We expect teachers to be using a Balanced Literacy approach and gradual release model in their classrooms.  But at Concept English for the past three years we have been focusing on key areas where we expect teachers and students to make gains.  In this section called “Concepts” we will recap areas that are at the heart of our philosophy.

Concept #1: Essential Questions/Enduring Understandings/Big Ideas


Many of us have grown familiar with the work of Wiggins and McTighe.  I first learned of their work as an International Baccalaureate teacher and trainer. And as the Director of English for Concept I have spoken about it often.

“Big ideas and essential questions guide feedback so students can make progress toward a key learning goal and we know that feedback increases student achievement by 32%.”

Two important notions are at the center of why we use essential questions:

  1. Curriculum design requires us to make choices about what is essential now to help our learners for their future.
  2. Students link all learning experiences to key concepts derived from real-life applications.


It is clear that not all standards for learning are equal in value and we know from experience and research that learning without practical and meaningful application is quickly forgotten.  Furthermore, understanding occurs when individuals seek answers to important questions and make connections.  We can take it further to what many of our poets have suggested, that we live the questions because the connections between them light the way to the answers.

One can argue that a big idea is an enduring understanding or something you want students to remember in twenty years.  Wiggins called a big idea “a conceptual framework allowing the learner to explore answers to the essential question involved in a unit of study.”  I believe there is no doubt that they are linked.

When teachers are considering a unit of study one way to look for the big ideas and enduring understandings is to look at how they might be revealed through: focusing themes, ongoing debates and issues, insightful perspectives, underlying assumptions, paradox/problems/challenges, organizing theory, overarching principle, provocative questions, and, my favorite, processes/problem-solving, and decision making.  Here are some examples:

Type – area or subject Big Idea/Enduring Understanding
Concepts Economics – It’s not the money you have, but how you allocate it.
Themes Good triumphs over evil.
Perspective Life is shaped by your attitude; my cup half full or half empty.
Principle Less is more.
Assumption Non-fiction text always depicts the truth.
Persuasive Writing Powerful media can influence beliefs and behaviors.
Westward expansion Hardship forged a nation.
Nutrition You are what you eat.


And of course, you can use the standards to find big ideas/enduring understandings and develop essential questions. Look at a standard and unwrap it by trying to “focus on key nouns and verbs to identify the key learning that needs to take place” and then the learning is within the context of the big idea and essential question you develop.

Consider these three examples:

Standard Big Idea/ Essential Question
Analyze how a text makes connectionsamong and distinctions between individuals,ideas, or events (e.g., through comparisons, analogies, or categories). Big Ideas: Connections and distinctions are made through comparisons and analogies. Essential Question: How has the author of this text created distinctions between ideas and events?
Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the authoracknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.
Analyze a case in which two or more texts provide conflicting information on the same topic and identify where the texts disagree on matters of fact or interpretation.


An essential question is “vital, at the heart of the matter – the essence of the issue.”  With the Common Core standards it is more difficult to get to the essential question because they are so broad (and the whole purpose of essential questions is focus) and inclusive, but paying attention to both the standards/concepts/topics/ is helpful.

A question is essential when it:

  • Causes genuine INQUIRY into the big ideas and core content being taught
  • Is ARGUABLE: provokes deep thought, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding as well as more questions
  • Requires students to CONSIDER alternatives, WEIGH evidence, SUPPORT their ideas, and JUSTIFYtheir answers
  • Stimulates vital, ongoing rethinking of big ideas and assumptions
  • Sparks meaningful CONNECTIONS with prior learning and personal experiences


Check your understanding of the concept:

Essential Question Non Essential Question
Where do artists get their ideas? Did nature influence the painter Monet?
How does the setting of a story or novel influence the characters? Why does the main character live on a river?


As with any approach to teaching and learning, we get better at identifying the big ideas and developing the essential questions through repeated practice. 


Concept #2:  Reading Is What We Do, but HOW?


