For many new teachers, lesson planning ALONE is a huge source of stress and anxiety. Not only is there a billion other things to do as a teacher, but there’s the tiny detail of knowing how and what to plan. Yes, you definitely learned about it and even did some practice lesson plans. But now that you’re faced with your own students (and possibly teaching a grade that you weren’t prepared for), it’s a whole new ballgame. In this episode, I don’t tell you how to plan – I explain the mindset and big-picture view of planning an entire year, then down to quarters, units, and daily lessons.
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Some of you may remember me mentioning this, but when I switched from teaching band to English, I had a friend, Deb, who gave me everything she ever used to teach 7th-grade English. She actually vouched for me when we were convincing my principal to let me switch over. Deb ended up switching to 8th grade English and I took her spot. And since she was such a strong teacher, I definitely wanted EVERYTHING so that I wouldn’t have to start from scratch.
I can’t express enough how helpful it was to have all of her materials. It gave me an idea of what I should be teaching, how to teach it, how long I should take, and what to expect from my 7th-grade students. Over time, I tweaked those lessons based on my teaching style and student population, and eventually, I stopped. But they were a really good basis for figuring out HOW to teach English.
What I didn’t get from the beginning was a big-picture view of where my students needed to go. Because of this, they could do random skills well, but not enough to put them together successfully and produce a quality product. So today I want to go over how to do that so that your lessons and planning don’t feel aimless and haphazard.
Map out the year by starting with the end in mind
Use a regular calendar that shows the days in each month, not a planner with daily pages.
Take out any curriculum or pacing guides that you MUST use plus a list of your content-level standards
On your calendar, write down holidays, breaks, and other non-student days
Also write down any finals, other assessments, and state testing
Decide which SKILLS the most important. Notice I didn’t say standards. That comes later. First, I want you to get really clear on what you want your students to be able to demonstrate knowledge of and skill in.
For me, I focus on writing and literary analysis standards. I want my students to be able to write a RACE paragraph, either for literature or nonfiction. I want them to have a solid topic sentence for each body paragraph, evidence that directly supports that topic sentence, and an explanation of how each piece of evidence supports and is relevant to the topic. I want them to write an introduction that contains a hook, a preview of the topic, and a thesis statement. Those are just my top writing skills, and there are obviously literature ones, but I won’t go into those.
In real life, I want my students to be able to communicate their thoughts effectively through writing. That means that I want them to write coherent sentences, stay away from too many cliches and idioms, support their thoughts and assertions with evidence, explain why the reader should care, use higher-level and content-specific vocabulary when necessary, and do all of this in a coherent way.
To me, if they can do that in a variety of situations (especially ones that aren’t in English class), then I’ve succeeded.
My point is that you need to write down what you want your students to be able to walk away doing well. When they leave your grade and move onto the next, what do you want the next teacher to marvel at what your students can do? What do they need to be able to do in order to be successful in the next grade?
As teachers, we continually pass the baton to the next teacher in our subject, so we have to be sure to properly prepare them for what’s next.
So really get your head around what your students should be able to do by the end of the year. Then think about how you want them to demonstrate that. Some kind of culminating project or summative assessment, and you’ll most likely want to do this multiple times a year. I like to have something once a quarter so that I can continually assess their progress.
Some of you may already be thinking that this task can be a multiple-guess test. I challenge you to think beyond that and choose something where students demonstrate thinking like a professional in your subject area. This means they can think like a historian and demonstrate it. Think like a scientist and demonstrate it. Think like someone who uses math every day and demonstrate it.
THEN you look at the standards and you hone in on the ones that are necessary to complete these culminating tasks. You and I know that not all are equally important. You want to choose the ones that you know need repeating and building throughout the year so that they can reach that ultimate goal before the end of the year.
Below each summative assignment, write down all of the necessary standards that you have to teach in order for your students to successfully complete the assignment.
The beautiful thing is that you’ll be repeating or spiraling certain standards, and hopefully those are the ones that are the most important to your subject area.
After you’ve done that, take a look at what’s leftover. I will be completely honest and admit that I don’t get to every standard, and many of my colleagues are in the same boat. It’s not that we’re lazy, it’s just that there are so many more important things that we want to teach in-depth rather than taking a tour of all of the standards. You can probably squeeze some of the other standards in a bell-ringer, something to do on a minimum day, or something similar.
For example, I really don’t have time to dive into affixes, but it’s a standard I need to cover. So once in a while, my students will see these in their warmups, and I’ll sneak in a quick mini-lesson. I in no way feel guilty about this, and neither should you!
What if you’re new and you have NO IDEA about what students should be able to do? Simple – just ask. Ask your colleagues in your department. Take to Twitter and social media and ask. Go on Teachers Pay Teachers and see what types of activities other teachers in your same grade and subject are doing. While you’ll get a variety of answers, this will at least give you some ideas.
I have colleagues who are very reading-heavy and spend the majority of the time studying novels. They write as needed to complete analysis, but writing happens instead of it being the focus. I, on the other hand, am very writing-focused, and the readings revolve around the writing. I prefer short stories so that students have opportunities to practice writing for different situations. I like the repetition of skills within the context and have personally found that there are fewer opportunities with class novels.
Breaking it down into units
The next part is figuring out how you’re going to teach those standards that lead to skills. So you’ll want to start with whole units of study.
For me, one short story will be a unit of study. I’ll decide within each story what I want them to be able to learn and demonstrate, and which previous skills will be repeated. So I slightly review something we’ve done before like writing with the RACE format, and add levels of complexity.
