Friday, February 10, 2012

How I Plan: The Triage

Prompted by this, here's what I've figured out so far about planning. I'm a bit embarrassed to post this, because I've always figured that lesson planning is the sort of thing that people learn how to do well during ed school, and that my inability to plan effectively was because I'd never been schooled in the art of schooling. But I think I'm at the point where I'm comfortable enough with what I'm doing that it's worth sharing.

In short: The most important thing I currently do in my planning is reflect on what makes the lesson difficult, and then to figure out some way to react. I write up a reflection on the hard parts, and then anything else that I do is built on top of this.

What I used to do.

Planning was a mess during my first semester of teaching. I would sit down to "plan" and end up googling stuff for 3 hours. I would find something cool, and then try to figure out how it worked so that I could use it in the classroom. Then I would find a problem, and then start looking for another resource. I printed out stacks and stacks of files. I downloaded lots of Mr. Meyer's stuff.

This was the first stage of my lesson planning, when I didn't understand teaching well enough to prepare in advance. If teaching were basketball, I didn't understand the game well enough to conceptually isolate offense from defense, shooting from dribbling.

Towards my second semester I started understanding that a lot of learning involved finding something that students did know and then hitching a new idea to that old knowledge. This lead to a new stage of my planning, where I produced a lot of outlines and mini-scripts of questions. These were almost always scrawled on the back of scraps of paper half an hour before class.* These plans were still pretty awful, though.

*In my desk drawer at work I have a huge stack of these outlines and mini-scripts. They're completely disorganized. I can't quite bring myself to throw them out, but they're entirely useless to me at the moment.

To give you a taste of the awfulness, here's one of the rare mini-scripts that I actually saved on the computer.

There is lot of terribleness* on display here. To start, this is inefficient planning. I don't need to plan out every step of a lesson in this way.  Besides, it's artificial and false to plan out every step of a class in sequence. Truth be told, these sorts of outlines were really just to get me thinking in the right way before class -- I almost never used them during the session. At the same time, these were incredibly time consuming.

*Terriblitude? Teribadingness? 

So when last summer came around, the second thing on my todo list was figuring out a better way to plan lessons. 

The Triage
Here are my guiding principles for lesson planning:
  1. The planning needs to cut the crap, and focus on the crucial bits. I have 4 preps, and zero patience for the sort of purposeless googling that my planning used to involve.
  2. The planning needs to be something reusable. So no more scraps of paper.
  3. The planning needs to anticipate the fact that someday I'll probably look back on it and hate it. I didn't want my planning to prioritize the creation of documents or slides that I'll likely hate as I learn more about teaching. I wanted my planning to be more robust than that.
In short, I want my planning to be efficient, reusable and distinct from the creation of classroom materials.

Here's an example of a lesson I put together this past Monday morning. It took me about 20 minutes for the lesson plan, and probably a half hour more to put together the problem set, and it was used later that afternoon: 

Quadratics Day 5 Lesson Plan
Quadratics Day 5 Problem Set

In case you don't feel like clicking through, my lesson planning basically involves a hierarchy of activities.

At the bottom of the hierarchy is what I need to do before every lesson to be prepared. And, at the moment, my thinking is that I need to reflect on what the hard parts of a lesson are going to be in order to be prepared. Some days this is reflecting on content, others it's reflecting on management issues that I'm having in class, and sometimes it's whatever. In my mind, this is the crucial core of a lesson.

If I've got that down, and I have more time, then the next most important thing for me to do is to reflect on good questions to ask in class. I also like thinking about the warm up questions that I'll ask in class, because this often gets me thinking about the bigger picture of the lesson. In other words, thinking about how I'm actually going to start the lesson helps me think about what I'm actually building this knowledge on top of.

What's great about this is that it's efficient. Reflecting on the hard parts of a lesson and some good questions to ask gets me pretty prepared to teach, even if it's a day when I can't put together an awesome task or a worksheet or a cool visual. In other words, most days. And if I have that time, then I can build on top of the planning, and the things that I produce are more focused and, um, good.

Because I'm recording things that happen before the lesson I'm pretty confident that this stuff will still be valuable to me. It will give me something to bounce off of, a place to pick up my thinking, even when I recognize that the thinking is no longer as on-target as I once thought it was.

This post has gone on long enough, and if you're really curious about how I plan you can click through those links above. But the important point for me is this: break down your teaching into little chunks. Then, find the little chunks that you need to think about the most before walking into the classroom. Make sure you do those every day. Then do everything else.


  1. I love this. Thank you. My favorite thing is to look for resources. I get so bogged down Googling. I've started planning out the most important parts (as you mentioned) before I even open my computer so I don't get lost. I find future ideas and Diigo them, then look at them on the weekends or when I am feeling especially flat (read - all winter long). Thank you!

  2. Hey, that's awesome! And thanks for pointing me to diigo -- I'm going to go check that out so that I can keep track of links without feeling like an idiot by emailing them to myself.