50 Essential Lessons by Jim Burke
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Guiding Principles

"50 Essential Lessons offers teachers a way to "apprentice" their students by providing students with the tools and techniques they need to make meaning from multiple types of texts, ultimately enabling students to go out and make a living in a complex world. Hopefully, the essential lessons they learn here will guide and carry them into the future-a future that is not just theirs, but ours." —Jim Burke

The following is excerpted from the 50 Essential Lessons Teacher's Guide.

As I wrote 50 Essential Lessons and analyzed my teaching, I looked for common threads, principles that informed what I do, how I do it, and why. These principles, the more I became aware of them, improved my own teaching because they made me aware of what I did that made a difference. While I offer them here to provide a theoretical foundation for the lessons, I also encourage you to use my principles to reflect on yours. By reflecting on our teaching we develop, as athletes do after watching the game tapes, a deeper understanding of our "moves" in different situations, and through that increased awareness, we become more fluent, more cognizant, and thus more effective (Hillocks, 2005). After much reflection, I have identified the following ten principles as the core of essential lessons.

Effective instruction, as I will explain in detail further on, teaches students how to:
  1. Work independently and with others to solve a range of intellectual problems.
  2. Process material on multiple levels and in various ways.
  3. Use tools and strategies to solve a range of academic problems.
  4. Learn skills and knowledge through a range of instructional modes.
  5. Communicate understanding by multiple means, including other media.
  6. Monitor and evaluate personal performance and progress towards goals.
  7. Connect what is learned today to self, other studies, and the world.
  8. Develop and use skills and knowledge in the context of meaningful conversations.
  9. Know what a successful performance looks like on all tasks and assessments.
  10. Read a variety of types of texts, including multimedia and visual.

1. Work independently and with others to solve a range of intellectual problems.
The world expects students to be able to work independently as well as with others (Olson, 2006). Group work, however, must have structure and purpose in order to improve engagement, comprehension, and memory (Angelis, 2003; Langer, 2000; Langer and Close, 2001; Marzano, 2001; National Council of Teachers of English, 2006; Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde, 2005). Such collaboration offers additional support for English Language Learners (Echevarria and Graves, 2003; NCTE, 2006) and those with special needs, giving the teacher a way to differentiate instruction (Tomlinson, 1999) so that these students can hear how others discuss a particular problem and see how they work to solve it. Working together to solve problems is an essential life skill for all students. Frequent group work helps students develop skills that also help them work more effectively alone.

Students must be able to work independently in a variety of contexts. They may enjoy working in "lit circles" on a novel, but they don't get to do that on the state or AP tests; thus must be able to show the world that they can do on their own what they can do in a group.

In The English Teacher's Companion (Burke, 2003) I use the term "Continuum of Performance" to represent this movement from dependence to independence and back again. All of us (students, teachers, readers, writers and thinkers) continually move back and forth along this continuum as we learn and, over time, improve. Such movement signals improved fluency as students learn to perform increasingly complex tasks on their own by using those strategies that help them progress from where they are to where they need to be academically (Alliance for Education, 2004; Vygotsky 1978). The following sequence, which I use in various lessons, illustrates such a progression. In this sequence, students progress from working independently to working with a group. In other lessons, students begin in groups and then later work on their own. Both variations are useful.

Working Alone
  • Generate a list of words that you could use to describe a character.
  • Evaluate those words, choosing the one you think best describes him or her.
  • Analyze and note how that word applies to the character.
  • Organize your details according to some principle such as order of importance.
  • Synthesize your ideas by writing a brief character analysis.
Working with Others
  • Share your words with the group, generating a second list.
  • Evaluate all the words in your group and decide which one out of them all is the best word for this character.
  • Analyze how that word applies to the character, generating examples and details to support and illustrate your point.
  • Synthesize everyone's ideas by moving into a full class discussion, during which each group shares its words, the teacher puts on the board, and everyone evaluates all the words to find one word the whole class agrees is the best word to describe the character.
  • For homework, use your notes to write a more formal character analysis with supporting details from the text; bring in the next day.

