MAT Blog

Spark Critical Thinking by Asking Students Essential Questions

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Nov 30, 2013 6:00:00 AM

essential questionAs an aspiring educator, I knew exactly what kind of teacher I would be: I would facilitate dynamic discussions; the students would not only read all of the assigned texts, they would devour them. Sure, teaching would be work, but I mostly saw myself as a facilitator—someone who would ask all the right questions and look on as my students marched towards intellectual victory.

You can probably see where this is going. Once I was handed the keys to the classroom, I was surprised when things didn’t magically fall into place like they were supposed to. (Does this sound familiar?)

It wasn’t that things were disastrous, but they just weren’t the way I imagined. Why weren’t students talking? Why weren’t they as excited as I was about what we were reading? Why weren’t they making connections and thinking critically about what they read?

It wasn’t until later that I discovered that I (not the students) was the reason our discussions fell flat. To spark discussions and critical inquiry, I asked my students a lot of questions. Questions are good, but most of the questions I asked students were what we would call nonessential questions.

To give you a clearer sense of what I mean by essential and nonessential questions consider the following examples from Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins’ book, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding.

Essential question: “How do the arts shape, as well as reflect, culture?
Nonessential question: “What common artistic symbols were used by the Incas and the Mayans?”

Essential question: “Is there ever a ‘just’ war?
Nonessential question: What key event sparked World War I?”

Essential question: “What does it mean to be a ‘true’ friend?”
Nonessential question: “Who is Maggie’s best friend in the story?”

As you may have noticed, unlike nonessential questions, essential ones are timeless. Some can even be grappled with indefinitely; they are neither immediately apparent nor can they be answered with a fact or a simple yes or no response. Essential questions force us to interrogate our presuppositions, dig in, explain, defend, question and—hopefully—grow.

If you still sketchy on the difference between essential and nonessential questions, here are seven of McTighe and Wiggins’ defining characteristics of a good essential question.

A good essential question:

  • Is open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.
  • Is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
  • Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
  • Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
  • Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
  • Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
  • Recurs over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again.
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Tags: critical thinking, critical thinking strategies, group work, new teacher, new teachers, collaborative learning

5 More Things You Will Wish Someone Had Told You About Teaching

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Nov 15, 2013 2:01:00 PM

new teachersOn Thursday, I posted part I of Things You Will Wish Someone Had Told You About Teaching. Like I said in the first post, I know that having a copy of Roxanna Elden’s book, See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, wouldn’t have solved all of my first-year frustrations, but it certainly would have put a lot of what I was going through into perspective.

I think other teachers—both new and old—can glean something from Elden’s frank advice, so without further ado, here are five more things you will wish someone had told you about teaching!

5 More Things You Will Wish Someone Had Told You About Teaching

Don’t be too worried about your students liking you
You’ve probably heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and even if you haven’t, you know from experience that love and intimacy are basic human needs. We all want to love and be loved—but look, you’re going to do a lot of damage when you try to earn your students affection by letting your classroom management slip.

As Elden suggests, it can feel unnatural, especially for young teachers, to “play the role of a nerdy or uptight adult,” but keep in mind that freedom is easier to give than take away.

Your students have friends—and let’s be frank, you’ll never be as cool as they are. You are an authority figure and a leader. Act like one.

Make a schedule for paperwork
Elden is right about a few things:

  • First, you’re not going to believe how much of your job is tied up in paperwork.
  • Second, the paperwork won’t end until sometime in June.
  • Third, you’re going to get tired of it—and because you’re tired of it, it’s going to be tempting to put paperwork off.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is create a realistic grading schedule and stick to it. If you know you can only grade 10-15 papers in a night, don’t bring home a stack of 50; this will stress you out and lead to exhaustion. 

Teaching is physically exhausting
Have you seen this short New York Times piece? If you’re already a teacher, you probably thought, “My gosh…it’s like looking in the mirror. That’s exactly how I feel at the end of the day.”

As a new teacher, you often drive to and from work in the dark. You’re on your feet all day and when you go home, you’ll probably think about the students that are at-risk. Even so, there’s some good news if you keep reading.

