It all starts with lesson plan calendars. You have to know where you are going before you get started. And if you don't know where you are going… well, you may not get lost, but your test scores will!
And no one needs that in our high-pressure jobs!
And, just so you know: effective lesson planning does not come naturally, even to experienced educators. I entered the teaching profession at age 35 as an experienced and organized mom with lots of classroom volunteer time under her belt.
I had even worked in an elementary school office for two years before getting my Master's in education. I just knew that I could make everything in my classroom happen on a perfect schedule.
Well, I’m happy to report that I am able to pull off my daily teaching activities with only minor hiccups… but it took me about eight years to figure out how to do it well!
The big picture
From a high-level perspective, here is the lesson planning and delivery “circle”:
- Plan the lesson to take students from where they are to mastery.
- Pre-assess student knowledge: “Where are students now?”
- Adjust your approach.
- Deliver a high-engagement lesson.
- Re-assess student knowledge: “Did they achieve mastery?”
- Plan your next lesson (or unit).
In an ideal world, assessment would occur before any planning took place. But reality dictates that units will be taught on an established timeline within your district, and therefore must be planned even if we have imperfect knowledge.
So we make long-range plans and build pre-assessment into them. Adjusting comes from experience! If you don't have much of that yet, don't worry… it builds up very quickly!
Computer vs. paper: which one wins?
I'm a tech person. I love my interactive whiteboard. I like having multiple computers in my classroom. I have helped set up building computer labs. I've made great use of student-response systems (aka “clickers”). I use the computer and Internet extensively while planning my lessons.
But, when it comes to keeping my daily “this is what we are doing next” lesson plans straight and ready to go… paper wins.
Yes, my lessons are filled with technology, but I have found that the most effective and efficient method for keeping myself on track is my trusty paper calendar and my pencil (the one with a big eraser on the end).
I’ve got 25 or more kids watching my every move during the day. I can’t be jumping back and forth to my computer to see what we are doing next or to make a quick adjustment to tomorrow's schedule since we didn’t get through all of today's assignments. In less time than it would take me to walk to my desk, I can make three strokes with my pencil/eraser and be done.
Someday, there will be an integrated classroom management system with a planning app that I can run on my tablet computer that connects flawlessly to all resources, my interactive whiteboard, my projector, and my document camera. That day is not going to be a reality in the vast majority of our schools for quite some time.
In the meantime, this system will transfer easily to the electronic world. If you follow it, you'll have the hard part – how to wrap your mind around content delivery – down. Launching an app will be the easy part.
And, if you want to “computerize” portions of this system (such as typing into your daily planning form), then go right ahead. This system is flexible enough to accommodate you.
Lesson plan calendars and schedules
Lesson planning starts with the basic foundation of calendars and schedules. You can't plan even a single day if you don't know the big picture of the year-long testing and holiday calendar, as well as the weekly and daily flow of events in your school.
When I start a lesson-planning session, I'm literally surrounded by the items listed below. I work at a desk that wraps around me a bit so I can spread out and keep my piles organized.
To get started effectively, you’ll need three lesson plan calendars.
1. A Year-long district assessment calendar
A curriculum and assessment calendar should block out when different units will be taught and when unit assessments will be given. It should also indicate testing dates for district and state assessments. Such a “milestone” calendar is critical for ensuring that you keep on track with the progress of instruction and don’t fall behind.
Most districts provide an overview of when different units should be completed. Ask your principal, teaching partner, coach, or mentor for one.
2. A monthly building calendar
This includes specific notes on holidays, assemblies, etc. As soon as an event is known, it should be placed on this calendar. This calendar should be fairly complete at least two months into the future and ideally will be at least partially complete all the way to the end of the school year.
Most buildings provide a monthly calendar. At a minimum, you need some sort of list from your building that outlines these items. I highly recommend that this calendar be in standard month-by-month form rather than list form – it’s visually much easier to comprehend when you are putting together your lesson plans.
If you must make your own calendar, a few different approaches will work. I’ve kept my monthly calendar in Gmail at times, but any calendar program (such as Outlook) would work, as would a paper, month-on-each-page calendar.
3. A personalized weekly schedule
This calendar or schedule shows your recurring events. I use a template for this in Excel, but paper would work just as well. It lists:
- bell schedule
With these basic lesson plan calendars and schedules in hand, you are ready to start your planning.
How to “backward plan” lesson plans
Now that we have the entire calendar framework within which our instruction will fit, we can undertake some backward planning.
It is all too common for many teachers – especially new ones – to just look ahead to the next lesson or the next unit that must be taught. The effective teacher, however, understands how that lesson or unit fits into the overall picture of what must be accomplished during the school year.
Seeing the bigger picture
Not looking ahead will cause three major difficulties when it comes to the success of your students:
1. You may not finish all of the necessary instructional units, thereby leaving your children unprepared for the next grade level.
2. Your kids may not be ready with the necessary knowledge by the time year-end testing occurs – which is up to a month before the end of school occurs. Believe me, this does not help your test scores.
