Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Woman with a Plan

TamaraJonesTamara Jones is an ESL Instructor at Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland

To Plan or not to Plan?

Do you plan your lessons? I wouldn’t have thought this was a question worth asking until I happened to find myself involved in a conversation with an experienced instructor who casually said he didn’t usually write up a lesson plan. His point was that the Teacher’s Resources that come with many textbooks provide such a complete step by step breakdown of the lesson, that he doesn’t feel the need to do any planning.

So, as you are reading this, what reaction are you having? Are you thinking, “Well, duh. Lesson planning is for suckers.” Or, are you thinking, as I was, “What?!?!” Even though I have been teaching for more than 20 years, it would never occur to me to step foot in front of a class full of students without having thought through what I want them to accomplish in the time I have with them.

Why Bother with a Plan?

Part of the reason I am a rabid lesson planner is simply because I am a planner in general. I plan everything: meals, vacations, weekends. My poor husband hasn’t experienced a moment of spontaneity in years. I like the comfortable feeling of walking into a class knowing what we’ll be doing in the lesson. I also think my students appreciate when I write the lesson schedule on the board so that they also have an idea of how the class will unfold. Planning makes me feel (and appear) organized and in control.

But, there is a more important reason why I plan my lessons. I have never met a textbook that meets my students’ needs completely. I always (always, always) have to supplement, usually to provide more interactive practice. In order to do this most effectively, it’s important that I understand my students and their needs. A few months ago, I shared with you my excitement about Simon Sinek’s TED Talk and his insistence that by focusing on the WHY in my blog, Starting with the WHY in Teaching and Learning, we can ensure our students buy into our lessons and really commit to learning.

Backward Lesson Planning

The concepts of lesson planning to meet student needs and understanding the WHY behind the choices we make when we add in supplemental activities is best summarized in Marnie Reed and Christina Michaud’s brilliant approach, Backward Lesson Planning. (This is similar to Backward Design, proposed by Wiggins & McTighe (1999). Now, as I have said, I am a planner by nature, but I had never thought about planning backward until I heard Reed and Michaud deliver the webinar, Lesson Planning Myths: Reconceptualizing our Role in the Classroom.

In the webinar, Reed and Michaud (2015) describe an error that many teachers make as they sit down to plan their lessons, and one that I, myself, am certainly guilty of. They say that a schedule of activities is not a lesson plan. Much to my dismay, I learned that for years I have been writing lesson sequences, not lesson plans. In fact, a lesson plan needs to reflect students’ and class goals. So, Reed and Michaud (2015) advocate for starting a lesson plan with goals. Rather than focusing on what we want students to do and ending up with a list of fun activities that align with the target language introduced by the text, we need to think of what we want them to have accomplished by the end of the class and then choose activities that get the students to that point. In Reed’s words, we need to ask “what’s the lesson going to look like and work back from there.” They refer to this process as Goal-driven Lesson Planning.

A New View: Goal-driven Lesson Planning

According to Reed and Michaud (2010), a Goal-Driven Lesson Plan starts with Student Learning Outcomes, the language that we want students to be able to produce as a result of the lesson. Once we identify what we want them to be able to do, we need to ask ourselves what instruction and practice we need to provide for them to get them from where they are to where we want them to be.
Among other things, a Goal-Driven Lesson Plan does the following

  • focuses on longer term student needs rather than immediate student interests,
  • contains built-in assessment, so that teachers are automatically assessing what students have learned at several points along the way and not just at the end,
  • approaches lessons cumulatively rather than as individual events, and
  • reminds teachers when and why to do things, not just what to do.

(For more details about this kind of lesson planning, Reed & Michaud (2010) have written an entire book!)

So, instead of planning to “Go over idioms from Chapter 2,” I might write “Students will accurately use four of the idioms from Chapter 2 in spontaneous conversation.” I might do this because I know that the reasons most students are taking my class is because they want to become more proficient using idiomatic language in their spoken interactions with native English speakers. This rewritten goal is more specific, and it is something I can measure. Then, I would purposefully plan class activities that prompt students to practice the idioms in increasingly spontaneous contexts. Reed and Michaud (2015) also remind us that it’s important for students to understand why they are doing the activities we have planned for them. So, now, instead of just writing my lesson sequence on the board, I might remind students about how each activity feeds into the overall goals of the class.

In this way, the teacher is an expert goal setter. When it comes to lesson goals, they should be measurable and observable. In other words, as we plan, we need to ask ourselves, “If the lesson works, how will we know it?” To this end, we need to include specific, student-focused goals in our lesson plans.

Reed, M. & Michaud, C. (2105). Lesson Planning Myths: Reconceptualizing our Role in the Classroom. [PPT Slides].
Reed, M. & Michaud, C. (2010). Goal-driven Lesson Planning for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1999). Understanding by Design. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.


Comment from Laura Jenkins
July 28, 2017 at 12:20 pm

Great post! I can’t imagine not planning, but I taught many years before I truly understood backward design and student outcomes. It made a huge improvement in teaching AND the success of my students. Thank you for this reminder as I’m planning for my fall classes!

Comment from Tamara Jones
July 31, 2017 at 1:30 pm

I’m thrilled that this blog post resonated with you. Thanks for your feedback!

Comment from Justin S
December 4, 2017 at 1:13 pm

I must admit, I’ve never been much of a planner. When I worked in China my lessons were taken care of for me, and I found plans stifling and kind of boring. Given the chance I like to cut loose, but that creates a problem too…

…the students notice.

I’ve found when I’m swamped with classes, it’s best to plan as much as possible before hand. That way I feel prepared for whatever comes, and if we don’t finish, then we don’t finish. We’ll save that last bit for next time.

A great article! Thanks for sharing!

Comment from Tamara
December 5, 2017 at 4:15 pm

I agree completely with what you’re saying. I think it’s important to have a plan, but we also need to be flexible in the classroom. Thanks for your comment!

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