I was lucky to have my Deb’s resources, but If I were starting out teaching English this year, I would immediately take to TpT. Some of you feel compelled to create everything because you only have the boring worksheets from your curriculum, and it’s ridiculously stressful. Now, there are so many resources that you can supplement or eventually replace those.
If you like what’s provided for you, then definitely use those. DON’T TRY TO WRITE NEW LESSONS! This may be a controversial statement, but as I’ve mentioned before, when you’re starting out, you don’t know what works and what doesn’t. So use other people’s lessons, whether it’s with your textbook or from a colleague, and spend your energy focusing on delivering the lesson smoothly, on classroom management, on being engaging, on checking for understanding, on pacing…pretty much on giving the lesson.
After a couple of times using that lesson, you’ll be able to determine if the thinking and method behind it is sound, if it works for your population, and if you’ll need to tweak or scrap it. But I really recommend NOT creating everything from scratch your first few years. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, will judge you for using other people’s lessons and ideas.
So back to breaking it down into units. Remember that you have your big culminating activities, and before that, you need larger units with their own smaller culminating activity, and then lessons within those units to teach and practice the skill.
For me, we have a culminating activity in November where students have to write an informative essay. The essay needs to have an introduction, 2-3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion. So my PLC starts out with teaching how to write the body paragraphs, which involves teaching them the RACE format. Our students will first do a preassessment so that we can get a feel for their writing. Then we dive into reading both fiction and nonfiction texts where we practice answering questions and pulling out evidence to support our answers.
After practicing that, we teach them the RACE format so that they can see how it all goes together. We practice the RACE format for a while before moving on to writing introductions.
Do you see how we break up each part, going from simple to more complex? But in order to get to the daily lessons, I first had to work backwards. For each step, I had to ask, What do my students need to know and be able to do in order to successfully do this on their own? When I came up with skills, I asked the same question for each of those skills.
Then you find lessons to teach those. Some skills can be taught together, some need multiple lessons or days, while others are quick. This is why I suggest you use other people’s lessons that have been tested so that you can focus on pacing and checking for understanding.
Deciding how to teach the skill
You’re finally ready to break it down into what you do day by day. If you’re heeding my advice, you’re not creating these daily lessons but are instead using other people’s lessons.
You want to guesstimate how long each lesson will take and see what you can fit in. Since you’re just starting out, you want to over-plan each day with the intent of moving the last activity to the next day. OR you can add another activity on the same skill or a review of the previous skill. Either way, have more than what you think you need.
Also, decide when you’re going to give a formative or informal assessment. This is basically just checking to see if you can move on. It doesn’t have to be something that they’ve turned in, and I really don’t recommend putting this in the gradebook. Students shouldn’t be penalized for practicing a skill. Can you imagine if whether or not you win the Superbowl depends on how you did in practice? Or if your teacher pay was tied to the grades you got in your teacher prep program or undergrad in general?
When you’re deciding on which lessons to use, ask yourself whether or not the lesson actually gives students an opportunity to practice the skill. I’ve seen worksheets where students have to fill in the blank based on a textbook or presentation. While it may ensure that they’re paying attention, it’s kind of a waste of mental energy. Look for lessons where they can have some practice but then apply what they just practiced.
Also, you don’t have to have students do all of the exercises. If there are 20 questions and your students are getting it in 10, you don’t have to have them complete everything. Or maybe save the other 10 for them to do as a review later.
And decide which assignments will actually count toward the grade and are indications of learning versus just practice. Remember that in past episodes I’ve warned against grading EVERYTHING. Just assess over their shoulder during class time and practice, and grade the stuff that really has them demonstrate the skill on their own.
Before you teach the lesson, have at least two days’ worth of materials ready just in case they finish early.
During the lesson
Is lesson delivery part of lesson planning? You bet! You have to constantly assess throughout the lesson whether or not it’s going as planned, how your students are doing, if they’re staying engaged, whether or not the students can do some of the exercises independently, if it’s taking longer than you’d planned or if they’re flying through everything.
When you’re ready to teach the lesson, have an outline written down that you can refer to. Be aware of what students are struggling with or that they’re getting right away. If they’re struggling, slow down, reteach, add more I do, we do, you do. If their attention is lagging, add in more cooperative learning or a think-pair-share. If they’re getting frustrated, regroup and reteach. If they’re flying through it, don’t give them all of the exercises and move on (which you can do since you have the next day’s materials).
After each day, take a few minutes to write down what did and didn’t work. Another teacher taught me to write on a post-it what to keep and change for next time. That way when I’m planning the next year, I’ll know ahead of time and won’t make the same mistakes. I now do this in the Notes app if I’m teaching something new.
I know this was a lot to take in, but I think this is really important. You can beg, borrow, or buy lesson plans, but knowing how to put them together in a cohesive way is another monster. I really, really wish I’d known HOW to do this when I started out. And since I’m still encouraging you to use other people’s lessons, knowing how to put together the pieces to complete the puzzle is all that you need to focus on in the beginning.
As you teach and become comfortable with this or having your yearly mapping done, you can start to see what you need in your lessons based on your students and style of teaching. THEN you can start creating your own or using other people’s lessons as inspiration or a launching point. So if you get this big picture stuff down first, your ability to really improve your students’ knowledge and abilities in your class will improve greatly.
I’ll go over how to plan an individual lesson in a future episode, but for now, you can go to Episode 27 where I interview Laura Kebart and we discuss how to plan with differentiation in mind.
I hope that you found today’s packed episode useful, and don’t forget to complete the survey if you haven’t yet. It’s at teachersneedteachers.com/survey.
Thanks for making it to the end, and have a great week!