Posted in general education, homeschool, how-to, mind, social studies, special education

What’s the Big Idea? Using Big Ideas and Essential Questions in Instruction

Big ideas and essential questions
Use big ideas and essential questions in your high school history class to encourage deep thinking. {Image credit: “British Empire Map in 1886,” Forgemind Archemedia via Creative Commons}

Using Big Ideas and Essential Questions in Instruction

What’s a Big Idea? How Do Big Ideas Connect to Essential Questions?

A big idea, sometimes referred to as an enduring understanding, is an important concept or idea that students can construct as the result of a unit of study. Unlike isolated facts, big ideas can’t be merely transmitted to the learner, but must be “earned” by connecting individual pieces of learning over time. Because they reflect meaning-making on the part of the learner, big ideas are constantly being revisited and revised by the learner as they gain deeper understanding. They are often transferable from one content area to another.

For example, consider the following big idea:

Different choices can lead to different outcomes.

This big idea can be used in a US History class during a study of Congress’s decision to go to war, during a Psychology class while discussing personal responsibilities, and even in a Statistics class while learning about probability. The beauty of a big idea is that, when it is presented in multiple content areas, the understanding of the learner actually deepens.

How do teachers get learners to understand big ideas? In order to get students to think deeply and make meaning as they do, teachers guide their learning through the use of essential questions. Simply stated, a big idea is the answer to an essential question. One essential question can have many big ideas as the answer. Conversely, one big idea can answer a number of different essential questions.

Big ideas span topics and subject matter, and recur throughout our lives. {Image credit: “Jack’s War Pictures 7,” Jack Trimble, 2005 via Creative Commons 2.0}

Big Ideas vs Lesson Objectives

Lesson Objectives

“My text book includes lesson objectives – are those big ideas?”

In short, no, they are not. Here is an example of a set of learning objectives from a chapter of a US History book in my classroom:

  • Identify the European nations that sent the earliest settlers to America.
  • Describe 3 differences among European colonies.
  • Name 3 reasons settlers came to the New World.
  • Explain what the Mayflower Compact was.

Because I encourage students to think beyond Eurocentric views of history, I added the following learning objective:

  • Describe the impact of European exploration on the indigenous people of the Americas and on the rest of the world.

In a nutshell, the unit describes how the Spanish, French and English were the first European settlers of North America. They had various reasons for coming here – some similar, some different. Once here, their colonies had some similarities and some differences, one being that the English created a set of rules for their new society here, called the Mayflower Compact. The arrival of Columbus to the Americas had an effect on the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere, as well as on the people of Europe and Africa, which lasts until this day (called the Columbian Exchange).

Big ideas can’t be merely transmitted by the teacher, but must be “earned” by the learner.

Consider the difference between these lesson objectives, and the following essential questions and big ideas:

  1. What is imperialism? Imperialism is the act of one country establishing colonies in far-away lands to increase the power and wealth of that country.
  2. What is human migration? Migration happens when large groups of people move from one area to another.
  3. Why do people migrate? People migrate for many different reasons – some similar, some different.
  4. Why do people make rules? People create rules to govern their society and their behavior.
  5. How does human migration affect the world? The movement of large groups of people has an effect on the group that migrates, the people who choose not to migrate, the people who are already in the new land, and, sometimes, the rest of the world.

Which lead to deeper understanding? Which can be used over and over again? Which give the teacher more “bang for the buck?”

Lesson objectives lead to convergent thinking, while essential questions are open-ended and lead to divergent thinking. {Image credit: “Mayflower II, Plymouth, MA,” by SJ Dunphy, 2006 via Creative Commons 2.0}

Why Focus on Big Ideas and Essential Questions?

Essential questions:

  • Are open-ended, having no “right answer;”
  • Are meant to be discussed, argued, and analyzed from multiple perspectives;
  • Encourage active meaning-making by learners;
  • Lead to higher-order thinking;
  • Raise additional important questions;
  • Have multiple entry points, so all learners can participate;
  • Naturally arise during study of a subject;
  • Can be considered multiple times, adding important new information each time.