Note how, aside from being built around the academic essential verbs—synthesize, analyze, evaluate, generate, organize—each stage prepares the student for the stage that follows, in this case sending students to their groups ready to share their words while at the same time providing them with an opportunity to see how others solved the same problem. Such text-based collaborative learning, when anchored in discussion (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2004; Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, and Gamoran, 2003; Langer and Close, 2001) fosters a lively community within the class while also developing skills and knowledge that lead to improved performance on other tasks, including tests, since sequences such as the one above integrate test preparation, in this case, analytical writing practice, into a larger, more meaningful curricular discussion (Applebee, 1999; Langer 2000).

I tend to think of this process as a cycle which can potentially begin and end fruitfully at multiple points. If it is robust, this cycle, or continuum, leads to the next principle: active processing.

2. Process material on multiple levels and in various ways.
The best, most delicious way to understand this principle is to think about the process of making a pizza. You knead the dough, stretching and pulling, twisting and flinging as you work in the different elements that will make it rise; then you start building it up, layer after layer, adding one thing to another, each topping meant to complement the other. Then you bake it, turning everything into one delicious, brilliant pie of complex understanding. In other words, kids need to take the material in hand—whether it's a poem, a problem, or a concept—and "mess about" with it, moving through successive levels of complexity that require "guided inquiry," all of which lead to a "culminating performance" (Ritchhart, et al., 1998) which one can only do well if they have processed the material to such an extent that they have "internalized it" and thus made the material their own (Vygotsky, 1978).

Researchers (Beuhl, 2001; Clarke, 1990) find it is just such robust, deep processing that leads to improved understanding, fluency, and memory, all of which result in improved performance in those areas the lessons address. It is the work of Robert Marzano that informs my thinking most profoundly here. In his book Designing a New Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (2001), Marzano offers a new angle on the work begun by Benjamin Bloom (1956), organizing knowledge into domains and thinking into systems, using his "new taxonomy" to show how teachers can consistently move beyond mere "retrieval" and "comprehension" into more advanced levels such as analysis and utilization. (See Figure 1.3, following page.)

Implementing Marzano's ideas creates a much more interactive environment, one that accelerates and deepens learning by all students, including English language learners (Chamot and O'Mally, 1994), who are likely to begin on the more literal level and, through successive interactions, arrive at a more conceptual understanding, which enables them to apply the material to other situations. The goal is to provide multiple "entry points" into the material, allowing students at all levels to begin where they are and, through these different cognitive processes, reach new levels (Gardner, 1999; Tomlinson, 1999). Langer (2001) found that students who are taught and expected to be "generative thinkers" achieve sustained, significant gains in their reading and writing performance; subsequent studies (Langer and Close, 2001; Nystrand, 2006) concluded that using discussion in various structured ways leads to further gains in reading comprehension. Langer identifies other "generative" activities, such as having students:

  • Explore texts from many points of view (e.g., social, historical, ethical, political, personal)
  • Extend literary understanding beyond initial interpretations
  • Research and discuss issues generated by literary texts and by student concerns
  • Extend research questions beyond their original focus
  • Develop ideas in writing that go beyond the superficial
  • Write from different points of view
  • Design follow-up lessons that cause students to move beyond their initial thinking.

One last means of processing information is to use tools such as graphic organizers; these are the subjects of the next principle, which will explore their use in more detail.

3. Use tools and strategies to solve a range of academic problems.
What some call "visual tools" (Hyerle, 1996), "nonlinguistic representations"(Marzano, 2001), or "graphic organizers" (Beyer, 2001; Clarke, 1990;), I call "tools for thought" (Burke, 2002). I prefer to call them tools because that is how we use them in my class; we also use them to do much more than merely "organize" or "represent." We use them to help us learn and do all of the "academic essentials": read, write, speak, take notes, take tests, and manage oneself (mirroring the traditional academic verbs: generate, evaluate, analyze, organize, and synthesize). Hyerle (1996), summing up years of research findings, notes that these "visual tools" enhance students':
  • Motivation to learn
  • Basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic
  • Content knowledge retention
  • General communication skills
  • Organizing abilities
  • Independent and cooperative learning
  • Problem-solving flexibility
  • Creative and analytical thinking
  • Conceptual understandings
  • Higher-order thinking
  • Metacognitive abilities and self-assessment
  • Enjoyment of problem-solving

