Texts that talk to each other, and get us talking

Why I organize my teaching around essential questions:

McTighe and Wiggins (Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding. Alexandria: ASCD, 2013, p. 17) outline several reasons why essential questions are so powerful. They:

  • Signal that inquiry is a key goal of education.
  • Make it more likely that the unit will be intellectually engaging
  • Help to clarify and prioritize standards for teachers.
  • Provide transparency for students.
  • Encourage and model metacognition for students.
  • Provide opportunities for intra and interdisciplinary connections.
  • Support meaningful differentiation.

Below, I have outlined some of the questions and texts I have used in my classes. Some principles in these units:

  • I like threes. I think it is important to have more than two texts to consider.
  • In each of the following examples, these are anchor texts. That is to say, we take them in as a class. I use audio books to ensure everyone has the content. I read the stories and poetry aloud. We discuss the essential questions, themes and symbols together. All students have access to the texts, regardless of ability.
  • Each text has its own power, its own essential questions and understandings. Even though we have one or two primary questions within a unit, other topics are also discussed and written about.
  • When taken as a whole, common themes and symbols emerge and we can really dig in to how different characters/authors represent the universal human experience.
  • In some cases, the students carry on with independent literature circle reading and link the work they do back to the themes or questions.
  • Sometimes we just do that one unit together, and then carry on to other questions with more independence and choice.
  • The skill the students are working on depends on what I need students to learn at that time. How I ask them to represent their learning can take any form, but the key is that they are engaging the material at a deeper level.
  • I am working on moving from the essential question to the existential question.

English 11

“[Forgiveness is] a powerful and wonderful thing, and ridiculous, too….he sensed that it was the only way to save his own heart, to stop it from breaking in two” (The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate di Camillop. 208). “I know that in the end, God will forgive. He will forgive your father, me, and you too. I hope you can do the same. Forgive your father if you can. Forgive me if you wish. but more important, forgive yourself” (The Kite Runner, Hosseini, p. 316).

Essential Questions/understandings:

  • Can we be good again?
  • What is the role of forgiveness in our lives?
  • What is the power of story to save us from the darkness?


  • Children’s novel: The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate di Camillo
  • Novel: The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
  • Non-Fiction various: Canada’s longest war
  • Movie: The Girl, written and directed by David Riker

Skills taught (Spring 2014):

  • Recognizing symbol
  • Writing thesis statements
  • The literary essay
  • Response to literature
  • Dealing with non-fiction

English 9

  • Novel: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
  • Movie: Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Danny Boyle, based on Q & A, by Vikas Swarup
  • Poetry: Various

Essential Question:

  • To what principles do we owe our primary allegiance?
  • How far are you willing to go to get what you want?

Skills taught (Current):

  • Citing evidence
  • Response to literature
  • Visual Essay – Character Traits
  • Future Assignment: Memoir or short story using the essential question as a theme/central organizer

 English 8 –

  • Novel: Freak the Mighty, by Rodman Philbrick
  • Movie: Tsotsi, directed by Gavin Hood
  • Short Story: Phoenix Farm, by Jane Yolen (In future years, I will add other short stories.)

Essential Question:

  • How can we deal with challenge in a healthy way?
  • Who sees, and who is blind, and why?

Skills Taught (current):

  • Finding evidence
  • Response to literature
  • Finding theme using the concept of the universal human experience
  • Personal essay, poem or memoir – students will write about challenges in their own lives

Other units:

  • Humanities 8 – What is the impact of technology on society? How does our world view shape our actions?
  • Geography 12 – Earth and humans are in a fine balance together
  • Psychology 11 – What are the costs and benefits of fitting in and not fitting in? Is there a right way to be?

This style of teaching suits me  – my engagement level has increased, and so has the engagement of my students. I want all students, regardless of ability to consider the important questions of what it means to be human.

2 thoughts on “Texts that talk to each other, and get us talking

  1. Hi Kelley!

    I am doing some research for my classes next year and stumbled across your website! I love seeing your ideas. I am being thrown into teaching English 9 next year (I am a science teacher) and was wondering if you would be able to share an example of one of your thematic units. I really dont want to do the regular old units…short stories, novel, poetry etc. I would like to make it more meaningful. I am having some trouble getting there myself. I saw a post from 2012 ( I cannot remember the title) that said how you were changing your practice more in this direction and this post echos that!

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