Action Plan: Skills vs Content in the Multi-Text English Classroom

I have struggled for weeks to identify in a coherent manner what I want to focus on for my Cohort Action Plan. Selfishly, I have used a challenge I’m facing in preparing for an upcoming unit as the foundation for my action plan. So, ladies and gentlemen, without further delay, here is the 2015 Spring Action Plan:

Problem/Challenge: I want to see if an emphasis on SKILLS rather than CONTENT, on STUDENT CHOICE  rather than TEACHER DIRECTED texts and evaluations, results in a learning environment that is ENGAGED and PROMOTES CRITICAL THINKING


a) I want students to be able to show their understanding in a form that will best illustrate their strengths.

b) I want students to ask themselves how literature can challenge our understanding of ourselves, our community, and our world.

c) I want to focus on skill development and get away from being chained to content. The content of the novels is the means by which students do two things: make authentic connections AND develop and refine skills.

So, with the help of Erica Chellew (Derek Doucet’s better half), and during dedicated collaborative time (thanks LCS for giving teachers this protected time), I worked to brainstorm what mattered to me for this unit, starting with my Essential Question, Thinking about the Skills I wanted the students to develop, then moving on to how we integrate student choice in order to promote authentic engagement. Here’s a photo of that brainstorm session:

Brainstorming a Unit Plan

Brainstorming a Unit Plan

Here is my action plan:

a) Allow students to choose from one of four texts: The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, or The Beach (question: why am I limiting them? Can I just let them choose whatever fiction book they want and then clear it with me?)

b) Students will be focussing on skills development vs content understanding for this unit. Three key skills that will be evaluated: 1. Close Reading skills (using tech or no tech), 2. Pastiche writing (identification of style, rhetorical devices), and 3. Authentic Connection between Poetry and Text. Students will find a poem that they feel reflects the EQ and their chosen text. (Question: why did I choose these skills? How will they connect to the EQ through these assignments? Does that matter?)

c) Students will use reflection journals to discuss what they are reading, what they are learning, and questions they have about their learning. I will create a Google Form that will be tied to a DocAppender App. These forms will act as an Entry and Exit ticket for each of our lessons, and I will give students a minor grade for the quality and thoughtfulness of their reflections. (Question: is this the only place where students will show their content understanding? I need to get a dialogue going in these journals (google docs) so students know I”m reading and engaging with them outside of class; promote reading!)

d) Harkness Discussions: rather than having the teacher create the question or prompt for discussion, students will prepare for the Harkness Discussion by creating questions that will promote a better understanding of how a text answers the essential question: how does literature challenge our understandings of self, community and world?

e) Students can choose one of two summative evaluation choices at the end: a close reading + poetry connection OR writing a pastiche and then annotating that writing. All students will participate in an interview with their teacher, using student-created questions that they can prepare for in advance. Example ideas for questions: What did you learn as a result of this unit? How does your book challenge your understanding of yourself and your role in this world? How might your ability to be a good close reader improve your life? (question: do all students HAVE to do the interview? Does this disadvantage non-native speakers? How can I address that?)

This action plan looks a lot like a unit plan. Sorry about that! But ultimately, this is a plan to create a student-focussed learning environment that promotes critical thinking and holds students accountable for their learning. I welcome your thoughts, ideas, criticisms, feedback, and recipes for success. Thanks!



4 thoughts on “Action Plan: Skills vs Content in the Multi-Text English Classroom

  1. Hey Brent,
    Looks like you’ve followed the design thinking protocol in this by determining the problem and then ideating (ideating with Erica Chellew is always a good idea), and then you’ve come up with a prototype that you’re going to test in your classes.

    I wonder if you’ve considered where students are and what issues might be at play in their learning? You pose great questions, and from my experience kids who are given ultimate choice sometimes have difficulty in knowing where to start with the seemingly unstructured delivery.

    You should read @mramon blog and how she’s incorporated #designthinking into the mix or look at what @lmustard is doing with #augmentedreality. Both are inspiring blogs that could apply to your classes or could inspire a whole new idea altogether!

    With the Harkness you should check out Lorraine Brown’s use of Edpuzzle to push her students to think more deeply and be on the outside looking in on their own performance.

    For your final assessment, what if you had students decide how they best wanted to show their learning? I look forward to hearing how this goes, and I’d love to pop in for some of it. Let me know when you go live!

  2. Hi Brent,

    Congratulations! This is an interesting and inspiring blog post outlining your action plan!. I love that you have purposefully chosen to give the power of choice to your students and together you are all engaged in this learning journey… wherever it takes you! I truly believe that this is an example of how teachers can transform the learning experience and learning environment for our students.

    I am wondering if you had considered turning the journal piece of your plan into a blog format for writing? In this model, students would have the opportunity to comment on peer responses and this dialogue could also help to foster new connections and ideas beyond the original texts, perhaps across the texts if you want to go in this direction. It may also be a way to engage the students in demonstrating their ownership of their learning experience and may lead to other ideas of how students can engage in creating a meaningful final product for the unit.

    I look forward to hearing more about the many successes as your unit unfolds. All the best with your plan!

  3. Hi Brent! Can I take your class, please?

    What I see in your design is the opportunity for students to enjoy reading. By asking them to engage through Harkness discussions around a particular question, they can really own their knowledge and experience of a text.

    As for choice, I think three texts is a safe list to start with. I also think they’ll be able to connect with others who have read the book this way. If students aren’t pumped about their experiences with these books, maybe ask for suggestions of books students think should be on the list? I love free choice (we run a lit club at school like that, where everyone is reading something different and talking about it) but there’s something about having a small group to talk to in class with the same experience that I appreciate for interpersonal learners and external processors.

    I like your two assessment options. I think you raise a good question about the interview. But I also think that if you’re working on skills development, oral communication is an important one to develop! What if you allowed students to bring in prepared notes? That would work on the further skill of creating effective notes, but it would also allow non-native speakers to prepare the “right” words to feel more confident before their interview. Just a thought! I’m a big fan of bringing notes into everything – teaching, job interviews, the circus….

    Thanks for including your thinking via the photo- I always appreciate seeing the planning process!!!

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