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September's Corner 2011

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Looking Beyond the Lesson Plan: What to Leave In? What to Leave Out?

I can clearly recall preparing for my first days of teaching. I had everything planned out to the minute. 5-10 min. for the intro, 7 min. for the 1st activity, 9 min. for this, 15 min. for that, and so on. The end of each lesson contained a “wrap-up” questioning time and homework assignment. The presentation of the lessons was neat and organized. I was ready!

Looking back on it today, the written plan looked more like a schedule of events than a class. I was never able to keep to my expected time blocks, and often the students' questions, ideas, and answers led the class in a different direction. My planned classes were certainly not going as planned! While it seems silly now, at the time I was so afraid to stray from the prescriptive nature of the lessons. I thought that all the students should be taught the same way, receive the same information, and work at the same pace. I was wrong.

I sought the counsel of a veteran teacher (great advice for those of you just starting out) and received  guidance. “Use the plan as a guide, make sure you cover only what is absolutely crucial, prepare options, and most importantly, let the students ask questions.” It certainly took some time, a little more advice, and an increase in patience before I began to feel at ease with this new framework, but it worked. I’d like to offer a few ideas that may help you as you begin this new academic year. They certainly have helped me.

What's the Big idea?

Knowing that my students have different interests, what better way than to appeal to as many of them as I can than with a big idea or theme? Within that I can develop a variety of interdisciplinary connections. Instead of planning around a chapter and terms in a Biology book, I use that information to guide my planning for short activities relating to the content.

Divide and Conquer

Start by dividing the lesson into three parts. The introduction contians a few guiding questions, demonstration, or general ideas. The second is a major activity. While I may plan a host of secondary activities, if I lose time or get off track, I know that I have at least covered the main point of the lesson. Lastly, I need to close with a conclusion and homework assignment. While I may offer different choices for homework, I must be certain that I leave at least five minutes or so for the students to write down the correct detailed assignment. This triad serves as the foundation for my daily, multi-day, or weekly plan and allows for issues such as loss of class time due to distractions or interruptions, off-topic discussions, and questions that need to be addressed.

Putting Secondary Activites to Work

Apart from the elements discussed above, I also develop secondary activities that I can use in a multitude of ways. I have used them with the entire class, split them out among groups, or offered them to a select group of more advanced students. The beauty of designing these mini-lessons is that the framework for them can be used over and over again with any content, so that even if it isn't used during one discussion, a simple change of perspective and theme can make them useful somewhere else.

Even though 13 years have gone by, the unit and lesson plans I was required to write in preparation for my classes still serve as a way for me to get motivated for the semester and year ahead. My process has become quite simple, given the complexity and differentiation that I am trying to accomplish in the classroom. I  hope that they spark some of your own creative ideas, for one thing I have undoubtedly learned is that you must put “yourself” into the lesson and its plan.

NAGC has many useful links for lesson planning on the Content Connections and Hot Topic: Differentiation web pages. You can also visit NAGC’s Network page for specific information relating to Middle School, Curriculum, Computers and Technology, and the Arts!