Peggy Levins learned a valuable lesson from the Loch Ness Monster. Now, each year, Levins takes time at the start of the year to do some advance planning. Included: Tips for planning ahead that will give you time to teach the curriculum without sacrificing the fun.
Dr. Peggy Levins
As much as I have always preached to my own children the value of planning ahead, I did not truly "practice what I preached" in my classroom until a situation arose in which the reality of not planning ahead hit me full force. I refer to that school year as my "oh my" (as in "ohmygosh-onlyonemonthleft-howamIgoingtoteacheverything") year.
That "oh my" year, I was a self-contained second-grade teacher, and my school had introduced new language arts textbooks. Each month, I pre-read the units and created my lesson plans for a week or two at a time -- keeping ahead, but just barely.
Along about January, there was a unit about creatures from the sea. That unit included an article about the Loch Ness monster. Now, if you know anything about seven- and eight-year-old children, you'll know that the Loch Ness monster was right up their alley. I knew they would enjoy the story, but I was not prepared for just how much they would enjoy it. For the entire week that I taught that story, the conversation in every subject circled back to the Loch Ness monster.
The kids were hooked. They could not get enough.
What's a teacher to do when students get so keyed up, so engaged? I did what most teachers would do. I used the "teachable moment" to its fullest. When making my lesson plans for the next week, I incorporated the Loch Ness monster into every subject. I worked "Nessie" into my math lessons, my science lessons, my social studies lessons, my creative writing lessons...And what a great week it was! My students and I had a ball. I was happy, the kids were happy. I even started writing my acceptance speech for the Creative Teacher of the Century Award I was sure I would receive.A MONSTER OF A UNIT
Truly pleased with our one-week Loch Ness monster unit, the unit soon expanded into a two-week unit, then a three-week unit. Life was wonderful! But, as all good things eventually do, the unit came to an end. We had exhausted the Loch Ness monster and I went back (grudgingly, I must admit) to teaching the usual curriculum -- the curriculum I had been hired to teach.
As April drew to a close and the end of the school year loomed ahead, I looked toward wrapping up my curriculum. I was ready to begin all those special end-of-the-year activities I do every year -- until I realized there was too much left to teach and not enough time in which to teach it all. There was no time to teach the curriculum and do the special end-of-the-year activities I so loved.
As I contemplated my predicament, I realized I had spent too much time on Loch Ness Monster activities. In the business world there's a term -- opportunity cost -- which, quite simply, means there is cost to everything. The time I spent teaching the Loch Ness Monster cost me the opportunity to teach something else.
During May that year, I hustled to teach the rest of the curriculum -- things the students really did need to learn, I had to admit. It was a hurried and hectic month.
That summer, when I had a chance to sit back and reflect on the school year and set goals for the year ahead, I came to a decision that surprised me at first. I decided that I wanted to teach the unit on the Loch Ness Monster and do the great end-of-the-year activities the children and I loved so much and teach the curriculum I had been hired to teach. I decided I needed to practice what I preached a little bit better. So, that August, for the first time, I was determined to do some advance planning.
I know it sounds daunting; but in reality, the process only took a few hours.CREATING AN ADVANCE-PLAN CALENDAR
First, I examined the official curriculum guide. I studied thoroughly everything I was expected to teach. Next, using a grid calendar (lo and behold, there was one in the front of my Lesson Plan book -- in those pages I had simply flipped by in past years), I listed for each month all the activities that took precedence over my actual instructional time. The following table provides a general idea of the way I planned for the entire year:
Aug/Sept (6 wks) 3 half days 2 students holidays Actual teaching days: 25 Oct (4 wks) Halloween Fall festival Field trip pumpkin patch Parent conferences Actual teaching days: 16 Nov (4 wks) Thanksgiving holiday Feast Actual teaching days: 15 Dec (4 wks) Christmas holiday Holiday parties Actual teaching days: 13 As I planned, I tried to account for all the special events and half-days. Considering those days quickly cut into the 180-day instructional calendar.
Now don't get me wrong. Lest you think that I am a strict, by-the-book, "there will be no smiles in MY classroom; we are here to learn and learning is serious business" teacher, let me assure you that I am a strong proponent of educating the whole child. All of those special days are an important part of our school year. I would not want to give them up for anything.
I pressed on. Because I also feel a responsibility to each child -- to teach the basics he or she needs to move ahead -- I continued to make a year-long plan.ADDING OBJECTIVES TO AN ADVANCE PLAN
I knew, for example, that my district expected me to finish the math book. So, I listed each broad objective with the corresponding chapter from the text. The first few chapters would go fairly quickly; however, I knew I wanted to build in additional time for multiplication. In my calendar grid, I posted two chapters from the math book for August-September and two chapters for October. That left six chapters to teach in the next seven months. As I looked ahead toward the spring months -- with achievement testing filling up a week in March -- I knew that one chapter a month was a realistic goal. I simply added additional time during March for multiplication.
I went through the same process for each subject. I combined objectives from various subjects and changed the order in which I taught some things so I would be able to continue to teach the units I so dearly loved. For example, I changed the measurement chapter in math from fall to spring. Originally, that chapter was taught in the fall months, but it matched up so perfectly with my Loch Ness Monster unit that I moved it. For the same reason, in social studies I moved the geography unit from the fall to spring. I also moved the dinosaur and ocean science units to the spring; again, the objectives meshed with those things we discuss in the Loch Ness Monster unit.
Once that advance planning was accomplished, I added all the things that did not have to be taught, but were enriching for the students. I found I had sufficient time to teach all of the things I had to teach and all of the things I wanted to teach.ADVANTAGES TO ADVANCE PLANNING
I find that my year seems to go much more smoothly when I do a little advance planning than when I did not do it. I don't get that feeling of panic toward the end of April that I had during my "oh my" (ohmygosh-onlyonemonthleft-howamIgoingtoteacheverything) year.
I look at advance planning the same way I look at putting money in the bank. By taking some time in August to preplan my year, I seem to have more time during the year. Sure, I still have to fine-tune those plans and make more in-depth plans each week; but having the skeleton in place makes having time to do it all more possible.
A second, even more important, advantage to advance planning is that I am sure I am teaching everything that should be taught. I am confident that my students are being exposed to everything they must learn in a manner that makes learning fun and exciting.
I still find that additional "Loch Ness moments" arise each year. Something piques my students' interest and we run with it; it would be a disservice to let that teachable moment pass. During those times, I follow my gut instincts. But, having that focus on the big picture that I developed in August, lets me set priorities while maintaining a flexibility that allows me to provide the richest learning experience possible for my students.
Dr. Peggy Levins, an educator for 15 years, has been a classroom teacher, reading specialist, and administrator. She currently teaches teacher-education courses at The University of Phoenix. In addition, Levins manages Curriculum Renewal Consultants, which provides curriculum consultation and professional opportunities to elementary schools.
Article by Dr. Peggy Levins
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