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What's the Big Idea?: Question-Driven Units to Motivate Reading, Writing, and Thinking

What's the Big Idea?: Question-Driven Units to Motivate Reading, Writing, and Thinking

by Jim Burke, Arthur ApplebeeJim Burke
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Many people have written about how theory (or research) relates to practice; Jim is one of those rare professionals who live the relationship.

-Arthur Applebee
NAEP advisor,
Validation committee member for Common Core,
Author of Curriculum as Conversation

Why a book about questions? "Because when students' instruction is organized around meaningful, clear questions," writes Jim Burke in What's the Big Idea? "they understand better, remember longer, and engage much more deeply and for greater periods of time."
  • Listen to a podcast where Jim explains how How big questions can engage and motivate students who have grown up digitally.
  • Listen to a podcast where Jim explains how big questions can help you integrate standards, differentiation, and engagement.

Jim shows how making essential questions the center of your teaching can ease the tension between good teaching and teaching to the test while giving students dependable, transferable tools for reading, writing, thinking, and participating in the real world. Going in depth on his own units for frequently taught books, Jim shows how to plan lessons, units, and even entire courses around big ideas to help students:

  • grapple with content and deepen comprehension through reading, writing, and discussion
  • make learning stick by connecting it to texts, to students' experiences, and to the world
  • clarify and extend their thinking by learning which questions to ask and when
  • improve school and test performance by honing academic language and skills.

"Although no one thing can ever be the solution to all problems," Jim writes, "this book demonstrates the ways in which questions can address your concerns and develop in our students the mental acuity and fluency necessary to succeed in school and at work, as well as to achieve a sense of purpose in their personal lives." The only question now is, Are you ready to change your students' learning and lives?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780325021577
Publisher: Heinemann
Publication date: 02/02/2010
Pages: 216
Sales rank: 863,978
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range: 11 - 17 Years

About the Author

Jim Burke is the author of numerous bestselling Heinemann titles, including the English Teacher's Companion, Fourth Edition and What's the Big Idea? The question he's always tried to answer is "How can we teach our students better?" He seeks these answers daily through his work in his own classroom at Burlingame High School in California where he still teaches after twenty years. Facing the same constraints and challenges as every other teacher, Jim shares his creative solutions in bestselling professional titles with Heinemann such as Reading Reminders and Writing Reminders as well as through Heinemann Professional Development Services. As part of his commitment to helping teachers and learning how to use the latest technologies, he founded the English Companion Ning, described by Education Week as "the world's largest English department" and winner of several Edublog Awards for Best Social Network for Education. In addition to the EC Ning, Jim offers a steady stream of recommended resources through his website ( and Twitter (@englishcomp) where he is ranked in the top 100 educators to follow at the top within the online English teacher community. Jim serves on several national commissions related to adolescent literacy and standards, including the Advanced Placement English Literature and Language Course and Exam Review Commission with the College Board and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) where he serves on the Content Technical Working Group, which advises PARCC on the national assessments being developed for the Common Core State Standards. In addition, he is a senior author on the Holt McDougal Harcourt Literature series. Jim has received numerous awards, including the NCTE Intellectual Freedom Award, the NCTE Conference on English Leadership Award, and the California Reading Association Hall of Fame Award. He served on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Committee on Adolescence and Young Adulthood English Language Arts Standards. Through his work in the class and on such commissions, Jim Burke seeks not only to clarify but reimagine what English should be, honoring the past even as he works with others to create the future of the discipline he loves so much. Visit his website ( for more information.

Table of Contents

Foreword ix

Acknowledgments xi

Why Do Questions Matter in Curriculum? 1

An Introduction

Sample Unit 1 An Intellectual Rite of Passage 22

Engaging Students with Essential Questions

Sample Unit 2 Spirited Inquiry 46

Creating Questions to Access a Challenging Text

Sample Unit 3 Natural Curiosity 74

Using Questions to Explore Relationships

Sample Unit 4 Meaningful Conversations 130

Essential Questions as a Way into Required Texts

Using Essential Questions to Design Your Own Units 154

Some Final Thoughts


Appendix A Of Mice and Men Chapter-by-Chapter Reading Notes and Questions 162

Appendix B The Academic Essentials Planning Grid 169

Appendix C The Big Questions 170

Appendix D Designing a Standards-Based Curriculum 176

Appendix E Unit Planning Sheet 180

Works Cited 181

Study Guide 184

Index 193

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