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Feel like it’s Impossible to Teach it All? (Part I)

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Last week I received this email from Shannon, a teacher with questions I think we can all relate to. Here’s what she wrote…

“I am in my 8th year of teaching, and while I love aspects of it, I work 10-11 hours a day and am burning out. And, I feel that I’m on an island sometimes at my school—I have to re-teach skills that they should have been taught in earlier years, etc.

I have one foot out of the door of the teaching profession. I find myself awake at night trying to figure out how to do a good job teaching both reading and writing, and getting in all the skills.

How do you do whole class novel units? And teach all the skills? Say, I want to teach Gatsby, and focus on character contrast and figurative language. Is it ok to focus on just a few skills each unit? How do you make sure they get practiced sufficiently, while also making sure to have time for current events/reading informational text stuff? How long do you spend on a unit to make sure you can test them and build background prior? Do you have them write a lot of literary analysis essays?

How do we then factor in teaching all of the types of writing–expository, argument, narrative, while we have to teach all these reading skills?”

Today and next time on the podcast, I’m going to do my best to answer Shannon’s questions, because I think they’re ones we have all faced as teachers. How on earth are we supposed to cover all. the. things?! And teach them well?

Today we’ll look at the big picture – how to plan the year to cover what you want to cover without getting overwhelmed. Next time we’ll zoom in on planning a single whole class text unit, and how to make all the decisions that go with it.

You can listen in to episode 186 below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.

Breaking it Down

Let me start by telling you about my beautiful rainbow-striped paper planner.

It goes with me everywhere, and I use it to outline pretty much everything I’m going to do each week, each month, each year.

On any given Monday, I *could* list out about a hundred things I will need to do that week.

But I never do, because it would be wildly overwhelming.

Instead, I just list out a few Monday tasks, and anything urgent that has come up.

Because I know what Mondays are for. And Tuesdays. And Wednesdays. I know what I’ll be focusing on day by day, week by week, and month by month.

There’s a system.

As you consider the layout of your teaching year, I’d suggest a similar approach. As you plan a course, you probably have a set of units you’d like to try out. Maybe a book clubs unit, a podcasting unit, a choice reading unit, a contemporary poetry unit, a college essay unit, and more than a few whole class novels, like Shannon has The Great Gatsby.

You’ve also got a set of standards, skills, learner profile qualities to develop – whatever your school or district calls them. You want to teach certain reading, writing, research, and speaking skills.

Then you’ve probably got a variety of must-dos and may-dos that are flexible across units, like the review lessons Shannon wants to build in, vocabulary development, grammar mini-lessons, genius hour, and First Chapter Fridays and choice reading program development.

Maybe your district is pushing you to incorporate way more SEL… or PBL. Maybe your department is incorporating Article-of-the-Week this year. Maybe there’s a big push for using modern mentor texts.

If you write this all down as a to-do list, it feels impossible.

HOW ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO DO IT ALL?

But just like with my lovely rainbow planner, it’s all about breaking this tornado of content down into doable chunks.

We’re going to use a combination of mixing-and-matching and consistent programs you can count on.

Essential to the process is making choices. You cannot cover every ELA skill with depth and real-world connection. You cannot teach 1000 vocabulary words, review every grammar concept, build a thriving choice reading program, and carefully teach three types of writing and modern ELA skills like podcasting and short video creation. While reading five required texts. And maybe hosting a school TedX conference or district-wide poetry slam.

I know you know.

Mixing and Matching Skills, Units, and Programs

So let’s start with some mixing and matching. This is the time to connect certain skills to certain texts and integrate consistent programming with your text/skills focus points.

Let’s look at an example.

Maybe your first unit of the year is going to focus on connecting with students and shoring up gaps in their background knowledge as needed. This could be a good time for your memoir book clubs in combination with personal narrative writing.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays you’ll have book club meetings, moving through the texts students have chosen in your book tasting. Those meetings will have a routine structure that everyone gets used to. You’ll also have time for mini-lessons on these days, because book club meetings would drag a bit if they took the entire period. Sometimes these mini-lessons can focus on narrative writing skills and you can attach short creative writing workshops, and other times they can focus on reading skills you want to review and reinforce. You’ll be leaning on these reading skills throughout the year, so you want to be sure you create a strong foundation.

So that takes care of three days a week for this first unit.

