As a first year teacher, new to the teaching scene, I based my instruction on how I was taught in school. I would present and students would take notes. At specified points during the unit, students would complete projects. I would grade those projects, and return them with a grade. They would be glanced at and, often, thrown in the trash or left on the desks. Interestingly, looking back, the one class I didn’t do this for—the class that was far more interesting as a result—was the class that did not have a standardized test at the end.
I clearly thought, I need to cram as much information as possible into students’ brains by the end of the year. Thus, to prepare for class (I thought): I needed to make sure I knew all of the facts and details that may be on the test; I needed to summarize these details into sentence-long soundbites, and to make sure it was easier for students to take notes, I needed to make them a worksheet with all of the information I would share with a key word missing, and then they can just fill in the blank!
Here’s what that looked like when I was planning these lessons. Each week, for each course, I would:
I cringe to think this was my life and the lives of my students in my classes.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “That’s not far from what I do for my classes. There’s nothing wrong with my classes.” There may not be! Lecturing can be an efficient way to deliver core content understandings. Hattie (2018)’s research found direct instruction to have a .60 effect size, and note taking to have a .50 effect size, which are both medium effect sizes. Not bad!
Also, I’m sure you do things like make the lectures interactive and add in engagement activities so students are not just taking notes every day and it’s not bell-to-bell lecturing. For me and my students though, this approach was not working. The data backed it up—the students were not learning, in fact, they were barely coming to class, and my stress level let me know that this planning process was not working for me either.
Here are 5 big things I’ve learned and wish I could go back in time to tell my early teacher self:
Let’s break these down a bit.
Planning in unit arcs is easier and more strategic than planning single lessons. This is Backwards Planning 101 at its core. You have to know where you’re going, but even more than that, I realized when I’m designing for engagement, I need ways to get and retain students’ attention. When I figure out an interesting assessment first and develop a compelling question students are answering in the assessment, then I can go back and pose that question on Day 1 of the unit. I can find a current event or modern, relatable example so that students can dive into answering the question just based on what they already know. Integrating students’ prior knowledge has a very large influence on student learning, with a .93 effect size (Hattie, 2018)!
Teaching core understandings. If there was just one thing from this list my former teacher self could learn, it would be this. Unfortunately, standardized tests involve a lot of knowing the details, but there are two things I have to say about that: 1) that’s changing, tests are evolving; and 2) minute details are things can be memorized in the weeks before the standardized test. It will be easier for students to memorize small details when they understand the larger conceptual ideas, and often, when students are faced with a detail-based multiple-choice question they don’t know, their deep thematic understandings will often help them eliminate incorrect answers. Also, many standardized tests also involve an essay component. This is where my students struggled and where a lack of core understanding is critical. A final note: teaching core understandings does not mean you don’t teach details—the details are what make it fun—but you may spend more time learning the details of fewer topics. When students are able to practice working with details and reasoning out scenarios on one topic, they can more easily transfer those skills to another topic in the future. Isn’t that what we ultimately want?
Students are more engaged when they are asked to think. This seems intuitive, but clearly it wasn’t resonating with me! Basing student tasks on the higher-order thinking levels of Webb’s DoK chart or Bloom’s taxonomy is a great start. Asking students to make connections across sources, class notes, and current events was an approach I eventually came to love. The most engaged I’ve ever seen my students was during class discussion. Not only were discussions engaging, but they also have large effects on learning (.82 effect size)! While some students don’t enjoy public speaking, over time, many of my students who were initially reluctant to share were able to talk more.
Identify low-prep, high-impact activities. I wrote an entire blog post on how to do this earlier this week. Go check it out! Choosing a handful of engaging protocols was a big step towards maximizing my time. I streamlined how to plan for each protocol and knew exactly what prep was needed. (Over time, the prep needed was less and less because students were so used to the routine itself, I only had to insert the unit-specific information, which was often a small prompt or a few text choice links.) For me and my class, discussion-based protocols were a big go-to. At times I felt like I should be mixing it up more, and introducing new activities more often. However, I learned that repeating activities or protocols is helpful. It saves you planning time. It saves students’ the mental energy of learning a new protocol, and leaves more brainspace and class time for learning!
Building relationships and content knowledge can be accomplished in the same activity. When I asked students to talk about the content (making connections to their lives, prior understandings, asking their opinions…), I learned so much about them. The students learned a lot about each other, too! Even students who didn’t speak a lot said they liked to listen to their classmates. Not only can we learn about students’ experiences and ways of thinking and being, but students can learn about us. Depending on the protocol, I also participated in class discussions to model vulnerability in sharing and give students a chance to learn more about my life experiences and interests. (I just observed or facilitated student seminars, but I would always participate in circles when the talking piece came to me. More to come on these protocols in a later blog post!)
I have certainly learned a lot about myself, my planning style, and my students in the past decade, and I hope that by sharing my mistakes as a teacher, I can help you learn and grow too!
I’m eager to continue my learning journey, so I’d love to hear what you’ve learned from your time as an educator. Share a comment below or tag me on Twitter @lyons_lb or on LinkedIn (Time for Teachership or Lindsay Lyons).
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Lindsay Lyons (she/her) is an educational justice coach who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice, design curricula grounded in student voice, and build capacity for shared leadership. Lindsay taught in NYC public schools, holds a PhD in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog and podcast, Time for Teachership.