Think back to your undergrad work. If you’re like me, you probably can still remember the first lesson you ever created for a methods class. “Caring for Commas” — that was my first lesson (I guess I was a grammar geek even back then). I spent countless hours planning this 15-minute mini-lesson, working tirelessly to ensure all the variables were considered before delivering this masterpiece to my college classmates.
We can all think back to that first lesson, and the hundreds of lessons that we’ve planned with a similar focus and fervor throughout our careers. But there are so many more lessons that we plan with less intensity, less excitement, and that’s okay. However, I’ve recently been thinking about the ways that I’ve grown as a planner, and how I’m able to save time and energy, while still planning purposeful, precise, and passionate lessons for students.
These four tips may help you plan better lessons on purpose, too.
Plan with a Colleague
Teachers are busy; there’s no way around that. But what if we gave up 50 minutes to sit down and chat with a colleague about our lessons for the coming week?
Recently, I was reminded of the value of these sorts of conversations as I co-taught (virtually — Kristie lives in Ohio) for the first time in my life. Our once-a-week check-in served as a great chance to just think aloud. I work with a literacy coach, and while those conversations are great, we meet more to discuss overall unit creation, so this consistent conversation with Kristie reminded me how much a lesson can be refined through conversation. So, find a friend (it doesn’t even have to be someone in your school), set a weekly date, and commit to conversing consistently.
Ask Your Students
For years, I’ve been dedicated to getting feedback from students at the end of units, quarters, and semesters (and still am). I ask about my teaching, their disposition towards the class, if they’re having fun, and more. However, until the last few years, those milestone moments were the only times I’d survey my students.
Before I go any further, let me make clear that I’m a strong advocate of student feedback. If you don’t currently survey students at these milestone moments, you should consider it. Nothing has changed the way I teach more than student feedback (you can read about my shift here). That said, my more recent switch to surveying students in the middle of units (or sometimes even following individual lessons) has really helped me to plan with much greater precision. Sometimes this feedback simply confirms that what I planned is what my students need, but other times it can help me take a slightly different, or even a completely different, approach to instruction.
Rethink the Role of Data
Because of evaluative teacher accountability measures, there’s been a huge push nationwide for teachers to use pre-tests and post-tests to prove they’re good teachers and that their instruction has lead to “excellent” or “proficient” growth with their students. And while I have an abundance of opinions about that, one problem that this has created is a subconscious shift in how teachers think about data.
We’re now more focused on proving students have grown than we are on using the data to inform our instruction. Of course, these should be one and the same: teachers using pre/post tests and data to prove students are growing and drive instruction, but I fear that the accountability measures have made it much more about the latter with the former getting lost along the way.
As you think about your planning, consider finding ways to use data to shape your instruction. One of my favorite quick ways to do this is what I call the spot check. When students are working on writing, I will, at different intervals throughout the work, take a look at nine pieces of student work — three students who tend to knock it out of the park, three students who tend to be on track, and three students who tend to need extra support. In just looking at these nine papers, I have a pretty good sense of what I need to do with my instruction to help the wide range of students in the class. Whatever the technique, consider the ways data can help your planning.
Remember the Past
Innovation is a wonderful thing, and the mere use of the word seems to have really pushed teachers, as a whole, to try new approaches to instruction on a more regular basis. However, with innovation can come a hidden pitfall: the past isn’t always a bad thing. One of the great things my literacy coach does for me is asking the question, “How have you done that in the past?”
She knows I LOVE to try new things, but she also knows that sometimes the best way to approach certain lessons and units is to do what has always worked. So to all of you amazingly innovative teachers out there, keep innovating, but don’t forget the past; your best lessons might just be hanging out there in the wings, waiting to be used again.
What are your best ideas for purposefully planning better lessons? Do you have go-to strategies you can add to this list? We’d love to learn from your ideas, so share them in the comments below.
Christopher Bronke is a ninth grade honors English teacher and Department Chair at Downers Grove North High School in Illinois. He evaluates teachers, oversees the literacy coaching program, plans and implements professional learning, and works with district leaders on CCSS integration, implementation, common assessments, and rubrics. Christopher is an innovative literacy leader who has experience with CCSS integration across content areas, blogging to empower teacher voice, collaborative and teacher leadership, literacy leadership, and social media in the classroom. He was a member of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council, a Community Manager and Innovation Coach for the Redesign Challenge, Community Manager Lead for Sevenzo, and he currently serves on the Executive Committee as a member-at-large for the Conference on English Leadership. Christopher has served on several Executive Planning Committees for national and regional ECET2 convenings, and is a Co-Founder, Director, and Writing Coach for the National Blogging Collaborative, a non-profit organization that cultivates and supports the capacity of all educators to use their unique voice to elevate the craft of teaching and learning. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @MrBronke.