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Write More, Prep Less


Or, Teach and the Net Will Appear

Oh, to be perfect. Last Thursday, a series of unfortunate events conspired to prove once again that I’m not. A Wednesday early release for kids, something I’d anticipated as a break, except I forgot that giving inservice presentations to colleagues might leave me feeling zonked at the end of the day. “You just lost your planning period,” pointed out the artful Roger.

Then a purple marble comp book went missing, the one in which I do free writes along with kids, and take notes at every meeting, and plan my days and lessons and even chapters of a book I haven’t written. Darn thing had the whole Odyssey unit sketched out in it I had reworked after reviewing last year’s notes.

Then there was soccer practice after school. And Ethiopian with my parents that night. And, Thursday just happened to be the morning I had agreed to drive the boys to school, which made me late for the JLC meeting I would have seriously considered skipping to do some last minute planning and xeroxing.

So, there I was. In front of the first of three hundred minute blocks in a row with ninth graders whose homework had been to bring the Odyssey to class for the start of our big unit. I hadn’t even had the chance to take a proper leak, much less prepare a neatly gift-wrapped, here’s a calendar with every day from now until New Year’s kind of unit that type-A teachers around here tend to crank out. Whose fault was it other than my own?

Nohbody’s. (Odyssey joke, not a typo). And what did I do? The same thing friends and I used to say we would do if we were ever plopped down in front of a class for which we had no preparation and didn’t even know what the subject was (one of those what-if’s that only teachers would talk about around a lunch table). “Good morning, class. Please open your notebook, put today’s date in the upper right corner, and get ready to write.”

In this case, there were two choices of what to write about. If you’d read the Odyssey before or knew something about it, you could write what you knew. If you’d never read it and were entering table rasa... write about that. What do you think, expect, wonder about the book?

There followed blessed minutes of scribbling, during which I cleared my head and jotted discussion points for the rest of the lesson while my students wrote variously about their experiences or lack thereof with Homer. After, I held up two dry erase markers: “This green marker is called ‘I know,’” I began, “and this blue one is called ‘I want to know.’” Hands were already in the air.

“Each student needs to write down either an I know or an I wanna know on the board. After you write it, explain your idea to the class.” The first two volunteers had already ripped the Expos from my hand.

What followed was a better unit kickoff than any I could have planned. Kids who were pros shared some of the highlights of the story including background on the Trojan War and the Iliad. Kids who were clueless asked great questions like, “Why is this a poem?” and “What made Odysseus a hero?”. Needless to say, we had plenty of fodder for conversation. Added bonus, I got a chance to assess the comfort level of every student in the room and thus can target future activities more directly.

After our magic marker roll call, we still had time enough to closely read the opening of the poem, with special emphasis on the first word, “Sing...”, allowing me to fill in gaps about the origins and performance of the piece. And for good measure, each student read a stanza out loud to get the flow going so kids would remember to approach it as a verdant story and not a bunch of confusing spindly trees when they continued the reading on their own for homework.

All in all, both the kids and I survived the impromptu lesson rather well, and they are now off and running with a sense of ownership and excitement that an intimidatingly detailed unit description might have dampened.

Maybe I got by because I’ve taught the book for the past couple years and feel comfortable with it. But I like to think that relying on writing to learn was the key, a method that allows each kid to feel validated in their ideas. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not my habit to be underprepared when I stand up in front of the room. But then again... maybe it should be.


I think my favorite lessons every year are the ones when I ended up improvising. Maybe it is because we pay more attention to the students' if we don't have a plan.

As a student, those were my favorite lessons when I was in high school. I would have loved your class.

I have done this same type of lesson to introduce the book Slaughterhouse Five; however, I faltered where you were victorious: in response to the "what I know" column, I got every instructor's favorite response, "I don't know anything!" I found this surprising because I thought that Slaughterhouse Five was a fairly well-known book. Apparently, I was wrong. As a first-year teacher, I couldn't find a way to access any prior knowledge, which is something I really like to do in any introduction. What do you suggest?

Dear NAB-
One way to "activate more prior knowledge" is to broaden what you permit in "I know." Give permission to make connections, for example: "Write about the book, or the author, or WW II, or satire...".

I also give the option to write "I want to know..." for those who haven't read it, which, again with a little seeding before hand, most can write to: "Here's a list of 10 words associated with the book/time period--write what you know/want to know."

The only way to get it wrong is the "I don't know anything" you describe,which is really resistant behavior. Some kids might just want to resist, I know. Inviting them with the promise of full credit for a "real" response might be the best answer. Hope some of this makes sense.

It does indeed make sense! Thanks for the input. :)

Great suggestions. Thanks!

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Recent Comments

  • Shillow: Great suggestions. Thanks! read more
  • NoviceAtBest: It does indeed make sense! Thanks for the input. :) read more
  • Emmet: Dear NAB- One way to "activate more prior knowledge" is read more
  • NoviceAtBest: I have done this same type of lesson to introduce read more
  • organized chaos: I think my favorite lessons every year are the ones read more




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