Featured author: Jim Burke

Image via Heinemann

My credential program was taught by PhDs who had never stepped foot in a classroom.  They loved the idea of education, and had spent their graduate years studying how others should teach.  They condemned using textbooks for instruction, and assigned readings based on theories: instructional design theory, classroom management theory, etc.  They all used the same keywords: “scaffolding instruction,” “differentiating instruction,” and the all mighty “student engagement,” but never really taught me the nuts and bolts of implementing any of these nebulous ideas into the reality of my classroom.  These professors were nice people, meant well, and really thought they were helping me, but on the first day my student teaching, I had no practical advice on what to teach, how to teach, and how to manage a classroom.  Sound familiar?

That’s where Jim Burke comes in.  Burke, an English teacher at Burlingame High School in California, gives teachers the tools they need to be successful in the classroom, while explaining why to use each tool.  I own many of his books, and find them invaluable in my instruction.  Here’s a quick run-down of my favorite Jim Burke books:

The English Teacher’s Companion

Now in its third edition, this book contains the best overview of the English teaching profession.  Burke touches on every important subject, including summer lesson planning, new directions in teaching, issues in teaching, and how to teach a number of different subcategories of English instruction, including grammar, writing, and reading.

Tools for Thought

This is my favorite Jim Burke book, because it contains a plethora of very useful graphic organizers, an explanation of how and why to use them, and actual student samples.  My particular favorites are the annotations graphic organizer and the sensational, why-didn’t-I-think-of-this student bookmarks.

If I were stuck on a deserted island and needed to teach the class set of Lord of the Flies that miraculously survived the shipwreck…and was lucky enough to have a photocopy machine, this is the book I would take with me.  (Come to think of it, Lord of the Flies may not be the best book to read on the island.  Hmmm.)

Other favorites:

Reading Reminders and Writing Reminders are also quintessential Burke, providing more ideas than any one teacher would ever be able to incorporate in one year.  Still, that’s the fun of it–teachers have many options to pick and choose from.

Looking forward to…

What’s the Big Idea?, Burke’s latest book.  While I have not seen this book yet, the book’s premise seems very promising: Burke works within Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design backward design model in order to illustrate how to create teaching units that are focused on essential questions.  These questions are driven by the standards, and the units are driven by the outcomes first.  In What’s the Big Idea?, Burke includes sample units, led by essential questions, and then details how to create one’s own unit, using the same technique.

One more Jim Burke resource:

Jim Burke has created an amazing website, the English Companion Ning, where English teachers can go to get resources and support from other teachers.  I highly recommend that you take a peek at this site–you will be inspired by all of the high-quality ideas presented in the discussions.

Related websites


2 thoughts on “Featured author: Jim Burke

  1. Jim Burke’s “Companion” is on the shelf in my classroom. Required text in my program. Great stuff! I just forget it’s there sometimes.. :o/

  2. I just began reading _What’s the Big Idea?_ and I really like it. He not only discusses the backward design model, he actually gives fleshed-out examples of it. My favorite part of the book is the list he gives of sample essential questions (by grade level). I will definitely be implementing some of these essential questions into my sophomore curriculum this year.


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