While many know Jim Burke through his book The English Teacher’s Companion, I urge you to check out his What’s the Big Idea? Question-Driven Units to Motivate Reading, Writing and Thinking. Quite seriously, it’s the book that just keeps on giving.
As a teacher at a Project Based Learning (PBL) school, I’ve found the book useful when crafting driving questions for projects, as well as for teaching my students how to ask questions and to use those questions to lead to deeper learning. He also has an entire chapter dedicated to his inquiry unit on Romeo and Juliet.
Burke focuses his teaching of Romeo and Juliet on relationships and “how those relationships shape our values, actions, and lives” (77). Prior to reading the play, he engages his students in discussing relationships and the rules for different types of relationships through a “Conversational Roundtable.” Students discuss the rules for four types of relationships that they will encounter while reading: romantic, parent-child, friend, and mentor/caretaker-child. When opening up the discussion to the class as a whole, the discussion of a fifth relationship, that of enemies, comes up — the perfect bridge to the opening scene of R+J.
Burke also utilizes a chart called the “Pyramid of Hate” created by the Anti-Defamation League and Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. The chart describes five levels of hatred (prejudiced attitudes, acts of prejudice, discrimination, violence, and genocide) and can be used to show how hatred can escalate from one level to another, “[culminating] in an attempt to destroy one’s enemy and all who belong to that group” (91). I thought that this was an interesting way to connect literature to not just our students’ personal lives, but to the context of the world and world events.
My third takeaway from What’s the Big Idea? was the concept of structured note-taking. Burke gives a few examples of these notes that he has developed to help his students read the play closely and make connections to their reading focus of relationships. (I wonder if somewhere there is a resource that provides all of the structured note-taking forms that he has created for the play? Anybody?) In class, these notes are looked at as works in progress, an idea that I have been stressing with my students in class already this semester. His pointer to switch formats so that kids don’t go on autopilot when doing work was also good to note.
Finally, I liked Burke’s use of the “Decision Tree” graphic organizer. He makes the point that our kids “face crucial and complicated questions every day but often don’t realize they have options” much like Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers (99). He takes major decisions faced during the play, and has students brainstorm possible actions, the consequences to those actions, and final outcomes. In another example, he has his students evaluate how right or wrong each of the decisions made in the play have been thus far.
Many of the resources discussed above can be found at http://burkesbigidea.wikispaces.com/. (Scroll down to the “Natural Curiosity” section.)