There are many different ways to format a lesson plan. Too many, in fact, for me to say that there is a “best” way. Instead, I'm going to give you some guidance about the content of effective lesson plans and how to ensure that the needs of all of your students are met.
Where to begin?
As for the format you choose, here are some things for you to consider:
- What system(s) have you been taught to use in college? Are you comfortable with it?
- What does your building principal require? I mentioned this before; sometimes building administrators want to see lessons laid out in a consistent format for all grade levels.
- What are your teaching partners in the same grade level using?
When you consider all options, you'll find one that you are comfortable starting with. And it's just a start; you can change your lesson plan format at any time as your experience grows.
The approach to teaching a lesson, (and thus the content of a lesson plan) is fairly straightforward. In general, it will follow this sequence:
As a group
Gathered in your classroom focal point:
1. Introducing the standard/goal
2. Teacher demonstrating application of the standard (“I do”)
3. Teacher and students working through application of the standard together (“we do”)
4. Students working through application of the standard on their own (“you do”)
5. Giving instructions for individual work and checking for understanding
At their desks or in small groups, depending upon the curriculum or lesson:
6. Reinforcement activity (such as worksheets)
7. Supporting individual learners to enable them to successfully complete the reinforcement activity
As a group
Back at your classroom focal point:
8. Review of lessons learned, student self-assessment of mastery
This sequence assumes that you've already done a pre-assessment before beginning the unit. Such an assessment will let you know where you need to begin with your first lesson of the unit, even if that lesson needs to include some review of prior-year standards.
But… how do I create an effective lesson plan that covers the needs of ALL students?!”
Now let's talk about some of the details that flesh out this framework. We're going to begin with one of the most difficult decisions faced by every teacher when lesson planning: How do you meet the needs of all students in your classroom when some are woefully behind in their understanding and others are quite advanced?
I'm going to include information from my book Elementary Einsteins: Four Simple Steps to Challenging Gifted Kids in Your Classroom. This teaching conundrum about balancing the needs of students is central to challenging gifted kids while not leaving others behind.
So let's have a discussion about rigor.
The big question
I answer all kinds of questions through my website and on social media. You would not believe how often I have heard this question, sent to me by a brand-new teacher within a couple of weeks of taking over her first classroom.
“I just found out that half of my students are at level or above, about half are below level, and three are below-below level. Any advice you could offer? I'm trying to decide how to reach each of these groups so that growth can occur during my direct instruction to the whole group.”
Below is my response. It sets the stage for what we are going to be learning in this section about teaching to the ability levels of all of your students using only a single lesson.
“You have clearly identified one of the top issues that all teachers face every single year. It's the classic conundrum: ‘Do I teach to the low end so the high kids don't get growth, or do I teach to the high end and leave half my class hopelessly behind?’ Many teachers make the decision to teach ‘low’ and assume (hope) the upper kids can make progress based on their natural ability.
“That has never been my way. If test scores are important in your school, you will never be able to get your classroom composite score higher than about ‘average’ if you follow this path. You can meet the needs of all kids, but it takes a philosophical decision on your part more than a strategy. The decision is one that will affect the children you teach for the rest of your career. You have to decide that this statement is true:
“‘All children WANT to learn and be smart, and all children have more learning ability than 90% of adults give them credit for.’
“Believing that even your low kids want to learn and are capable of learning comes first. Showing them through your words and actions that you truly believe it comes next, followed by giving them support to achieve high goals.
“They'll take the final step on their own, thrilled to try really hard to live up to the expectations of an adult (you) who loves them and thinks they can succeed, even if they've spent years feeling dumb.
“So, the thing is… you can only teach one lesson. The key is to introduce a topic at a level that is higher than your low kids can handle without support, but that is rigorous for your grade-level kids. Then support your low kids to reach it, while using a few strategies to keep your highest kids pushing ahead so they take their skills beyond grade level.”
There was much more to that response – I gave her all the information she needed in order to implement the system in her classroom – but what I wrote above is the critical decision you're going to have to make in order to reach all of your kids. Here is the key sentence again:
Now, let's break it down and go through it step-by-step so you can truly understand that this is completely doable in your room and will benefit all students, no matter where they fall on the ability spectrum.
The bottom line is this: No regular classroom teacher has time to plan a separate curriculum for each student. Therefore, the key to providing what they need comes down to “support and extend.” You teach one lesson at the appropriate level, then support your lower learners to reach grade level, and extend your upper learners to go beyond grade level.
Higher-level teaching: the concept
Strategy number one is raising your overall game when it comes to lesson planning and delivery. Every year, my administration has been astonished at what I can get kids to accomplish. My secret? Teaching my entire class at a higher level. Let me explain….