Concept English has selected the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) Collections texts for our 6 – 12th grade students.  Our decision was based on the need we saw for balance between non-fiction and fiction texts as well as a strong focus on close reading.

The reality in schools today is that many of our students are reading below grade level and anything we can do to help them improve as readers will be essential to our success.  As I always said to my students, an engaged reader is someone who is always reading with a pen in their hand and thinking down their arm.  But what does this mean?

Close reading is a fancy term for what many of us learned as annotation, or taking notes on the text.  So while we know that students should be reading, the better question is how are they reading?

Recently I came across a blog and then an article titled:  “Purposeful Annotation: A ‘Close Reading’ Strategy That Makes Sense to My Students.” It stated what I believe to be true.  Here are some of the highlights.

The big idea with purposeful annotation is:  what we do when reading should align with

  1. why we’re doing the reading in the first place and
  2. what we’re going to do with the reading after we’re done.


Students are allowed to write on the text (provide copies of pages from the primary text) in a way that supports the purpose of the reading and the parameters of the post-reading task.  For example, this would be the PBA or writing task at the end of each unit based on the Anchor Texts.

Two things that can always be considered for annotating in a broad sense are: personal responses to text and paraphrases or summaries (essential test taking skills) of small portions of the larger text.

Writing in the margins is not simply for a grade or because the teacher said to do it;  it becomes a way to help students own what they are doing.   It aligns with Dave Stuart’s desire, and mine, to have students:

  1. Understand and learn from the text while reading
  2. Recognize that they will do something with the text when they are done reading
  3. Figure out why school matters to them and their lives
  4. Take control of the challenges of school and, more broadly, life


It should be noted that this text also points out the importance of students learning to “arguespeak across the school day and that ‘They Say, I Say’ remains the best book to teach students” how to do this.  Giving them this power is part of what we mean by ownership of learning, and it is not unlike the social contract we have with society:  “society has a responsibility to create a level playing field, and individual have a responsibility to take advantage of it.”

A few guidelines:

  • Start with the end in mind – what does this activity look like in your gradebook and how will you use the information?
  • Provide 1-3 possible response options for annotation
  • For content summarizing, paraphrasing, or circling key words is always good
  • Annotate toward a prompt or writing assignment they will complete after reading. See Jim Burke’s A List – Essential Academic Words: http://englishcompanion.com/the-a-list-verbs-to-live-by
  • Annotate while reading, not after


Try a few of these idea out and let us know if they worked.


Concept # 3:  Text Dependent Questions



A helpful video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCd7IfXL5lY

The logical extension to close reading is learning how to develop and use text-dependent questions more effectively.

Achieve the Core (http://achievethecore.org/) has a handy document to help us with this process.  It is re-posted below.

Guide to Creating Text-Dependent Questions

Text-Dependent Questions: What Are They?

The Common Core State Standards for reading strongly focus on students gathering evidence, knowledge, and insight from what they read.  Indeed, nearly all of the Reading Standards in each grade require text-dependent analysis; accordingly, aligned curriculum materials should have a similar percentage of text-dependent questions.

As the name suggests, a text-dependent question specifically asks a question that can only be answered by referring explicitly back to the text being read.  It does not rely on any particular background information extraneous to the text nor depend on students having other experiences or knowledge; instead it privileges the text itself and what students can extract from what is before them.

For example, in a close analytic reading of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” the following would not be text-dependent questions:

  • Why did the North fight the Civil War?
  • Have you ever been to a funeral or grave site?
  • Lincoln says that the nation is dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” Why is equality an important value to promote? 

The overarching problem with these questions is that they require no familiarity at all with Lincoln’s speech in order to answer them. Responding to these sorts of questions instead requires students to go outside the text. Such questions can be tempting to ask because they are likely to get students talking, but they take students away from considering the actual point Lincoln is making.  They seek to elicit a personal or general response that relies on individual experience and opinion, and answering them will not move students closer to understanding the text of the “Gettysburg Address.”

