What’s the Big Idea?

Screen shot 2013-02-11 at 4.49.43 PMWhile 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.)


4 thoughts on “What’s the Big Idea?

  1. I really like how you wrote this post and the subject matter. This is a book I’ll get. When you present questions in your classroom what is your approach, particularly when you have them engage in the aforementioned brainstorming.


    • The approach depends on what we’re doing. My team teacher has been working a lot with our kids regarding how to write research questions, and has given them two rules: be clear and seek a complex answer. (Questions that start with how or why, are going to lead to responses that they can actually write about, and will require further inquiry.) Our kids are naturally not good at this, so it takes repetition, lots of models, and lots of revision. We’ve started the last few school days by asking for a research question that kids have come up with, and revising it on the board to be both clear and providing of a complex answer.

      On the English-Language Arts side of things, I’ve found that using questions to analyze literature is really quite helpful in leading kids to writing their analysis. Again, they they not good at the question asking yet. I’ve been scaffolding this for them, and slowly taking away my supports. I started with breaking down a quote into smaller chunks, and providing questions to lead them through thinking through each chunk. The next time we do this, I’ll provide most of the questions but leave out a few for us to come up with as a class. Then the next time, providing even fewer questions. The hope is that eventually they can chunk down quotes on their own, and come up with questions that will lead them in their dissection of the text.

      At the beginning of each project, we have students brainstorm as a group what they know about the subject matter at hand and what they need to know (in the form of questions). I use their questions when I teach, and try to make it explicitly clear that the lesson or activity that they are engaging in is specifically answering a question that they had from the beginning. I also try to reinforce the idea that all new learning will lead to new questions. After activities, lessons, reading, etc. I ask what new “need to knows” they have. I think it’s really important to demonstrate that learning never ends.

      • Impressive! As a special ed person I am especially impressed with your approach to quotes. We call this shaping. If you create any handouts, especially graphic organizers, I hope you will post at least one example.


  2. Oh, I’ll definitely be posting the graphic organizers, handouts, and such as I start teaching Romeo and Juliet! (We’ll be finishing up Fahrenheit 451, then reading Of Mice and Men, and then the big event will finally occur.)

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