Thursday, June 03, 2010

Planning Lessons

@paulrwood posted a tweet this morning that really got me thinking:
how is it that teachers continue to pull out the same lesson plans when they have not met their students yet? Just a thought. 
It's true. As teachers, we're trained to prepare. We've got arsenals of prepared lessons, assessments, schedules. But there's one thing we can't prepare for: we can't prepare for which students are going to walk in our door.

Sure, we might know some of their names in advance. We may have heard stories of their prowess on the softball diamond or their antics in Ms. Jones' chemistry class. But we can't really know who those kids are until they've come through that door, sat down in our classroom, and opened their mouths and told us who they are and what matters to them.

This is why the ability to 'differentiate' shouldn't be the mark of a good teacher, but rather the expectation of anyone who calls his or herself a teacher: because if you don't understand your kids, how can you expect them to understand you?

And so next year, I'm trying out something new. As I tweeted earlier today:
I'm making it a goal next year to not plan out my courses until I've first met my students.
My plan going in is to meet the first two days of class with the students to learn the interests of each and to help them start PLNs on Twitter to extend their interests into a broader real-time conversation. Then I'd like each of them to explain the ups-and-downs of their prior experiences learning -- both in the classroom and out in that zone of experience the education folks call "informal learning". We're gonna spend some serious time getting to know how each other like to learn from the very beginning before we ever even touch on course material.

They won't be getting a syllabus, either.

Rather, we'll take a look at the general themes of the course -- next year I'll be teaching West Civ and Modern Euro History -- and we'll start constructing a wiki to structure where we want to go. I'll guide them by adding some historical context and then help them use Twitter to start crowdsourcing the essential questions we'll use to guide our study.

I'm also teaching a Human Geography course and my co-teacher and I have been swapping ideas back and forth. The one we are gravitating towards is not having a curriculum at all, but rather having students listen daily to PRI's The World each night and write daily blogposts about what they hear. Classtime will be spent discussing the previous night's episode and helping students to fill in details and to learn how to access more information about subjects talked about on the program.

We as teachers will constantly be learning new stuff at the same time as our students. Rather than thinking of this as being perpetually 'unprepared', it'll actually be more a situation where everyone involved will bring to the table whatever they've got with them. Classtime will be a matter of sorting things out and making connections; and of course, we'll have our PLNs to turn to for help, ideas, and advice. And by the end of the semester, each student will have a complete digital portfolio of their own responses and comments to their responses to daily world events.

I think both approaches emphasize dealing with the real-time world in real-time. And that's where I think my students and I need to be.


  1. You're so lucky to have access to the technology in the classroom that you do. And to have a co-teacher. I can dream, right?

  2. I love this idea. I've tweeted it and posted it on to see how others are letting students plan the curriculum.

  3. I love it! I have been stressed about teaching a new course (new for me and new at my school) next year and I realize I have been going about it all wrong. why stress? meet the kids, ask them why they signed up for the course and what they are interested in learning and then go from there. thanks for the idea!

  4. I hope you'll let us know how it goes over the course of the year--problems as well as successes. It has the potential for some powerful learning, I'd say.

  5. I am a longtime fan of your blog and this is an interesting idea. I wrote my response on my own blog, but here is the conclusion I drew based on my own situation:
    "...there is a specific text for class and a university wide (suggested) curriculum that is given out at the beginning of the year.

    Perhaps the problem described above is partially mitigated by the second one below.

    It seems likely that many students will want the status quo. In my class, they will want three or four verb tenses, basic conversation models and some understanding of idioms they may encounter. Most ESL texts for basic students cover the same material after all. There must be some reason for that.

    So, I don't have freedom to change the material much, but there is a good possibility that students will want only small changes in the original material anyway. If this is the case, my lesson plans already have space for some student-suggested material anyway."

    I do understand that if the students study X material by choice rather than by fiat, they will work harder at it and learn more, even though the material is the same.

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  7. another bravo... love it.

    this is overkill share...
    but seems like there is a lot of interest in this idea ... so just in case any of what we did might help any of goes..

    last summer we collected a lot of research - esp from michael wesch and carl wieman ie:

    and then.. this is how we actually did the class - editable syllabus - one day at a time:

    it was the hairiest year and the best year:

    and because of all we learned...
    we're starting the summer like this:

    and fall 2010 launching this:

  8. sorry i don't know how to make links in here...

  9. When I posted this in a discussion group, one teacher made an excellent point that I'd like to hear your response to:

    "[The plan described in this blog] seems akin to selling a book that is blank inside. It would be very nice if the person buying it could write a great novel - but they almost definitely won't - and it is what the author is paid for after all."

  10. Shelly,

    Interesting you should post this. I was going to recommend you write a post about how to start the year for teachers interested in going paperless. While this isn't exactly what I was thinking, it is a great way to get teachers thinking about what they will be teaching.

    I'd still like to see a post about the "mechanics" of going paperless, with a focus on the tools that you use with your students. This gives me some interesting ideas to think about over the vacation.


  11. @AtlTeacher

    I do think that any of my students can (and will) "write a great novel" -- whatever that might mean for each of them.

    Teachers are "paid" to empower and inspire students. We're not paid to ghost write their educations. Making students part of the process of designing a course empowers the students.

    It's a matter of giving them a stake in their learning.


  12. I love these ideas! I wish I were in your class. I look forward to reading how it goes.


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