Lesson planning is a very important part of our jobs. I’ve had a number of readers comment that they’d like to know more about lesson planning, so I’m starting a series of posts about the process I go through when I plan mine. This first one is about the overall process that I use, and I’ll follow it up with more specifics over the next few weeks.
Now, I certainly don’t want you to think that every day I go into Room 213 with a perfectly planned lesson that has every student engaged and excited about learning. The reality is that some days I fly by the seat of my pants. Some days the lessons aren’t great, and they flop. But, some days, the magic happens, and it’s almost always when I’ve planned a lesson with intention.
What do I mean by that? Well, there are things I’ve learned over my two decades in the classroom that I know work. Some of these things have come from my own reading and research, or from the professional development I’ve received. Most, however, have come from experience, from my day-to-day observation of teenagers and how they learn. So, when I plan with intention, I keep the following things in mind:
1. I need to have a clear PURPOSE and a clear path to get there:
When I begin my lesson planning, I ask myself: why do I need to teach this and, more importantly, why do my students need to learn it? If I’m delivering content, is there a reason beyond the content itself? Is the information just filler, or will they need to use it to for some higher order thinking? Let me give you an example: when I introduce Macbeth, I spend some time talking about the Jacobean belief in The Divine Right of Kings. This is not just to give them a history lesson, or something I can test them on later, but so they can use their understanding of the concept to evaluate how Shakespeare emphasizes it in the play. They need the facts to do the analysis. If I decide that the facts are indeed filler, I’ll change my tack, and move onto something else.
If I’m giving my students something to read, I consider if it’s just for enjoyment or to gauge comprehension. Or, am I using the text as a tool to teach a skill? If I’m teaching them a skill, is there a purpose for them to learn it? Will I need to break it up in chunks and do some scaffolding? For example, if my end goal is to get my students to write a persuasive essay, then I will chunk up the skills they need to be able to write a good one. To teach them idea development, I will show them how other writer’s develop their ideas and have them practice using different methods of doing so themselves. If I want them to deliver a speech, we will chunk those skills up too, beginning with partner and small group discussions.
It’s not just me who needs to understand the purpose of my lessons, though. The students need to know what their learning goal is; they need a target at which to aim. I also think they need to see how the skills they learn are relevant to their lives beyond the assessments they will do. This is so easy in an English class where we teach them to think critically and to communicate effectively — it’s not a stretch to show them how those skills will be very valuable in their own lives. Let’s go back to the persuasive essay: when teaching them those skills, I’ll often mention how important it is to be able to present organized, logical and well developed ideas when they’re trying to persuade their parents to let them do something, or to make any kind of change in their world.
2. I need to ENGAGE all students in learning:
There will always be a handful of students in our classes who will learn regardless of what we do, because they want to succeed. However, there’s often a large number who are happy to fade into the background and do just what they have to to pass. I’ve never been very happy to let that happen in my room, so I purposely plan my lessons so more of them need to engage and be active in their learning.
This graphic is nothing new. I’m sure most of you have seen it before, but it’s a great reminder of the way kids learn best. It also illustrates that the best learning happens when kids are actively doing something, rather than just sitting back and listening or watching. Those activities are not bad — in fact they are sometimes very necessary. I just try to be mindful of the number of active versus passive minutes in my daily lessons. I might start with a quick lecture to give them necessary information, or I might use the first of class to demonstrate good writing in a mentor text and/or have them watch me model a close reading strategy. But then, they start doing all of the work.
I have a number of tricks and techniques that I draw on for active learning. One of my favourites is the turn and talk. I will pose a thinking question, have the kids do a quick write, and then each kid will turn to a partner so they can share their ideas. I love this strategy because it requires all kids to think, not just the one or two who always raise their hands. Write-arounds work well for this too: group kids in fours, pose a question, and have each kid answer it. They pass their answer to the kid on their right, who will expand on or challenge their answer. Repeat four times. You can find this strategy, and many others designed to elicit higher order thinking, in my Activities for Critical Thinking Bundle.
Those of you who follow my blog know that I’m a big fan of activities that require chart paper and post it notes. In fact, I think they’re must haves in your classroom. You can use them in so many ways to get students to collaborate and to think critically. Click here to read about some of the ways I use them for active learning in my class; hopefully it will inspire you to think of some ways you could do so in yours.
3. I need to ASSESS the learning:
The only way to know if real learning happened is to assess the students, so when I plan, I have to consider the ways I will measure their success. This includes, of course, your end of unit assessment, whether that be a test, a presentation or a written assignment. But it also includes the all important formative assessment you will do along the way.
Research tells us that students need to practice a skill three times before they master it, but I didn’t always give them that many opportunities to do so, mostly because I had visions of monster piles of paper on my desk, and me with a never-ending chore of grading papers. That was before I learned not only better strategies for formative assessment, but also the power of it to improve student learning. Now I use it regularly, and always include it in my planning.
How do I find the time for at least three opportunities to practice something? Well, I can tell you that I am not taking essays in three times before I give a summative mark. That would be crazy! Instead, I give students feedback in class as they are working independently and in groups. I give them more focused help during conferences. I also build in time for students to give peer feedback on student work. Keep following my “Peek at my Planning” posts to find out more specifics about how I do that.
So those are the three major things I keep in mind when I plan with intention. Follow along as I share my plans for the first few weeks of my new semester.
What are your “must-do’s” when planning your lessons? I’d love to hear what you do too! Please leave a comment below.