I first explored the use of tools in my English class when I found myself teaching five sophomore English classes, each with approximately thirty-five students, many of whom were "transitional English language learners" (ready to study in the mainstream). Faced with such a wide range of needs and abilities in a large class, I realized that my students needed to learn a range of strategies (Alliance for Excellence in Education, 2004; Langer, 1999; National Council of Teachers of English, 2006) and that these tools could help them do that, giving them the structure they would need to solve the various academic problems encountered in my class. Since that time, regardless of the level of need of the students, I have become a much more visual teacher, realizing in the process that thought has a shape to it and tools can help students better understand and convey their ideas whether in writing, speaking, or representing. The "shape" of thought often accords with the different rhetorical modes or "text frames" (Buehl, 2001), thus allowing me to choose, as my father taught me long ago, "the right tool for the job." If, for example, we are going to compare and contrast two or more texts, we might use Comparison Notes or the Main Idea Organizer; should we want to develop a persuasive essay or speech, we would use the Argument Organizer.

It is too easy to see a completed tool as an end result, but effective use of these tools means, of course, going beyond that. A completed Conversational Roundtable, for example, is a beginning, preparing students for what is the real work of the day: reading, writing, or speaking. I frequently remind myself not to overuse tools and never to turn them into busywork or default solutions. When you use them, I recommend that you always try them first yourself. Then model their use—on the overhead, whiteboard, or butcher papermdash;for students as you are setting up the assignment.

All the tools are located in Tools and Texts and on the accompanying CD-ROM. Throughout the lessons you will see facsimiles of the tools at their point of use, in the context of teaching sequences. A representative sequence might begin by having students read a batch of sonnets for homework and then come to class to find a copy of the Conversational Roundtable on the overhead. I will begin by telling them what I want them to do in groups; then I will model for them how to use the tool in their groups to accomplish this end. Each student will complete the same tool through collaborative discussion, which prepares them for the next stage: using their notes to write a well-organized piece of analytical prose. The tool, due to its structure, will have effectively prepared them for this task by having them generate categories, details, and quotations, all related to the subject at the center of the tool. Such a sequence illustrates the next principle about instructional modes.

4. Learn skills and knowledge through a range of instructional modes.
The more I study and write about adolescent literacy, the more I come to see one central subject running throughout: teaching so that students can learn. I can ingest all the content I am able to, but unless I find techniques I can use to teach that content—whether a skill or a fact—to each student in my class, we have all lost. Given today's diverse classrooms, teachers must use multiple entry points (Gardner, 1999) to increase the likelihood of motivating all kids to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to what Gardner calls a "disciplined mind." Tapping into kids' multiple intelligences, teachers can use any or all of the following instructional entry points: narrative, numerical, logical, existential/foundational, aesthetic, hands-on, or interpersonal (Gardner, 1992; Gardner, 1999).

Tomlinson offers, through her model of "differentiated instruction," an alternative but complementary approach. She argues that teachers can respond to each learner's needs by providing "respectful tasks, flexible grouping, and ongoing assessment and adjustment" (1999). She suggests that teachers can use different modes according to students' needs, differentiating three specific components of their instruction: the content students learn, the process they will use to learn it, or the product by which they will demonstrate they have learned the lesson. Which path the teacher follows depends on each student's individual readiness, interests, and learning profile.

