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The Problem with Lesson Plans

During my thirty-year career in the classroom, I occasionally worked with colleagues who resisted the contractual requirement that they turn in weekly lesson plans. As veteran teachers, they felt that detailed planning on paper was mindless hoop jumping. According to them, good teachers could step into a class, all their knowledge and skills percolating, and proceed to do the right things, without having to rely on notes. Good teaching as natural artistry.

Never worked for me. Early in my career, I developed the habit of planning on Sunday night for the week to come. The planning was nit-picky and thorough in the early years; in the last half of my career, I had a full tool bag to work with, which made thinking ahead and getting organized much easier. But still essential.

Perhaps a dozen times in my 30-year career I went to school on Monday without plans, trusting I could wing it. And every one of those days was painful.

I eventually started using yellow legal pads to plan, because I needed more space than the standard-issue planbook allowed. I still have the planning pads from my last few years of teaching. Although they're full of great ideas for teaching music, they would be useless to anyone else. Not only because I had my own shorthand and didn't have to explicate each lesson--but for the reason that I wrote the plans to address the learning needs of specific children at a particular time.

Lesson plans are not one size fits all.

In December, Jay Mathews wondered why schools don't provide new teachers with "the best lesson plan possible for each subject." He introduces readers to promising Teach for America corps members, who were "told where to find good material," and (no surprise) provided with sample items from the statewide assessments. But-- "beginning teachers still had to construct their lessons from scratch, as teachers have done for centuries."

Jeff Wetzler, Teach for America's executive vice president of teacher preparation, support and development, showed me a 2010 survey of the organization's beginning teachers in 31 states and the District. Forty-one percent said their districts provided them with low-quality instructional tools like lesson plans, or none at all. Twenty-seven percent were provided with tools they were required to use, and 7 percent got tools that they used because their colleagues used them. Only 15 percent said they were provided tools that they used freely because they were of such high quality.

At this point, I see veteran teachers around the country shaking their heads. (Hello? You didn't realize that constructing lesson plans for your students is part of the job of being a professional teacher? Too bad.) But the issue is much larger.

First, what Jay is talking about here is not a lesson plan--it's a learning activity. Planning lessons involves selecting and sequencing content, choosing activities appropriate for your students, sampling their learning through on-the-spot assessment. There are single-day lessons and arcs of lesson planning involving exposition, exploration, extension and review of a particular concept or skill. Good lesson planning is a blend of deeply understanding a curricular discipline, choosing effective activities--from lectures to demonstrations to rough drafts-- then checking for understanding, perhaps re-doing certain bits. And always keeping the particular students you're teaching in mind, using what happened in class today to make tomorrow's lesson more effective.

Best case scenario, this work is done in collaboration with skilled colleagues who serve the same kids, who share what's worked for them. Over time, a teacher might expect to develop their own tool bag full of high-quality activities and strategies. This never-ending tinkering with instruction and curriculum is called building an effective practice. It's challenging intellectual work, entirely dependent on teachers' commitment to experimenting, then paying attention to their results.

There is no such thing as the optimum, all-purpose lesson plan for any particular concept. There are websites and books filled with suggested activities to teach or reinforce a concept, but it's the teacher's job to select promising strategies, based on her knowledge of the students in front of her. "Teacherpreneurs" who sell their lesson plans are simply marketing activities and assessments that worked for them--but those may worthless for different instructors and students.

Mathews persists:

Many teachers, and the organizations that represent them, don't want ready-made lesson plans. They feel it limits their creativity and turns them into robots doing whatever their department head or the district curriculum chief wants.

Wrong. It's not about squelching "creativity." It's about being forced to teach in ways that don't acknowledge students' unique needs. It's about demeaning teachers' judgment, even scripting their speech. Teachers want a steady supply of good ideas for teaching, but they also want the responsibility of choosing the best strategies for their own classrooms.

There's an old joke about the deadwood teacher who taught the same year 30 times. Kind of ironic, now, at a time when we think we can standardize lesson plans and everything else about schooling.

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