Written in a conversational style that easily engages readers, this topical book focuses on the design of integrated instructional units that include goals, materials, assessments, daily lessons, and activities. Unit designs are presented in the context of broader issues in which the settings of teaching affect the way people learn to think about teaching English. Chapter topics cover the basics of unit design, what students know and what schools assess, setting and assessing unit goals, setting up the classroom, how ways of talking affect ways of learning, multimedia composing with a big tool kit, rethinking the curriculum from a multicultural perspective, rethinking character education, rethinking standards for teaching English, and theory in practice. For English and Language Arts teachers in secondary schools.
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This book is about teaching middle and high school English. Teaching English is a complicated business, so I can't tell you everything about being an English teacher in one book. What I do try to do, however, is outline a way to plan instruction that you can apply to many different situations, whether you teach seventh grade or twelfth, in the city or in the country, with unmotivated or autonomous learners.
There's no magic formula for teaching English. But, it is wise to consider that the context of where you teach is important to making decisions about how you teach and so part of the method is to understand where you teach, whom you teach, and the purpose of schooling in that setting. You also create a context within your classroom in terms of the way you arrange the furniture, the way you arrange the tone, and the way you arrange learning experiences. Within these contexts, you plan your instruction. How you teach also helps to construct the context of your work—you and your students help to produce your own environment. It's important to remember this so that you don't feel that you are a pawn in somebody else's game. You might play on a board that limits the things you can do, but you also have opportunities to change the rules, change the roles of the players, affect the purpose of the action, change how you move about the board, and occasionally alter the board itself. You can see that as a teacher, you will make many instructional decisions that ultimately affect your students' learning.
General Instructional Planning
Throughout this text I approach instructional planning on four levels: the whole course, the unit, individual lessons within the unit, and the daily plan. I first ask you to think about your larger purposes in teaching a whole course, such as sophomore English, American Literature, and the like. Any teaching fits within a set of larger goals and practices. Thinking about your larger purposes will help you plan instruction that is coherent to students at the incremental levels of planning: units, lessons, and daily plans.
When I talk about units, I refer to what I'll call conceptual units of instruction. These are four- to six-week blocks of time that you devote to a particular topic: a theme, such as progress, an author, such as Toni Morrison, a period, such as American naturalism, a region, such as the area that produced the British Lake poets, a movement, such as transcendentalism, a reading strategy, such as understanding irony, or a genre, such as the detective novel. I devote much of this text to planning at the unit level. If you learn how to plan instruction in four- to six-week blocks of time, your teaching will have continuity and purpose for students. You will also relieve yourself of the burden of planning day to day. This skill is particularly important early in your career when you can be overwhelmed by the stresses of starting a new teaching life: moving, learning a new political environment, managing your income, making new friends, and so on. You can also be overwhelmed by the parts of teaching that are difficult to treat in a book, particularly interpersonal dynamics with both individual students and whole classrooms (or individual colleagues and whole faculties). But if your lessons are well planned, you will have one less major responsibility to face each day and can focus on other aspects of your teaching.
When you first begin to teach, you may also be overwhelmed by the number of preparations —that is, different teaching assignments—you have. You may be assigned to teach two sections of freshmen, two sections of sophomores, and one section of juniors. That means three different preparations for each day. If you do not plan ahead, each night will require you to think of something new to do for three different sets of classes. This is not my idea of a good time, nor do I suspect, yours.
Further, within parts of this text I show you how to plan units to incorporate each minute of every class. You will learn that your daily plan is a guide rather than a script and that anticipating roughly how much time to budget for each activity will help make you more successful. Careful unit planning can help provide you with some security in your classroom preparation, especially at the beginning of your teaching career.
As you continue reading, carefully review the following aspects of this text.
General Text Organization
The text begins with a general introduction. In this Introduction I define a conceptual unit, define other key terms used in the book, provide a rationale for organizing your teaching according to units, and outline the principles of practice that are behind the primary instructional approach.
Part I is devoted to principles of planning. Within this section, I review theories of teaching and learning, all of which suggest the need for teaching that is purposeful, flexible, and constructive. I then lay out a set of procedures for designing a course curriculum based on these theories and then I provide procedures for creating individual units that compose this course curriculum. These units consist of both lessons (instruction in how to do one thing within the unit that often takes several days) and daily plans. If I've done my job well, you'll be able to apply these procedures to the design of units you teach with your own students. The idea, then, is for you to learn a planning process that you will use hereafter in your own English teaching.
Part II describes life in classrooms, including ideas for setting up both the physical layout and classroom routines. I use illustrations taken from classrooms I have observed over the years to show how students interact and learn in classrooms that follow the design principles outlined in this book. All discussion excerpts come from discussions tape-recorded in real classrooms; all names are pseudonyms.
Part III includes essays about rethinking the curriculum. In these chapters I raise questions about how the content and process of the curriculum can affect students. The essays consider three topics: how to plan a curriculum with attention to diversity, how to think about character education, and how to think about educational standards. They have been written in large part as a way for me to think about vexing questions I have faced in my own teaching. They also reflect issues that are frequently debated in the field.
The text closes with three appendices. Appendix A includes outlines of dozens of instructional units. Each includes a list of possible texts, key questions, and problems to consider for the unit's focus. You may find these to be useful when designing your own units, at least as a starting place in identifying appropriate texts for your students. Appendix B contains an example of a classroom activity based on a court case, with the purpose of teaching students extended definitions as well as how to argue with appropriate evidence. Appendix C illustrates how to teach students to critique one another's writing as well as teaching them ways to critique their own. Each appendix is linked to particular issues raised in the book.
