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October 1, 2016
Vol. 74
No. 2

Tell Me About … / What You Learned from a Lesson Plan That Flopped

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Learning from History

During my first year of teaching, I attempted to conduct a Virginia History Living Museum in my classroom. The students would research historical figures, create talking points, and then dress up in colonial garb to impersonate historical figures. Visitors to the classroom would walk around the museum and listen to the talking points.
I was so excited about this lesson that instead of carefully planning the entire project, I got students started on the research component right away—before I could ensure that it was feasible to implement the project effectively. As you might guess, I could not secure the right clothing, and I did not account for the instruction students would need to conduct appropriate research. After day two, the entire project flopped. The students were disappointed, and I was embarrassed.
As teachers, we often get excited about our great ideas. But what sounds like a great project can be light on learning and content. What I learned from this project is to plan as many details as possible and to ensure that the idea does not get in the way of actual instruction.
–Adam Brown, principal, Southeastern Cooperative Educational Programs, Virginia Beach, Virginia

A Lesson for the Teacher

"Mrs. Platt, your mini-lessons aren't that mini," a 4th grader told me.
I had carefully prepared a lesson about how to write a knock-your-socks-off opening for personal narratives. There were slides, examples, counterexamples, charts, and color-coded notes. Despite the admonishment, I forged on with the "mini-lesson."
I saw glazed-over faces, wistful looks at the clock, and furtive reaches for pencils lying neglected on desks.
When I finished the lesson half an hour later, I asked, "Any questions?" The same gutsy girl asked, "Yeah, can we write?"
I looked at the charts and the interactive whiteboard displaying examples and sighed, "Yes, but we only have a few minutes of class left."
As students worked, I noticed that some tried my techniques, but most completely ignored them. Even worse, I didn't have time to coach them. Class was over. My lesson had bombed!
Although thorough and carefully planned, my lesson was too long. I learned a lesson that day. Sometimes less is more. Mini-lessons have to be short, and when a longer lesson is needed, it doesn't help anyone to claim that it's mini when it's not.
Rita Platt, library media specialist, St. Croix Falls School District, St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin

Caught on Camera

My biggest lesson flop—a disaster, actually—was a 90-minute grammar lesson during my first year of teaching. On the advice of my assistant principal, I videotaped the lesson, which ended up providing me with a powerful learning experience. Watching the lesson from my students' perspective, I noticed students' disengagement and became aware of my tendency to talk to the left side of the room. It was clear that the lesson had fallen flat.
I have never watched the entire lesson (20 minutes was enough) and have never shown anyone the video. But since then, I've never taught more than a mini-lesson of a necessary grammar skill.
Capturing video of a lesson isn't for the faint of heart. It requires vulnerability, a growth mindset, and humility, but it can be meaningful for the teacher and students alike.
Ara Nelson-Mercer, assistant principal, Noblesville West Middle School, Noblesville, Indiana

Preparation Counts

During my first year as a teacher, I taught a section of AP calculus. Although I had been a math major in college, it had been a few years since I took calculus. One day, I planned to teach a lesson about small-angle approximation. When I arrived at school that morning, I looked over my teaching notes. I was not feeling very confident, but I felt I had no other choice but to teach the lesson. By the end of class, I had convinced most of my students how this worked, even though I was still extremely fuzzy on the topic myself. Then, one of my best students raised her hand and said, "I still don't understand this."
I promised my students that I would review the concept at home that evening and revisit the topic the next day. After class, I immediately searched online, only to discover that I had taught the concept completely wrong! It was humbling to go back to class the next day and apologize to my students. I learned that you never, ever go into a lesson unprepared!
Sarah Donovan, curriculum and assessment coordinator, Concordia International School, Shanghai, China

The Best Laid Plans

Partner reading. What could go wrong with that? Not much could be easier than a two-piece jigsaw puzzle. Student A reads a paragraph to student B who writes a one-sentence summary. Then, student B reads the next paragraph to student A who writes the next summary. The content of 11 paragraphs boils down to 11 sentences.
My students were good sports about it, but in debriefing, they shared that the process took longer than necessary and that they didn't comprehend the text any better than they normally would have. What looked like a brilliant plan in advance—worthy even of an observation—became a failed attempt at engaged reading. But not all was lost. Students demonstrated effort in the attempt, made use of a safe forum for reporting their experiences, and clarified their learning needs for the future. Trying a new approach—even if it flops—can be worth it, especially when you reap benefits from the negatives.
John Hayward, English teacher, Naperville Central High School, Naperville, Illinois

The Importance of Community

The students should have been learning from my perfectly designed learning plan, but it just didn't happen. This class was always difficult, and I repeatedly attempted to fix every issue that arose. The materials were laid out. The student helpers were selected. I even had an app that chose partners based on students' personalities, not abilities. The plan was brilliant in my mind—a hands-on experience identifying biographies, autobiographies, and collective biographies in the library. However, I quickly learned that this class wasn't ready to work together.
My biggest takeaway was that I had failed the class by failing to establish rapport among the students. I had a class motto, self-assessments, behavior management techniques, and a Frayer Model, but I had missed the simple fact that the students needed to value their 3rd grade classmates to be able to learn together. It was a revelation.
Kim Donius, library media center, Alfred Almond Central School, Almond, New York

Changes on the Fly

I was part of a blended learning pilot program for my school system last year. A visitor came to my classroom to observe what a blended classroom looked like. I had planned for my students to choose from six activities that day. The observer watched one of the worst classes of my teaching career. Students were off-task, confused, and frustrated.
Luckily, the visitor asked me some questions that really made me think about the lesson and led me to make some quick changes. Because I think student choice is important, I kept the element of choice but cut down the number of options to three. After giving specific instructions for each of the choices, I instructed students to move to tables where other students were working on the same assignment—that way they could help one another and I could better monitor their learning. I later moved one of the original six choices—a discussion piece—online and gave students a few days to complete it.
Mary Catherine Keating, history teacher, Fairfax County Public Schools, Clifton, Virginia

Failing Forward

Last year, I was excited to lead my annual state test staff training in a new way. I spent late nights preparing my ClassFlow presentation. On training day, I opened the website, teachers logged on, and as I began my spiel, tragedy struck! I stood in front of a frozen screen, the endless loading circle of doom spinning; I couldn't load any of my 60 slides.
My ears turned red as I fiddled with the computer. How could I sell interactive technology usage to teachers when I couldn't even get mine to work? I felt like a failure, but that's when the learning moment occurred. I took a deep breath, loaded my backup PowerPoint, and steamed ahead.
That day, when I failed gloriously, I took solace in knowing that although teachers saw me fall flat on my face, they also saw that I didn't shy away from trying new things. After the presentation ended, I debriefed with my team because I know that productive dialogue about failure propels us forward. That's the message we should send to teachers.
Micah Harris, assistant principal, Virginia Beach City Public Schools, Virginia Beach, Virginia

A Recipe for Success

I had carefully planned a 2nd grade lesson about how-to writing, which included making an actual sandwich as a model for providing step-by-step directions of "how to" do something. Although students loved creating their sandwiches, unfortunately the lesson flopped.
Why? I hadn't given students a visual model listing the steps of how to make a sandwich. This model is essential for visual learners. On reflection, I realized that I should have written the steps in advance. To rectify my mistake, I told my students I would create the sequence of steps and give it to them the next day. They then had a guide to refer to as they wrote their own "how to" pieces moving forward.
Todd Feltman, assistant principal, New York City Department of Education, Bronx, New York

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

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