day.

They may have been my worst students, but they were my best teachers because they asked tough questions:

  • “Why are you making us do this?”
  • “What does this have to do with anything?”
  • “Why is this important?”
  • “How’s this going to help me in life?”

I didn’t have good answers for them. My own teacher training had focused on the what and the how but not so much on the why. And that was what the students who challenged me wanted to know: why.

My transformation from a teacher who kept her classes really busy with language arts and crafts projects to a teacher who engaged her students in authentic literacy practices began with 4 questions.

1. How do I want my students to be changed by their experiences in my class? We have a semester or a year with our students. We need to think deeply about the strategies, habits of thinking, and ways of being we hope to see them develop as a result of taking our class. What do we want them to be able to say about themselves as readers, writers, learners at the end of the school year? What I really wanted for my students was not a pile of vocabulary posters or Odyssey board games: I wanted them to be able to say that they were now readers and writers in and out of school. This was a bit vague as a “vision statement” for learning, but it served me well. And it was a tall order, given that almost none of my students identified as readers or writers at the beginning of the school year. My vision statement gave me enormous fodder for curriculum as I tried to map the different concepts, strategies, ways of thinking, and skills my students would need to experience and practice before they could self-identify as readers and writers.

2. What are my own literacy practices? My next step, after I articulated a clear vision for student learning, was to examine my own practices. What purposes do reading and writing serve in my life? What do I know about reading and writing that I can model and teach in my classroom? Curriculum needs to begin with what we know and do ourselves as master learners in our field. Our own practices help us develop meaningful curriculum. Moreover, observing the ways we ourselves learn and create in our field can guide us to more purposeful and authentic ways of teaching. My own writing process had virtually nothing in common with the neat and orderly set of sequenced steps I had been using to teach writing. I had never felt the need to design and color a vocabulary poster as a way to learn new vocabulary. I had never created a board game as a response to my reading. So why was I asking my students to do things that I myself didn’t do? Once I figured out what I do, I brainstormed a list of the skills, strategies, and experiences that enabled me to do those things, and that became the foundation of what I taught.

3. What does research say about best practices in teaching and in my field? One excellent resource for learning about general pedagogical best practices as well as the specific best practices for English Language Arts classrooms is Best Practice: Bringing Standards to Life in America’s Classrooms by Steven Zemelman, Harvey Daniels, and Audrey Hyde. This book identifies “seven structures of best practice teaching:” gradual release of responsibility, classroom workshop, strategic thinking, collaborative activities, integrative units, representing to learn, and formative reflective assessments. It also describes the specific approaches and activities of the most effective reading and writing classrooms, where we find students deeply engaged in reading and writing texts of their own choice for a variety of purposes and audiences. This overview of best practice can then be supplemented and extended by texts written by some of our most effective teachers of reading and writing. I reread books by Nancie Atwell, Penny Kittle, and Donalyn Miller pretty much annually because these are the teachers who inform my practices and push my thinking about what’s possible in reading/writing classrooms.

4. What do the standards say? There’s a reason this question comes last in my list. I think looking at the standards should come last in our design of curriculum as well. Here’s why: standards tell us what to “cover,” but they rarely provide a rich, compelling, or complex vision of learning. (The NCTE/IRA Standards for English Language Arts are an important exception.) Many standards documents attempt to unbundle and simplify extremely complex processes. But deep, meaningful, engaged learning experiences come from focusing on the complex process, not isolated or individual skills. The skills are important, but they should be taught as they’re needed to support the larger learning purposes of the classroom. Those larger learning purposes can only be discovered when we start with what we know as experts and practitioners in our field. New teachers frequently tell me that they feel constrained or limited by what standards tell them to teach or by what they need to “cover,” but standards only limit or constrain our teaching when that’s all we try to teach in our classrooms.When we start with big picture thinking–a vision for learning, an understanding of what we do as learners in our field–we can develop a rich and authentic curriculum that the standards can then be used to connect and support. If you feel hemmed in by standards, try this: design your curriculum based on your vision for student learning, your own practices as an expert learner in your field, and your knowledge of best practices, and then look at the standards. I guarantee you’ll find that you “covered” all of them. This advice also works when you’re given a curriculum that you must follow by your district. It would be one thing if that required curriculum actually represented best practices in the field. Then we could feel good about teaching it. But all too often, that required curriculum represents the decisions of publishing companies, textbooks, school boards, or administrators rather than teachers. You are the expert and the professional in teaching and learning. Design the learning experiences that you know your students need to have, and then find ways to incorporate that required curriculum to support your purposes.

Photo CC-By Leo Reynolds

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2 thoughts on “4 Questions to Help New Teachers Figure Out What to Teach

  1. Pingback: It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? #imwayr 11/17/14 | the dirigible plum

  2. I found your blog very interesting and thank you for answering all of my questions! You bring up many great points that I will implement into my future classroom! I really liked the fact about how you demonstrated what your “literature life” was – many times in YA lit the comment would be made having students to posters or essays after reading a novel. Who does that in real life??

    I am going to try very hard to give my students an accurate representation of a “literature life”. We will have book talks and discuss books and items we though were interesting. When considering the aspect of student work, they will have the option of choices that are equally challenging. I believe this will be a creative yet engaging way to keep my students interested in literature because lets face it… not all students absolutely love to read – even if we’d like to think so!

    I do have another question about grading… I know we discussed this some on our trip to D.C. but what do you feel are good items to grade. After reading many of the books for your class this semester, I have come to the realization it is personal preference. However, I would like to get your opinion on what you see fit to grade and not have your students completely be working of the extrinsic motivator of the grade.

    Thanks for your time this semester!!

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