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There is no right way to plan a great lesson. Sometimes what you thought would be an amazing plan falls apart and other times what was supposed to take only five minutes ends up being twenty-five. Or my absolute favorite thing happens, there is a “teachable moment” and it is not written on any lesson plan, in fact there is no way you could have planned for it, but it arrived and it was amazing. Lesson planning can be tedious, but having a great plan is a way to be an effective teacher. Here are some elements that lead to great lessons:
1. A Bell Ringer. Something for the students to do as soon as they walk in the door. A bell-ringer is something that they can do independently for five minutes. It may or may not be directly connected to your lesson, for example vocabulary and grammar lessons are great bell ringers. Have them working quietly when the bell rings. This way you can check roll and get yourself together. A bell-ringer sets the tone for the class and if the tone begins chaotic and unorganized, your lesson will not reach its full potential.
2. Hook. Your hook is different from your bell-ringer. A hook is what will draw your students in. Something that gets their minds away from lunch and the want to snapchat during your lesson. My favorite hooks include Music videos that are tied to the theme in a story we are covering, a clip from a movie, an anticipation guide, or a class discussion question.
3. Class does, group does, and you do. Whatever skill you decide to teach needs scaffolding. The students need guidance and the best way to do this is as a class. If we are annotating a historical document, I put it on the document camera and we do the first part together. Then I let them work in groups and annotate together (always walking around and guiding of course) and finally, they work independently whether it is in the classroom or home. Sending students to complete an assignment without scaffolding is dangerous. Most behavior problems stem from a student who did not understand what to do. When they do not understand, they usually do one of two things. One, they shut down and refuse to work or two, they begin to pick and distract others. This scaffolding system is a great way to divide and conquer. Grouping students helps you see the individuals that need help rather than looking at a sea of thirty. Stronger students within a group can help the others. Independent assignments allow you to see where the students are and who you need to reteach.
4. Connecting to Real life. Always try to connect your lesson to today. Explain how this skill can help them in life. The students of today will not retain information they cannot see the value in. Show them that research helps them look past bias websites and one-sided news broadcasts. Use algebra to explain how going seventy-five instead of seventy only gets them to a place five minutes faster and they are risking a ticket and their lives. Make them see what happens to the natural environment if we continue to pour chemicals into it. Maybe this life connection will draw them to a life time career.
5. Closure. This is difficult to perfect, especially if you teach to the bell. Wrap up your lesson and explain to the students how this skill tied into previous ones and how this lesson will connect to tomorrow. Show them that your lessons are not disjointed and each skill needs to be mastered before the class can move on to the next level.
6. Self-Assessment. There has been a major move towards self-assessment. Are the students taking control of their learning? How does the student know he or she is understanding the material? There are several ways to do this. I usually use a 1-5 scale. I usually say, " On a scale of 1-5, 5 being let me teach this, how well do you know the material?” Students hold up hands and I instantly see who needs help and who is confident. Another way is to have three bins for the students to turn in work, label one “got it,” label two, “need practice,” and label three, “HELP!” Pushing students to take charge of themselves helps them grow and strive to be better.
7. Leave the books under the desks. Teaching from the book day after day can be boring for students. They will check out if every they have to read from the book and answer questions every single day. Let them move around the room. Let them discuss great ideas or debate the questions from the book. Don’t make them read silently and answer the questions in silence. Pull supplemental materials that teach the skills you need and will connect with the students.
8. Preparation. There is nothing that can ruin a great lesson more than lack of preparation. Study those lesson plans. I keep my on my podium even after nine years. I like to know what I am doing next. Are your copies made? Are those materials organized? Again the students will sense chaos and respond accordingly. Great lessons are interactive and fun, but require more work than open your book to page 234 and answer 1-9.
9. Teach what you love. Great lessons stem from passionate teachers. If you believe in what you are teaching it will come through. Let the kids see you swoon over the writing of Keats or see how excited you get teaching the periodic table. If you are excited, they will be excited.
10. Let the kids lead. Yes, you must have great classroom management. But some of my best days are when the students taught. I am a firm believer in not being the only teacher in a classroom. I have thirty brilliant kids and they each have something to offer. Let them show you. Let them drive discussions, of course redirect if you need, but sometimes we just need to be quiet and let them drive the discussion. They will surprise you.
Notice the title of this piece, “Elements of a Great Lesson Plan.” It does not say “THE elements” nor does it say “ALL Elements of a Great Lesson.” Lessons plans are plans. Does everything work out the way we want? Not always. Sometimes things fall apart, but if you plan for them to happen more likely they will. Remember, a great teacher is a flexible teacher, but the reality is that if you are an unprepared teacher your students will suffer and you will suffer even more.
A great plan means you will feel confident in the classroom and remind yourself that you are the expert and you know what is best for your kids. So plan for the perfect lesson, expect that it will not be perfect, and accept that “best-laid plans of mice and men oft(en) go astray” (Robert Burns). The trick is to make sure “astray” is tied to a lesson, not a wasted opportunity.
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