The 2 Best Ways Teachers Can Establish Vision at the Beginning of the School Year

Schools across the country are opening, the academic year beginning. This is the most important time for teachers to establish a vision for our students. That means they need a plan in order to lay that all-important foundation. Here are two great ways to lead your students with vision:

#1. Give your students a vision of the power of their minds.

Education, after all, is chiefly the training of the human mind. School is first and foremost a place where young people develop intellectually. 

How powerful is this central element of our humanity? Humans participate in every level of reality—from the material to the spiritual. With our minds, we can know all that is knowable about each of those levels. Just think about that! Ask your students to just reflect on that for a minute. 

Then, have them think about this: Everything that we identify with civilization has been conceived of and created by the human mind.  Every great human achievement in history is resultant from the human mind.

Humans have picked out places to be and shaped them. This is the sphere of geography—not just the earth as we find it, but the earth as humans engage and shape it. It is a great source of wonder that humans put their minds to develop places to be, from river valleys and seasides, to mountain tops, deserts, and climates as radically different as those we find in northern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. 

Humans have designed places of worship, written sacred texts, and established customs that shape the passage of time and the arrival and departure of human life—all expressions of our response to God.

With their minds, humans have forged a world of beauty: painting, sculpture, music, dance, drama, novels, and all the expressions we call the arts. 

In our striving for justice, we have developed constitutions, courts, elections, and each institution and practice that comprises our attempts at political order. 

Trade, goods, agriculture, shipping, monetary forms, markets of all kinds, and each thing that forms the means by which people create wealth and sustain their private and public lives are all the fruit of human thought.

Then there are the engineering feats, scientific discoveries and inventions that humans have created to deepen our collective understanding and improve our lives.

What is so exciting for our students is that this world of intellectual activity is not only the world they are studying: The story of those developments is their own story, their inheritance. The world shaped by their forebears is the same world where they will make their mark. 

#2. Establish a vision for your course.

Students are in your course because they have not studied its content before. You can bank on the fact that they really do not know exactly what they will encounter. 

What does a teacher show students at the start? Let me give an example from my own teaching. You, then, can develop the parallels that fit your course:

For decades I have directed seminars on great works of literature. At the start of the year, I list each text we are going to read and, for each one, give a little taste. For Augustine’s On the Spirit and the Letter, I explain that it works through the tensions between our freedom and influences on that freedom—a topic young people sense is important. For Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I let the students know that of all his plays, this one is most full of intrigue, passion, justice, love, cruelty, and revenge. That gives them a feel for what a great ride the play would be. For Aeschylus’ Oresteia, I appeal to everyone’s love of film, stageplays, and all things dramatic, and I indicate that all of that started with Greek dramas such as this one. 

In a nutshell, as these three examples indicate, I give my students something like a movie trailer—an alluring glimpse of the full picture without giving away too much of what they will later encounter with each text.

In terms of expectations, I always establish them with clarity. No surprises: 

Skills. In this seminar, we are going to develop your skills. There are three essential skills that we are focused on: close reading, intelligent discussion, and clear writing. Follow my lead and you will become proficient in these skills.

Discussion. On days when we have seminar discussions, everyone is expected to participate. I will actively lead the discussions. The discussions will be rigorous, liberal, and strategic: Rigorous, because we are working hard together to understand the text. Liberal, in the sense that all plausible readings of the text will be considered. Strategic, meaning that I will drive the discussions with good questions and will guide according to a plan and purpose.

Writing. You have the opportunity to advance your skill as a writer—to write clearly on imaginative and expository works. Writing in this course is not a matter of examination: You are not writing what I want you to write; you are developing your thought according to standards established in the seminars and the writing workshops. I will help you—coach you with encouragement and ways to improve how to articulate well what you think about the texts and the issues they raise.

If you struggle to participate in discussion or writing, I will personally coach you. Everyone can learn to discuss and write. I will get you there. I won’t leave you behind.

Homework. Homework is always either reading or writing. There are no tests and no quizzes. I will coach you on how to read closely and how to mark up your texts. That latter skill will fuel your reading, discussion, and writing.

Grades. I don’t like grades, but you need them for college admissions and other related purposes. Your performance is established in class discussion and writing. Consequently, I will evaluate and grade you on discussion and writing. Your grade will be determined as follows: 50% on discussion, 50% on writing.

If you follow my lead, you will succeed. Success means you will be in the best intellectual shape of your life. Don’t sweat the grades. Pour yourself into the reading, discussion, and writing. Grades will fall into place nicely if you do that. Along the way, we are going to have a lot of fun, grow in friendship, and forge a love of great reads. 

That is it in a nutshell. Vision for learning. Vision for the course. Provide those two, and you and your students will be off to a great start. 

Andrew J. Zwerneman serves as a master teacher and president for Cana Academy.