I have fallen behind with my blogging. Mostly because the start of the new school year brings a slew of work as I’m sure you are familiar. One of the most time consuming parts of kicking off a new year or new semester is simply sitting down and planning. It is easy enough to determine my big picture goal, or bottom line. I know what I want to make in my classes. But it is a lot of work (at least for me) to sit down and plan our itinerary for that journey. What information do I need to share and when? What practice do my students need before moving on to the higher stake assessments? The deeper I go down the planning rabbit hole I find myself worrying about all sorts of details. Do I have enough mini lessons about documentation and use of sources? Will they need more time to think, to plan, to practice than I am giving them?
If planning is this challenging for me how much more so for less experienced teachers? That is why I’ve decided to focus this Notable Notes on tips and strategies for lesson and class planning. I really like to put the emphasis on class planning when talking with new teachers because the problem is not usually with an individual lesson, but the ebb and flow of the class itself. You can create and deliver amazing lessons, but if the structure of the class is problematic your students will struggle and you will struggle – and this struggle will suck all the joy from your class and lives. I know because I have been there, but here are some tips from some of my favorite teachers about how to avoid said struggle and joy loss.
First, I recommend coming to terms with the delicate, knife-edged balance between planning and teaching. You need a plan, but a plan is not a contract (no matter what your wireless provider says). Sometimes things change. Maybe you learn something new. Maybe your students need something different. Maybe the world shifts or conversation drifts. For whatever reason be ready to change or shift as necessary. You might enjoy reading Robin Lee Mozer’s struggle with this very issue and how it impacts her ability to plan. Mozer notes she doesn’t want to make promises she can’t keep and that is the essence of what you need to focus on when it comes to your plan: what promises do you need to make and keep? That is what I focus on when I am planning as I describe in What is your bottom line when planning? I know I need to teach a lesson on rhetorical context so I put it on my calendar, but I may shift it as necessary or I may teach two lessons because it is that important or students are struggling with audience awareness as they are wont to do. If you keep your eye on the big picture at all times the details are easier to manage.
That is essentially the message that Liz Prather delivers in her series of tips for new teachers. Question Four focused on lesson/class planning. Liz is also a big picture planner. She keeps her eyes on the prize. Obviously this is a lot easier when you have as many years of experience as we do, but it is not our experience that makes this work, it is our relationship with our students. If you are engaging with your students and giving them practice so you can easily spot troubles then you know what mini-lessons or readings or activities to slide into your big picture lesson. It also helps, as Liz points out, if you spend time doing the things that your students are doing so you can identify some of those problems before or just in time.
Not sure how to slide a minilesson in? Check out this handy mini-lesson recipe from Two Writing Teachers. Two Writing Teachers also offers some great tips for your own big picture planning session. I know I need a big table and often multiple computer screens (or tabs) open when I am building my calendar. I like to look back at previous classes to identify some of the common mini lessons I used in the past as well as the point in the semester when they seemed to fit best. Looking back at old class outlines helps me remember the lesson, and if it needs tweaking, but also the timing. I will wrap this up with a wonderful collection of planning tips from Edutopia. This collection is full of great tips for new and experienced teachers.
I love planning my classes although drafting a calendar can be time consuming. However, I have found that the work of putting together this framework (knowing that much of the “skin” will need to be flexible and replaceable) makes my life so much easier once the work of the semester begins, because I am able to focus on my students and their needs. That is the bottom-line lesson I hope you take away from this post: plan your itinerary but don’t be afraid of scenic detours in your lesson plans.