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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles: Implement Standards, Curriculum, and Assessment

Revisiting Life Experiences and Learning Goals
Sharon Pettey-Taylor

In a previous interview, Classroom Connections to Real Life Experiences, English Instructor Ashley Carlisle graciously provided examples of how favorably students respond to applying realistic life experiences, as they meet their challenging learning goals.

By popular demand, we extended our dialogue and found that three major questions emerged.

Q: In continuing our support and understanding of this kind of cultural awareness (in alignment with the Professional Teaching Standards), what do you think influences your decision-making in choosing meaningful literature and/or projects, while simultaneously “capturing student attention and interest”? 

AC: Literature abounds with work that addresses, whether directly or implicitly, the interests and concerns of today’s students. Some of this literature is contemporary – engaging issues that are essential to the “21st century mind” – while other works, though produced centuries ago, contain timeless, universal themes that resonate deeply with our students’ everyday experiences. In other words, I have at my disposal a wealth of options when selecting literary texts for my students. In terms of my process for designing lessons/projects, I am strongly influenced by the belief that literature is most meaningful when students themselves discover the interconnections between the texts they read and their own lives.

This semester, my English 6 students (juniors) read Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun; an enduring work that, if my students are any indication, has withstood the test of time. Family conflict, materialism, the challenges and frustrations of the urban landscape, the fundamental human drive to “be more”--these themes, among others, captured the interest and imagination of my students as they journeyed through A Raisin in the Sun. In order to encourage students’ own “self-discovery” in the pages of this play, many of the assignments I designed required them to assume the identity of different members of the Younger family. We talked extensively about conflict as the driving force behind narrative plot; likewise, we devoted a great deal of time to examining the various ways in which authors develop their characters. Creative writing activities such as “scene continuations,” letters between characters, and invented dialogues based on hypothetical conflicts, were natural compliments to the course material. 

Q: Could you share your thoughts on how you have helped your students in simplifying a lesson’s content, particularly, where there are so many complex literary elements or factual information to identify? 

AC:I have found that students learn best when they have a clear sense of what they’re working towards – a concrete set of “end goals,” so to speak. Ideally, these “end goals” should be synonymous with the learning objectives I have identified in my unit plan. However, while such transparency is essential, it is equally important that unit objectives are presented in a way that does not induce “information overload” – otherwise students may become overwhelmed and unreceptive. Thus, instead of supplying students with a detailed list of unit objectives, key terms, etc., I like to pose a few “essential” or “overarching” questions at the beginning of each unit. Examples of “essential questions” I used to launch A Raisin in the Sun include:

  • Do “generation gaps” prevent parents and children from truly understanding one another?
  • Does financial hardship prevent domestic harmony?
  • Does money buy happiness?
  • To what degree does housing discrimination still exist in NYC?
  • What are some of the advantages to living in an urban environment? The disadvantages?

These questions (which I post around the classroom or on a bulletin board) are revisited frequently throughout the unit. They often serve as the topic of journal reflections, structured “debates” or more informal class discussions. As the unit progresses and various literary elements and techniques are introduced (for example, theme, plot, conflict, characterization), these essential questions serve to ground or frame new information.

Q: Finally, as a follow-up, any recommendations for alternative assessment strategies that encourage students to be self-reflective and self-directed, in expressing their inner voices?

AC: This year, I have made a conscious effort to broaden my personal definition of the term “literacy” in order to develop assessment strategies that support and nurture the “multiple literacies” which exist among my students. While some of my students share my natural inclination towards verbal communication, others exhibit advanced computer literacy, musical literacy, artistic literacy, and so forth. The following activity is one way to facilitate “self-reflective, self-directed” expression that supports the wide range of literacies that invariably exist within any given classroom. 

Step 1: Group Brainstorm - Create a class definition of a concept or theme that is central to the lesson/unit you are currently working on. For our A Raisin in the Sun unit, we used the theme of “dreams”; I also used this exercise for our poetry unit. Begin by asking students to generate a list of different characteristics that they associate with the concept/theme in question. For our “What is Poetry?” brainstorm, I started students off by simply asking, “What does poetry mean to you?” Responses ranged from “poetry is personal” and “poetry is therapeutic” to “poetry is funny” and “poetry is rhythm.”

Step 2: Bulletin Board – Design a bulletin board featuring the results of your Group Brainstorm. I designed ours to look like a Word Web – the key concept appears in the center and are surrounded by students’ word associations.

Step 3: Personal Reflection: Direct each student to select one of the word associations on the Bulletin Board (it does not need to be one of their original brainstorm contributions). Explain that each student will be responsible for demonstrating to the class how this word relates to the central concept/theme. Students may accomplish this task in whatever manner they choose – one of my students, in elaborating on her definition of poetry as “therapeutic,” led the class through a meditative exercise that resulted in each student writing their own poem. Another student, demonstrating how “poetry is imagery,” shared an ekphrastic poem (a poem inspired by visual art) with the class; someone else played a Tupac Shakur song and read one of his poems, drawing our attention to the fact that each work shared the same rhythm and rhyme scheme.

This type of alternative assessment strategy allows the teacher to evaluate his/her students in a way that honors their multiple literacies/intelligences, nurturing their creativity and self-confidence in the process. 

Many thanks again, Ms. Carlisle, for taking the time out of your very busy teaching schedule to inspire us and generously share your brilliant thoughts, so well put into action.   You have demonstrated skillfully and artfully how to guide teachers and students into recognizing their own “real life” connections to the literary riches offered daily in their own classrooms.  Your teaching practice reminds us all to continue to appreciate and learn from each other’s cultural backgrounds and diverse school communities.

Revisiting Life Experiences and Learning Goals ==> Lesson Plan ==> Extension Activity

Engaging and Supporting Students in Learning.
The Professional Teaching Standards.  New Teacher Center at The University of California, Santa Cruz, 2004.

Many thanks to the students, staff, and administration of:
Boys and Girls High School, Brooklyn, NY
Spencer D.A. Holder, Principal
Christopher Smith, AP Organization
Douglas D. Clarke, AP English Department

Do you have a comment, question, or suggestion about this article? E-mail Sharon.


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