What is your bottom line when planning?

All, Teaching

There are a lot of things I love about teaching. I love the light bulb moments when students get “it” and I love digging deep in our class discussion and I love seeing the ideas my students discover and develop in their projects. But I also embrace a deep passion for planning my classes. There is something exciting about looking forward to a shiny semester that still has that new marker smell and knowing I can bend it to my will.

Of course, that isn’t really true. My Writing I class comes dragging three university student learner outcomes and 10 departmental ones like a bag full of discarded gym uniforms. Some of these goals are good, solid lessons students should learn as they embark on their college career, but others are stiff and crusty with age and possess a distinct odor that pervades the department. So my answer is to focus on one specific goal that encompasses the spirit of these goals. My goal is to develop reflective and self-regulating learners and writers – in every class and at every level. For my first-year students I tell them we are focusing on critical thinking and communicative skills and for my professional writing students we are focused on information design. Focusing on one bottom-line goal, the one thing that I hope my students will take away from the class, helps me stay focused as I plan assignments and supporting activities. I find this singular goal is also helpful for students as you explain how each assignment and activity supports that goal.

This focus was inspired by Christopher Leman’s post “Three Questions When Lesson Planning” which challenges teachers to ask these questions:

  1. Will this lesson lead to a large volume of work that is rigorous for the students?
  2. Is this a strategy that students can come back to/that will live beyond today?
  3. How does this lesson connect to the end goal/standards/essential questions of the unit?

I blogged about this three years ago (see Challenging your pedagogy and maybe even your program), but I still return to these ideas every semester when I plan. I love assignments that build on each other (and loathe disposable assignments) and my students really respond to the idea that the writing and discussion we do in class feeds their weekly blog posts which in turn feed their larger assignments. We believe in working smarter not harder! Similarly, I work very hard to ensure that my students learn skills that they can use beyond my class and we talk about why and how they can apply their experience in the future. Of course, these lessons include that long checklist of student learner outcomes I’m supposed to teach, but those SLOs are not my bottom-line. My bottom-line is with the students and not what they learn. I hope to change the way my students learn and think (that whole reflective and self-regulating thing).

However, it is Lehman’s third question that really resonates with me because you can swap out that last word for semester or year or course. Focusing on that question helps me sift a lot of the chaff from the wheat so I can keep only the wholesome goodness that sustains us as learners. I have become a much more efficient teacher when I don’t teach disposable lessons. Instead, I embed the lessons I need to teach (for SLOs and more) within units focused on a specific goal. So when teaching a lesson about working with sources in text, we work with a text we are already reading to prepare for an assignment and write paragraphs that we can use for the final assessment of that module. The rule I was taught (somewhere along my varied professional development) is simple: each objective should include presenting content (through reading, viewing, listening); practicing content (offering experience with the content through writing, discussion, or some other creative engagement); and assessing content (summative assessment to demonstrate and cement new knowledge). A boot camp I attended last year to certify my online instruction chops helped me lay all that out in a handy spreadsheet that I now use for all my classes, because it helps me check all those connections are covered – that each unit goal serves our bigger goal and that each unit goal has a Goldilocks serving of presentation and practice to match the assessment. And, of course, this spreadsheet also helps me ensure that I can check off all the SLOs.

I’m not going to lie. Preparing that spreadsheet for the entire semester is a long, sometimes painful process. There are a lot of moving parts to juggle and sometimes one small change can create a disastrous domino effect that destroys previously completed work. But I can also streamline the course more effectively because I can easily tell at a glance if there is too much work for any unit or goal – or too little. It is also much easier to deftly insert SLO lessons into existing plans so we continue working smarter not harder.

What are your lesson planning guidelines? What rules and strategies guide your preparation for teaching?

Artwork by music4life on Pixabay

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