Why are you teaching that? What do you want the students to show or demonstrate? These are the questions I ask myself before each lesson. These same questions were posed to my student teachers and the students I taught in a credential program. Creating lesson plans is time-consuming and if these questions are not answered, then it’s time to rethink the lesson. There are countless books and articles on lesson planning, but what really are the best strategies and tips for creating the most effective and meaningful lessons? Keep reading to find them!
Why are you teaching that?
Seriously… why are you teaching that skill or concept or strategy? Why does it matter? Does it matter? Why are you teaching it in that manner? In my more than two decades of teaching, I find myself more focused on these questions because it always depends on the group of scholars I get each year and not on what is just in the teacher’s manuals.
Our whole group instruction time is sacred and limited. Ask yourself, do I really need to teach this concept to the entire class or to just a few, if any? This is where knowing your students and their needs is key. Using data from multiple assessments such as DIBELS, Running Records and even ReadTheory is helpful in finding what areas of reading and reading comprehension your students need the most instruction.
What do you want your students to demonstrate?
In nearly every publication about lesson planning, there is a strategy or tip that includes creating a meaningful assessment. Madison Michell from Edmentum states that her first tip is to “Start with the end in mind.” Todd Finley from Edutopia places this idea as his third tip with “Create the Assessment Before Developing Content.”
Think of lesson planning like a map where the destination is the assessment and the lesson and activities are the roads and directions to get to that destination. Will the lesson get the students to accomplish the skill or be able to show understanding of the concept? Will there be measurable evidence that the student learned? If a parent asked their child, “What did you learn today?”, would the student be able to demonstrate their learning? Effective lesson planning can make that happen.
GPS of Learning
Continuing the analogy of lesson planning being like a map, consider the GPS of Learning. We all learn in our own unique way and it varies and even changes over time and subject. If we have answered the “Why” we are teaching this lesson and “What we want the students to demonstrate?” then we want to include the students’ learning process in as many lessons as possible. We all Gather, Process, and Share information effectively in different ways.
Gather is the first step in learning. How do you like to Gather or get information? Too often teachers just provide whole class direct instruction or more accurately, a monologue of words that most students and people tune out. Consider inserting opportunities for your students to have multiple and personalized information gathering activities. Every lesson won’t have all these, but once you know your students, you can include many of these in your lessons.
Consider creating an environment where the students can read through a book or article on their own first. It may be too difficult for them at first, but it provides an opportunity for them to gather at least some information. Or provide extra and purposeful time for students to get valuable information from others for more than the usual one or two minutes. This could be highly structured or very informal conversations. For some, online or other reference materials for their learning would be constructive. Gathering information is fluid, purposeful and multilayered. Lesson plans should reflect the Gathering element that fits your class and individual student needs.
Process the information so that it leads to real learning and not regurgitation. Process is about how they think about the material or information. This area is where teachers feel like they lose control and often won’t attempt this step. For example, some students process information by walking or moving around. Most traditional classrooms do not encourage this, but for some students (and adults) the kinesthetic movement is exactly what they need. Would you allow or encourage a student to literally walk around reading the passage or book? What if that is what worked for them? What if you provided time for the students to choose to discuss the lesson or information with a small group, with a partner or think quietly on their own?
The key is they get to choose! Will they always get it right? Of course not, but they will, with your guidance, find the best way for them to process information.
Share what you have learned! Often we are limited by school, district or even state assessments that dictate what evidence we can use for grades or showing growth. Instead of the typical “multiple-choice” test or essay, what if we offered other opportunities to show or tell someone else what they have learned?
When someone is excited about something they accomplished or learned, how often do they write an essay or complete a 20 question exam? Never! What if the students could create a video and post it on YouTube or Flipgrid? What if they could write a poem or song? Or have the students create a game that demonstrates their understanding of a skill or concept! Sharing what we have learned cements the learning cycle. Ultimately it brings the learner to their destination of mastering the skill and being able to teach it to someone else.
GPS Learning Examples
One of the best science programs currently being used is Mystery Science. This program has multiple science units for grades Kindergarten through fifth grade and all are hands-on learning. Typically the teacher walks the class through the videos, discussion questions, project, and extension activities.
Instead of the teacher being the guide through the lesson, allow the students to lead the learning and Gather the information together in small groups.
In my classroom, I brought in desktop monitors and a small tv along with small external speakers. The students choose their group and circle around the monitor with a Chromebook. I give some general instructions and have all their materials available for them when they are ready. As they go through the lesson together, they get to Process the information at their pace and are encouraged to discuss the questions and videos openly within their group or even with a partner. At the end of the lesson, they get to Share their project with each other and sometimes with the whole class. For good measure, there is also a worksheet assessment that the group can work on together. These lessons are not only something the students look forward to each Wednesday, but their parents repeatedly tell me how much their child enjoys them and that their child Shares what they learned with their families!