Big ideas:

  • Represent the “essence” of the content;
  • Connect content from one lesson/unit to another and from one subject to another;
  • Increase opportunities to practice and master concepts, skills and strategies;
  • Allow the teacher to keep content grade-appropriate while allowing for learner differences.
Using big ideas and essential questions leads learners to construct their own meaning about important content. {Image Credit: “Inquiry Learning Word Cloud,” by Christopher Lister, 2015 via Creative Commons 2.0}

Using Big Ideas and Essential Questions in Instruction

Big ideas and essential questions can be used in many ways in the classroom.

  1. Use an essential question as a lesson activator. Have students write a question (“What is time? Why do we measure it?”) in their notebooks and take 5 minutes to answer the question before you begin a new unit. Alternatively, post the question on the board, give one minute for private consideration then discuss. Record student responses; compare to big ideas later.
  2. Use an essential question as a writing prompt. After we have considered an essential question (“What problems are common to everyone? What problems are not?”) a number of times in History class, I will use the question as a writing prompt, reminding students to use specific examples from their lives and class to support their answers.
  3. Post essential questions in the room as they are studied. As an “exit ticket,” ask students which essential questions they addressed in the preceding lesson.
  4. Use essential questions as assessments. I always try to include at least one essential question on each quiz. Even if the majority of the quiz is fact-based content, including an essential question lets me see the deeper understanding that students have learned from their studies, especially if the same question is at different times during the year. For example, last year, we focused on “Why do people do what they do?” throughout the school year, and the students saw it on a variety of assessments in life skills, group, social studies and English, throughout the year.
  5. Review using essential questions. Put essential questions in a box. Have students take turns pulling a question from the box and answering it aloud.
  6. Sort big ideas by essential question. Pass out big ideas learned, to date. As a review, have students match big ideas to one or more essential question.
Asking questions is an innate human characteristic. Utilize it to promote student meaning-making. {Image Credit: “Why Do Humans Q,” by Meadow Saffron, 2006, via Creative Commons 2.0}

For More Information

For more information on big ideas, essential question, and Understanding by Design, see “UbD in a Nutshell,” by Jay McTighe.

Need a jumpstart? Download “Essential Questions (and Big Ideas!) to Encourage Historical Thinking” (based on the Historical Thinking Standards of the National Center for History in Schools).

Posted in general education, homeschool, literacy, mind, more seeds, special education

8 Steps to Better Written Responses

Writing Across the Curriculum

In schools across the country, come September, all students will be sitting down for a 45-minute writing prompt. It will be about something predictable: a fictional narrative for third graders; an informational piece for fifth graders; a persuasive essay for eighth graders..pe. Preparing students for these quarterly or monthly prompts is a major focus for most language arts teachers.

What is often missing in writing instruction is explicit instruction on how to compose high-quality written responses to questions across the curriculum. The work we do to help students write narratives with elaboration, or explanatory texts with excellent use of citations, or a well-developed argument, doesn’t seem to translate into well-written responses to questions in their biology textbooks, or even their responses to literature in English class.

This summer, I spent six weeks teaching my students how to analyze question types (recall, explanation, application, synthesis, analysis, evaluation) based on the book, Because of Winn-Dixie, and how to craft well-structured responses that show their understanding of what they read.

http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
writing strategies
written response
These 8 steps to better written responses can be used with any age group, in any subject. {Image credit: (c) 2014, Kim M. Bennett}

The State of Written Response Work: Our Baseline

On the first day of school, I assigned an easy reading passage (so the students could focus on their comprehension questions, rather than decoding). Here is a typical response, which earned zero points using my 10-point writing rubric:


Atka and the other socialized wolves at the center are not afraid of people. Why are the other 19 wolves at the center afraid of people?

“So they can go back into the wild.”

{Student J, Grade 8}


I set out to develop an instructional sequence which would help students to analyze the question being asked, determine what was essential information to include in their response so that the reader could understand the answer and to show understanding of what they read, and teach them how to check their response to make sure it had everything it needed to be excellent.

