Improving Lesson Planning with Pre-Work - ASCD
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July 1, 2021

Improving Lesson Planning with Pre-Work

When teachers have time to think ahead and do pre-work, instructional planning meetings gain focus.

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Educators have many "meetings of the minds": Grade-level planning sessions, PLCs, coaching meetings—which together should allow teachers ample opportunities to create high-quality, rigorous lesson plans that deepen student learning.

But do these meetings actually work? Frequent planning sessions often become a time for teachers to discuss the standards for the week, think about the content, or talk about what they may or may not use. But before they know it, the bell rings, and the only thing accomplished is an idea of what might be taught to students the following day or week.

There's a way to prevent such missed opportunities, however. If teachers are able to brainstorm, think, and/or reflect before they come to a collaborative planning session, the meetings themselves could be more productive and helpful. Preparing for planning can make teachers' time together richer and generate better ideas.

What Really Happens in "Planning Sessions"

Over the years, the phrase "planning session" has taken on many different definitions in education. Some schools use this time for professional development, delivering school initiatives, or faculty or grade-level meetings. Coaches may use this time to discuss the data, weekly reports, or the newest school initiative with teachers. Researcher Eileen Merritt notes that teachers have reported that planning time is critical to their job satisfaction, and that adding planning time would positively affect their ability to help students reach their potential.1 When "planning" time is used for a myriad of reasons, however, teachers often feel frustrated about the lack of time for ₀ actually planning lessons. Since additional meeting time is usually not an option, we must shift our focus to how to maximize allotted planning time.

As an instructional coach for seven priority schools in Hamilton County, Tennessee, coauthor Rebecca Doxsee spends time in classrooms and works with coaches to support student academic success. Because planning is where the magic happens, she initially spent time discussing with building-level coaches and principals the school's requirements for planning sessions. Then she attended several planning sessions with teachers. There seemed to be a recurring theme in these discussions and planning meetings: Lesson planning wasn't happening. Discussion about content and assessment was happening, but no deep discussions around rigorous learning tasks, guiding questions, or student discourse were taking place. Teachers were leaving their planning meetings with only a few or no completed lessons, which meant they had to spend even more time on their own to do the hardest parts of planning: alignment, rigor, and differentiation. This prompted Rebecca to try a new approach to maximize planning time.

Preparing for Planning

Rebecca's new approach was "preparing for planning," which provides teachers independent time to "pre-think and prepare" for planning meetings, resulting in a more powerful and meaningful session time with grade-level teams and coaches. When teachers come to the table with prior knowledge of the relevant tasks and content, their individual ownership of the process increases and richer conversations around the components and direction of the lesson can take place.

Teachers should be given at least 30–45 minutes prior to planning meetings to prepare for planning. This time can come from a teacher's individual planning time during school or before or after the school day.

Coauthor Jessica Holloway has found that "pre-thinking" activities using technology can extend teachers' collaborative planning time and expand access to shared lesson plans. Teachers can create a shared document prior to the official planning session to capture their thinking and allow each person to contribute initial thoughts and processes. The shared document can have different starting points, depending on the goal of the planning session and content area: a question, list of standards, previous lessons, or a text, to name a few options. Creating this document ahead of time allows teachers to process independently and add their ideas before the group meeting. This method also allows exceptional education teachers, English Language Learner teachers, and educational assistants to participate in preparing for planning, setting the groundwork for more meaningful and equitable conversations for all students in the classroom. Best of all, technology tools can create a digital documentation of each teacher's thoughts, ideas, plans, and reflections—the pre-thinking and prep work needed to develop and improve lesson plans for years to come.

Preparing for planning includes these three phases: Be the Learner, Be the Curator, and Be the Planner.

Be the Learner

In this phase, teachers examine a part of the curriculum and take on the role of a learner—that is, they put themselves in their students' shoes. For literacy planning, they might annotate, mark up a text assigned to students with highlights, jot notes and questions, and circle key points, like they would as a reader. For mathematics or science planning, they can work out a math problem as if they were doing it for the first time, or analyze a science text and graphs. In other words, they experience the task as a learner without an agenda or preconceived ideas.

Once teachers can empathize with a learner's perspective of approaching the text or task, they are ready to examine the learning event to critically evaluate strengths and shortcomings:

  • How can the annotations, questions, or comments guide them in designing the lesson to help students better grasp the information?

  • What sections may need to be clarified?

  • Is there a place students can or should connect to prior lessons?

  • What background knowledge is required for students to understand the concept or idea?

  • What vocabulary is needed for students to grasp the concept or central idea?

  • What tools, videos, collaborative spaces, and digital platforms can be used to eliminate barriers and increase student engagement?

To make their thinking visible while acting as the learner, teachers have two options to document annotations, questions, and notes. One path is to use digital annotation tools. When using a Google document, Microsoft Word, or Kami document, teachers can highlight, strikethrough, make and/or assign comments, insert links, and color-code annotations, to name a few features. If the tasks are not digital, teachers can make annotations on a physical document and take a photo of their mark-ups on their phone or laptop. Both versions can be stored and shared using a digital drive (such as OneDrive, Google Drive, or Dropbox). Keeping a digital copy of the teacher's annotated work creates a model for students and provides insight into potential barriers to student learning.

Be the Curator

The next phase of pre-planning asks teachers to review all the relevant published instructional and assessment resources provided in the curriculum for the particular lesson or unit (quizzes, comprehension questions, writing prompts). This helps the teachers organize their thinking around the trajectory of learning and the goal of the planning session and prevents them from "recreating the wheel" when resources are already available. Teachers can pick and choose from various sources to help them create and align a strong opening, learning task, and assessment to maximize student learning.

