Behind The Scenes: Considering The Big Picture

On Monday, Allison wrote about the nightmare of the blank planner.

I started this week with that nightmare as a reality for one of my classes. I knew exactly where I’d be starting with my Grade 11s and my Grade 12s, but I was kind of blanking on what my Grade 9s would be starting with. It kind of freaked me out.

And it kind of seemed like the right thing to do.

I have the luxury of working in a smaller school. Aside from a few changes, my 11s and 12s are groups of students that I know well, and have built a culture with. There are some programming pieces that I’ve used in those courses that are a perfect fit for them.

Those 9s though, I don’t know them yet, and I can’t decide what things I’ve got in the bag of tricks are going to work best for them. It’s a different situation for me – usually, I don’t see Grade 9 students until second semester, and by then, I have a sense of who they are. This year, I’ve got them in my classroom on the first day. I have an opening piece all figured out, personalizing our notebooks. I’ll be scrambling, trying to get some quick reads on who my new students are.

But here’s the thing. I’m actually pretty confident about things, because I’ve thought about what the Big Picture is in the course. I’m not sure exactly what the path will look like, nor have I figured out exactly what we’re going to do, but I know where I’d like us to be at the end of it.

One of the things that enables me to do this is basing each of my English courses around a theme. I’ve been doing this for a decade now, and I can’t recommend it enough. My Grade 9 students will be studying Storytelling: Imagination and Empathy. This is a huge theme, and one that we explored last year. I’ve developed some activities and pursuits to explore. (Semantics, I know, but I’ve been calling them pursuits instead of units.) We did great work in Monster Season last year, exploring imagination and empathy through a look at scary stuff. In reflecting on things at year’s end, my team and I discussed how beneficial it would have been to have the 9s exploring friendship and what that means, so we’ve got that to build this year, focusing on how story can let us explore those ideas.

Just having an overall theme at the outset of the course makes the planning easier. I use the theme to inform what we explore through the texts we read and write. The challenge then becomes serving the Big Picture the theme presents. What are key ideas that we need to explore and critically consider throughout the course? How can we use those ideas to develop skills and techniques in the discipline, and meet the outcomes of our curricula? Using theme as the Big Picture allows me to focus on the heart and soul of my students. I’m asking myself where I want them to be as people as the course ends.

If I set the theme aside, my Big Picture adjusts itself, and becomes about the things we do. Now, I’m asking myself what I want them to be able to do as the course ends. I need to look at things like their final assessments, or skills they’ll need for post-secondary. It might be within the course they’re taking, or it might be related to their full high school journey. For example, our students write a provincial assessment in Grade 12, where they respond to a variety of texts, as well as write a piece about the theme of the assessment. We make sure, as we plan our courses, to scaffold experiences that approximate the elements of that assessment, giving them many chances to develop in those tasks. I’ve worked in schools where there are set forms to be studied in each grade. Whatever needs to be taught, we tie our Big Picture to that.

As a visual person, I love the Venn diagram. In my head, and sometimes on paper, I apply one to our theme and the things I know we need to do. There’s an incredible overlap, and the theme can easily be used to drive the things we do. It can guide me to mentor texts, especially when a form is synonymous with a theme. Our study of Soceity: People and Power leads us to looking at articles and editorials, social justice focused poetry and dystopian stories. Right there is the meat of my Grade 11 course I’m beginning. Some of the texts we’ll study are figured out, and many of the words that will inspire us haven’t found us yet.

The common thread here is where we end. That’s what, to me, the Big Picture is – knowing where you hope to be as the course winds up. I italicized hope because we need to be flexible. That’s why a plan book filled with blank pages shouldn’t be as daunting. You work towards that end, planning things with the Big Picture in mind.

Some cinsiderations:

  • Planning should be a fluid, organic process. I am well aware how challenging that can be early in your career. It looks easy for me because I draw on almost two decades of experience. My advice – to your teacher’s heart be true. Keep your “haftados” in mind as you plan, and draw on any resource you can.

 

  • Collaboration is key. If you have a team, work as a team. Feast on the experience of experienced teachers. Marvel at the energy and innovation of new teachers. Share your ideas and ask for feedback. Ideas grow as they’re shared. If you don’t have a team, go online. (If you’re here, you’ve found a supportive community of teachers to work with!)

 

  • Get to know your students. Figure out what they need from you, and how they need it to happen. If you’re bringing something in, tweak it for your students. One of my favorite educators always says, “There are no best practices. There are the best practices for your class.” This, to me, means meeting your students’ needs using your professional judgement. Your ability to do this is why you’re teaching, and haven’t been replaced by a computer.

 

  • Openly try things that move you towards your Big Picture. Let students know that this is what you are doing. That spirit of academic adventure can be contagious. They will take chances if they see you doing the same thing. You’ll learn about yourself, and about them in the process. Try, reflect and remix. Ask your students about what you’ve done, as their input will help you reflect.

 

  • And, importantly, as much as it sounds like I’m advocating for a somewhat random series of activities tied to a Big Picture, have a structure. I no longer do units in the traditional sense, because it dawned on me that something like poetry month disengages a devout hater of poetry for a full month. Instead, I try to pepper things throughout the course.  Poetry, for example, is a weekly thing, often happening on PoeTuesdays. In doing this, I sturcture an extended study of the form, writing and analyzing poetry, over the full course. Often, the smaller, regular morsels of poetry help students develop a taste for it.

I joke with my students that for a guy with no hair, I seem to bring a lot of hippie ideas and attitudes to our class. Working with a Big Picture is part of this. I have an image of where we will wind up, some idea of the things we’ll do along the way, and an open apporach to the journey. Reflecting on what I’ve seen from my students, I can’t think of a better way to start the year.

Do you start with a Big Picture in mind, or an end that you want to reach? What’s that look like for you? I try to share what’s going on in my classes on Twitter,  @doodlinmunkyboy. Find me there, or comment below.

Have a great year!

-Jay

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