Lesson Planning Time: How can we make it shorter, more efficient, and productive? will be the topic for our November 8th Reflective Practice Group meeting. In preparation, I thought I’d write about a reflective experiment I did a few years ago to figure out why I was spending so many hours planning lessons. Fortunately, I kept a reflective journal, so it’s easy for me to recreate it here. (I also searched the reflective practice blogosphere for others’ wisdom on the subject; scroll down for links at the end of this post.)
My first paid teaching gig was a half-time job, but I basically spent all my waking hours preparing for the next day’s classes. When I mentioned this to my boss, she laughed it off, saying that when she started teaching ESOL, she calculated that, taking lesson planning time into consideration, she was only earning $5/hour. It seems to be a given that conscientious new teachers, especially if they’ve been through a teacher training course, devote an unsustainable amount of time to lesson planning.
A reflective approach to understanding my Lesson Planning time
A few years ago, I decided to keep a log of exactly what I was doing during my planning time, and then after teaching the lesson, compare things that worked in class with the planning process associated with them. I hoped that I could identify planning time that didn’t pay off: either it led to problematic implementation, didn’t help students learn, or the “fruits” of that block of planning time weren’t even used in class. Ideally, the post-teaching reflection on my pre-teaching “process” would allow me to identify what to eliminate, what to keep, and how to make it all more efficient and shorter.
When I sat down to plan a lesson for 25 +/- adult beginners, I set an alarm to go off every ten minutes, and each time I made a note about what I had been doing. It was difficult to admit, even to my private journal, what I was actually doing with most of that time.
The bulk of it went to:
- – Dreaming up activities, sequencing and allocating minutes to each of them
- – Trying to squeeze in more activities, re-sequencing and re-allocating time
- – Searching the web for images
- – Designing new materials: formatting them, inserting pictures, etc.
- – Fussing with the layout and wording of my lesson plan
- – Fussing with the printer
- – Cutting, collating, and paper-clipping worksheets, flash cards, etc.
Then I hauled all my materials to class, and taught the lesson. Of course, I was teaching in the “swampy lowland,” where the reality of students’ readiness, responses and ingenuity cast a new light (or shadow) over the lesson I’d planned. During class, I did a lot of reflecting-in-action, regretting some of my earlier decisions, using some materials differently than I’d planned, and in general, not adhering to the letter of the lesson plan. Notwithstanding the disappointments and frustrations, some parts of the lesson worked well, and I could see evidence of learning happening!
When I got home, I reflected on the whole lesson, doing a quick handwritten Experiential Learning Cycle reflection for each step (Description, Analysis, Generalization and Action Plan) This reflection was focused on equating what happened in the classroom with what happened during planning. Here are some excerpts from my journal:
Description: Generated Qs & As (Yes-No) on board, referring to chart, using new pics as prompts. Took a long time for Ss to get the hang of it.
Analysis: 1) All the pieces of paper, too many & too slow to move. Could have just referred to the chart handout. 2) The picture prompts weren’t flexible, were unwieldy, made it hard to make my “prompt” intentions clear.
Generalization: It never helps to have a zillion pieces of paper and pics to move around on board. Put a clear model up, then find simpler ways to prompt.
Action Plan: Decide in advance to only use existing materials – at most generate a poster model, but no moving parts on board. Prompts: dice or toss a coin.
When I looked back at the log of how I spent my planning time, a hefty portion of it was on producing the materials which, like in the activity described above, turned out to be unhelpful, inflexible and confusing during the lesson!
Here’s part of another journal entry, about an activity using Cuisenaire rods to teach the syntax of questions and answers:
I worried beforehand that the rods would be too abstract, but afterwards I don’t see it as abstract at all. Quite the contrary: students did a great job; the rods are very concrete & reliable, far more so than the words & phrases they represent. During the activity, when it occurred to me to add in sentences using vocab & concepts from previous units, I wasn’t sure how they’d respond. When I wrote “Is he hot?” there was a momentary stunned silence, and then very quickly, most students figured out what to do with the rods to form an answer. I could feel their collective “Ah hah! I get it!”
In my post-teaching reflection, I realized that because I didn’t create fixed materials for this Cuisenaire rods activity, I had the flexibility during class to add something I hadn’t planned, generating a magical learning moment for students!