Using "multiple lesson types" allows teachers to be more effective, giving them a means by which to assess not only what the student must actually learn but also how he or she can best learn it. Langer (1999) reflects Tomlinson's use of different "processes" to teach skills and knowledge but offers a more succinct model of three "lesson types" or "activities": separated, simulated, and integrated.
  • Separated activities are appropriate for isolated skills, rules, or details one might need to know to complete subsequent, more complex tasks.
  • Simulated activities, which allow students to practice and apply their skills and knowledge, require students, for example, to identify and analyze the author's use of imagery while reading a literary work, thus extending the separated lessons.
  • Integrated activities, Langer's third lesson type, allow students to learn what they need as they solve a series of intellectual problems as part of a more complex assignment or project. Advocates of project-based learning (PBL) emphasize this approach as the most important mode of instruction, pointing out that PBL develops and reflects the "21st century skills" needed in a rapidly changing workplace (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2006; Pearlman, 2006). Many of my model lessons were created to help my students learn skills they needed as part of a complex task or project, such as giving a speech, learning to be successful in life, or preparing for a high-stakes test. The "Assess and Extend" section that concludes each of the 50 lessons provides multiple ideas for differentiating and extending instruction based on your students' needs.
5. Communicate understanding by multiple means, including different media.
In a world saturated by media-text messaging, the Internet, and downloading images—students must learn to communicate ideas in the most appropriate medium by the most effective means. I have referred to this ability to communicate effectively in multiple mediums as "textual intelligence" (Burke, 2001), arguing that in a world full of competing means of communication, the workplace will demand that students be able to read and produce messages in different media for different audiences and distribute their messages by increasingly diverse means-the most recent of which is the podcast. For example, one man I know is currently producing interactive travel guides that will incorporate video, images, and text and be made available through cell phones; thus he must consider not only how to convey his content but also how people will use (as opposed to merely read) his multimedia text.

How students choose to convey their ideas should ultimately depend on the context and purpose of the communication. Given access to necessary technology, students should be encouraged and even required, at times, to use technology to communicate their understanding, for it is the lack of essential technology skills that most consistently stands as a barrier between lower income students and their more affluent, connected peers (National Council of Teachers of English, 2006) when they all enter into the workforce where a global economy demands global skills (Friedman, 2005).

While it is important to give students the opportunity to express themselves by whatever means or medium helps them succeed, these mediums cannot replace the teaching and learning of primary means of communicating: reading, writing, speaking, and taking tests. All students must master these at some level. Throughout all 50 lessons, I never forget that at some point students will be expected—by the state, the College Board, college professors, or even the workplace—to, for example, write in clear, effective prose that follows the conventions of good writing.

The 50 Essential Lessons' table of contents is, in fact, organized in the following clusters: Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, Taking Notes, Taking Tests, and Managing Oneself. Within these clusters, you will find lessons, such as "Make an Effective Presentation" (Lesson 34) and "Examine Multiple Perspectives" (Lesson 10), and ideas in "Assess and Extend" sections that provide opportunities for students to develop these "primary" means of communication and enhance their ability to communicate through technology.

Different students have different strengths, but every student needs to achieve an essential mastery of multiple means of communication in order to meet the varied demands of school, life, and workplace.

6. Monitor and evaluate personal performance and progress toward goals.
I teach classes that culminate in precise scores that measure my students'—and my—performance against their classmates and against national norms. In my AP English Literature class, we are all aware that in the first week of May they will wake up, gulp down some breakfast, and rush to school, where they will sit down and take a three hour exam that assesses the knowledge and skills we have worked all year to develop.

My students periodically take standardized reading tests—the Gates-McGinitie and the Scholastic Reading Inventory—to measure their progress as readers; in addition to these tests, they will take the district "common assessment" in key academic disciplines and, come April, the state exam, which is aligned with all the state standards. If I were teaching sophomores, I would be reminded routinely that come March they must take the state exit exam for the first time, and if I taught juniors, I would be constantly aware of the new SAT exam and how it aligns with my English curriculum, particularly in the area of language study and writing. A new test has just been added to this barrage of assessments for California students: those planning to attend a state university must pass the English Placement Test (EPT). Even if they have been accepted, they will not be allowed to enroll if they do not pass this test and its companion exam in mathematics.

The question we all face, in such a climate of summative assessment, is how to teach in ways that develop skills and knowledge without surrendering the meaning, the substance of the course for which we have a passion. First, we must use assessment in ways that result in improved learning and achievement. In her five-year study of effective literacy instruction, Langer (1999) found that those schools that "beat the odds" consistently "integrate test preparation into instruction." Her report identifies several activities that work, such as having teachers:

  • Analyze the demands of a test
  • Identify connections to the standards and goals
  • Design and align curriculum to meet the demands of the test
  • Develop instructional strategies that enable students to build the necessary skills
  • Ensure that skills are learned across the year and across grades
  • Make overt connections between and among instructional strategies, tests, and current learning
  • Develop and implement model lessons that integrate test preparation into the curriculum
If you skim the table of contents, you will find five lessons under the Taking Tests cluster specifically designed to help you incorporate the activities that Langer outlines above into your classroom instruction.