Another example is when a student needed to be challenged beyond the usual end-of-lesson assessment. He usually Gathered the information he needed with ease and he would Process the material well, but he was still unmotivated to demonstrate his learning with the typical assessments. He was then offered the chance to Share his learning with a video. He could have done a tutorial on his own, but he chose to teach the math concept to another student. His motivation improved and I was given an even better assessment of his learning with this simple video.
Later that day I had a meeting with his parents and I showed them his video. They could not be more proud of their son and had a new perspective on him and his learning style.
Making Year Long Plans is a common and often required task. This process encourages the educator to have a broad scope of what will be taught in each subject throughout the year. The best recommendation is to do this with your team or grade level partner. If you are the only one at that grade level, then consider planning with a teacher in the next grade level.
According to Scholastic, there are five simple steps to creating a plan for the entire school year. Keep in mind that these are just an outline or guideline and typically not overly detailed. The detailed lesson plans are the weekly or daily ones.
Step 1: Choose a Format and Collect Your Material
There are plenty of free and paid examples of long-range plan templates. Choose one that you and/or your team can agree upon and use just the one. It can be as simple as using a Google Doc or Google Spreadsheet. Or you could pay for a program such as Planbook.com or My Lesson Planner among others to choose. Make sure you have all your materials such as state or district standards so that you can cover all the necessary skills and objectives. You will also need all your teacher’s manuals for each subject available for reference and topics.
Step 2: Mark Your Calendar
This could either be in digital or paper format, but have a calendar for the months you are in school. Mark off all holidays, school events, testing windows, field trips, and any district or school assessments. Ask your principal or administrator to provide a school-wide calendar of events if possible. Then you can begin to insert the units and lessons for the year. Often events and schedules change, so remember to update this document often and have it easily accessible.
Step 3: Focus on Content
Elementary teachers have many subjects to teach and cover in one year and this is when you can narrow down to what are the most important topics and content to teach. A veteran teacher to the grade level can help with knowing which topics work best at different times of the year. For example, if you plan to do a grade level play at the end of the year on biomes but the science book covers it early in the textbook, switch the dates to teach that topic. Plan for that topic to be taught right before practicing for the play and not when the textbook has it. Another thing to remember is connecting your materials or content with holidays or special yearly events. That will help you determine when to plan to teach those materials as well.
Step 4: Integrate Arts and Math
Anytime you can join multiple subject content and skills together, the better! In the picture above there is an Academic Vocabulary routine that my class uses. I purposely find academic words that are used in multiple subject areas. For example, the word “explain” is used in standards for Language Arts, Math, Social Studies and Science. Even though this was a “language arts” activity, it connected to all the other subjects so that when the students saw that word, they knew the definition, had hand motions to with the definition, and could use it in a meaningful sentence. Long-range lesson planning can help you make those connections ahead of time. Here is an example of a simple science and social studies long-range lesson plan to help integrate and/or make sure everything is covered in the year.
Step 5: Step Back and Evaluate
Once you have completed and filled in the calendar, see if there needs to be any adjustments. As Scholastic stated in their article, “Trying to cram too much instruction into a short amount of time will result in shallow learning of skills and concepts.” You may need to move some lessons or units depending on the time of year and other events. Remember that these year-long plans are just a guideline and can be adjusted according to real life. One bonus tip is to make notes throughout the year as to what worked and what didn’t on these long-range plans. This will help when you plan for the following year.
Why you should consider using a Syllabus
One other option for lesson planning is to create a syllabus. Typically these are reserved for high school and college courses, but consider it for elementary school as well. Since many schools may have the options of blended and/or long term distance learning, a syllabus would be ideal for you and for your students.
In the example provided, there is a direct link to all of the Common Core standards to help everyone know what they are and have easy access to them. The left column includes the specific standards that are being addressed in that subject or unit. In the middle column, there are resources including examples of weekly syllabi that the students can use and even insert their own notes and evidence of their learning. The teacher would include any resource that the student could use to learn those standards, but the students could also insert other resources they found. The last column has the specific assessments that are required and often the dates when they are due.
This is also a flexible document that could be updated and adjusted according to the needs of the student. In addition, it can be used to provide evidence of proficiency or mastery of the skills or standards. It could be considered similar to a check-off list that could be included in their academic portfolio.
Weekly Lesson Plans
Ask most teachers and they will tell you much time is spent on weekly lesson plans. Some are super organized and complete them on the Friday before, but most do their planning on the weekends. Depending on the requirements of your school or district, most teachers can write them according to what works for them. During your credential program, you probably wrote extensive and thorough lesson plans. Real-life teaching began and there was no way anyone had time for that level of details and specificity.