Things do get better
There will be days—and perhaps many of them—when you’re so physically exhausted and discouraged that you will consider throwing in the towel. During these times, do your best to remember Elden’s advice:

There’s a reason why so many people have chosen to become teachers: Certain moments in this profession more than make up for your worst days. Be patient. These moments will come—and when they do, you will understand.

Lock your door when you leave the room
A lot of new teachers leave their doors open because they are just “stepping out for a minute.” You’d be surprised what can happen in 60 seconds.

Grade-schoolers are cute; they wouldn’t dream of going into your classroom without your permission; they wouldn’t think about going through your desk. Right….

Wear your classroom keys around your neck, on your wrist, or attach them to your belt loop with a climbing carabiner so that you’re not tempted to leave your room unlocked.


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Tags: new teacher, classroom management, classroom procedures, new teachers, professional development for teachers

5 Things You Will Wish Someone Had Told You About Teaching

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Nov 14, 2013 10:12:00 AM

new teachersIt’s hard to believe now, but the first time I formally stood in front of a classroom was also the day I stepped off an eighteen-hour flight from Detroit to Taoyuan, Taiwan. Jet-lagged and armed with exactly two words of Mandarin in my back pocket, I eventually—after many misadventures that would take a book to describe—found my way to the school for “orientation.” 

Allow me to describe “orientation.” Basically, it entailed signing some paperwork, receiving five textbooks and being told by the co-director of the school, “Just have fun with the kids and you’ll do fine—oh, and your first class is in three hours.”

Three hours later, there I was…in front of twenty eleven-year-olds, doing my best to keep it together for the next hour and forty-five minutes. I survived, but it wasn’t pretty—and let me tell you, it wasn’t pretty for quite some time.

I sought advice from anyone who would give it, but the most common sound bite was, “Just stay positive and have fun with the kids.” This was neither specific, nor was it very helpful.

Looking back, I know that having a copy of Roxana Elden’s book, See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers wouldn’t have solved all of my first-year woes, but it certainly would have put a lot of what I was going through into perspective.

Basically, Elden describes her book as the antithesis to the beloved Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Why? According to her, “new teachers need something stronger than chicken soup.” Most of us have heard our share of commonplace teaching advice, so let’s skip the sound bites and get to part I of 10 Things You Will Wish Someone Had Told You About Teaching.

A lot of the advice you get will make you feel worse—not better
You will hear lots of advice your first year. Some will be good, but you won’t necessarily be able to put it into practice right away. Some will be bad, but you won’t realize that until you have more experience. Either way, advice is likely to come from at least three different sources:

  • Professional development: When done right, training sessions can be quite useful, but often they overwhelm new teachers. You may, as Elden points out, hear in one meeting that students must use “learning logs” or all is doomed. In the next meeting, though, you may hear that reading comprehension only happens when you conduct pre-reading actives with manipulatives.  “What happened to learning logs?” you’ll think.  

Don’t beat yourself up for not doing every last thing that begins with the words, “Research says.”

  • Other teachers: Veteran teachers are often the best sources of information, but you may find that your colleagues are not able to entirely articulate their techniques. You may also find that these teachers give advice based on what they think they should be doing instead of what they are actually doing.
  • Nonteachers: It seems that everyone has an opinion about education, especially people who aren’t teachers. Since you are a teacher, be prepared to hear all about what you should be doing in the classroom. You’ll probably hear a lot of “Let them know you care” or, in my case, “Try making it fun and you’ll be fine.” These folks mean well, they may even offer good advice on occasion. Don’t let them get to you.

Your classroom is your first responsibility
When you’re the new teacher on the block, it’s tempting to sign up for any opportunity that comes your way so that you can prove yourself. Here’s Elden’s two cents: “Unless you were specifically hired to run a program or coach, don’t take on other responsibilities until you have a firm grip on teaching.”

Coaching volleyball, leading after-school programs and planning class trips can be rewarding experiences—but they can turn into a nightmare when you’re still learning the essentials of teaching. Learn to walk before you run.