The chapters in Part I are indexed to a set of model units, found at http://www.coe.uga.edu/~smago/VirtualLibrary/index.html . These units have been written by preservice teachers at the University of Georgia and are examples of the kinds of units I advocate in this book. You will find periodic references to these units while you're reading, with suggestions to consult them while you're writing your own unit of instruction.
General Focus and Features of the Text
The Greeks had a word, tektonikos, which means "of a builder." You might call the approach I outline in this book tectonic teaching, that is, teaching as a process of construction. This construction occurs simultaneously at two levels. At the teaching level, you will be a builder of curriculum, of a classroom community, of instructional units. Building requires tools, materials, plans, and methods of building. Your unit design, then, will be described as a process of construction that engages you in purposeful—and at times collaborative—activity.
Similarly, your students will be builders. One of my premises about being a teacher is that people learn by making, and reflecting on, things that they find useful and important. Your unit design should involve students in the production of things they find useful. These things are called texts. Texts are usually written, but can also be spoken or nonverbal (art or dance, for instance). When designing units of instruction, consider the tools, materials, plans, and methods of construction your students will need to use as they work. Like other kinds of builders, your students will work in a social environment where they get frequent feedback on their texts as they construct them.
Think of yourself, then, as a builder of curriculum and as one who helps students learn to build their own texts. This approach is known as constructivist teaching. As you might know from your experiences as a student, schools are more likely to rely on what I call authoritative teaching. In this approach, the teacher is presumed to be an expert who fills students with knowledge. In asking you to use a different metaphor for teaching, then, I'm asking you to rethink what it means to be a teacher. I'm asking you to be reflective as you consider more meaningful ways to teach.
REFLECTIVE WRITING PROMPT: I often use some variation on the term reflection in this book. By reflection I mean a process in which you pause to think back on something you've done and ruminate on it in some way. There's no single form a reflection might take. Often the act of describing a situation serves as an occasion for thinking about it. I ask you to reflect on your own experiences with teaching and learning and meditate on their impact on you. I also urge you to teach reflectively, so that you are always thinking about the processes and effects of your teaching.
A number of Reflective Writing Prompts ask you to reflect on issues related to those arising in the book. Often, these prompts are designed to get you to think about your own beliefs and assumptions about teaching, to consider how you developed those beliefs, and to think about them in light of issues raised in this book. The purpose of such reflection is to help you understand why you believe what you believe. This understanding is particularly important when you find the ideas I present to be at odds with what you assume to be true.
DISCUSSION TOPICS: Periodically, I include possible discussion topics. Discussions might take place with your whole class or in small groups, which provide you with the opportunity to speak more freely, to take more risks with what you say, and to feel less inhibited than you might feel in addressing the whole class and the professor. I devote much of this book to the use of small groups in unit design and the use of exploratory talk as a way of learning. These discussion topics may help you see the potential of strategically using small groups to facilitate learning. Discussion topics follow from issues covered in the text.
FIELD OBSERVATION: For those whose course includes a practicum or field experience component, these prompts are designed to help relate field observations to what I discuss in the book. It's possible that you won't get an opportunity to use some of them, depending on how your field experience is structured. Some teachers in the field, for instance, will allow you to visit, but will restrict you to observations. Others will invite you to dinner, become your lifelong friends, and let you plan and teach lessons. Still others will put you to work grading student papers or laminating materials for them. Your field experiences will likely fall somewhere along this continuum.
VIGNETTES: Most chapters include vignettes of teaching that I've collected over the years. The purpose of the vignettes is to provide real illustrations of what it's like to be a teacher. Many of them come from my own work in the classroom: as a substitute teacher, primarily in the New Jersey public school system (and a variety of suburban and rural communities) and as a classroom teacher for thirteen more years in three suburban high schools in the Chicago area. From these forty different schools, in most subject areas and at all grade levels, I've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of public education.
I have drawn on these experiences to write about instructional planning as well as provide vignettes relevant to points raised in this book.
One note before moving along: I've just provided you with an explanation of how the book is structured and what you can expect. As you'll see, I recommend that any time you teach something complex, it's helpful to provide some kind of map for students so they know where they're headed. As with any other journey, the destination may change and detours may entice you off the path—but traveling is much easier on the nerves when you have some idea of where you're headed and which paths you'll follow to arrive there.
One more note on the presentation of the text: I have tried to make the book as readable as possible. In considering how to do this, I made a decision that violates one rule of scholarly writing, which is to provide references in the text to published scholarship to support claims made in the text. In most scholarly writing, this convention makes a sentence look like this: "Cognitive psychologists have found that people use knowledge networks, called schemata, to organize their thinking (Arbib & Conklin, 1987; Bransford, 1979; Kintsch, 1977; Kitao, 1989; Mandler, 1984; Tierney & Pearson, 1980." Much of my own writing looks like this. For this book, I thought that using in-text citation lists would interfere with, rather than assist, reading. I therefore have included citation lists in proximity to claims that require references, rather than within the text itself. (I do use in-text citations when they are brief and do not break the flow of reading.) A master list of references at the end of the book includes each citation listed in the book. Readers are welcome to consult these sources if they wish to do further reading or check the basis for my claims about teaching and learning.
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