Tonight I participated in my first ever #engchat on Twitter. The special guest was teacher-author Jim Burke, whose book The English Teacher’s Companion has been on my shelf, dog-eared and edge-worn, for a few years now. I have passed this book around at department meetings, I’ve lent it to other teachers, and I’ve regularly used it as a pedagogical source and a source in my graduate work. I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve been reading and participating in Jim Burke’s English Companion Ning, also. It is a rich resource for those of us who teach language arts, but it also offers some noteworthy ideas for all teachers. It was truly a thrill to participate in such a valuable discussion about ELA instruction in real time with him.
This is what I gleaned from the discussion:
We must connect with our students on a human level. The human connection will help us to interpret student competencies and needs. It will help us to differentiate instruction, select appropriately challenging texts, and make those texts meaningful to our students. A teacher’s authenticity in the classroom is essential to building those important human connections.
As a side note, let us not forget the importance of building human connections with parents. I think we often forget the role parents can play in helping us to help their children achieve. Where we make human connections with parents, we may also tap into resources beyond what we’d hoped or imagined, resources like volunteer time, fundraising efforts, resource donations, professional expertise, and mentors. We need to encourage parents to be partners, and sometimes, we need to show them how to be partners! Engage parents.
Another idea tweeted was that we need to be clear about the goals and objectives of our lessons. We should be sharing those objectives with students daily! Sometimes, because ELA curriculum tends to be more “recursive” and integrated than that of other content areas which are more linear, it is more difficult to isolate objectives for our lessons. Although a lesson could target 17 indicators under 5 different standards, we must prioritize objectives by choosing three which we will emphasize in terms of student learning outcomes. The magic number seems to be “3”. If you set more than three learning goals or objectives, your point is lost.
I also read several tweets about overarching themes or essential/guiding questions as a way to organize course content and set objectives. I use essential questions and love them for developing thematic instruction. Centering instruction around essential questions can strengthen the connection between curriculum and students. It also encourages teachers to go beyond the anthology to use a variety of textual resources, allowing for scaffolding with non-fiction texts, engaging students in Socratic seminars or discussions focused on related poetic texts, or asking students to write (this year in student blogs in my class) about how the texts connect both to the students themselves and to the other texts in the unit.
I read several tweets about the role of technology not only as a general instructional tool in any classroom, but also how we must see that students are literate “both in the digital and traditional world” (#engchat @padgets). There was some debate about how much tech should be included in classroom instruction as well as whether tech is a necessary element in effective ELA instruction. I believe that if tech serves to engage students in dialogue with texts, with each other about texts and ideas, and with the literate world beyond the four walls of my classroom, then it is a valuable tool for effective ELA instruction. Tech will remain a tool, however, and not content in and of itself.
I am sure that as the chat rolled down the page sometimes so quickly it was dizzying, I missed a few great thoughts. I am thankful, though, that I had the opportunity to participate. There is nothing as valuable to my instruction as the infectious enthusiasm of colleagues who care deeply about the quality of what they do to serve the learning of their students every day. A special thanks to the #engchat founder and moderator @sapereaude and to Jim Burke (@englishcomp) for making it possible.