Monthly Archives: November 2010

It seems like being a good teacher should be easy. There are so many books, websites, and kits available to help teachers ply their trade—day to day lesson plans for every canonical text under the sun, boxes of workbooks and five pound teacher editions of textbooks that provide us with enough materials to occupy our students for a full year. What more could we want, right?

Well, here’s the thing (and if you’re reading this blog, you probably already know it): being a good teacher is not easy. Sure, resources are available, but the sad fact is that the vast majority of them do not support effective pedagogy. Packets of reproducible worksheets and by teacher, for teacher lesson websites quickly accumulate in a disjointed, purposeless pile. All these resources commonly supply are pieces of paper that will get me through the day while the kids fill in blanks like robots. The point of teaching, though, is not to get through the day. The point is to get students to achieve the learning objectives set before them. And, by the way, “Students will complete a worksheet” is not a learning objective. A person cannot be a good teacher without understanding that. Consequently, this also means that a person cannot be a good teacher without working—hard—to find and create quality classroom materials that support true learning.

I’m fortunate enough to have a colleague and friend, Ms. J, who is on the same wavelength regarding objective-based lesson design and the necessity of creating new teaching materials. She also happens to teach one of the same classes that I do, so we get to have the experience of collaborating as we plan new units. We spend real time discussing what we want students to learn and how we will get them there. We’re currently designing a multigenre writing project in which students will track a thematic topic (such as love, violence, loyalty, or fate) through the five acts of Romeo and Juliet. It’s a complex endeavor, but if we manage to pull it off, it will get our students to do some really specific, impressive things. Students will demonstrate analysis of a Shakespearean text. Students will use classical literature as a vehicle to understand and comment on the human experience. Students will examine the ways in which genre effects the author’s message and the reader’s perception. These are some of the unit learning objectives that we trust to help shape our lessons into something meaningful, designed for a purpose, linked to previous purposes, and moving toward the ultimate goal of making smarter readers, writers, and thinkers. It’s hard work, yes, but that’s the secret. To be a good teacher, every move you make must have a reason. This requires a ton of thought and planning, but it also yields amazing results: students who know what they are doing and why.

I always tell my students that their first and biggest question should always be “What’s the point?” I also tell them that there’s always an answer to that question. We as teachers need to ask that question, too. Our lessons need clearly communicated purposes, and should be built specifically to target those purposes.

Whether you’re a veteran objectives-based teacher or someone who is just starting to really learn what that means, consider these questions pulled from my notes as an undergraduate at UW-Milwaukee. Being a good teacher—not easy, but deceptively simple. These five questions are what I use as my cognitive frame for quality objectives-based teaching.

 What should I teach? (Content/skill, described by learning objectives)

 How should I teach it? (Methodology and resources)

 Why should I teach it? (Rationale, supported by research and standards)

 How will I know my students have learned it? (Assessment)

 What will I do if they don’t? (Re-teaching/accommodations)

Happy planning, fellow power teachers! And know that, if you’re working for hours on end to find or create new materials for your students, you may not be in the majority, but you’re definitely not alone. 🙂

My subscription to National Geographic is something that brings joy to my mailbox, substance to my reading diet, and an amazing go-to item to my classroom. I wear my subscription to this iconic periodical as a badge of honor. Whatever you think of when you envision a National Geographic subscriber, it’s likely that I fit your description… Academic. Thoughtful. Vastly nerdy. But I’m also something else—a teacher who’s committed to finding affordable, effective, outside-the-box ideas for my classroom. And this magazine is, I’ve found, exactly that.

Let me clarify. I am not in any way affiliated with National Geographic or their educational materials. In fact, I don’t really know much about their teacher resources at all. However, I am a diehard believer in the power of National Geographic, the magazine, in the English classroom. Teachers of English (or, for that matter, science, geography, history, and art), consider a subscription. Why? Here are five of my reasons.

Reason 1. Visual Literacy

Since its inception, this magazine has been recognized for its groundbreaking photographic images. Every issue of National Geographic is packed with photos that defy the conventional boundaries of angle, proximity, color, and motion. But more than that—this magazine’s images are famous for their ability to capture a moment and tell a story in addition to exhibiting technical brilliance. As I watch students page through, their reactions to the photos are visceral and nuanced. As they select an image to inspire a poem, fit in a collage, or serve as foundation for some descriptive writing, they are hard at work interpreting the story of each image. Teachers can also pull a specific image to focus on as a whole class in order to model interpretation of the photographer’s composition choices and the reactions elicited in us, the viewers. Students can also examine how the images inform and shape the corresponding captions and articles. I guarantee you, present a classroom with a tableful of National Geographic, and before long, you’ll hear a chorus of, “Whoa, what is that? Look at that!” They encounter the images as texts with something important to say.

Reason 2. Non-Fiction Writing

The articles in National Geographic are readily available examples of quality non-fiction writing. Part of the beauty of the magazine as reading material is that, despite its intellectually challenging content, it is absolutely readable. Figurative language, engaging author voice, descriptive imagery, and even humor is observable on page after page. What better to show students as a current example of real-life non-fiction writing and what it can look like?  This publication does, again, an incredible job with story, even with its non-literary nature. The facts are memorable because of the way the writers craft the stories about them—that’s what I ask my students to do, too, in their research and persuasive pieces.

Reason 3. Critical Thinking

Current and often controversial events are explored in this magazine. As students browse, they discover hot topics in biology, geology, environmental science, global politics, pop culture, economics and more. They become more informed. They are given the opportunity to consider the views of the writer and potential readers. Often, the writing leaves the reader with more questions about the topic—this serves as excellent food for discussion, where students use examples from the article to support their opinion about the issue at hand.

Reason 4. Academic Reading

A challenging lexicon and length that demands an attention span of some stamina makes these articles good practice for college-level reading. The great thing, though, is that many of the topics are so darn interesting that even the most reluctant high school reader will start reading an article. (Shortly after, they will look ahead to count the pages, and say, “Dang, this is long!” But most of the time, they still commit to the long haul.) I read every issue back to back when it comes to my home. This creates a great ability for me to come around to individual students all looking at different articles and engage each of them in conversation about what they’re reading. It also slightly astounds them when they realize that I’ve read every single one. They may think I’m crazy, but I think that they also respect and find intrigue in the fact that “people actually read this stuff.” It enters them briefly into a readership, an academy.

Reason 5. Multi-Purpose Utility

These magazines can be used and reused, torn apart, photocopied, piled, sorted and marked up. With a subscription, the supply is also self-refreshing with new stories, photos, and knowledge waiting for student hands and minds. In a year, a teacher can amass enough for one class to use several times. Over several years, one gains a collection of resources at a comparatively low cost. Besides, they look pretty cool fanned out across a classroom shelf. Trust me. 🙂

Have fun! Visit for more information about the magazine and, I suspect, a wealth of other educational resources.