Steps for Writing a Good Response

We used the four areas of the 10-point rubric as a guide for analyzing the question and constructing an answer.

Step 1: Listen to the question.

Students follow along as you read. Most writing prompts allow the teacher to read the prompt aloud, to ensure that students are clear about the task. Remember – you have already read the book. This task is to assess understanding of the text – not the words of the question.

Step 2: Determine how many parts your response should have.

Next, students analyze the task, to determine how many parts there should be to the response. Underline the parts that require a response.

  • Hint #1 for finding “parts:” Look for the question mark – read that sentence. What do you have to do to answer it?
  • Hint #2: Look for other “direction words” in questions without a question mark: describe, explain, list, explain…

Step 3: Identify 3-4 words to include in your response.

Students should then circle 3-4 words in the prompt that they want to use in their response. They might try to circle words like the or because, since they are common words. Ask them what are the MOST important words in the question.

  • Hint #1: Who or what is the question about? Circle those important words or names. Without this, it won’t be clear who you’re writing about. In my example, above, it isn’t clear if “they” refers to “Atka and other socialized wolves” or “the other 19 wolves.” So, students might circle the words “other 19 wolves.”
  • Hint #2: What is this question about? In the case above, the question is about why the non-socialized wolves are afraid. So students might circle the word afraid.

Don’t hurry this step. While we often tell kids, “Circle words you might use in the answer,” we don’t usually spend a lot of time helping students analyze what the prompt is really about, and what the essential words are to a good response.

http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
writing strategies
written response
Help students analyze the question and plan their responses by selecting critical vocabulary and brainstorming ideas. {Image credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

Step 4: Plan at least 2 ideas to include in your response.

I don’t know about your kids, but mine don’t have the habit of thinking deeply about a question before they answer it. This step helps everyone review (and better understand) the text before writing a response, and helps them orally rehearse the words and phrases they might use.

  • Hint #1: I project or write the question on the board, and show students how to write marginal notes around the question. I draw lines to the parts of the question a word or phrase goes to. I stop when I have a handful of ideas.
  • Hint #2: Before I move on, I ask the kids each time, “Do you have to include ALL of these things in your answer?” And, of course, they say, “no.” Then I ask them, “How many ideas would be in a good response?” And they have learned to say “two,” unless the question states something different.

Some of my kids worry about finding THE correct answer, and struggle when the question just isn’t that kind of question. So this step helps them learn that there are multiple ways to correctly answer the question.

As my kids got better at this step, I added the part where I told them to make sure that their ideas went together well, and modeled that with them.

Step 5: Find at least one detail from the text to support your ideas.

While the ideas are still on the board, I change the color of my pen, and write down specific details from the text to support a few of them, as the kids generate them.

  • Hint: This is a good time to review the proper use of quotation marks for direct quotes from the text.

Step 6: Compose your response.

By this time, some kids will already have an idea how to respond, and will be starting to compose their answer. Give them five minutes or so to put their answer together.

  • Hint: Let kids orally rehearse their answers with you before they write them, if needed. One of my students leaves words out of his responses, so if he rehearses with me first, I can tell him, “I’ll say what you said – check your answer and see if that’s what you wrote.” Then I show him how to use a carat to insert words – don’t worry about re-writing.

Step 7: Review your rubric.

Before we share out, I direct students to review their rubric and check their answer:

  • Did you answer all parts of the question?
  • Is your information correct?
  • Did you include important words from the question in your answer?
  • Did you capitalize the first letter and use an end mark at the end of each sentence?

Usually, they realize they have to edit when they get to the last bullet point.

http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
writing strategies
written response
Share adult models as well as student models of successful responses and discuss as a group. {Image credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

Step 8: Share your response.

To show students how there are multiple ways to answer the same question, I like to have two students come up and share their responses on the board.

  • Hint #1: Review the rubric quickly, as a group, so students can analyze the response.
  • Hint #2: Identify places where the student added something to their response to take it from “good” to “great.”
  • Hint #3: If the response needs work, invite students to suggest ways to take it from “good” to “great” – talk about sentence combining, word choice, style – whatever comes up.

