Let’s Save Space for Messy Teaching

Sometimes, our very best teaching and learning ideas are born out of chaos.

I was at a professional learning event in Winnipeg last week, and my middle school colleague and I were tasked with building a learning progression for teachers around assessment.

The end goal for our learning community was this statement:

“Students help design rubrics to measure growth, identify where they are in relation to the target, and set goals for reaching it. They do multiple revisions of work to reach mastery.”

Isn’t that just the dream right there?

So our task was to map out a learning progression for teachers: a set of steps that we and our professional teammates might follow to reach that goal.

From 0 to 60.

Here’s what we came up with:

  • Step 1 (baseline): Learning activities are assigned to students with no criteria, rubrics, or learning targets. Students complete one edition of the activity in isolation (no follow-up).
  • Step 2: Teacher discusses and explains the assessment criteria to students before the learning activity begins. There may be opportunities given for revision and reiteration (or a self-reflection by students).
  • Step 3: The teacher invites input after discussing the assessment criteria with the class. The learning target is clearly identified. Students are given opportunity to reflect on their growth from start to finish of an activity. Second iterations are required.
  • Step 4: Students co-create rubrics and assessment criteria to measure growth, identify where they are in their learning, and set goals for reaching the learning target. They use peer feedback to complete multiple revisions of work in order to demonstrate mastery. They reflect on their learning throughout the creative process and identify goals for further growth.

The arrows in the progression are hard to see, but if you look closely you can track the growth in the middle row from left to right.

The post-its are bits of warm and cold feedback offered by other educators from around the country.

It’s a thing of beauty.

But, wait a second.

The dream lesson plan

Yes, the ideal lesson plans come with learning targets, success criteria, and assessment rubrics (co-created with students) in place.

They activate prior knowledge, help students acquire and apply concepts, include adaptations that include all learners, provide means of formative assessment to inform teacher instructional decisions, and use anticipatory activities to set the stage for the next steps of learning.

Wouldn’t that be wonderful if we could do that every class?

Unfortunately, we can’t. Not every single time.

And when we burden teachers with this list of ideals at every turn, I think we actually run the risk of limiting student learning.

Sometimes, transformative learning appears in unexpected places.

If you’ve been in the classroom for long, you know that some of your best ideas were born out of sheer impulse.

That day that you slept in and walked into a class completely unprepared? Turns out you had an incredible epiphany that led to one of the best student-led learning activities that you ever came up with.

Aiming for ideals but saving room for messy beginnings

No, we don’t want last minute planning to be our standard operating procedure. But I believe we have to save space and give grace for messy beginnings.

Because sometimes, that’s where our very best teaching and learning is born.

The 9 As of Awesome Lesson Planning

Looking for a way to reinvent your lessons? Try this formula on for size.

woman in blue tank top standing beside white wall
Image Source: @ThisIsEngineering on Unsplash

As a younger teacher, I would often jump straight into learning activities with plans poorly defined.

I wouldn’t activate previous learning. I wouldn’t mention learning goals. I wouldn’t have a clear sense of how I would check for understanding.

I wouldn’t plan for students with disabilities in advance. I wouldn’t plan for advanced learners. It was one-size-fits-all.

Not best practice.

Somewhere along my education journey, I picked up on the idea of structuring my lessons around the As you’ll see below. This form has evolved over time, and it’s helped me plan more mindfully than I once did.

Are my lessons now perfect? Not even close.

Are there some days when I don’t properly address every one of these points? Absolutely.

But I’d like to think my lesson planning has come a long way from where it began. If it has, my students are the beneficiaries.

Because, as always, this is NOT about being a perfect teacher. It’s about serving our learners and supporting their growth.

So in the hope of inspiring your practice, here is the bullet outline I use to structure my lesson plans (conveniently reproducible each day in Google Docs).

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This is how my 9 As show up in my Google Docs. Use ‘Make a Copy’ of the previous day to save time!

