Musings on lesson planning

I am a slow planner.

I had accepted this as a fact, and when I read an article a few months ago suggesting writing lesson plans on post-it notes, I was internally opposed.

Photo from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @ij64, CC 3.0

One fateful day

But then a few weeks ago I had to cover a 9am teenage class with less than 1 hour’s notice. And I was still at home when I got the call.

I was very, very stressed.

Luckily, there was an IWB flipchart for the lesson on the shared drive at work and colleagues sprung to my rescue and armed me with some supplementary resources which I quickly photocopied and dashed to class.

For the first three quarters of the lesson, I was barely a step ahead of the students. While they were doing the reading, I was scanning the grammar section of the book and the flipchart, trying to figure out what I would be doing next.

The leftover materials
The aftermath. A photocopiable, an error correction made in the break and notes I took as we went along.

I think I did overlook a couple of things and didn’t present the language as clearly or as well as I could have. However in informal feedback before and after the grammar point, students showed an increased confidence level.

In that sense I met the main lesson aim.

It was rather stressful and that’s not a feeling I would like to experience again anytime soon. And as I said, there were shortfalls in how clearly the language was presented. But sometimes there is anyway, even when I think I’ve properly planned a lesson. Sometimes even for observed lessons, where I spend hours typing the whole thing into the required template and preparing a cover sheet with anticipated problems. We’re human, we miss things.

So, what are my takeaway points from this?

Well to be honest at times this term, I’ve been so busy (particularly with the CAM course) that I’ve ended up doing something similar to the cover situation above. I’ve prepared materials or an IWB flipchart but walked into class with the stages still in my head or briefly written on a post-it note. I usually did this with a lovely class who I knew would ask me questions. If I did overlook anything, it would most likely come out. Those lessons probably weren’t my best lessons, but they also weren’t my worst.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this for every class. I’ve taught groups who were struggling at their level and needed things breaking down. I’ve taught groups who needed​ so much behaviour management that I must have a firm plan in place so that I can devote my attention appropriately. (And if I don’t, I have a hard time trying to keep the lesson going and my energy gets zapped.) I’ve also taught groups that are so chatty a whole lesson can fly by without making much progress.

And, unless you find a way to keep and organise your post-it notes, the next time you teach the same course, you’ll have to go through your thought process of (micro) planning all over again.

a lesson plan on a post-it
Hmm this is about 80% of a full plan, squashed onto a post-it. I can’t find any shorter ones right now.

But sometimes, maybe there is something to be said for walking in with materials you’ve looked at or made, and a loose plan on a post-it note.

And I can’t help thinking about what I could do with the time saved. I could give more detailed and timely feedback on some writing. I could set up a speaking task that I can use for continuous assessment. Wouldn’t my students benefit from this?

Over to you: Do you ever outline instead of plan? What do you do with the time you save?

Success of the week: Addressing emerging learning

As I’m preparing myself for a Diploma level TEFL course, one of my areas of teaching to work on is trying to maximise “emerging learning” as it happens in my classrooms. 

I included this in my CAM Action Plan written at the start of the course. So far I’ve become more aware of instances where I’ve been developing this learning as things come up in lessons. I’ve been reassured that it was sometimes happening. However, I’m also now more aware of these opportunities and actively thinking “here’s some learning or language that could be exploited” and jumping the on chance. Or at least trying to.

And then last week I had a lesson where I feel like I nailed it.

I was teaching a motivated and mature intermediate-level Lower Secondary class and actually I was teaching the reading lesson my colleague and I had prepared for our CAM Module 5 Assignment.

Emerging learning #1: Pronunciation

The students in this class have been with me for a while and as such are quite aware of the schwa, /ə/.

schwa is good
 Presented to me after a breaktime. Let’s make that very aware.

Somehow the word perfume was mentioned, which sounds similar in their native language with an ‘a’ kind of sound where the English /ɜː/ appears. As I highlighted the sound of the English word perfume, a student piped up “it’s /ə/ again”!

Time to introduce a new phoneme! We listened to the difference between /ə/ and /ɜː/ and elicited a few words that contained the latter sound before drilling perfume again and carrying on with the lesson.

Emerging learning #2: Vocabulary

Do you board new vocabulary during your lessons? Whether that’s target language of just random vocabulary​ that comes up in the lesson?

I’ve done this at times, particularly when I was teaching Academic English. Even more so when I was in one of the classrooms with a 4m long whiteboard (I think it was longer but let’s be conservative in our estimate). 

Not the best photo but you get some idea of the size of the board. I miss these boards.

If I’m perfectly honest, it never quite made it to habit status. And since moving to a centre with IWBs and precious little non-interactive whiteboard space, I’ve not been doing it of late.

However, I’m turning over a new leaf and trying to remember to do this with my Intermediate classes. To take it a step further I’m going to try my best to leave a little time at the end of my lessons for a recap. (For some reason though I started doing this with adults last summer, I never integrated it into YL classes. What an oversight!

Emerging learning #3: use of they

The final instance where the lesson plan was paused was when the students kept on calling the writer ‘he’. It was irritating on a personal level, and then I started to wonder why the students were using that pronoun and were they even aware of it. 

Trying to be as impartial as I could, I asked students if they knew the writer was male. To my surprise, they not only checked the page we were on, but decided to look for the gender of the course book authors. Even then, one student pointed out they might not have written it. 

From there I was able to introduce the idea of they as a neutral singular pronoun. I think this is fairly standard, while it may not be universal (yet), and is what I use, and have used in class, probably without students being aware.  I also added a personal anecdote that some of my IH CAM materials have used “she” to refer to the teacher, which I personally find more unnatural than they

The students seemed to follow the logic but found it a bit strange to try and use it. And try they did, but he kept slipping out. Perhaps this is also in part because their native language is gendered (ie. all nouns have genders). But English isn’t, and the language is becoming more and more neutral, even in the US

While my students may continue to use he (or she) in these situations, at least they’re more aware. And I’m still going to call them out on it.

I’m pleased with how the learning in this lesson went, and I walked away with a great feeling. However I’m aware that it’s a work in progress and this was just one lesson. With time and effort I’ll get better at recognising and seizing these opportunities and hopefully get this feeling more often.

At the same time I’m aware that the things that come up might sometimes be better noted down and worked on in a subsequent lesson. I do have some very chatty classes that could easily end up going off on a tangent which hijacks the lesson. 

Over to you: Do you address these things as they come up? Do you make a note of them and come back to them in another lesson? Alternatively, what went really well in one of your lessons last week? Share a success!