Weekly lesson plans need to work for you. That is it. You are the one using them. There are templates and lesson planning websites, as mentioned before, and others such as Common Curriculum. Here are some examples of simple ones created with Word Documents and Google Documents, Example 1 Example 2 Example 3
In the article, “The 7 Habits of highly effective lesson plans,” by Peps Mccrea, he advocates, “Don’t waste time designing overly complex learning experiences. Instead, keep it simple, stupid. Select the activity which gets your students to the end point as directly as possible. What Doug Lemov calls ‘the shortest path’. Get into the habit of asking yourself: what is the least my students (or I) need to do to help them learn X?”
If you are new to teaching or a grade level, ask for help or for examples from other teachers. Most teachers are willing to share what they use and then you can adjust it to your needs. Do not get bogged down with inserting all the details, but add what you need to stay focused and on task with what you have planned.
In case there are some that want a list of what goes on a lesson plan, here is a link that may help.
Blended Learning Lesson Plans Tips
Lesson planning for Blended Learning incorporates traditional plans with a slightly different shift in its focus. It is still standards based with the objective or outcome as the driving force, but it always includes a component that is worked on or completed outside the classroom. It is typically online but it does not have to be. It needs to be an independent activity or assessment that could be taken home or completed in the classroom.This is not “homework” because it is specifically part of the overall lesson and part of the learning.
There are four main elements in an blended learning lesson plan:
- Small Group Instruction: Increases effective instructional time by providing opportunities to teach to smaller groups of students
- Integrated Digital Content: Engages students for individualized learning
- Differentiation: Enables differentiated instruction for greater impact
- Data Driven Decisions: Provides frequent, high-fidelity data to inform instructional decisions.
This is intentional and purposeful use of digital resources and materials that maximizes the learning experience in and out of the classroom. For example, after an in-class reading comprehension lesson, you could assign one or two Read Theory quizzes with the writing component turned on. The student gets immediate feedback on the quiz that you could discuss with them one-on-one the next day or even in a small group. After they complete the writing prompt at the end of the ReadTheory quiz, you could provide valuable feedback on ReadTheory for the student to review and even discuss with them at a later time.
This benefits you because it provides a meaningful assessment that you can use to either reteach the comprehension lesson or provide the data to move on to the next lesson. This benefits the student because they have evidence of their learning which includes reflecting on parts they need to improve on. Ultimately, the Blended Learning lesson is providing you and the students with valuable data even though part of the lesson is not completed in class.
Bonus Tips from Teachers
As stated before, ask for help! Start with your grade level team and branch out to others in other grade levels. Writing lesson plans is not an exclusive grade-level task, so asking others at your school site or even other schools is encouraged. Join multiple social media teacher groups (The Top 42 Facebook Groups Every English Teacher Should Consider Joining) and there will always be someone willing to share and help.
Jill Hennessey is a fourth-grade teacher and has been teaching for more than two decades. She offers two tips: 1. Know your standards. 2. Follow chronologically social studies BIG IDEAS and tie in science and reading/writing topics.
Kristal Fryan, a seasoned third-grade teacher reflects, “I agree with the backwards planning approach. Know your assessment and plan backwards. I also think it is important not to think of it as teaching to the test, but teaching to the standard. Sometimes that even means tweaking assessments or if it’s district required, but you feel like things from the standard are missing, offering multiple opportunities for assessing or “showing what they know.” I’m not a fan of one assessment. It’s not fair to give grades based on one attempt. That is another reason it’s important to know your students and know how they are doing along the way, not just at the end.”
Allison Geleng is a veteran Kindergarten teacher. When writing lesson plans, she suggests, “Don’t use a pen. Things change, and you always have to adjust.”
Final Thoughts on Lesson Plans
Balance. As with anything in life, even lesson plans need balance. There needs to be enough information on them for you to be able to quickly glance at it and have all you need. On the other hand, too many details and information will overwhelm your time and ability to easily refer to the plans. If for some reason you were unable to teach that day, could someone read your lesson plans and teach the lessons without being overwhelmed or underwhelmed?
Reflect. After you teach the lesson, go back and look at your lesson plans. Did they help? Is there something that you would change? Was there not enough information? Was there too much? The key question is always, was this lesson effective and were the students able to provide evidence of learning? Part of reflection is giving yourself some grace in case the lesson did not meet your objective. No matter who you are, we all work on fine-tuning our lessons. We learn and grow from the first day of teaching to our last.
*(All links to Google documents are “view only.” If you would like to use the document, go to “File” and choose “Make a copy.” It will create the same document for you to own and edit.)