New Teacher Series/ Question 4: What system do you use for planning?

On average, a new teacher hits her lesson planning and teaching stride during her third year.  Don’t despair.  It will feel like you are drowning, flailing to stay just two days ahead of the kids. This is normal.  It doesn’t make you a bad teacher. It means you are a good teacher getting better to become great.

I’m a big picture planner, and even though I know daily what I’m shooting for (often called a learning objective or learning goal), I hate making rigid lesson plans.  If your plan is too exacting, it may leave no room for speeding up and slowing down, for the teachable moment or for the re-teachable moment.  An unexpected detour can often be the most productive part of the day.

Sometimes a lesson plan can be like a train you force your students to board. You’re the crazy engineer yelling, “We’re on this train, and no one’s getting off until the test!” That feels damaging to me because it doesn’t allow for student choice, intervention, or enrichment.

As a new teacher, every time I committed to some rigid plan, dragging the kids along with me, it failed.   Learning isn’t neat; it doesn’t often happen on a timeline, in a nice tidy box.  That’s both the reason you have a plan, and the reason you develop the versatility to abandon the plan for a better one.

Here’s a simple planning equation:  Know your standards + Know your students = Plan accordingly.  I know how irritatingly simple that sounds, but that’s basically it:    deeply understand the skill or concept you are teaching, then figure out what your students know and don’t know about that concept or skill through inquiry, then build a bridge between those two camps.

“Backward design” describes developing lessons based on the end goals or the desired results.   When teachers use backward design to develop curriculum, they start with the goals of their unit and work backwards to determine what lessons need to be mastered to achieve the goals. Share this term with students. Ask them how they might learn the content best. Start the unit by giving the students the unit test.  It’s not “teaching the test,” but teaching toward the test and allowing students to gain proficiencies as they master those standards.

Let’s say you are charged by the commissioner of education to teach kids how to make delicious mashed potatoes.  The standard states:  Students will produce savory mashed potatoes with a smooth, fluffy texture and a nice white-golden tone.

Here are ten tips for planning that:

  1. Know how to make mashed potatoes yourself. Teach yourself if necessary, but never attempt to teach a skill or concept that you don’t deeply understand.  Kids will figure out you’re a faker in about two minutes.
  2. Figure out exactly what your students know about taters. Create an assessment, either verbal or paper/pencil, that gives you some data about their prior knowledge and their mashed potato readiness.  There will be kids that don’t know the difference between a turnip and a tater while other kids already know how to make mashed potatoes while dancing the mashed potato. It’s your job to engage them all; welcome to public education.
  3. Tap into students’ prior knowledge and interests. This is important.  Students have to know why mashed potatoes are important to their lives. One cannot divorce the process of learning from the person who is learning, and if the plan does not address the learner, then even the best planned lesson will be useless.
  4. Break down the skill or concept into its smallest components and develop smaller lessons that lead students toward proficiency. This is a potato. This is butter. This is how you boil water.  Some kids will already know that, so you’ll need a different approach for them.
  5. Plan lessons that allow students multiple opportunities to apply the skill and practice. You will then create a new lesson (sometimes on the fly) to give feedback, reteach, ferret out misunderstandings, maybe reteach a third or fourth time. Give them as much practice as possible with feedback, not failure.
  6. Don’t absent-mindedly print a worksheet or an activity offline without understanding how it helps your students meet their goals.At the same time, don’t re-invent the wheel. Beg, borrow and steal all good lesson plans and tailor them for your kids.
  7. Don’t plan a lesson that you wouldn’t want to do yourself. Think of yourself as a teen in your class. Would this lesson make you want to hurl yourself out the window?
  8. Design lessons that hit multiple skills and concepts at once. Skills should not be taught in isolation.  One rich project-based assignment can hit dozens of standards.
  9. Some plans fail miserably; others succeed brilliantly. A lesson plan that worked fantastically first period will almost always fail after lunch. Be willing and able to abandon the plan mid-lesson and adapt on the fly.
  10. Struggle is good for students, but if you see students struggling to the point of frustration, stop everyone and say, “Hold up, what’s going on, why are you guys struggling with this?” You develop this intuition through failure, but don’t let that defeat you. The lesson plan is only as good as the reflection that follows it.
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