To organize the curation, teachers can use something as simple as a document with hyperlinks to various resources and work samples. Another option is to create a collection on Wakelet, which allows teachers to add links, upload images and documents, and add text (notes) and content from other applications into one collected group. Having all resources available in one location can expedite the planning process by eliminating time spent searching for desired resources.

Be the Planner

Planning requires teachers to think backward to move forward. What do they want their students to produce at the end of the lesson that will show they mastered the skill or standard? In shifting the approach to planning, teachers are asked to focus on the end goal instead of the beginning. Once teachers have determined how students will demonstrate mastery, then learning targets for the trajectory of lessons can be chosen or designed that best align to the standard(s) of the lesson. In starting this process of backward planning, teachers can ask themselves:

  • Which standard(s) can be captured in this text (or problem or concept)? (In most cases, curricula will have several standards associated with a text or task, so reading the text or doing the task ahead of time will help teachers understand which standard or standards should be the focus of the daily lesson.)

  • What are the most important concepts, ideas, or skills we want students to grasp and apply?

  • How will students demonstrate mastery of the learning objectives?

Planning with the end in mind may require a clear learning target to be written in a way that captures only part of the standard(s) taught during the lesson. The alignment of the clear learning target and exit ticket (assessment) with the learning task is critical in making sure that students understand the why and how of the lesson.

Lesson Planning Tip

Planning requires teachers to think backward to move forward. What do they want their students to produce at the end of the lesson that will show they mastered the skill or standard?

To plan out the path to mastery, teachers can use digital tools such as Google Jamboard, which provides a collaborative space for teachers to post notes and images, rearrange ideas or lessons, and draw connections between items. Padlet is a similar collaboration platform where teachers can add notes, links, and videos or images while being able to drag and drop to rearrange items. There are also a variety of online whiteboard options (such as Whiteboard.fi or Explain Everything) to use for sketching out a plan for student mastery.

With digital tools available for each phase of preparing for planning, links to created items can be included in required lesson or unit planning documents to preserve teachers' thinking and preparation process.

More Meaningful Meetings

With preparing for planning completed, teachers are now ready for in-person collaboration and to be the designers of learning experiences for students, thus eliminating the "in-the-moment" or "on-the-spot" decision making. Teachers and coaches are equipped to engage in deeper conversations and prevent misaligned lesson planning. Conversations move from just talking about standards or curriculum resources to how students will learn and demonstrate mastery, ensuring all components—curriculum, instruction, and assessment—are aligned.

This focused conversation keeps teachers from getting stuck in the "what" of lessons, and they are not left alone to make tough instructional decisions. They can be thoughtful and intentional in exploring engaging strategies, questions, and knowledge checks to ensure that students are on the path to mastery. Lesson design discussions may also include:

  • What questions can be used or developed to provide access for all students?

  • What instructional strategy will effectively move students towards mastery?

  • Does the lesson require direction instruction, modeling, and/or gradual release?

  • How can you strategically plan for student discourse that will impact student learning?

  • What technology tool or platform will enhance or extend student learning?

  • How do I intentionally provide equity of student voice?

  • What modifications can be made to adhere to a student's individualized education program, 504 plan, or individualized language learner program?

Valuing the Process

When teachers realize how much time they can save by implementing a collaborative preparing for planning framework versus creating lesson plans on their own, the shift can be easy. However, we know that for teachers to feel the need to change, they have to see a difference in student learning. "No matter how big an 'effect size' research shows for the innovation, people usually aren't convinced it will work until they see it make a difference for their students," says Jim Knight.2 "This creates a catch-22: People don't like to implement a new strategy unless they have seen it be effective, but they can't experience its effectiveness unless they try it."

As teachers internalize the "preparing for planning" process and see how it leads to improved lesson planning, the shift in practice will have tangible benefits, such as more effective planning sessions, aligned formative assessments, high-quality tasks, and shared ownership of student learning. Moreover, the impact on student learning becomes visible and affirms the process.

Keeping students engaged in any learning environment can prove to be challenging if we do not know our destination. The lesson plan is a vehicle that moves the learning forward, a record of the student learning process, and a teacher roadmap of the instructional journey. When teachers do the work beforehand, it makes the learning trip safer and allows teachers to remove barriers, plan for stops, and prevent students from running into dead ends. Preparing to plan is the best map for getting us to our final destination: student success.

Though some teachers may view preparing for planning as "just one more thing," when the process is implemented well, teachers begin to see the value in having the pre-work done and realize how planning sessions can produce high-quality, engaging lesson plans that are ready to be implemented. It takes support from instructional coaches and administrators to help teachers take the hard step of changing a routine that has been "working" for several months, or even years; however, with the proper support, teachers can begin to value the time they gain back. Once teachers see they no longer have to do the "hard" part alone, and that purposeful lessons can be created in their allotted planning periods, preparing for planning becomes a welcome change in practice.

End Notes

1 Merritt, E. (2016). Time for teacher learning, planning critical for school reform. Phi Delta Kappan, 98, 31–36.

2 Knight, J. (2021). Moving from talk to action in professional learning. Educational Leadership, 78(5), 16–21.

Jessica Holloway Headshot

Jessica Holloway is an innovation coach for Hamilton County Schools in Tennessee, a 2019 ASCD Emerging Leader, and a Tennessee ASCD board member.


Rebecca Doxsee Headshot

Rebecca Doxsee is an area learning coach for priority schools in Hamilton County Schools in Tennessee.

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