Intentional Planning in Language Arts

Article by Katie Currens, CUES Consultant

Essential questions are often talked about when planning a thematic unit. We use them as a way to provoke inquiry and to have students dig deeper with their own questions as a way to reach a greater understanding. As professionals, we know the value in inquiry, but sometimes we seem to forget just how “simple” it can be.

Students today are inundated with information from multiple forms of text: informational, literary, and non-print. One of the best ways to develop critical thinking skills is having them analyze multiple texts under a critical lens. Essential questions and other strategies are not intended as a pop quiz. They are a way for students to guide their thinking. Much like we don’t like feeling caught off-guard, student’s benefit from knowing why they engage with texts.

Many teachers worry that they waste time by incorporating videos, music, and images in instruction. However, not only is it a common standard across contents, but it is also the way the world communicates. We should adjust our practice in order to prepare them for the current communication landscape. This can and should be done from primary grades all the way through secondary.

So, what might that look like? Take this example of video clips from the movie WallE paired with a news article.

Imagine a lesson centered on the a theme of “independence.” I would share the intro scene from the Disney/Pixar film WallE with my class. The students would discuss how WallE demonstrates independence and how this relates to the other texts or content.

Shortly thereafter, the students would view a clip from about ⅓ into the film when WallE boards the Axiom. There is a clear difference in the level of independence among the people aboard this spacecraft. This springboards into a larger conversation about reliance, impacts of technology, and sustainability of resources. Some may ask (as one example), “What does that have to do with grammar skills?” With this question-based approach, we provide a level of questioning that expands students’ knowledge. Thus, you can have them write a critical piece reviewing multiple standards and skills.

Next, we can add an article to create some real-world application. I have found several articles about students developing a school garden. This is a great opportunity to discuss features of informational texts that can be tied into “sustainability” and “independence.” Ultimately, we would want to see if the students can synthesize those texts. To do so, I will have pre-planned questions to ask students, gauging their level of understanding while aligning the work to the expectations of writing and literary standards.

Potential questions could be:

Informational: How will their independence help the people aboard the Axiom?

Opinion: Who better demonstrates independence, WallE or the children?

Narrative: Write a comic in which the children board the Axiom and teach the people how to be more independent.

By engaging students in conversations and activities with a variety of texts, I am able to expand their knowledge on content as well as help them become more critical thinkers.

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