3. You may discover that your curriculum is not well-constructed or organized; this could lead you to teaching foundational concepts in the incorrect order, thus making later units more difficult for your students to grasp.
Backward planning to the rescue! If you master this skill, you will set yourself apart from the vast majority of teachers when it comes to lesson planning. So let's talk it through in greater detail.
Backward planning: the year-long plan
When you first sit down to start working on a particular subject, such as math, here is the thought process:
First: When is the end-of-year test?
One step back: When will I need to begin review for the test in the spring? How much time will I need to review last year’s standards in the fall?
Two steps back: How much time do I have to teach this subject in between the review of last year’s content and the review before the end-of-year tests?
Three steps back: How much time do I have to teach each unit to mastery? At this point, you will need to consider the content of the units, as some may be more difficult or contain more standards than other units.
Four steps back: What is the start date for each of my units?
This process does not exist in a vacuum; you must consider the unit assessment dates that your district calendar may provide. However, I do recommend not completely trusting those dates.
As hinted at above, I have very frequently seen established unit assessment calendars that have me teaching critical units after year-end standardized testing. This is crazy, of course, but if you realize that this is the case, then you have some decisions to make about how to squeeze in critical information between or within other units.
There's one other thing that you will likely realize when you finish this exercise: there is barely enough time to get it all done and no time at all to waste. The practical reality is that you need to start teaching no later than the second day of school.
I've known teachers who take an entire week to get to know their kids; I've always felt that, in a school setting, the way we get to know each other is by learning together!
Backward planning: the current unit
We began by applying our planning microscope to the entire year-long process. Now, let's tighten the focus down to the first unit that we need to teach.
First: When is the unit assessment? What standards must students master in order to do great on that assessment?
One step back: When will I need to begin my review for the unit assessment?
Two steps back: How many days do I have to teach this unit before I begin my unit review?
Three steps back: How many different lessons will be included in this unit, and how many days do I have to teach each one?
At this point, you would want to pencil these critical dates into your monthly planning calendar.
Backward planning: the current lesson
And now for the final focus.
First: How many days do I have to teach this standard to mastery?
One step back: When will I start? The date will be anywhere from “tomorrow” (procrastinate much?) to a few weeks in the future if you are planning several lessons during the same session. Pencil the date in. For what it’s worth, I like to have lesson plans ready for two weeks into the future.
Narrowing your focus
As we narrow our focus all the way down from the year-long plan to the current lesson, you can see that there are fewer items to take into consideration.
The other thing is that there is less flexibility at the full-year level than there is at the current-unit level… there's definitely no changing the date upon which your students will take the year-end tests. That's a “hard” deadline. There can be some give-and-take on how long you spend on individual units – but not much if you want to get them all in.
Finally, when you are down at the unit and lesson level, you have much more flexibility to contract or expand the amount of time you spend on any particular standard, based on how your students respond.
Everything I've outlined so far might seem sort of overwhelming… and we haven't even planned an actual lesson yet! Believe me, I completely understand how a new teacher may not know where to begin, especially if they've been hired late in the summer and don't have the luxury of much time for planning.
“Where do I even start?” is a question I got from Danielle, who was hired just a few days before school started. To summarize the process I've outlined above and put it into a real-world context, here's the answer I gave. It also provides a few hints about where we are going next on our lesson-planning journey.
“That's a very big question, but one that is important to lots of teachers. Here is how I would handle it.
“Focus on one subject at a time. Get out the year-long plan provided by your district and pencil in when all units are supposed to be completed on your calendar. Then check to make sure it all makes sense! What I mean is, be certain that they are having you finish up all of the units prior to when they must be tested in the spring. If not, adjust.
“Then check to see how holidays and breaks affect the plan and adjust again if needed. Finally, make sure you have time in the fall to assess prior-grade level skills and time in the spring for a review. Once you have all this penciled on your calendar, you should be pretty confident that you have the ‘big picture’ of how this subject should be taught.
“Up to this point, you haven't planned a single lesson, although you may need to review the unit summaries in order to understand what is being taught and how much time it will take.
“Then, work on planning just a single unit for this subject. Start by figuring out how you are going to review/assess the students in September. Then, force yourself to work through Unit One. Print out every lesson plan and every handout/worksheet/assessment. Paperclip them all together neatly so you have bundles of units.
“As you go, write down any questions you have about the unit on Post-It notes and stick them right on the sheet of paper where your question is. When you're finished, you will have a paper-clipped bundle for each lesson. You can store these in a handy dollar-store tub.
“Whew! It's a lot of work, but now you're ready to move on to the other subjects while you let this one rest. By the time you have done this for every subject, you'll have the first two to four weeks of school planned and will know exactly what you need to do next in order to feel ready.
“It is certainly not easy work, but at least it's an organized approach to hard work! I like to get the ‘big picture’ in place first and then work on a manageable chunk.”
Now it’s time to talk about creating those individual lessons.