Planning in blocks of time
Other things I changed about my lesson planning, as a result of this experiment: I was driving myself crazy trying to squeeze favorite activities into little segments of 6½ minutes, 4 mins, and so on. When I wanted to add one, I’d try to steal time from other activities. Craziness! When I reflected on the lessons post-teaching, I saw that typically, in an hour and forty-five minutes of lesson time, I usually could only facilitate seven distinct segments or activities, averaging 15 minutes each. This includes the inevitable down time while I get organized, modeling use of the new target language, telling students which page to turn to, distributing worksheets, giving instructions, modeling the pairs activity, and checking comprehension. Plus, of course, time for students to interact with one another, practicing using the new language. Sometimes it’s less and sometimes more than 15 minutes, but it pretty much always averages out to 7 blocks of time. Of these, the first is always devoted to recycling and reviewing vocabulary from previously studied units, and the last is always devoted to vocabulary BINGO from the current unit. So that leaves 5 blocks of time. When I’m planning, it’s so much simpler (and liberating) to know that’s all I can aspire to, so there’s no point trying to squeeze more in. This rule of thumb allows me to short-circuit the endless mind loop of trying to sequence and squeeze too much into a lesson. And the five blocks align with the ECRIF lesson framework I use most frequently in my speaking- and vocabulary-focused class: time for students to 1) Encounter the new target language or structure, 2) Clarify its form, function and meaning, 3) Remember or recognize it, 4) Internalize it through practice using it in a controlled, scaffolded activity, and finally 5) Fluently Use it in a freer, personalized, real-world context.
Once I moved to planning by blocks, I shaved tons of time off of planning and worrying about sequencing. This made it really clear what I had to do, and also clear when I had finished outlining the lesson! If I couldn’t get students to the objective in five blocks of time, I needed to reconsider whether the objective was achievable in a single class.
Another benefit of limiting the number of things I asked students to do: I don’t over plan and rush through the lesson. This means students get more practice using the target language, I have more opportunities for ongoing assessment. And we usually do have time for everything I planned, including the final ‘fluent use’ activity where the learning objective is (hopefully J) achieved.
“Pencils and whatnot. Overrated if you ask me.” Winnie the Pooh
Another discovery from this “research” into my planning process was that I was spending a great deal of time on the computer. Too many of my “planning” minutes were spent at the keyboard, formatting the lesson plan and materials. I felt my trainer was looking over my shoulder, checking that I was still adhering to the discipline of how a lesson plan “should” look, the columns and categories it should have, fonts, spacing, trying to get pictures to line up properly on a worksheet, etc. These concerns sucked me down into a black hole, where I wasn’t even thinking about the lesson, I was just working on the computer!
So I started doing all my planning with a lined pad and a pencil. For some reason, the ghost of my trainer doesn’t manifest when I use a notepad. I begin with bullets for the seven blocks of time, and draft a barebones outline of what I’ll do, what the students will do, note the essential page references and materials needed, and let it percolate.
I now do this with a pencil. That was new for me too. I’ve always disliked pencils, having to sharpen them, empty the sharpener, and so on. But I discovered inexpensive disposable mechanical pencils, which are the best of all possible tools! I usually do type up the lesson plan, so I can share with co-teachers and make notes for the next time, but I wait to type it until right before I leave for class. With one foot already out the door, I don’t get sucked into that black hole of “ideal” lesson plans.
More is not better; less is best
I realized that I was overthinking the lesson plan. Should we do this, or that? This before or after that? I had too many creative ideas; I wasn’t very good at making up my mind and then keeping it made up. My indecisive flip-flopping was filling up all of the available time, and there was no evidence that my lesson plan was getting better as I tinkered. So I set a time limit: I’ll spend 45 minutes to plan tomorrow’s lesson, and then I’ll go to yoga class. It really helps to have an actual deadline. Curiously, my post-teaching reflection on the pre-teaching process revealed evidence that lessons worked best when I spent less time planning.
Take the challenge:
If you’re overwhelmed by lesson planning, you might want to try it: While you’re planning your lesson, record exactly how you use your planning minutes and hours. Then, after you teach the lesson, identify what was useful and what was wasn’t. And if you’re comfortable with it, share your discoveries here.
Master teachers’ lesson planning stories:
Every teacher is different, and every class is different. These things that helped me shorten planning time and become more effective won’t work for everyone. So here are links to thoughts about lesson planning from some master ESOL teachers. And if you have ideas on how to tackle this issue, please share them!