Equally important is using a variety of types of assessments. In its policy research brief, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) emphasizes that "both teachers and students benefit from multiple forms of evaluation…[since] high-stakes tests rarely provide feedback that has instructional value" (NCTE, 2006, p. 7). The NCTE identifies three types of assessments teachers can use to monitor and evaluate progress:

  • Ongoing formative assessment: Assessment provides regular feedback about student learning…enhances motivation as well as achievement….Teachers who receive daily or weekly information about student development can intervene effectively.
  • Informal assessment: [Examples include] brief responses to a student journal, students' written summaries of learning at the end of class, or a student-teacher conference [which does not] require a grade but provides formative evaluation of student achievement.
  • Formal assessment: The test at the end of the unit or paper written in response to a multi-week assignment is an example of formal assessment that is usually graded and can be described as summative rather than formative. When prepared and graded by a teacher as part of ongoing instruction, formal assessment can provide useful insights into student learning.
Throughout the lessons themselves and within the additional ideas offered in each lesson's "Assess and Extend" section, you will find multiple examples and modeling of the three kinds of assessment listed above.

The NCTE's findings are consistent with instructional "best practices" (Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde, 2005) and the findings of the National Research Council (2000), which concluded, "Assessment and feedback are crucial for helping people learn." Assessment that is consistent with principles of effective instruction should:

  • Mirror good instruction
  • Happen continuously, but not intrusively, as a part of instruction
  • Provide information (to teachers, students, and parents) about the levels of understanding that students are reaching (p. 244).

While I have emphasized here the role of assessment from various perspectives, these perspectives have focused on what the teacher does. Throughout the lessons, you will also see students monitoring their own progress as readers and evaluating their own performance and their classmates' performance as speakers and writers, using a variety of tools and techniques, some of which I created and others that come from the state or such agencies as the College Board.

In the end, we must all&mdashteachers and students—be able to effectively monitor our own performance in relation to performance goals that our teachers or employers expect us to internalize. For example, my brother-in-law, who works at FedEx, is constantly evaluated according to a range of performance goals; thus, he must monitor his own performance in those areas essential to his continuing success. The firefighter and police officer who came to speak to my classes both stressed the standards they are routinely measured against and work hard to meet.

Teaching the lessons themselves is my most demanding means of monitoring and evaluating my own teaching, as I must continually ask myself: Is what I am teaching important? Is my instruction effective? And, most important, are my students learning it in those ways that matter most to me, themselves, and the world for which they are preparing themselves? These are my essential questions.

7. Connect what is learned today to self, other studies, and the world.
Students need to do what literate adults do when we read or learn about new subjects: ask what we already know that can help us learn and understand this new material and ask how it relates to what we have studied already or how it connects to our own interests. Unfortunately, what is—in the mind of the teacher—a thrilling new piece of the larger narrative of, for example, the westward expansion that created the nation we love so much often seems to be dreadfully boring material to many students.

In other words, while we may connect the facts in the dull textbook to the historical narrative in our head—which somehow further reinforces the connection to our own personal fascination with our country, its story, and its place in the world—our students may not. Without a network of connections, the facts become overwhelming, dull, and meaningless. The content then represents nothing more to the student than questions on a test, otherwise useless information that must be memorized for a passing grade.

Stories are so much more interesting than texts. So what are we to do when our students read an informational text that refers to historical events, or a literary text that alludes to Cain and Abel, or to an "LP," which my Bible-illiterate, CD-listening, iPodgeneration students have never heard of? We speak often of the value of "visualizing" what we read, but if the text you want to turn into a "movie in your head" is made up of words and subjects you don't know, it's going to be impossible to visualize. Teaching students how to make connections is thus essential, as this skill allows students to access whatever background knowledge they do have. Accessing background knowledge is a strategy that successful students and effective readers use automatically; it is my job to make the strategy visible to students who can't (Burke, 2004; Hirsch, 2006; Keene and Zimmerman, 1997; Marzano, 2004). Too often, teachers assume this is an innate skill, no doubt because we, as advanced readers, do it so reflexively, so invisibly, ourselves.

