In the reflection below, I examine an incident I encountered while tutoring and eighth-grade student and describe what this incident taught me about how young teen’s desire to explore and further define their identities impacts the way they engage with subject-area content. Applying my learnings from the experience on which I reflect, I present a unit outline that I designed to slot into the curriculum of an eighth-grade course I will teach during the 2020-2021 school year. Under each learning activity description, I use my contextual knowledge of the school and students to justify why I believe the activity is appropriate for inspiring the students’ engagement in acts of critical literacy, self-reflection, and strategic composition. These activities, which I selected for their ability to encourage dialogic learning, demonstrate how I understand and approach teaching subject-area concepts, such as symbolism, characterization, generative vocabulary, and expository writing. I structured the activities in a continuum that allows students to practice each subject area skill through a variety of learning channels before asking them to apply the learnings they built together to novel situations through formative and summative assessments. This continuum aligns with Yang’s (2009) theory of promoting productive student learning by dividing each unit into seasons of training and performance and encourages mastery learning (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) by affording students opportunities to test their understandings, receive feedback, and then retry their theories before they must apply them to a performance task assessment.
Designing a Unit to Inspire Middle-School Students’ Learning
Dissonance and Discovery
Ms. P’s course calendar said nothing about Shakespeare. However, when I stole the chair next to Cece to start her tutoring session, I saw her right finger slipping across iambs in a ratted copy of Romeo and Juliet.
“Maggie and Lynn are reading this in advanced English,” Cece said, nose burrowing into the book’s spine. “They are going to be in Honors English next year,” her voice thinned to a whisper. “I wish I were that smart. I don’t understand any of this.”
It was then I noticed the neon-green notecard Cece had set atop the No Fear Shakespeare text translation. “Sometimes, my brain reads Shakespeare like a different language,” I said. “That’s when I peek at the modern text. Comparing the two versions helps me decode the difficult one.”
“The easy stuff is for dummies,” Cece said, raising her eyebrows at me.
“I’m curious,” I shrugged. “Do you think it would be a smarter decision for me to read the original text and not understand it or read the modern text to teach myself how to read the original?”
Cece’s top teeth dug into her bottom lip. “I guess the second one,” she smiled. “Will you teach me how?”
Inspiring the Adolescent Experience: The Essential Question
When I think about the adolescent experience, I think about the hours Cece and I spent laughing as we developed and tested a Shakespeare Translation Guide. I think about how those hours still led to more hours of me convincing Cece that she and her friends enrolled in Advanced English had less difference in dignity than the Capulets and the Montagues. Cece’s desire to start high school in the “smart class” with her friends, and her insistence that smart students appreciate Shakespeare the second they see the page, underscores the difficulty of adolescence. Middle school is the time when we start defining ourselves and desiring group membership while still developing the abstract thinking skills that help us understand our identities will never fit into neat categories. Between the concrete realities that adolescents experience and the fact that every concept is quite pliable is a space that makes students feel isolated when they crave community, makes the opinions they merely consider come out of their mouths as strong as stone. However, this dissonance also signals the possibility of discovery. With the right tools, with the time to tackle questions as a community and to consider topics from lenses formed through their peers’ experiences and perspectives, adolescents can experience their ideas helping others to uncover the ideologies embedded in what they see.
I plan to inspire the positive possibilities of adolescence— the discoveries and the friendships that form when we start considering who we are—by designing lessons that live-out Levi P. Dodge Middle School’s mission to “create a community of thriving learners.” I designed the “Feeling Autumntime” mini-unit to demonstrate how I will build the eighth-grade curriculum into essential questions that exercise abstract thought and activities that allow students to use their unique experiences and skills to construct shared understandings. Throughout the unit, students will consider the question, what factors contribute to how we experience habitat alteration? I selected this question because it aligns with the themes of Anthony Lentini’s “Autumntime,” a short story I learned the eighth-grade scholars at Dodge Middle School studied last week to learn new vocabulary. Additionally, the question does not call for a single, correct answer or consideration from a sole pathway or perspective. As the question prompts students to consider how cultural factors contribute to their individual and diverse experiences of habitat alteration, the learning activities that allow them to grapple with it will honor each student’s individuality while building community. The question’s many possibilities for exploration opens doors for customized and collaborative learning opportunities and encourages innovation and risk-taking.
Each lesson in the “Feeling Autumntime” unit will begin with a bell ring activity, a preview of the lesson and unit, and a statement to help students connect the knowledge they will create inside the classroom to its potential impact outside of the school’s walls. Routines exemplify one effort I make to create a safe, comfortable environment for students to take learning risks. Before each activity, I also remind students of the norms that we built together, which define how productive, collaborative, and respectful working looks. The learning activities in the “Feeling Autumntime” unit, which allow me to assess students’ understandings and adjust future lessons to scaffold the acquisition of necessary insights, provide students with tools to dig into the content to make discoveries that they will teach to each other. For their summative assessment, students will create a visual representation of the internal and external factors that form their experiences of habitat alteration. After sharing these representations, each student will write an e-mail to an elected official that references what they learned from their peers’ presentations to explain what they want the official to understand about the diverse effects of habitat alteration. Through this assessment, students understand their responsibility to society and feel the school supporting their efforts to create real change in their lives and communities.
An outline of the activities and assessments in the “Feeling Autumntime” unit follows this introduction. As an instructor at Levi P. Dodge Middle School, I will bring similar outlines to the English Department to spark discussion about our curriculum and collaboratively build units that inspire adolescents to become lifelong learners. While developing unit outlines, I look forward to working closely with Ms. Willaby to understand how her expertise and background knowledge influences her view of the unit, hear her ideas for improvement, and collaborate on determining co-teaching models and evaluation methods. As unit planning involves defining content objectives, language objectives, and activity descriptions, the process will allow Ms. Willaby and I to compare learner profiles to each task’s requirements and identify where to embed supports to help all learners access the activities. Through evaluating evidenced understandings against the language and content targets, I can assess my teaching effectiveness and use the data I collect to improve my instructional methods for future lessons. Detailing the activities will help me communicate the curriculum goals and attainment plans to students’ families so that I can answer their questions and collect their feedback about how I am meeting their students’ needs. Their insights about students’ learning processes will help me understand how to increase students’ intrinsic motivation and inspire their curiosity. From outlines like the one I present below, I will build detailed lesson plans that explain how I will frame, scaffold, and create transitions for the learning activities that cater to students’ areas for growth, interests, and aspirations.
What Factors Contribute to our Individual Experiences of Climate Change? (“Feeling Autumntime” Unit)
Juzwik, M. et al. (2013). Inspiring dialogue: Talking to learn in the English classroom (Language and literacy series). New York, NY: Teachers College Press,Teachers College, Columbia University.
Wiggins, J. & McTighe, G (2005). Understanding by design (Expanded 2nd ed., Gale virtual reference library). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Yang, K. W. (2009). Discipline or punish? Some Suggestions for school policy and teacher practice. Language Arts, 87(1), 49-61.