1. Administration and housekeeping.

  • Are there any announcements that my students need to be aware of or may have missed? Is there any information that I need from students? I want to get these items out of the way first.
  • In terms of our class climate, is there anything we need to address or discuss before we begin today’s learning? This is a great time to invest in my students by affirming who we are as a class and what we’re all about.
  • This is where I want to quickly read the temperature of the room. If something is amiss, I may need to address it before moving on.

2. Activating.

  • Which skills and content did we learn last? I want to briefly activate this knowledge for my learners and check for understanding.
  • Do I need to collect any assignments? Do my students need to be reminded to submit work on Google Classroom?
  • What are we aiming to learn today? Post a learning target in the form of an ‘I can’ statement. (ie. I can reduce fractions, etc.)
  • Why are we learning this? How does it fit in the bigger picture?
  • What is our success criteria? In other words, what will it look like if we meet our learning target?

3. Acquiring.

  • Introduce learners to the learning target. Define and describe key words and concepts.
  • Make the concept multidimensional through live demonstrations, student exemplars, text resources, pictures or video clips.
  • Engage student thinking and conversation using think-pair-share or similar collaborative strategies.

4. Applying.

  • This is the key part of the lesson: how will my learners apply their learning? How will they demonstrate understanding of the concept?
  • At this stage, it’s critical to think about depth of knowledge. In the infographic below, notice the progression in keywords at bottom.
  • Our ideal learning activities will include justification, explanation, inference, and making connections.
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Image Credit: Edmuntum.com

5. Adapting.

  • What adaptations should I make to this lesson to accommodate students with learning disabilities?
  • Should the learning target be adjusted? It may not need to be. A better fit might be reducing or simplifying expectations in the learning activity.
  • How should I mobilize educational assistants in my classroom? What instructions or supports do they need? I like to use the comment feature in Google Docs to tag them in advance of the lesson — this works especially well if I’ve given them access to my lesson plan folder in Google Drive.

6. Advancing learners.

  • It’s possible that my learning target may not properly challenge some of my learners. Last year, this was especially true in my Math classes. I needed to build in extension activities with these learners in mind.
  • Thinking back to Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (pictured above), how can I challenge these students to take their learning to the next level? How can we go above and beyond? This can tax a tired teacher’s energy, but I need to plan for these students as much as I can.

7. Assessing.

  • How will I check for understanding or mastery? In the language of Visible Learning, how will I know my impact?
  • There are a plethora of ways to do this, but the key is simple: I need to have a sense of where my learners are in their learning, because that information will direct my next moves — the purpose of formative assessment.

8. Anticipating.

  • Where is our learning heading next?
  • How should I start thinking about (and preparing for) our next lesson?
  • How am I planning to conclude this unit of study? What’s my timeline?

9. Additional Time.

  • This is always helpful to keep in mind, especially when planning for a substitute teacher. How will I plan for students who complete this learning activity before the bell?
  • Are there extension activities that might further challenge my quickest learners? (See point 5 above.)
  • Is there a review game (think Kahoot or Quizlet) that we could play as a class that might further reinforce today’s learning and act as a decent check for understanding?

Upgrading This Structure Through Project-Based Learning

An acknowledgment. This lesson planning outline doesn’t address project-based learning — or at least, not well. In a PBL or IBL context, students may engage in learning activities for several consecutive periods without any direct instruction at all.

In a sense, though, all nine of the planning points I’ve outlined here still apply. Instead of one lesson, block, or day, they’re being stretched across the duration of the project, which allows time and space for more design thinking, more ideation, more prototyping, more coaching, more real-time feedback, more revision and iteration before completion. Win-win!

Reality Check

Is it really possible to plan 9-point lessons for every block of every day? Should we place this burden on every classroom teacher?

In a word, no. But for me, this framework is my ideal. It’s a structure that helps me think through every step of the learning and account for every learner as thoughtfully as possible.

By creating this planning template at the beginning of the year, I’m setting myself (and my learners) up for success by nudging myself toward more mindful lesson planning.

If all my learners are learning and growing, that’s a win. And it’s worth it.