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June 24, 2021
Vol. 16
No. 20

What's the Plan?

Every phase of the lesson planning process can incorporate student choice and decision making.

Instructional StrategiesCurriculum
Let's pretend you are a personal fitness trainer. The facility owner just handed you the profile sheets for three new members. Your job will be to welcome each person into the gym, give them a tour of the machines and amenities, and personalize a fitness plan to help each one meet their goals.
As you look through the three sheets, you realize that all you have are their names. You could make dangerous assumptions about them based on this information alone, but experience has taught you to expect anything. Previous new members have surprised you, so you don't allow bias to limit your reach.
The facility is large and offers plenty of resources to help you personalize a program for each client. No one person will use every piece of equipment or attend every session available. What you can do, however, is use the information you gather over time from conversations and observations to tailor a growth program specifically targeting their short and long-term health goals.
Not everyone who comes to your facility wants or needs the same thing. Planning specific activities will have to wait a few days until you get to know each person's strengths, challenges, and goals.
Have you made the connection to your role as an educator yet?

Four Essential Elements of Successful Lesson Planning

When you look at lesson planning through the role of a trainer, you begin to realize why preparation and observational investments matter for personalization and accuracy. Though you and your students might be focused on the desired results, you cannot ignore the value of daily efforts toward that goal. Success in the gym with clients and in the classroom with specific learners rely on the following four elements.

1. Compassionate Understanding

Like a physical trainer learns their clients' strengths and areas for growth, the most effective way to reach and challenge your students is to get to know them as learners and discover who they are beyond screen and paper and assessment data. If you are going to expect students' undivided attention, consider offering your attention to them first. I resist every urge to sort papers, fiddle with technology, or act too busy as students enter. I slow down at the start of each day to acknowledge students individually, make eye contact, actively listen, and call them each by name.
Take time every day to observe and figure out—or ask students directly: What are their limits, interests, and motivators? What is the difference between what they have always wanted to do and what they have always been asked to do? I've noticed that when I make the time about them, students reciprocate with greater interest in what we're doing that day.
Once you know those directly in front of you, it's time to ask what else you need to know about your wider school community. What is the institution's history, current culture, and improvement plan for the future? How can you use and add to these collective resources? For example, your school might have a strong arts program. Consider how you can incorporate more art and music into your own activities. Make cross-curricular connections between your classes and a colleague's class to bring your school community closer together.
Then, ask what more you can learn about the local community outside your walls that might serve as assets in the learning process. Too often, students view their work production for one person (their teacher) and one goal (a grade). Point to the larger purpose and wider audience available to them, and students will invest more in the process of creating a quality product.
Once, I was able to arrange a visit for an astronomy teacher from a retired woman who had lived in Huntsville, Alabama, during the 1960s space age. When she told the story of how she once picked up Neil Armstrong from the airport, the class was wide-eyed and attentive. They engaged with her stories and pictures and were much more excited to connect what they'd heard to their study of history and science.

2. Clear Purpose and Expectations

A trainer's first question to a client is most likely, "What goals can I help you achieve?" The resulting exercises then focus on reaching that goal.
If the learning activities in your lesson plan cannot clearly answer "Why are we doing this?" for students, revisit the purpose of its inclusion in your plan. Too often, a favorite book, film, or resource you've always used dictates how a learning unit unfolds and limits inclusive decision making. The three questions students ask when they enter your room (physical or virtual) each day (even if they aren't always spoken aloud) should have an answer:
  1. What skills will I be challenged to learn and master today?
  2. Why are we doing this particular activity?
  3. Do we have any homework?
What students learn in their time with you are skills, not the content. Content is simply the vehicle you employ to get them to practice and master skills—and if that material proves ineffective, you can swap in something else without compromising the skill. I don't teach Shakespeare's Julius Caesar; I use the play to teach the reading of complex, alternative text and the conventions of drama and staging. If the bookstore ran out of copies, I could select another play without changing the unit standards. As teachers, we are expected to equip students with observable and measurable skills, not promote them based on a checklist of materials.
Homework is its own monster, but it will suffice to say that homework must be a component of your lesson plan. Provide for all investors (students, parents, and administrators) the rationale for assigning independent work and the value it contributes to the overall learning path toward mastery. I like to extend assignments to 48-hour due dates, since you never fully know each student's home life or demands on a given evening. Working the same muscle group in the gym seven days a week would burn you out, so if you're going to give homework, be generous and flexible or simply let students freely read without the threat of a quiz. Ask yourself, "Why exactly are we doing this?" If the answer is weak, it's time to tweak.

