What’s the Most Effective Way to Begin a New Unit?

One aspect of teaching I’ve been working on over the past few years is how to ask the best, most effective questions in lessons and projects.  How do I ask questions that promote critical thinking and creativity?  How do I inspire my students to delve into the content deeply by using the skills covered in the unit?  I feel as though the questions I usually ask are too broad or too specific.  They lack the wow factor that I’m working towards.

This year, I feel as though I have been generating pretty quality questions that help challenge my students to think about the topics covered in a creative and unique way.  However, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Yesterday, I had a meeting with my co-teacher and another colleague to discuss ideas my co-teacher could work on as part of her professional development program this year.  She originally wanted to focus on how to differentiate her teaching to meet the needs of the ELL students in the class.  She realized recently that she was no longer inspired by this topic and so she wanted to switch her focus.  I noticed that, like me, she struggled to ask effective questions.  So, I suggested that topic to her.  She seemed to like that.  Then as the discussion progressed yesterday, she realized that she wanted to focus on questions as they pertain to unit introductions.  How do you open a unit in a manner that hooks students but also assesses their prior knowledge?  What sorts of questions should she ask?  She really liked this idea, but she wants to do some thinking and research around this topic before making the final decision.  That makes sense.  Think and reflect before moving forward.

During our chat yesterday, I realized that I struggle with this same thing.  I don’t always know how to best open or introduce a new unit or topic.  How do I inspire students to want to learn more while also accessing their prior knowledge?  What kinds of questions would allow me to do this?  Thinking about the unit on Africa we will be starting next week in Humanities class, how can we best introduce it to the students?  They already know that we are going to be covering a unit on Africa and so the surprise factor need not apply here.  So, how do we hook them?  We’re going to be reading and discussing an article on the Nacirema Culture and people next Tuesday as a way of getting the boys to think about perspectives and biases that they bring to the table.  How can they appropriately inform their perspectives?  This will allow us to then remind the boys the importance of going into this unit, and to approach anything new or different, with an open and growth mindset.

Then what though?  We have a How Big is Africa lesson planned to help the students understand the vast size of Africa.  But is that really a hook?  Will that help the students get excited about our unit?  Perhaps, but is there something else we could do that would better introduce the unit?

What if we ask the the students to draw an outline map of Africa based on what they know?  Then, inside the map they could write everything they already know about Africa.  Then, they could share their map and and list with their table partner before we start the whole class discussion.  This seems like it would work.  The boys would have a chance to explore what they know.  It would also allow us to squash any great biases they have right away.  It gets them doing something and working with a partner.  Is there anything else?

What about starting our read aloud then?  Would that work?  We’re going to use Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water about two children living in Africa.  Perhaps that could be our hook.  The novel starts off quite strongly and so maybe that would be the way to go.

What about making a puzzle of Africa out of poster board and then having them put it together as a class.  We would leave out some pivotal pieces so that when they finish, we could ask them, “What’s missing?  Is the puzzle complete?”  Of course it isn’t complete.  They would still need to learn about African cultures and the physical geography of the continent, which they will gain from us.  Would that be a good introductory lesson?

I feel as though we need some sort of engaging hook that will allow for the students to share their knowledge of Africa with us as well.  Perhaps more ideas will come to us before we begin our unit next week.  No matter what, we will focus on asking effective questions and getting the boys excited about Africa.


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