Principal’s Circular #1: Our Lessons and our Lesson Plans
In order to teach well we must begin with a clear idea of our objectives for each lesson. Our lesson plans make our goals for each class apparent. Those objectives should be derived from our understanding of who our students are: our understanding of their proficiencies and deficiencies, their needs and their abilities. We must identify our students’ strengths and weaknesses and design lessons that build upon those strengths and address those weaknesses.
For example, if a class has been reading a text and the teacher discerns that a number of students do not understand the concept of symbolism, subsequent lessons should be designed to address that deficiency. Once we have determined what our students need to learn the lesson plan must be designed to create extensive student participation in activities that lead to thoughtful engagement in and interaction with the skills, ideas, concepts, and material being taught. We know that our lessons should privilege depth over breadth and should focus on thinking about, questioning, explaining or using (doing something with) the things we are teaching. We must also have some way of determining whether our goals for the lesson have been achieved. At the conclusion of the lesson a class of students should be able to demonstrate what they have learned by what they say, by what they write, or by what they do.
General Characteristics of a Good Lesson
Learning is an active process, not a passive one. Consider the process of learning to ride a bicycle. Descriptions, models, and other kinds of explanation cannot substitute for the child mounting the bicycle and attempting to ride, even though the child may well fall the first few times he tries. While we must offer a foundation of skills and knowledge, as well as support and encouragement, the student must ultimately do the work and demonstrate the ability to ride. Our corollary belief is that each lesson must enable students to be active participants in the process of gathering information, making meaning, questioning, and problem-solving.
The characteristics of a good lesson and good teaching include the following:
ALearning Objective (What do we want our students to learn?)
The teacher must identify in writing what has been planned for the students to learn during the lesson. This goal must be clearly stated in the plan (it may be the Aim of the lesson, or it may be noted separately). It should embody a skill to be mastered, a significant problem to be solved, or a complex idea to be considered by the class. Learning goals differ significantly from the activities of the lesson (for instance, “students will learn to write a counter-argument” is a learning goal, but “students will write or revise their counter arguments” is an activity which does not yet identify what it is that students will learn during the lesson.) The learning goal is the place from which we begin to plan our lessons. Asking ourselves how students will learn to write counter-arguments will lead us to develop quality activities, which will support our lesson’s goals.
Activities (What will students do to help them learn?)
Activities should be designed to further the learning objective identified in the lesson plan. They should be generated by the material, skills, or ideas being taught and inspired by carefully planned questions that promote critical thinking. Activities will be most successful when students receive clear directions, models or exemplars, and clear expectations for desired outcomes. Therefore, “group work” is not a quality activity unless the goals, procedures and outcomes for students are evident in the plan.
As we design activities for our lessons we must remember that students should:
- Be actively involved in posing questions, solving problems, and answering questions;
- Interact with one another and with the teacher;
- Be able to clearly identify how the activities relate to the larger unit of study and, ideally, to their lives outside of school; and
- Read and write in every class every day
A summary or assessment (How will we know whether students have learned?)
The assessment or summary should help us evaluate whether or not our students have learned. It should allow us to know whether we have realized the instruc
tional objectives driving our plan, and it will help us gather information to plan for subsequent lessons. Students should attempt to demonstrate that they can solve a particular problem, use a new skill, or understand a concept by speaking, writing, or doing.
A homework assignment is a vital part of virtually every lesson. Such assignments can be used in a variety of ways. They can prepare students for the next lesson or provide a platform for further discussion of that day’s lesson. They can also be used to help students test their own understanding of the material and thus serve as a tool for self-evaluation. We post our homework on the school’s website to further engage parents in their children’s learning. Similarly our online grade book is a further attempt to make the parents of our students our partners in the education of their children.
We must remember that the tone we create in our community may teach our students more than the material we present to them. Encouragement and kindness are the only true way to raise expectations for our students. Young people produce their best work when they feel safe and when they feel that the adults around them know them, understand them, and want what is best for them. We all believe that our students’ skills, abilities, hopes and aspirations can change for the better, and that our work can be the leverage point for that change. That is why we teach. Our students must know our school to be a place where they are treated with kindness, a place where the best in them is encouraged each day, and a place where they are safe, both physically and emotionally.
Teaching, like learning, is a collaborative process. The insights of our colleagues about our students, about the material that we teach, and about our craft, are essential to our ability to improve our performance in the classroom. No single one of us is as talented or effective as the group of us can be, and all of us working together are sure to improve the quality of the education our students receive and therefore the quality of the lives they will lead. Our school makes a strong commitment to creating the conditions that allow us to work with, speak to, guide and help each other. We understand that authentic collaboration takes time but we know that we must be willing to listen to and work with each other if we are to be as effective as we need to be.
Writing a lesson plan requires us to think about what we want our students to learn. It is for this reason that written lesson plans are required by the Department of Education and by our school. A well crafted lesson plan requires us to be clear about how and why we want students to engage in the tasks we set for them. The process of conceiving the day’s activities and writing the plan enables us to develop a more successful lesson simply because it causes us to be thoughtful about what our students will do and about why we will have them do it. We write lesson plans because doing so requires us to make our sometimes nebulous ideas clear to both our students and ourselves. The lesson plan that is created shortly before a class begins often shortchanges our students because it lacks the focus and forethought that characterize a thoughtfully created plan.
The most powerful asset we possess when we create our lessons is our personal knowledge of our students, knowledge that allows us to understand how they can best interact with the material we are teaching. It follows then that:
- packets of material and lessons that are obtained from other people or from other sources may be helpful guides, but they are not satisfactory lesson plans because they were not designed by us for our specific students.
- notes detailing what we know about a topic or what we want students to know are not a lesson plan (however, describing how students will come to know that material and what they will do with their new knowledge certainly constitutes the beginning of a well constructed plan).
- a list of questions that we will ask our class or a worksheet for students to complete cannot be a lesson plan, because such documents still lack evidence of planning about what students will do with those questions or that worksheet, and why they will do it.
Our goal is to provide instruction that will be challenging, motivating and exciting for students. Teachers must actively solicit and encourage the involvement of students in the learning process. With careful, purposeful planning, all students will benefit from the joy and rigor that is associated with exemplary teaching.