Good text-specific questions will often linger over specific phrases and sentences to ensure careful comprehension of the text—they help students see something worthwhile that they would not have seen on a more cursory reading.  Typical text-dependent questions ask students to perform one or more of the following tasks:

  • Analyze paragraphs on a sentence-by-sentence basis and sentences on a word-by-word basis to determine the role played by individual paragraphs, sentences, phrases, or words
  • Investigate how meaning can be altered by changing key words and why an author may have chosen one word over another
  • Probe each argument in persuasive text, each idea in informational text, each key detail in literary text, and observe how these build to a whole
  • Examine how shifts in the direction of an argument or explanation are achieved and the impact of those shifts
  • Question why authors choose to begin and end when they do
  • Note and assess patterns of writing and what they achieve
  • Consider what the text leaves uncertain or unstated


Creating Text-Dependent Questions for Close Analytic Reading of Texts

An effective set of text-dependent questions delves systematically into a text to guide students toward extracting the key meanings or ideas found there.  Text-dependent questions typically begin by exploring specific words, details, and arguments, and then move on to examine the impact of those specifics on the text as a whole.  Along the way, they target academic vocabulary and specific sentence structures as critical focus points for gaining comprehension.

While there is no set process for generating a complete and coherent body of text-dependent questions for a text, the following process is a good guide that can serve to generate a core series of questions for close reading of any given text.

Step One: Identify the Core Understandings and Key Ideas of the Text

As in any good reverse engineering or “backwards design” process, teachers should start by reading and annotating the text, identifying the key insights they want students to understand from the text. Keeping one eye on the major points being made is crucial for fashioning an overarching set of successful questions and critical for creating an appropriate culminating assignment.

Step Two: Start Small to Build Confidence

The opening questions should be ones that help orient students to the text. They should also be specific enough so that students gain confidence to tackle more difficult questions later on.

Step Three: Target Vocabulary and Text Structure

Locate key text structures and the most powerful words in the text that are connected to the key ideas and understandings, and craft questions that draw students’ attention to these specifics so they can become aware of these connections.  Vocabulary selected for focus should be academic words (“Tier Two”) that are abstract and likely to be encountered in future reading and studies.

Step Four: Tackle Tough Sections Head-on

Find the sections of the text that will present the greatest difficulty and craft questions that support students in mastering these sections (these could be sections with difficult syntax, particularly dense information, and tricky transitions or places that offer a variety of possible inferences).

Step Five: Create Coherent Sequences of Text-dependent Questions

Text-dependent questions should follow a coherent sequence to ensure that students stay focused on the text, so that they come to a gradual understanding of its meaning.

Step Six: Identify the Standards That Are Being Addressed

Take stock of what standards are being addressed in the series of questions and decide if any other standards are suited to being a focus for this text (forming additional questions that exercise those standards).

Step Seven: Create the Culminating Assessment

Develop a culminating activity around the key ideas or understandings identified earlier that (a) reflects mastery of one or more of the standards (b) involves writing, and (c) is structured to be completed by students independently.


Concept #4:  21st Century Skills


We have all seen and heard about the importance of 21st century skills.  Here is a recap.

According to NCTE, a student should:

  1. Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
  2. Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
  3. Design and share information for global communities that have a variety of purposes
  4. Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneously presented information
  5. Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts
  6. Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

And, according to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, they are:

1. Core Subjects and 21st Century Themes

2. Learning and Innovation Skills

Creativity and Innovation

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

Communication and Collaboration

3. Information, Media and Technology Skills

Information Literacy

Media Literacy

Literacy with Information and Communications Technology

4. Life and Career Skills

General Assignments

  • Class Wikis
  • Class Blogs
  • Blog Subscriptions
  • Snapshot and Tableaux Dramas
  • Sketch to Stretch
  • Internet Scavenger Hunts/WebQuests
  • Multigenre Paper and Multigenre Group Presentation
  • Abstract Representation
  • Myspace Page
  • Using Murals
  • Vocabulary Image Journals

