March is always a reflective time for me as it marks the anniversary of my first foray into the post-Trinity Certificate classroom as an employed teacher (March 5th, 2000 to be exact making it now 19 years – yikes!). This time round with an inspection at my current place of employment looming, my retrospective has encompassed planning and how its place and importance has changed through the last two decades (almost!). This post will examine the key stages in that journey and how they reflected my teaching at the time.
At first, the lesson plan was an essential part of my teaching routine – essential in the sense that I felt I had to have one without really understanding why. Each day, I would turn up to work a couple of hours before teaching started, look through the course objectives and materials bank (we had access to a collection of photocopied pages and in-house handmade resources for each course in that school rather than a coursebook), and literally make a list of what activities we would do and in what order. I occasionally put an aim on top of the page because … well, my DoS sometimes asked me to.
Despite the seeming lack of understanding or direction, the experience did give me insights into what worked and what didn’t. Over time, my plans became more logical and linked as I learned the value of each lesson stage building on the last, and ensured each lesson had a defined outcome. Still, that bullet-pointed side of A4 was about to become smaller …
The Post-It Plan
After a while, I was feeling more confident in the classroom and felt I knew my way round the syllabus, so as I began to revisit topics (or even whole courses) that I had taught before, I decided to streamline my planning, often simply creating a mini-list of references to activity names or worksheets. This coincided with moving to a school where I had coursebooks for the first time. Instead of writing out a plan for each lesson, I started to annotate each page with Post-It notes, each one suggesting an extension activity or an alternative approach to the one laid out on the published pages.
I found this gave me flexibility in that the Post-It notes were a collection of lesson and activity ideas which I could then pick and choose from based on what each class needed and/or responded best to. Of course, the downside was that my heavily annotated coursebook only really made sense to me and was not something that particularly impressed line managers or other senior staff, who preferred …
The Showcase Plan
We have all experienced those moments when a new head of department or subject lead comes in and imposes ‘new’ ideas. Well, that brought about the next change in my planning as my colleagues and I were suddenly expected to produce standardised plans for each and every lesson. These were expected at the start of each week and had to follow a set format. This naturally caused great disgruntlement amongst teachers as it was seen as a classic box ticking exercise.
Despite the imposed nature of the exercise, I found there were benefits. It gave me the chance to go through those Post-Its and gather them into something more organised and official. A collection of files on a PC also proved easier to manage than a bunch of sticky notes that had a habit of unsticking themselves on occasion. While it was more organised, the whole system still felt very much imposed and rigid, which planted the seeds for something drastically different …
The Post Plan
Directives come and go almost as easily as Heads of Department, and the compulsory plan barely lasted an academic year. Around the same time the top-down weight was lifted, I had started to discover a new and exciting community of teachers online who were blogging and tweeting about their teaching experiences. Not long after I found myself in the midst of discussions about ‘teaching unplugged’. After an extended period of working with coursebooks of varying quality and a year of imposed planning, the idea of going into class with a blank page and letting language emerge was enticing. Even though I was teaching primary learners at the time, I found they engaged with materials light lessons that gave them a chance to express themselves.
That is not to say that there was no plan, however. Having accumulated several years of teaching experience by this point, I always went into class with a strong idea of where we would start. The difference was that I was flexible about where we would end up going, very much prepared to let students take the lead. I was also engaging in a process of ‘post planning’. After each class, I would make notes about what we had done, what had worked well and led to learning outcomes, and what had ultimately led to a dead end. These notes formed the basis of many blog posts, training sessions, and future lessons as I really expanded my teaching repertoire.
The Plan Comes Together
Eventually, I would find myself in a position where plans were required again as I finally got around to taking the Dip TESOL. Anyone who has done Dip TESOL/Delta will know that quite a high level of detail is required as you produce class and student profiles, differentiated objectives and activities, and stages highlighting interaction patterns while building towards a final outcome.
Rather than see this as another ‘showcase’ exercise, I took the approach of thinking how I could apply this to my regular teaching. Differentiated outcomes was one area I started to pay greater attention to as I considered how students of mixed ability could be challenged by the same activity. Another consideration was extension activities – that is adding extra but related tasks for students to engage in while their classmates still worked on the initial task (such as rewriting a paragraph from an opposite point of view or repeating a speaking activity assuming a different character).
In my present position and with the inspection coming, I have been encouraged to identify assessment opportunities and include review activities at the end of the lesson as an opportunity for student to showcase their level of learning. While younger teacher me may not have liked the level of detail, experienced teacher me sees the benefits. Clearly defined stages help provide structure to the lesson while opportunities for extra challenge supply motivation and work wonders for classroom management. The reflective activities at the end are perhaps the key though – they make the lesson plan less about what I am doing and more about what my students have done. I love it when a plan comes together!
What are your thoughts about lesson planning? Do you relate most to my younger teacher self or my DipTESOL teacher self? What type of planning do you use? Please share your thoughts in the comments!