I recently had a conversation with a colleague in which we tried to pinpoint the most difficult aspect of our jobs. One challenge I have as a special education teacher is that I teach four different lessons every day and I don’t get a chance to refine the English lesson from the morning class for the afternoon one.
My colleague’s challenge is not executing lessons, but the planning that goes into each of them. Planning is perhaps the most time-consuming component of teaching, and also the most important. While I’ve become more efficient with my planning — able to identify student learning outcomes more quickly and design engaging instruction — I still have a lot to learn. It also still takes me a lot of time. Here’s how I typically plan:
Point A: I have nothing. Nothing to put in students’ hands, nothing to plan a lesson.
Point B: After browsing the internet, looking through the standards, Googling “X lesson plan” ( X is the topic I’m hoping to teach, although this usually isn’t a fruitful search), I’m beginning to get a better sense of what type of “stuff” students will be doing during the lesson. “Stuff” might be a handout, a reading, interesting images, perhaps a simulation. At this point I’m still taking inventory of all available resources. That is, until I hit a breakthrough!
Point C: I’ve got a lot of material now. After a fruitful research session I’ve designed the ultimate handout: I’ve got descriptive directions for each task, there are images supporting the main idea, there’s text (but not too much), and I’ve left space for student writing. Send it to the presses, I’m done!
This is where I normally stop; I think it’s where most teachers do. After hours of thinking, collecting, and arranging, we have “stuff” to do with students in order to help them learn topic X.
Now and then, I’ll reach Point D: adding the perfect image or quote, perhaps even tweaking the font.
I wish I got to Point E more frequently. I reach Point E when I start taking materials away. Why would I suggest giving students less is better? First, most of the research was for me in the first place. As a new teacher, I have a lot to learn about the content I teach students. And while it feels great and sometimes necessary to generate student materials as the end product of all my adult-learning, it doesn’t necessarily lead to a better learning experience for students.
Why? Because all of those resources may also be clutter. The masterful instructional decisions I make are when I get from Points D to E, when I prioritize learning objectives, determine an appropriate sequence of understandings, and find the materials most appropriate for each student. In edu-jargon we’d call that scaffolding.
Blaise Pascal or Mark Twain once said about their writing something like this: “I would have made it shorter, but I ran out of time.” I know I often give my students too much stuff, because I run out of time to design an elegant lesson that asks them to do more with less.
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