Then on Tuesdays, you’ll lean into current events, exploring articles and multimedia about AI, a hot button issue with your students. You’ll begin to build argument skills with quickwrites and speed debating. You’ll have a chance to reinforce some of the reading skills you’ve been teaching with the memoirs in a new context as well. This will also be the day for introducing some new vocabulary words, in whatever form you do that – perhaps by listening to a vocabulary podcast, introducing new roots, or covering vocabulary in context from the articles you’re reading or the memoir book club texts.

Fridays you can devote to choice reading and following up on your vocabulary. During this day you’ll regularly cultivate your reading program with First Chapter Read-Alouds, book talks, book trailers, and independent reading time. Your covers-out displays and reading bulletin board will help entice students over all through the week to change up their books if they need new ones. You can also take ten or fifteen minutes to follow up on your vocabulary lesson from Tuesday, either with a writing activity or a quick quiz.

Whenever you have time, you’ll start the day with an attendance question, inviting students to share a little of themselves and continue building community.

As your first unit comes to a close, you’ll invite students to look back through all the personal narrative writing they’ve done to pull three promising pieces to develop into a storytelling podcast, the final project for this unit. You’ll spend some time listening to podcast models and developing scripts, then record shows and add music.

In this first chunk of the year, you’ve started to build a foundation of reading skills and practiced them with choice-based contemporary texts, strengthened community connections with personal writing and attendance questions, created momentum for your choice reading program, touched on real-world argument through current events, presented a variety of new vocabulary words, and made lots of connections between the real world and your classroom.

You’ve also built consistency into your schedule, with students knowing what to expect on each day of the week. You know how to plan for each day, each week, and the unit as a whole, because you’ve identified your skills, your text, your writing focus, and your consistent repeating programs.

While it might sound overwhelming when we summarize it in two minutes here, the truth is you’ll only be planning for one day at a time, and you’ll always know what to plan. If it’s a Monday, you’ll prep for book clubs and a mini lesson. If it’s a Tuesday, you’ll prep a short vocab lesson and current events. Wednesday and Thursday are just like Monday. Then Friday is for reading and vocab follow-up. After five weeks or so, you’ll transition into working on a final podcasting project before creating a similar system for your next unit.

Speaking of…

Neeeeext!

Moving forward, it’s more of the same. After you spend a week or two with podcasting, maybe you’re moving into a whole class novel. Let’s say it’s The Great Gatsby.

Now maybe you’ll assign chunks of reading prior to a focus on that text three days a week – perhaps Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday again for consistency.

You might do close reading mini-lessons over Gatsby and paired texts that bring in more contemporary voices on the theme of The American Dream on Mondays, argument mini-lessons and discussion (hexagonal, Harkness, small group, pairs, whatever you prefer) on Wednesdays, and text-based writing practice on Thursdays with some modeling and peer editing.

Tuesdays you decide to weave in genius hour blogs for these six weeks, continuing your students’ work with narrative writing as they pursue and document a real-world project of their choice.

Fridays you want to continue with choice reading, continuing to build your students’ love of reading and exploration of diverse texts. So you continue. Vocabulary lessons continue as well, with follow-ups sneaking in on Thursdays now with the writing practice.

As the unit comes to a close, you invite students to choose, improve, and turn in their best short argument writing from the unit.

Soon after, they present their genius hour projects to each other with a guided mini Tedx style format, as a quick introduction to presentation and public speaking skills.

Now in this unit you’ve continued to develop narrative writing, built on the early argument skill development, helped students improve their close reading and whatever specific skills you chose to focus on in your mini-lessons (character contrast and figurative language, for example). You’ve continued to build your students’ love of reading (with all the attendant improvement in vocabulary and writing skills). You’ve also worked on their discussion and editing skills, not to mention building more real-world connection and community connection with their genius hour projects.

OK, so there are two big picture examples of how to mix and match skills and texts, while layering in specific programs. It’s all about choosing the skills that pair with each text or unit theme, and honing in on what you value most.

Next week we’re zooming in to the process behind building each individual unit, including a look at the difference between building a unit based on an essential question or based mainly on the text, the ideas it presents, and the era surrounding it.

Hope to see you then!

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I'm Betsy

I’ll help you find the creative ELA strategies that will light up your classroom. Get ready for joyful teaching!

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