Today’s Self-Assigned-Ment: “Essential Questions”

I’m excited. Next year I’m going to be teaching humanities at a school less than a mile away from my previous school.  It’s a charter school, the same population, and similar subjects (humanities – no math or science).  Why am I leaving? Save that for a different post (after I’ve stopped making it personal).  So, for the first time in a long time, I got to create a pacing guide with my own choices for literature!  Of course, there will be lots of editing involved, but I just wanted to write out something that I would love.

As I was doing so, I remembered that I wanted to have overarching themes to effect meaningful, relevant learning experiences.  Only once do I remember having a teacher who explicitly did that (HS junior year Lit, first semester: “What is the American Dream?”).  Yet I’ve observed other teachers do that, and it just makes sense to help my kids make connections rather than having them do it on their own.

I was not even sure what the key words were so, first, I began to search “How to create overarching themes”, “how to write big ideas,” and thanks to Google’s autofill, I finally found the right topic: “How to Frame Essential Questions”.

In looking that up, I found this blog post: Understanding by Design: Essential Questions.

Below are a few choice quotes of this writer’s summary of this chapter in the book, Understanding by Design.  (ahh internet, O how you allow us to keep boiling things down!)

“Wiggins and McTighe define essential questions as “questions that are not answerable with finality in a brief sentence… Their aim is to stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions — including thoughtful student questions — not just pat answers” (106). ”

“according to Wiggins and McTighe, essential questions actually have one or more of the following meanings:

  • Essential questions are “important questions that recur throughout all our lives.”  They are “broad in scope and timeless by nature.”
  • ….
  • Essential questions help “students effectively inquire and make sense of important but complicated ideas, knowledge, and know-how — a bridge to findings that experts may believe are settled but learners do not yet grasp or see as valuable.” 
  • ….(108-109)”

We sometimes send students the message that getting through the content is more important than their own questions.  We have trained students that not to know something and be curious about it is risky.

Now, this was nice.  This brings me to my second question:  How do I write them?

Unfortunately, there was much more chaff than wheat on the Google results, and what I realized is that for now, I do best by looking at others’ plans and then adapting them to my own kids.  As a teacher, I am learning to not go out of my way to reinvent the wheel — I end up doing it anyway.  So, there’s no guilt in not being “original.”  Thankfully, lots of the themes that I seek to teach or books that I want to cover have already been taught in some way, shape, or form before!  So, now it’s just the process of sifting through all the old resources and figuring out what I want to use for my students!

So third, as I sifted, I thought of this whole “Understanding by Design” or “Backwards planning” and other teacher-y terminology, and my mind drifted back to my last semester of grad school in 2012, when I learned of Universal Design for Learning – the idea that all students (regardless of academic background) can learn (given the right scaffolds and resources).  It’s also the idea that if we modify parts for a student with special learning needs, that modification could also help the “regular” student.  As I continue to teach in a diverse environment, differentiating is a challenge, but it’s exciting as well.  When you take a step back, you do realize that everyone is learning!  Anyway, I found this nifty tool on the CAST website where I could self-check my unit goals and methods.

So this is my own self-study for the day. I hope you also got to reap a few benefits.

How do you frame your units? How do you create your essential questions or big ideas?


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