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For Teachers

Elements of a Truly Great Lesson Plan

By Jennifer Gunn August 19, 2019

Every school, district, and teacher has their own version of the lesson plan. Some are quite formal while others may be a loose listing of bullet points. The usual stuff like standards, do-nows, and exit tickets are great, but here are some other ideas for what to include in a lesson plan to maximize student impact.

Activate background knowledge

It’s pretty rare to cover a topic that your students have absolutely no context or knowledge of. Even with the most complex topics, today’s students have some inkling or knowledge that can relate. After all, they are not empty vessels and today’s students have a lot of referential knowledge thanks to the internet. It’s important to consider how you will activate any background knowledge your students may have. “A person’s background knowledge, often called prior knowledge, is a collection of “abstracted residue” (Schallert, 2002, p. 557) that has been formed from all of life’s experiences,” says ReLeah Cossett Lent, a former educator and author. “We all, whether as a toddler or a centenarian, bring diverse bits of background knowledge — consciously or subconsciously — to every subsequent experience, and we use them to connect or glue new information to old. Background knowledge is an essential component in learning because it helps us make sense of new ideas and experiences.”

Anticipate misconceptions

Let’s say you’re teaching a new topic — say, reproduction. What are the possible misunderstandings or misconceptions your students may have on this topic? What background knowledge do they already have and how might it have shaped some misconceptions? Considering these things ahead of time can help shape your lesson to be more effective, rather than scrambling in the moment to adjust. “There is a high probability that some, or all, of the students in your target course will have misconceptions and/or inaccurate prior knowledge that will actively inhibit their ability to learn course material,” says Judith Longfield in her paper, Lesson Plan with Misconception/Bottleneck Focus. “Unless you identify these misconceptions — also called learning bottlenecks — and address them explicitly, students may be unsuccessful in mastering disciplinary thresholds.” As you teach the same topics over and over, common misconceptions will become more clear. You can’t predict all outcomes — nor should you, as flexibility is key — but you can give some forethought into the misconceptions your students may have.

Pre-plan higher-level questions

You’re in class and you’re throwing out some questions to your class. Maybe you’re only getting one-word answers or yeses and nos — or a regurgitation of something you said. When we make up questions in the moment, they tend to be more simple and less challenging than if we’ve planned ahead with some higher-order-thinking questions. Up your question game by pre-planning some more complex questions that ask students to go beyond remembering to analyze, explain, create, or evaluate or apply. Here’s a list of question stems to help.

Consider formative assessments

Most teachers consider what activities and assignments they’ll use in class, but may not always plan the various other ways to formatively assess students in the moment. Are your students getting it? How can you tell? Do you need to adjust your lesson? Re-explain something? Demonstrate or give more examples? When lesson planning, consider the ways you will assess your students’ understanding in class — beyond the assignment. There are innumerable ways it can happen — questioning, observation, discussion, exit slips, self-assessment, think-pair-shares, etc. If you see that your students aren’t quite there, what will you do to help? If your lesson plan is armed with ideas, you’ll be that much more prepared to deal with anything. Check out this graphic for help.

Be thoughtful about timing

Teachers are always running out of time! A lesson plan is flat and perfectly timed on paper, but a room full of humans throws a wrench into timing. The more you teach, the better you’ll become at anticipating timing, but even the most expert teachers can’t always anticipate how long something will take. Regardless, be thoughtful about timing so that your students get the most out of each lesson. You don’t want to consistently miss out on the important closing summation because you spend too much time on the opening. If that’s happening, it’s time to reassess your timing. Also, be wary of trying to pack in too much in each lesson. Less is often more and you can make a deeper and more long-lasting impact when you focus on depth over breadth — instead of overwhelming your students with too much at once.

Jennifer L. M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education, where she has been for nearly a decade. She is a curriculum designer and public high school educator in New York City. Jennifer is the creator of Right to Read, a literacy acceleration program for urban adolescent youth that’s steeped in social justice. She is an education writer and is co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference, which won the New York City Department of Education Excellence in School Technology Award this year. Jennifer regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation. Follow Jennifer online at www.jenniferlmgunn.com or on Twitter.

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