How My Students And I Make Meaning Together: An Actual Unit Outline

woodleywonderworks-makemeaningHow My Students And I Make Meaning Together: An Actual Unit Outline

by Jane Healey, Ph.D.

In A Student-Led, Flipped, Inquiry-Based Learning Classroom Doing Authentic Work, I listed my favorite, simple approach to classroom material:

  1. Observe
  2. Wonder
  3. Investigate
  4. Conclude

The response was heartening, and I was asked about an example.

I currently teach Sophomore Core English after having taught US History and writing for many years. The class is reading Macbeth, a play I love but have never taught. So, I approached the book with the steps above, and it’s been really fun and educational—for me!

Teaching Observe—Wonder—Investigate—Conclude

1. Observe

The students brought the text to class, and I asked them to thumb through it. “What do you want to know about Macbeth?” When the kids responded, “What do you mean?” I let them wonder amongst their classmates about my request and the play.

2. Wonder

After 10 minutes or so, a leader amongst his peers challenged me, “I want to know why we always have to read Shakespeare?”  Fair enough. I wrote the challenge on the board, leaving lots of room for a list:

  • Who is Macbeth? Was he a real person?
  • Why Scotland? Wasn’t Shakespeare English?
  • My dad said there’s lots of blood and gore in this play. Why did he write about that?
  • Was Shakespeare even popular in his own day or was he one of those artists who died really poor and later people thought he was great?
  • How did Shakespeare make money?

3. Investigate

I told the class these were great questions, and I directed them to the library web page where I pointed out several credible, general resources like an online encyclopedia, a digital reference collection, and a biographical dictionary. I also explained the importance of human resources like other teachers, older students and the librarian.

4. Parallel Tracks

Over the next couple of days, the students found answers to their questions while we read scenes aloud. In addition to looking up people and events, the students asked peers, faculty, family and others about Shakespeare’s continuing importance.

5. Report

As they found intriguing information, the students shared their answers verbally, and we created a notebook about facts and details beyond the pages. After we had accumulated a foundation of knowledge, I asked the students to notice patterns and categories. They started connecting ideas and clumping others.

6. Keep Moving

By Act II, the students were asking and answering questions as a routine that seamlessly accompanied the reading. I augmented their comprehension of the play with short clips from a wide variety of performances on film. By Act 4, the students were making thematic and summary comments as a matter of course.

7. Our Conclusions

When we finished reading aloud, the students spent several days working through the lengthy notebook with the assigned task of culling knowledge and shaping some conclusions about the play. Here’s a sample from the groups:

Shakespeare captured stories about behavior and made audiences aware of human nature while also entertaining them.

He used stories people knew like the Bible and mythology.

Macbeth was a general in Scottish history from five hundred years before the play. At that time, James I was a Scottish King of England.

People went to plays because they didn’t have electricity, television or other forms of entertainment, so Shakespeare wrote about current events that would attract audiences who paid to see them.

Macbeth is about the meaning of being a king, the dangers of ambition, and the role of fate in people’s lives.

8. Culminating Outcome

From these concise statements, each student designed a formal essay (which really could’ve been almost anything–e.g., a self-filmed documentary published to YouTube or a closed social group) that relied on textual analysis and outside research when necessary.

One-Sentence Takeaway

Teaching is refreshingly pleasant and strangely effective when students’ curiosity leads the course.

How My Students And I Make Meaning Together: An Actual Unit Outline

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Nick Jackson

This and your previous post /learning/student-led-flipped-inquiry-based-learning-classroom-authentic-work/ are very much my style as an educator and there is so much many teachers can learn from your approach.

But, I am researching student empowerment and can find little academic evidence that shows what happens when we let students have more control over their learning and when we shift the roles as you are outlining. Given your Phd, perhaps you know of some



Gordon Hultberg

Dear Nick,
I have made a study of this issue for two years, and you may follow up with me if you like. I think a good place to begin is with a current book MAKING LEARNING WHOLE, by David Perkins at Harvard.
A second route to take, though, is to ask if offering choice and
control is RIGHT, and I recommend such work as Gordon
You will find rich rewards, too, in using terms such as
authority, deliberation, and dialogic. The roots go back to
Moses, Aristotle, Aquinas, Luther, Rosenblatt, Bakhtin, and

Nick Jackson

Thank you very much Gordon and Jane