Written Responses: Our Finished Work

By the end of the six-week period, the students’ response work was much more well-developed. Here is an example at the end of summer school, by the same student as the previous example {underlined words were words the student selected for his response}:



Opal describes her friend Gloria as the best adult she knows. In what ways does Gloria act like the mother that Opal doesn’t have? How do Gloria’s qualities bring Opal closer to her real mother?

“Gloria has mother-like qualities, and she gives them to Opal. Some of them are that she gives Opal hugs, and she gives her good advice. Opal and Gloria cook together, too. She also talks about her mistakes. For example, Gloria showed Opal a tree and that tree had beer bottles and whiskey bottles, and she told Opal she used to drink. Gloria has Opal thinking about her own mom.”


Who Benefits From This Explicit Instruction?

My group, as yours, is a group of students with diverse learning needs. Here are some of the specific learning needs that this step-wise instructional sequence addressed with my kids:

  • students who don’t know how to begin the response process
  • students with slow processing speed
  • students who don’t understand questions above recall and explanation level
  • students who answer questions impulsively and superficially
  • students who need more scaffolding with reading comprehension strategies
  • students who need to orally rehearse their writing ideas
  • students who struggle with questions that aren’t “right there” questions
  • students who are working on increasing their sentence complexity
  • students who are working on increasing their vocabulary

Posted in general education, homeschool, literacy, mind, more seeds, special education, Uncategorized

Ten Writing Strategies to Jump-Start the Reluctant Writer

The Problem of the Blank Page

I remember my first public school teaching position. We were required to administer writing prompts to our students on a quarterly basis (for the district), but were encouraged to repeat the process in between for evaluating student progress.

Every quarter, my colleagues and I would sit and collaboratively score our prompts. Every quarter, we had a pile of prompts that were scored as zeroes or ones out of 12, simply because the pages were blank, or nearly so.

Fast forward to my time as a consultant, where, once again, I was meeting with teachers (kindergarten, third grade, tenth grade – it didn’t matter) who were faced with the dilemma of what to do with a stack of writing papers that were blank. Sometimes the students were students with disabilities. Usually they were not. The teachers had lessons for teaching elaboration, or paragraph structure, or citing sources correctly. But what to do about the student who sat in front of a blank page for 45 minutes?

writing strategies
http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
blank page
For many students, the writing process gets stalled from the start when they face an empty page. {Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2016}

Common Causes for the “Empty Page Syndrome”

During data team meetings, we would look at that pile of low-scored prompts, and ask ourselves questions about why each student failed to gain more than two points on the prompt. {I will refer to this as the “Empty Page Syndrome,” because, like any other syndrome, it is a cluster of symptoms that has a singular, often difficult to see, reason behind it.} In order to do this, we had to think about each individual student, and look at the story behind the numbers. Assuming the prompt was read to all students (something teachers are allowed to do), the student is physically able to write, and critical vocabulary was explained (again, something that is allowed by the assessment), what are the common reasons for not scoring on a writing prompt?

  • No ideas on how to respond to the prompt;
  • Had ideas, but took to long thinking and/or planning and didn’t start on time;
  • Lacked stamina to write enough for a well-developed response;
  • Wrote sufficiently, but response was off-topic;
  • Refused to write because writing tasks are historically too complex for the student.

Almost all cases of writing “refusal” and empty responses can be attributed to one of these causes. By breaking down and addressing one of these specific obstacles, we can get students to begin the writing process and get out of the starting gate.

writing strategies
writing refusal
http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
Refusal to write can often be attributed to the student’s lack of confidence in his writing skills. {Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2017}

Ten Focused Writing Strategies to Use With Reluctant Writers

Here are the ten strategies I’ve used to help writers of all ages to begin the writing process, whether it’s in reading response work, answering social studies chapter questions, or completing a writing prompt. Each of these would be used INSTEAD of the actual written response work. NOTE: Remember ~ these strategies are to be used to help students get from NOTHING to SOMETHING; most of these are not suitable for refining the work of students who write sufficiently but miss the mark in some other way.