English Assignments

  • Hypertext Writing (Annotate a Text)
  • Make an Online Anticipation Guide
  • The Album Cover Project
  • Julius Caesar, the Musical
  • Theme Song Essay
  • Writing in E-mail English
  • AuthorQuest
  • Clothing Catalog
  • Site-Specific Audio Walk
  • Listening Centers
  • Writing a Movie
  • Sound Movie
  • Fan Fiction
  • Antique Photos
  • Evaluate a Web Page or Document a Search
  • School Commercialism Scavenger Hunt
  • Gender Bias
  • Critical Literacy Discussion Prompts
  • Cultural Memoirs (Multigenre Autobiography)
  • Character Mandala
  • Revision in the Computer Lab
  • Short Fiction Write-Around
 Concept #5 Co-Teaching*

Teacher and math coach Mona Keeler, far right works with students Lauren Zorovic, 12, Jameson Chubb, 12, and Logan Utter, 12, as co-teacher Sarah DeJesus, behind, observes, during a 7th grade math class at Iron Horse Middle School in San Ramon, Calif., on Wednesday, March 4, 2015. Keeler is a teacher and math coach who tries to help students overcome math anxiety. This particular lesson dealt with proportional relationships and had students work as teams, allowed them to use calculators in order to focus on the concepts of the lessons instead of worrying about getting calculations wrong and had the students physically moving around the classroom to different stations. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)

This is the number one question I am asked at Concept English: how do you want me to work with my Title 1, Reading Specialist, and SPED teacher? If you think about it, approaching all teaching as co-teaching, even if it is just for the purposes of planning, is a good idea.

As I said last year, throughout the Concept network there are many general education and special education teachers working together in a variety of situations.  Of course, the circumstances may vary by school and region; the final decisions about case loads, schedules, and teacher pairings are the responsibility of school leadership.  However, a few suggestions can be made about co-teaching.

If a SPED teacher or Reading Specialist is “pushing in” to a general education classroom, the General Education teacher must take the lead and ask them how they would like to collaborate.  Effective collaborations include:

  1. Establishing a relationship – get to know each other
  2. Identifying teaching styles – share your strengths and weaknesses
  3. Creating a cohesive approach to teaching – figure out how you best work together
  4. Merging IEP and General Education goals – find common ground between where students are and where the standards/curriculum want them to be
  5. Developing a plan of action – including a schedule of who will teach when, grading policy, classroom management, lesson planning, and modifications


Both educators on the co-teaching team are responsible for differentiating instructional planning and delivery, assessment of student achievement, and classroom management.

The following are some proven co-teaching approaches to help with #3 above.

Supportive co-teaching:  One member of the team takes the lead role and the other member rotates among students to provided support.

Parallel co-teaching:  Co-teachers work with different homogeneous groups of students in the same room

Complimentary co-teaching:  One member of the team does something to supplement or complement the instruction provided by the other member of the team:  modeling what the teacher is saying or doing, paraphrasing.

Team teaching:  Members of the team co-teach alongside one another and share responsibility for planning, teaching, and assessing.

NOTE:  It is clear that complimentary and team teaching between the general education and special education teacher requires more time and commitment.  It is highly recommended that the general education teacher reach out to school leadership for clarification on issues related to scheduling, and caseload so that they are able to effectively and realistically plan their class instruction.

*Based on the ideas of Dr. Richard Villa outlined in “Creating an Inclusive School” published by the ASCD.


Feature #6 – Writing to Improve Reading


It turns out that the brilliant writer James Baldwin was ahead of his time in cultural ideas and literacy.  He always knew the importance of reading to become educated, that reading freed the mind to imagine better worlds.  However, his last directive, to WRITE, may have been even more important.  National Writing Project (NWP) has a number of articles (see link below) that will help teachers learn and use the connection between writing as a means to improve reading skills.