1. Summarize the text. Please explain or define what the text emphasized in the teaching of English/Language Arts (or other content areas as well). What is the central idea of the text?
Burke’s book “What’s the Big Idea?” focuses on what he calls “essential questions” that we, as teachers, must ask our students. These questions act as guides for students to begin to think about larger ideas relating to life and how we go about living and the critical thinking process. Burke maintains that these big questions must lead the instruction and experiences in a classroom, rather than the required/suggested content leading the ways in which students will be taught. The most important aspect of this method is essentially the main goal of teaching, to me, in general—we must teach our students to become enquirers in the world in which we live. The skills they develop in the classroom will most definitely aid them later in life, whether they choose to go onto college, immediately enter the job market, work in the home, etc.
Communication and critical thinking are integral to any life that is worth living. Human beings are endowed with the ability for these skills and they are necessary in our relationships and how we question our environment, the actions and behavior of others, and everything that could possibly involve valuable judgments. Burke’s book aims to explain the idea that teaching is all about questions and how we, as teachers, can lead students to valuable insights through the process of providing them with and teaching them to make their own questions. English, as I often tell people, represents so much more than the subject matter—it is truly reflective of the many opportunities and direction that life can take. What better place to learn about the world than a classroom where students maintain community, think together, and confront a vast array of literary scenarios/characters?
In English/language Arts, particularly, essential questions can be applied to more than just the specific text at hand, but have to do with relation and application to the lives and interests of students. It is essential that students find the topics in class relevant and can see the ways these subjects, characters, storylines, themes, etc., connect to their lives. The most powerful and long lasting experiences in a classroom come when student interest is involved, and most especially when teachers can find ways to be relatable. By asking questions before, during, and after a unit, on say Romeo and Juliet, students can contemplate the role that relationships play in their own lives, before moving on to the role that relationships play in the lives of the character’s in Shakespeare’s play.
To say it in the most basic terms, the “Big Idea” is really about life and making meaning from connections.
2. Your analysis. Please discuss what the text means to you as a teacher of English. How does it inform your thinking? What do you have to say about his theoretical point of view?
As a future English teacher, this text accomplished its mission. Burke is adamant that students will rise to expectations once the right questions are asked and students are taught to reflect in terms of their own questions and relationships to what is read/written/discussed in the classroom. Critical thinking may be an overused term, but it is also one of the most fundamental and, may I say it, critical aspects of learning. It is a skill that students will use in the classroom, certainly, but it is also plays a vital role in the way in which people live their lives. Burke highlights the fact that it is not the reading specifically that is important, but the essential questions and themes that relate so much to everyday life and that students will find relatable.
The idea of planning lessons has always both terrified and excited me. I love the idea of organizing a schedule for a class and making sure that there are a variety of activities for the students to complete and participate in. However, this becomes a much more intimidating prospect when I must know, somehow, how the entire year in a class will go before I even start. This is particularly frightening, and yet Burke acknowledges that this does not need to be quite so harrowing. Rather than organizing a curriculum around the required or suggested elements, teachers need to focus on essential questions that, though they may be found in a “required” element, do not rely on a text solely for that reason alone. Rather, teachers should organize a unit based on the value of the questions and how these highlight relatable notions for students.
Theoretically, this is an excellent notion and one with which I completely agree. Where I find problems is with time and execution. The examples in the book show that students are certainly thinking, but there is also a lot of time that goes into discussing questions, making worksheets/guidelines, and having students write multiple essays throughout a semester. I am all for this idea—I am actually quite excited about the possibilities—but I am also fearful that, as a first year teacher, I will be struggling just to stay alive and my students’ abilities to think critically and ask the “right” questions may have to wait until I feel more competent.
3. So what. The final part of your response is the "so what" part. Now that you know what Burke and Wilhelm have to say, how will you apply it in your classroom? How do you think it will affect you and your students?
Application, as I have discussed briefly above, seems, somehow, both ridiculously simple and yet overly complex. I am in love with Burke’s ideas and the ways that he describes the types of assignments that he has his students complete, but there is also a part of me that acknowledges the years that it probably took him to come up with this method and perfect it. I will be a new teacher for a few years, at least, and though I expect a lot of myself, I know I will not always live up to these expectations, nor will I be as prepared as a more experienced teacher.
Great familiarity with the texts seems like it would be important in this model, despite Burke’s insistence that it is not about the texts, but the ideas and the questions that they evoke. I will need to be aware of the various ways in which a text can be read and discussed so that I can relate it to the many other texts we will be reading in class. In order for a unit or school year to succeed, there needs to be a building up effect; otherwise, the learning that takes place in the classroom during one month may not necessarily apply to the unit we are working on next. I wholeheartedly plan to implement Burke’s “essential questions,” but I also need some time to think about the logistics and what I need to know about my school before I start developing these ideas.
Questioning, critical thinking, writing, and communication are all fantastic skills and I want my students to be able to do as Burke suggests and truly be able to connect with what we read and discuss, relating it to their own lives in essays and projects that further learning and synthesis. If I succeed in training myself and my students to think and do as Burke discusses, then we will all be the better for it. Students will be able to think deeper about our discussions and apply what they have learned on their own, in outside readings, for example. I will become a better teacher because I am helping students, in essence, teach themselves further down the road, and they will benefit from creating and maintaining skills that are essential in life.
Overall…Burke may know what he is talking about. The amount of underlines in my book say so.