Throughout the lessons, you will see my students and me working hard to make such connections and, in some cases, learning how to make them. Making connections, while important for all students, is crucial for struggling students who consistently wonder why they need to learn what we teach. Thus you will see me not only teaching them to connect what they are doing to what they have already learned but also making connections to the world of work and their experience, including their culture. If I am going to bring in an article about a successful person for my students, for example, I will try to find one about a Latino such as Rueben Martinez (one of Inc. magazine's top entrepreneurs), because I have many Latino students, some of whom question the value of academic learning. Such connections increase motivation and improve commitment (Burke, 2004; 2005) while also deepening understanding as we explore more complex connections.

In my English classes, you will see my students and me bringing in art and related information from the fields of history and philosophy to extend our understanding. In a recent class, while reading Kafka's Metamorphosis, we turned to Expressionist painters Otto Dix and Wassily Kandinsky to help us understand the larger context of how artists, including Kafka, were responding to their changing world; to extend that understanding, we examined philosophical writings by Camus (1983) on the Absurd and an excerpt by Watson (2001) on the emerging modern world to which Kafka was reacting, including developments in science and business.

Such a cluster of connections turns the class itself into a text, one woven of many strands into a more complex, interesting fabric that emphasizes the importance of the curriculum as a conversation (Applebee, 1996; Burke, 2003) not just about skills but about ideas. Langer (2001) confirms the importance of "making connections across instruction, curriculum, grades, and life," identifying the following as teaching strategies that make an instructional difference:

  • Make overt connections between and across the curriculum, students' lives, literature, and literacy.
  • Plan lessons that connect with each other, with test demands, and with students' growing knowledge and skills.
  • Develop goals and strategies that meet students' needs and are intrinsically connected to the larger curriculum.
  • Weave even unexpected intrusions into integrated experiences for students.

Making connections helps sustain the instructional narrative of our curriculum, for without these connections, lessons become discrete items that have no apparent meaning or relationship to each other besides their existence on the test at the end of the unit. Thus, not only should the students be making connections, but we, too, so that our curriculum adds up to a conversation worth having, a story worth telling, a class worth attending.

8. Develop and use skills and knowledge in the context of meaningful conversations.
Conversations come in various forms; we can have them with ourselves, classmates, or those in the public arena. We can have such conversations in writing (e.g., journals, response logs, blogs) or through actual spoken discussions (e.g., class and group discussions, literature circles). By "conversation" I mean to emphasize the content not the means, for written conversations with the self are just as meaningful as spoken conversations with others in a group. Applebee (1996) said in his Curriculum as Conversation:

The notion that learners are to construct their own understandings leads in turn to new ways of thinking about the role of the teacher, and has generated such now-familiar terms as scaffolding, reciprocal teaching, apprenticeship, and mentoring. From our present perspective, this previous work on instruction provides new and more powerful ways of thinking about how students can best be helped to enter into important domains for conversation. Only in conversation guided by others will students develop the tacit knowledge necessary to participate on their own.

In subsequent studies of the role of conversation, Applebee and Langer (Partnership for Literacy paper, 2006) found that "Other aspects of cognitively engaging instruction, however, had a longer trajectory of continual development across two years of participation. The ability to sustain open discussion, to ask authentic questions, to ask higher order questions, to support envisionment building, and to foster extended curricular conversations all saw some growth during the first year and continued growth during the second year." Further inquiries into adolescent literacy, particularly as related to closing the achievement gap, confirm the notion that effective instruction is "dialogic" (CELA, 2003) since classroom talks are "an extended discussion in which comments build upon one another." In such classrooms:

  • Students and teacher share and debate interpretations of texts.
  • The teacher poses or gets the students to pose authentic questions.
  • The teacher introduces strategies for generating understanding.
  • The teacher provides support for all students to participate in reading, writing, and discussion.