You can’t change everything the first year—and you shouldn’t try to
You’re coming into the school with a new set of eyes, which means that you’ll see flaws or ways of doing things that seem inefficient or unfair. Always remember that your classroom is your first responsibility. Focus your attention on becoming a better teacher, not on fighting the system.  

Ask for help and accept it
New teachers often make the mistake of thinking that they have to design all of their own lesson plans, worksheets and assignments. There’s nothing wrong with designing your own resources, but you should also be open to getting ideas from other teachers. There’s a definite value in your creativity, but there’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. You’ll quickly exhaust yourself.

Your students are kids, no matter how big they are
If you are an average-sized adult and you teach junior high or high school, you’re going to be working with students who are bigger, taller, and physically stronger than you are. Here are two pieces of advice: First, don’t allow your students’ size or appearance to intimidate you; second, keep your preconceptions in check and don’t allow superficialities to keep you from caring about your students.

If you found any of this advice helpful, be sure to check back this Saturday for part II!


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Tags: new teacher, classroom management, classroom procedures, new teachers, professional development for teachers

Three Reading Strategies for New K-6 Teachers, Part I

Posted by Colleen Cadieux on Sep 23, 2011 4:24:00 PM

Marygrove MAT reading strategies for the new teachersNo matter what grade level or subject area you teach, reading is an essential component that crosses all disciplines.  Preparing a student properly is a big responsibility. Students must be armed with a strong reading repertoire–which includes a variety of reading comprehension strategies– to serve them well in middle school, all the way through higher education. Here are some key reading strategies for new teachers to use, in particular. However, these will serve as helpful refreshers for veteran teachers, too.

1) Direct word analysis instruction: Students need explicit instruction to build their word knowledge and expand their skills and strategies for word analysis, which includes phonemic awareness, structural analysis, and context clues.  Students can obtain these skills and strategies through word walls, word sorts, songs, rhymes, and more. Consider subject areas and age levels when selecting strategies for your students. Marygrove College offers an excellent guide on explicit word analysis instruction for teachers.

2) Literacy rich environment: In order for students to start developing and then further grow their comprehension strategies, they must be exposed to a wide variety of literature on a regular basis. Give your students exposure to many different types of books, magazines, newspapers and web resources. Provide reading opportunities during structured and non-structured times.

Teachers can get inexpensive books at garage sales, church book sales, second-hand bookseller clearance tables, and a really great resource we heard about called Paperback Swap. Also, you can appeal to your student’s families for donating age-appropriate books for your class.

It helps, too, if you can sort your classroom books into levels for multiple intelligences. Fountas and Pinnell is a good resource. But if you need some good, free lists, these will get you started. You can keep your leveled books organized by color with color-coded stickers on the book spines, then sorted into sturdy dishpans of the same color. Presto! A leveled library for students to help themselves!

The best way we know to preserve a classroom library is to buy hardbacks whenever possible (check out those garage sales!), and cover paperbacks in clear contact paper. Stamp your name on each book, or place a bookplate inside each one. 

3) Integration: Reading is an essential component of all subject areas. No matter what you teach, reading will play a prominent role in the curriculum. For elementary teachers who cover a wide variety of subjects, consider how you will incorporate reading across your curriculum. Integration methods can include, but are not limited to, thematic units, peer conferencing, research projects, and author's chair. 

Give students the opportunity to use knowledge from content areas, such as social studies and science, in relation to specific comprehension strategies or reading skills. Literature Circles in content areas are an effective way to do this. In our Marygrove Master in the Art of Teaching (MAT)Teacher as Hero course, we champion Harvey “Smokey” Daniels’ peer-led book discussion groups. Laura Candler is a helpful resource on setting up literature circles in your classroom.

For more ways to boost your students’ reading comprehension levels, download our Free K-6 Reading Comprehension Best Practices Guide.


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Tags: reading strategies, Classroom Reading Strategies, reading across disciplines, comprehension strategies, new teachers

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