It's unfortunate, but a lot of teachers end up teaching to the lowest common denominator based on their perception of student ability. In other words, they start teaching a standard or instructional unit at a level where the bulk of their students are comfortable learning. This limits how far they can push kids by the end of the unit.
Here is how this looks:
In my experience, this approach is more pronounced in challenging schools. I understand why this happens, since it is seemingly the only way to ensure that lower-level kids aren’t left hopelessly behind. For the record, I strongly disagree with this approach.
A more effective approach is to teach to the upper end of the standard and expect everyone to master it, no matter whether they have an IEP or not. Then apply yourself to helping the lower ones get to where they need to be through small groups, one-on-one instruction, and individual attention.
So, while some teachers begin teaching a particular standard at an overly simplistic level and then slowly increase the rigor to full implementation, I tend to start at an intermediate level. I then push the understanding of the standard well beyond what’s expected in the curriculum. Like this:
Why is this important when it comes to gifted students? Because if this is your approach to teaching, your advanced kids will already be more engaged by your lessons without you needing to give them much extra work to do. Plus, you’ll have far fewer issues with gifted kids getting bored and checking out because the work is too easy. But I can still hear one concern, loud and clear:
I know exactly what you are thinking…
“How in the world are my lower-level learners, the ones who are on IEP's and below grade level, ever going to keep up with this?”
I have a question for you in return:
“If it doesn't happen in your classroom, exactly when will your lower-level learners catch up to grade level?”
If they are continuously taught below grade level, they will never exit Special Education, and every year they will fall farther and farther back until they are not just behind, but hopelessly behind.
You will be amazed at the progress a motivated learner can make, IEP or not, with the right kind of encouragement from a caring teacher and a system that individually supports them.
Besides, crafting effective lesson plans at a higher level is not actually very difficult. In fact, you’ll see that with the approach I outline, no one will be left behind, even though you will really be challenging your students' brains – and they'll be eating it up!
It comes down to questioning, practice, and reinforcement. Let’s work through these concepts.
Higher-level teaching in practice
So, how do we create lesson plans that raise the rigor level?
This comes down to three basic strategies:
1. Questioning strategies during your mini-lesson
2. High-level practice items to work through as a group
3. Practice/reinforcement activities (such as worksheets) that include problems that require greater mental effort
Your goal when teaching your mini-lesson is to stretch your students' brains beyond the actual standard you are teaching them. We do this largely by asking questions. You can adapt the following questions to nearly any lesson:
“Why do we need to know this?”
“Why is this so important that we are going to spend a week learning it?”
And then, as you work through activities during your lesson:
“How do you know this is the right answer?”
You can see that we are expecting children to think more deeply about everything we are teaching. It's not enough for them to be able to execute the standard of the lesson; they need to be able to verbalize the how and why in order to really sink their teeth into it and be engaged.
When you work through examples with the class, starting with the basic standard is perfect – for a beginning. Before kids head back to their desks for independent work, however, they need to noodle through a practice question that raises the stakes a bit.
- In math, you add a trifle more complexity.
- In reading, you work through a more difficult piece of text together or ask high-level questions that go beyond the words in the text.
And now for the reinforcement activities. This includes the worksheets your kids head back to their desks to complete, whether they be math problems or a paragraph of text to consider. Often, you will be provided with these reinforcement activities as part of the curriculum.
But just because they are provided doesn't mean that they are challenging enough for your students!
For this, you will have to rely upon your teacher insights, your knowledge of your students, and some plain old common sense. You can tell when looking at reinforcement activities if they are only covering the exact standard being presented in the lesson. If they are, then you should add a few items that stretch your children's learning further.
Perhaps in math, that includes a couple of problems that involve multiple digits or combine a previously learned operation with the current standard. For example, expecting the students to do addition (previously mastered), as well as multiplication (currently being taught).
In reading, you may ask students to expand their analysis of “main idea” (for example) from a short paragraph to a two-paragraph selection.
You get the idea: We are taking a basic lesson plan and juicing it up a bit by…
- Asking tougher questions
- Practicing a couple of harder examples
- Doing reinforcement work that includes more than the basics
The next step will be individualizing to help your lower students strive for and meet these challenges, while your higher-level students are naturally more engaged.
But even when individualizing, the stretching of your students' brains never stops! As you walk around the room, your questions keep pushing the learning boundaries:
“That's awesome, Brian! How do you know you got the right answer?”
And so on. At every step, during every moment of the day, you are pulling your children's thought processes higher and higher. Our ultimate goal is that assessments should be easy for our students because they've already mastered standards beyond what is going to be tested.
In an ideal world, your kids should complain to you that the tests you give are too easy!