In both my AP and ACCESS classes, skills and knowledge are fundamental to the enterprise, but they are not what kids leave remembering. What lingers long after the last bell has rung are the conversations that have led students to important discoveries about themselves, the world, and the texts they have read. This push for meaningful, sustained conversations about and through different texts, both literary and informational, is the result of some of the most important research done in recent years (Copeland, 2005; Daniels, 2002; Langer and Close, 2001; Nystrand, 2006).

I use such conversations to solve a range of problems in my classroom. Large classes allow kids to disappear into the corners, avoiding potentially important encounters with texts and their peers; yet it is precisely these encounters with others that bring a class to life and help students see other perspectives. Thus literature circles or Socratic seminars not only transform one large-class discussion into many small-group discussions but also increase the level of engagement and accountability in the class by providing public performances for which the students must take responsibility.

The 50 Essential Lessons emphasizes not only how to prepare kids to participate but how to teach them the skills needed to make meaningful contributions to discussions. Through use of the tools and the techniques that I demonstrate, students can develop the academic sensibility they need to determine what information or ideas are worth sharing and how to respond to the ideas of others. This is particularly important with students who lack an understanding of what to actually talk about when discussing a text. Too often, low-performing students get only a heavy, steady dose of skills instruction and are never given the chance to enter into the "great conversation" by voicing their ideas. Thus teachers who wish to engage all students will ensure that:

  • All students are expected to have interesting and relevant ideas, questions, hunches, and understandings.
  • Multiple perspectives are treated as ways to enrich understandings.
  • Students explain and defend their points of view using supporting evidence in texts and their own experiences.
  • [They] support envisionment building by ensuring students develop effective strategies for developing understanding and for participating. (CELA newsletter, 2003)

Each of the 50 lessons models the kind of classroom environment encouraged by the list above and provides the opportunity for an extended conversation with your students. The ten guiding principles I am outlining in this teacher's guide each complement the others in various ways. Central to this particular principle is the call not only to have meaningful conversations but to teach students, especially those from backgrounds who lack them, the skills and knowledge to enter into and contribute to these discussions. An additional way of doing this is to provide these students with the language, such as academic vocabulary (Burke, 2004; Marzano, 2004), needed to participate in academic discourse; another, which we will examine in the next section, is to show them what these skills look like in the context of the class by modeling a successful performance.

9. Know what a successful performance looks like on all tasks and assessments.
If you want to watch a successful learning process, watch boys playing a video game. They observe what others do to master the moves, the controls, and the features (Gee, 2004; Johnson, 2005; Smith and Wilhelm, 2002). They study others' performances to learn how to complete the task themselves, moving through the novice stage and along the continuum toward mastery within a relatively short period of time due to the feedback they get from the game and their friends (who are yelling advice all around them in a very social, interactive learning environment). The moves that lead to success are, in short, demonstrated but also demystified (Levine, 2003): the players see that there are concrete steps they can take to achieve the desired outcome, and thus feel capable and supported.

Classes are not always like that; in fact, they often seem to be places where, as George Hillocks often reminds us, kids show up expected to do what they have not yet been taught. Students frequently feel about as oriented and prepared to succeed as most of us would if we sat down on a couch, picked up the controller, and played Halo or some other complex computer game, expecting to win the first time we played it.

Throughout the lessons, you will find me standing at the overhead modeling what I want students to do. I am a bit like the coach who stands at the board drawing diagrams of who will do what on a given play in the upcoming game: a coach wants the players to see what they must do, to develop a visual schema of what the job well-done will look like so players can evaluate their performance against the standard. A coach might even show a video from a game, following that up with a demonstration on the field. This teacher-modeling is a fundamental part of every student's cognitive development (Vygotsky, 1978), particularly if the student comes from a background in which academic tasks seem foreign (Delpit, 1996). Thus students at all levels need to see what it looks like to write a certain way, use a particular tool, or discuss a text in a specific way. If I am introducing a new technique, such as collaborative reading, I will pull up a chair and huddle up with a student so I can demonstrate the technique to the full class or a group that needs some extra guidance, whether it is in an AP or ACCESS class. If I am using a new tool, I will put a blank one on the overhead and show students how to use it, thinking aloud as I do so, before asking them to try it. Afterward, I will check their level of proficiency before I turn them loose to try it again on their own.

