Essential Teaching Protocols for 21st Century Learning

By Nikki Morrell, English Teacher, Lake Mary Preparatory School

I spent a semester of college staring at a William Butler Yeats quote that my professor proudly posted on her bulletin board:  “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Nikki MorrellOf course, I grasped the basic meaning of the phrase and thought I understood its significance, but it took me years to fully realize exactly why those few words were so important to her.

Never did I imagine how vital they would become to me as well.

In my twelve years of teaching, I’ve come to understand that education is not instructing students what to think; it is about showing them how to think.  It will never be about filling their minds with facts, but about instilling a thirst for knowledge.

At Meritas, our approach to “the lighting of a fire” is demonstrated through our four essential teaching protocols:

  • Essential Questions
  • New Vocabulary
  • Differentiation
  • High-Order Assessment

It is through use of these protocols that teachers are able to remove the focus on memorization and allow our lessons to come to life.  As a result, our students truly interact with and understand the material.

The following outlines some of the ways I incorporate the Meritas teaching protocols into my classroom:

Essential questions

I begin each unit by writing my essential questions on the board, and as the class progresses through the material, students are expected to continually respond to these questions, which have no yes or no, right or wrong, answers.

Recently, in a study of non-fiction graphic novels, students were asked to consider how historical events affect the individual and to apply their answers to our reading of Maus and Persepolis.  Another question I posted invited them to reflect on how the medium might change the impact of the story or, as in the case of Maus, the validity.

It is my hope that my essential questions will encourage students to apply what they are reading/studying to their everyday lives, to other classes, or to our study of literature as a whole.

One way that I assess each learner’s comprehension of the essential questions is by use of an “exit ticket” at the end of class.  I do this by using Socrative, a free iTunes/android app, which students download onto their smartphones or use on their computers.   The exit ticket asks three questions: 1. How well did you understand today’s material?  2.  What did you learn today?   3. Can you answer the essential question on the board?

The exit ticket requires a couple of minutes to complete, and it discloses how well my learners understood what we covered that day.  Exit tickets are a terrific way to evaluate whether my students are grasping the essential questions, understanding the vocabulary, and benefiting from differentiated instruction.

New vocabulary

While there are many ways to teach vocabulary, I prefer teaching it in context with each lesson.

One way in which I incorporate the vocabulary of literary devices and rhetorical strategies is by separating students into small groups and having them race to find as many examples as possible in a text. With this form of assessment, students are not cramming to remember vocabulary words, which they will forget the minute the quiz leaves their hands; instead, they are utilizing the words, interacting with them.

Many students struggle with new vocabulary, particularly those who are kinesthetic or visual learners. I often work with these students one-on-one or in small groups.  A simple technique that works wonders is to teach students how to create a visual representation of the word. Teaching students to create their own mnemonic devices helps them to move past the memorizing/knowledge acquisition phase faster and more successfully, so that they can move on to the higher orders of thinking. This is also a helpful differentiation strategy.


I firmly believe that most teachers differentiate, even when they are unaware of it; I attempt to make it a visible part of my courses because not only does differentiation help with student engagement, it also aids in retention of material.  There are a variety of options for differentiating English, from using a side-by-side translation of a difficult text to requiring rewrites of particularly complicated passages.

A recent example of differentiation in my classroom is a Twitter assignment I created. Each student chose a character from Hamlet, created a twitter account, and then tweeted as that character throughout the play. It is one of the most successful assignments of my career, particularly in terms of student engagement.  All four of my English IV classes, with all levels from standard and ESOL to honors, were able to interact on Twitter, and this forum allowed my students to write at their own level and pace, with more advanced learners employing a variety of rhetorical strategies.  You can read more about this assignment by visiting

High-order assessment

Most assignments given in my classes require some form of analysis, synthesis, evaluation, or creativity.  One of my favorite methods for assessing student comprehension of a text is by assigning a reaction paper. These writing assignments are primarily based on higher order reasoning, but must include textual evidence to support any idea that the student introduces.  I find that requiring quotes from the original text forces each learner to once again interact with the book or essay.

Another of my favorite activities involves student-teaching components, where I ask my students to take turns presenting sections of an assigned novel.  At the end of their short presentation, they must lead their class in a discussion of two higher order reasoning questions (which they can find on the flip chart in my room).  By the end of the first semester, the students have many of the questions from the chart memorized!

In conclusion, Meritas’s four essential protocols are not foreign concepts to most teachers. Perhaps we’ve not used the same vocabulary to describe these procedures in the past, but by giving us a “common language” for learning, Meritas is fostering an environment that will truly benefit each student.

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