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Survival 101 - Lesson Planning Hacks           

When I was in the classroom daily, nothing quite took away my mojo like having a staff meeting scheduled during my sacred planning period. I needed that time with my old-school calendar planner to make some order out of the chaos in my brain and to reassure myself that I would not be heading into my classroom in the next day or week or whenever without a solid game plan. Aside from grading endless stacks of papers, one of the chief teacher stressors is lesson planning. What else would explain the myriad websites, curriculum companies, and resources that exist to help mitigate the day-to-day planning process? Even though it can be overwhelming to continuously plan excellent lessons that engage students, a few strategies can help to hone the process, make it easier, and ensure that time spent having a life doesn’t get pushed out of the way by lesson planning.

Think Big Picture

In a planning meeting, I once listened to a group of teachers debate which podcast to use to demonstrate a concept for about 40 minutes. The truth is, any of the podcasts (or a choice of all) would have been just fine; the more pertinent question was whether a podcast was the best way to maximize student acquisition of the concept at that point in time. It is pretty easy to forget the forest as we look at trees or, even more common, individual leaves. In other words, we get mired in little details and forget the purpose behind what we’re doing. To combat this tendency, keep the central focus in a visible place at all times. I typically take student learning goals for a unit and write them in huge block letters at the top of my calendar for every week of planning. That way, those pesky little details become less important with the knowledge that the “why” behind instruction can be approached from a variety of ways. As long as students are engaged and can show their progress, that should be our primary measure of success in planning.

Stay One Week Ahead

My first year teaching, a helpful teacher with far more experience came up to me one day as I was flipping through a curriculum binder in what must have appeared to be agony. “Don’t make this harder,” he said. “Just stay one week ahead of the game for now.” His advice was simple, but yet so helpful. For the first couple of years of teaching, I did enough work to stay one week ahead. As I became more adept, I made better connections among the weeks, building out to a much more comprehensively planned unit. However, the stress level of looking at all the possible learning pathways at one time dissipated, and lesson planning became less of a hated process; in fact, I began to look forward to applying some of my creativity to weekly lessons.

Don’t Get Complicated

One of my dearest teaching friends used to plan herself right into a corner. She’d spend hours creating really intricate assignments, only to find herself mired in stacks of grading that she could not dig herself out of. The truth is, while we want to create lessons that kids love, that does not always mean a complex project or something mega-inventive. Some of my most successful lesson plans were the simplest ones. As long as I provided various options for students to reach a goal, gave them a chance to move around and talk to one another, and listened to their feedback, I had pretty good odds of reaching students successfully on any given day. That doesn’t mean that we should never go that extra mile to plan really awesome lessons; however, it just cannot happen every day. We would all lose our minds, or leave the profession as my friend eventually did. Simplicity is sustainable; overly intricate methods are a quick path to burnout.

Make Sure Kids Own It

A few weeks ago, I observed a beautiful math class. The students were working on various components of complex equations, and then the teacher had them jigsaw the components of what they learned, get into small groups, and teach one another. Every student was on task, and they all had total buy-in with the lesson. We put so much pressure on ourselves to plan good lessons, but why can’t we give some of that ownership to kids? When teachers set up routines that allow students the freedom to become experts, they don’t have to work as hard to plan; rather, a lot of the work involves following up during and after instruction to accurately measure what students know, and what they still need to learn. A lot of lesson planning stress is actually grounded in management and control; teachers fear that if they give over more of the planning to kids, that chaos will ensue. However, that belief could not be further from the truth. If the teacher builds a classroom of trust and student efficacy, the gains are immeasurable.

We spend a lot of time stressing out about lesson plans to the point that it becomes a survival game involving an endless series of tasks. Learning should not be the equivalent of a to-do list; rather, it should be a celebration of all that kids can do to become critical thinkers and contributors to society. If we are stuck in an endless loop of “what,” we will never think about “why.” Think about how to reframe lesson planning so that instead of fearing it, we see it as an opportunity to bring out the best aspects of the content we teach.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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