To score written tasks as you are working through these strategies, a response would be considered sufficient if the student used the strategy successfully. Once the strategy is mastered, you can add other components to the tasks. {NOTE: These also make good starting points for IEP goals and objectives for writing.}

writing strategies
http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
writing skills
When a student lacks certain writing skills, or is not confident in his abilities, the writing process often ends before it can really begin. {Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2018}

For the Student with No Ideas:

For students who aren’t sure what to write, the focus of these strategies is on understanding the prompt or question and having a plan for how to respond to it.

  1. Restate the question in your own words. Instead of answering the questions, the student will state, in his own words, what the question is asking him to do. This also allows you to see if the student understands the task, at all. {This works GREAT in math class, too}.
  2. Write 3 ideas that you can use in the answer. This allows the student to share a small number her ideas without feeling overwhelmed by the whole writing process. The ideas can later be turned into a response, if you wish.

For the Student Who Needs Writing Stamina:

For most of my current students, I just want to get them to write more than a sentence or two. In order to build endurance, I use a variety of strategies that focus on the simply putting pen to paper for a specific amount of space or time. The content, right now, is not important. I even told one student, “Just write ‘I don’t know what to write” over and over until the bell goes off.” He did.

  1. Write X lines. Sometimes, students have a hard time knowing when a written response is completed. By giving the student a target number of lines to fill (which can change as students build endurance), they can easily see when they are “done.”
  2. Fill the time. I often start with 5 minutes, then move up in 5 minute increments to 15 minutes, then upward in 15 minute increments to 45, with the goal that students should be able to write for a full class period, including planning, writing, revision and editing. This is an easy strategy to use with daily journaling.
  3. Fill the space. Some students don’t understand that you can’t write a high-quality response with too few words. In this strategy, students must write enough to fill in all the space provided. This strategy can be used with all ages, and for all subject areas.

For the Student Who Has Trouble With Time Management:

For students who need to use MORE time to write, you can use the “Fill the Time” strategy (described above). For students who get lost in their thinking, I would use the next strategy.

  1. Start within 5 minutes. I set a time for 5 minutes, then make a check mark next to any student who is actively writing anything. Students sitting and still looking at their paper would not get a check.

For the Student Who Writes Off Topic:

I once knew a second grader with autism, who only wanted to write about robots. Sometimes, he’d start writing about the prompt, but he’d always end up writing a robot story. If he was told that the prompt was about something else, he would refuse to write.

  1. List X words or ideas that are related to the prompt. To help students focus better on the topic, a good starting place would be just to list words, phrases and ideas that are related, no matter how obtusely. Simply drawing their attention to the topic initially, often keeps them on the right track in their response.
  2. Cross out X ideas that don’t relate to the prompt. I have a teen student now whose writing is a full page of scattered words, phrases and doodles. On the same page will be names of rap artists, swear words, love notes to his mom, random words copied from the board, and, usually, some content that answers the question. He has an IEP goal of taking this writing and crossing out ten things that don’t match the prompt. This is easier for him than stopping the flow of random ideas.
writing strategies
http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
word banks
Word banks and other strategies can make writing tasks simpler for reluctant writers. {Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2015}

For the Student Who Needs a Simpler Task:

Sometimes, the student’s skills in writing (or lack of skills) make the whole process uncomfortable for them, so they avoid or refuse it. For these students, consider a strategy that is focused on what their learning obstacles are:

  1. Use a word/idea bank . Providing a word bank with key words or ideas helps students who aren’t sure if they understand the prompt, have difficulties with recall, struggle with spelling, or just need a place to start. You can even teach students how to create their own word/idea bank from the prompt, itself, as a next step.
  2. Write X sentences. Sometimes, organizing a whole essay is too much for a student. In this case, reducing the prompt to a certain number of sentences makes the goal more attainable. You can also use the “Write X Lines” strategy, if sentence construction is challenging.

Looking for Writing Resources?

If you are looking for notebook resources that you can use with your struggling writers, check out my Teachers Pay Teachers materials.

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Kim-Bennett-6153
http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
Please visit my Teachers Pay Teachers store for writing resources for all ages.