Are my students actually learning, or are we just going through the motions?

This is the central question of Anne Reeves’ new book, Where Great Teaching Begins: Planning for Student Thinking and Learning.

When Reeves writes that most teachers “learn about classrooms and what teachers do from (our) own experiences of being students,” she is certainly talking about me.

During the first ten years of my teaching career, I made numerous attempts to break free from the “script” of teaching that I grew up with when I was a student.

One year we studied the court case of Mumia Abu Jamal.  Each student team took a part of the case: the prosecution’s case, the defense’s case, the history of the Black Panthers, the MOVE organization of Philadelphia, etc…  The project culminated with an evening-long conference where my students presented their papers.

Another year, we read about the effects of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  We read a children’s’ book called Sadako and the 1000 Paper Cranes.  In that story, a girl with leukemia–called the atom-bomb disease–tries to fold 1,000 origami cranes.  According to legend, if a person does this a wish will come true.  My class folded 1,000 of our own cranes and sent them to Hiroshima for the annual remembrance of the bomb-drop, called “Peace Day.”

These are two examples of what Reeves would call the “improvisation” that the script of teaching can flex for.  However, like the teachers Reeves is writing for, my classes would wrap up our project and then go back to reading our book, having our discussion, answering our questions, and taking our tests and quizzes.

Reeves central argument is that far too many teachers plan their classes around activities; what she calls the “script” of school.  Traditional lesson planning involves all of the things that the teacher will do and what the teacher hopes that the children will do.  With this kind of planning, very little thought goes into what the children will be thinking and the move from activity to activity.  This is the radical shift that Reeve’s hopes to achieve with the educators who read her book.  Teachers need to plan their lessons by imagining what kinds of thinking they would like their children to do.

I wish I had read this book the year I earned my teaching credential.  Instead, I have stumbled and bumbled my way into this kind of lesson planning.

I’m still glad I’ve gotten my hands on Reeves’ book.  As an experienced teacher, I often find myself helping colleagues who are embarking on their own careers.  In addition to providing great techniques that help teachers plan for student learning, Reeves offers great tips for explaining these techniques to fellow educators.  I find her eloquently and succinctly explaining how to plan with the students’ minds in mind.


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