Another key element to this principle is teaching students to understand the criteria by which they will be assessed. Some of the lessons show students examining the scoring guidelines from the College Board or state exit exam, using those criteria to evaluate sample papers before writing their own and using the same rubric to evaluate their work. I put those samples on the overhead and in their hands so they can study these performances, determining for themselves or through group discussions what makes them effective or flawed. In other circumstances, I will create samples myself, putting them on the overhead and, when appropriate, using color or other textual features to help students see the different elements of a performance, demystifying for them by showing how I achieved success, then thinking aloud about what I did, how, and why I did it before letting them do the same task on their own. I will also bring in student samples from current or past classes, which we then analyze, using these models to drive the cycle of improvement instead of treating each assignment as a conclusion, an end point.

One of the most effective ways to obtain examples and have them readily available is to copy student exemplars when work is turned in and keep these exemplars with your lesson plans. In my Master Binder (Burke, 2003), I keep each day's lesson plan, along with copies of any handouts, transparencies, and samples I will use; once student work comes in, whether a paper or a completed tool, I copy representative examples for the next year, attaching them in the Master Binder -to the original assignment. I then use these examples to raise the bar and encourage even better performances from subsequent classes. Students in my AP class, for example, had to perform Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Stoppard) as part of their final. I showed them excerpts from the film adaptation to give them a sense of the play; more importantly, however, I retained a copy of one group's brilliant DVD of a scene. I will show that scene to my students next year, telling them this is the minimum standard and that it represents what I expect. By providing students with a model in the coming year, thanks to this wonderful DVD scene my previous students created, my new students will see the standard, as well as the criteria by which their performance will be evaluated.

Everyone needs a goal, an objective; a standard is, in its original meaning, a flag raised to create a rallying point (Jago, 2001) toward which all should aspire; it is an "invitation to struggle" as is said of the Constitution and its lofty ideals.

10. Read a variety of types of text, including multimedia and visual.
Previously, in principle #5, I discussed communicating by multiple means and other media; this final principle, in contrast, emphasizes the other side of "textual intelligence": reading a wide range of texts, which students must ultimately be able to analyze, write about, and discuss by the means outlined under principle #5. All major reports on literacy (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2004; Conley, 2005; Intersegmental Committee, 2002; National Council of Teachers of English, 2006; Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2005) stress the "21st century" literacies, which focus increasingly on a range of not only types of texts but the means and media we must master if we are to effectively read those texts which are no longer fixed in time and on paper by the permanence of ink. One need only look at a current social studies textbook, with all its text types--words, images, infographics, Web sites, and visuals such as maps--to realize that book pages have become, in form and function, more like Web pages in their use of colors, links, and content. They call for a different way of reading, a modern literacy that I have explored in my recent books Illuminating Texts (2001), Reading Reminders (2001), The Reader's Handbook (2003), and ACCESSing Schools (2005). NCTE sums up adolescent literacy in its policy research brief (2006) in the following "broad range of domains" students will encounter in the world for which we are preparing them:
  • Analyzing arguments
  • Comparing editorial viewpoints
  • Decoding nutrition information on food packaging
  • Assembling furniture
  • Taking doses of medicine correctly
  • Determining whether to vote for a state amendment
  • Interpreting medical tables
  • Identifying locations on a map
  • Finding information online
To these adult literacies, we must add such academic literacies as reading or critically viewing videos, Web sites, textbooks, articles, literary texts, and tests of many different types.

The guiding principles outlined above, and the 50 Essential Lessons that grew out of these principles, offer teachers a way to "apprentice" (Schoenbach, Greenleaf, Cziko, and Hurwitz, 1999) their students by providing students with the tools and techniques they need to make meaning from multiple types of texts, ultimately enabling students to go out and make a living in a complex world. Hopefully, the :essential" lessons they learn here will guide and carry them into the future—a future that is not just theirs, but ours.

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