3. Creative Use of Resources

Regardless of the financial state of your school, you are still surrounded by some of the most valuable resources: fellow educators and your own students. The weight of planning is not entirely upon your shoulders when other people with creative ideas are available. Take the risk of sharing an open planning session over lunch with colleagues, especially those from outside your grade-level team or subject area. Some of the most useful insights in my English class have come from history or math friends. In the same way you are more accountable to exercise if you have a partner, professional preparation thrives with colleague input.
Or, plan through the lesson with students. Every phase of the process can incorporate student choice and decision making. Pre-planning, resource gathering, implementation, assessment, and reflection each invite their partnership. In an open-minded lesson planning session, share the skills they will learn to master and then brainstorm activities together that will help to introduce and practice those skills.
One semester, I implemented a program called "You Plan Fridays," where two students in rotating pairs would meet with me each mid-week to plan a class of activities. Wednesdays became a stations day, and one of the stations was time for me to meet with these Friday planners. They had the option of co-teaching if they wanted a more hands-on approach. I provided the learning standards and access to any resource they wanted to consult; they came up with the activities and rationale.
One group created a lesson during our memoir unit that involved three segments: a short Kahoot review (something that was new to me), a read / listen / draw activity to determine how accurately students were visualizing the literature, and a short film clip analysis. My own plans for that day would not have been as varied as what they developed. This group also opted to conduct the lesson themselves. I loved their confidence and willingness to take complete ownership. Their insights not only spared me slugging through something bound to bore them, but also gave students an idea of what life was like for me as a facilitator. "So this is what it's like [to teach]," one said, while struggling to get a group of boys to transition.
Students' design ideas can also shape more effective and differentiated assessments. Instead of spending time trying to find the perfect article to support your lesson that will be engaging to all students, ask them to research and contribute article candidates to a shared Google folder from your school's databases or local newspapers. I used to spend an hour or more trying to find a published evaluation essay (restaurant, product, or music review, for example), but then I gave students a week to find their own samples and share them with me. I have also asked students to each contribute potential questions, scenarios, and modes of expressions (spoken, written, recorded) for use in upcoming assessments.
The opportunity for students to become partners in the planning process builds community, offers personalized differentiation, and clarifies expectations and results. Their involvement and voice in the creation of learning tools and measurements buys their commitment to performing well. Think about this: what students plan themselves they will be less motivated to derail or disrupt.

4. Competent Follow-Through

The confidence you have in your lesson's success can be the contagious spark you need to inspire reluctant students. You are the trainer who has mapped out these exercises knowing they will involve challenge and breakthrough. Occasionally, you will need to convince others of what they can do if they believe in themselves.
Deliver your lessons with a full embrace of your observational senses so you can quickly transition to an alternate activity or content material if you feel things aren't working. Before every transition within a class session, I read the emotional state of the room and ask myself if what's coming up is the most appropriate use of our time. If students seem restless and the next activity should become group-based so student voice will be more present, I need to be flexible and foster that environment to maximize engagement.
Evaluate and self-reflect with students as a closure activity. What could you as a teacher have done differently? Ask for anonymous responses about the state of your instructional methods if they're more comfortable with that format. Your active response to student input indicates your level of respect for students and for the strong community you collectively have worked hard to establish. No one gets left behind in a class where everyone contributes to every phase of the learning process.

Celebrate the Results

Lesson planning does not have to be an exercise you hate. Stay focused on the skills students need and change your grip as needed to maintain balance. At the end of the unit, knowing you put patient and thoughtful attention to lesson planning details is something worth celebrating. Having every student feel they can celebrate with you is even better.
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