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How Good Lessons Go Wrong

It’s happened to all of us, and although I’d love to tell you it won’t happen again, I just can’t:  Sometimes what feels like even the best, most engaging, exciting, and well-planned lesson...just implodes.  Sometimes it is simply due to the ever-changing classroom climate:  students are fickle, and every day is a roll of the dice.  Still, with time and reflection, you begin to become aware of some of the more common maladies that will knock the legs out from under your otherwise sturdy lesson.  Here are some of the things to pay close attention to this coming week.


Sometimes when we get excited about a project or a lesson, we dump our “great idea” on the students all at once. We outline an extensive and detailed work process, describe the desired product, throw some resources and materials their way, zip through the skills on a rubric, and set them off to tackle it all at once. Slow down. Ease into it. Sometimes the “slow reveal” of a process can make the goal much more rewarding. When you give students too much, all at once (especially when they are new skills they are unsure of or still testing out), they’ll get overwhelmed and shut down. They aren’t going to share in your excitement around an end product unless they are sure it is attainable.

Break it down. Think about each of the steps you would personally take to tackle the assignment. Does each step need its own lesson? What’s the background knowledge or sub-skill that will be necessary to adequately succeed in each step? Should you be direct teaching any of that? Should students get in a “practice version” before tackling the larger piece of your performance task? The more you can break a cool project into smaller manageable tasks, the more comfortable your learners will be in the process.


We don’t always think about transitions from one part of the lesson to the next. We think, “well, they’ll move from their individual desks during the mini lesson, to pairs, to the group work, and back...they’re just moving desks”. Nope. Practice transitions in your class. Yes, you heard it during your university “classroom management” lectures, and promptly ignored it, because you had bigger fish to fry. Well, now you’re in the classroom, and every minor change to that environment seems to cause a lot more chaos than you’d previously imagined, huh?

Think about what your classroom looks like. Are there tables? Chairs with desks attached? Is it a wide open space or are you canned in? Now, what kind of grouping do you utilize often in this space? Do they push desks together to form groups? Do they get up, grab their belongings, and mix in with classmates randomly or by number? What does pairing look like, physically? Share these procedures with students beforehand, and practice them. Even when you’re not utilizing them: time students to see how quickly they can transition from one classroom setting to another. It’ll save you absurd amounts of time, energy, and patience when you need to use them.

Reading Levels

Your school likely collects a whole lot of data on your students, and you’re likely already spending a lot of time in data teams and professional learning communities, creating goals and thinking about the results for your content area. But student reading levels affect everyone. Whatever reading assessment your school has invested in, make sure you have that data at hand throughout the school year. The reality is, your students are reading at a wide variety of levels, and your super cool lesson needs to be tailored to that, in order for the students to realize it is super cool.

Personally, I like to keep student reading levels on a clipboard in my desk for easy reference. When organizing grouping, do so consciously, whether for mixed ability levels or homogeneously around a differentiated text (yet another shameless shout-out to Newsela). Don’t underestimate the power of this to derail your lesson. Even word problems and the shortest content-focused readings can intimidate your readers into a resistant space. Make those accommodations.

Your Energy

It’s a heavy burden to bear, but like it or not, your energy behind your lesson directly impacts its success. Students can sense when you are not engaged in the work, and if you’re not excited, what chance do they have? Students need to see that you believe your work is important. That the skills you are teaching them are applicable. And that you can’t wait for them to learn it all.

This is a tough one, because we’re human (despite what our students may think). We have personal lives and non-school-related concerns. And certainly, not enough coffee to manage the day. And yet, this is where the bar is set. It might help to think of yourself as an actor, and each day could be the performance that could lead to your “big break”. That “big break” is an engaged classroom, ready to learn, and well-prepared for the demands of adulthood. Bringing that energy on rough days will not only change your own outlook, but will manifest tenfold by the end of the semester.


It’s nearly cliche, but will nonetheless take down the best-laid plans of even the most well-seasoned educator. If students do not have the appropriate amount of time to wrestle with the skills and concepts you are imparting, your lesson will fall flat every time. We sometimes forget the pace at which students are able to access and internalize new information, because it often feels so “rote” and “everyday” for us. New skills tend to take longer to master. Some students will move faster than others and be bored. All of the variables of the classroom contribute to this calculation.

It may seem impossible to predict within a reasonable margin of error, but if you are worried about the timing on a particular lesson or project, go through the checklist. First, check your data. How are your student performing in general? What do the IEPs suggest? Do you need to allow for more scaffolding in order to get the product you’re really hoping for? Add it to your plan. Reflect upon your past lessons with this group. How well do they generally work on comparable projects? Think about social dynamics and class climate. Will the subject matter work with this crew? Are they easy to focus on a task? How well do they get along? Are there any norms to address before you begin? Mapping all of these variables onto your planning will allow you to best estimate how much time your students need to feel proficient.


Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.