Note: Today’s post marks the beginning of a new beat for winter–reducing decision fatigue in the writing classroom. So many of us pour our energy into lesson and unit prep, grading papers, reorganizing the classroom, setting up conferences and other writing teacherly tasks that we have very little energy to do the most important work of all: connect with our writers in class in the very moments it matters most.
In this beat I will unpack the writing teacher practices that can be life-sucking and explore ways to make them more-life giving. We will explore ways to simplify what we do, and reduce decision fatigue around preparation so we have more to give–more energy, more time, more of ourselves–when we’re in front of our writers. I can’t wait! ~Allison
Moving Writers Plans a Lesson
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been teaching: you still have that recurring nightmare about walking into the classroom without a lesson plan, possibly in your underwear, all 60 eyes staring back at you.
My anxiety around lesson planning started in my teacher prep program when we had to complete backwards design-type templates for our lessons, complete with scripts showing what we would say to our students, and tie-ins from all the books we were reading. While this exercise can be helpful to students who are learning how to teach, it also promotes the notion that lessons are like beautifully wrapped presents: all tied up, complete in every way, perfect.
In the early days of my teaching, I would spend hours, HOURS, getting my lesson plans right. I can still see my younger self sitting down at the kitchen table, late at night, all the teacher books fanned out around me, the voices of my teaching heroes calling out to me: Here’s an idea! Here’s a better idea! Do it this way! I was convinced I had to find a way to merge all thirty ideas about teaching show-don’t-tell into one perfect lesson. I remember a moment in a coffee shopping planning with a more experienced teacher. She closed the books around me, put her soft hand on top of mine and said, “Try just using your brain today. No more books.” I was too enamored by my gurus to understand what she was saying, too drunk on their ideas and perfection-hungry to really listen. It wasn’t for another several years and multiple burnouts later that I would be ready to put more trust in myself and view lesson planning in a new way.
Lesson Planning: A Shift in Mindset
At an NCTE session a few years ago, a Columbia Teacher’s College presenter encouraged us to take the same amount of time to plan a lesson that it would take to teach that lesson. So, if you aim for a 10 minute mini lesson, you should allow yourself ten minutes to plan. This bit of advice was life-altering for me. Ten minutes to plan a lesson? Oh, how freeing! And how much more time I would have to do all the things! But how could one plan a meaningful lesson in 10 minutes?
Wrapping my brain around this bit of advice required a mindset shift. I had to move away from the idea of lesson-plan-as-shiny-package towards a new understanding: Lessons can be short talks that move writers forward.
Preparing a short talk verses a lesson feels more manageable. Lessons can be lengthy and heavy; they often run into writing time. Lessons can be more teacher-driven. Lessons sometimes try to measure things that aren’t immediately measurable. But…
Short talks are brief: they are respectful of a writer’s time. Short talks get out of the way to make room for the most important activity in the room: the writing itself. They know the most important lessons are the ones discovered by writers as they write. And short talks hint at a two-way conversation, an opportunity for students to talk during the lesson or talk “back to” the lesson with questions and curiosities and how-might-this-serve-my-writing wonderings.
Let’s take a look at the steps you might take to create a short talk that will move your writers forward.
Step One: Decide what to teach
How do you decide what to teach? We often look to yearly plans, unit plans, and pacing guides. Sometimes, however, students have a need that isn’t being addressed by the current plan and we have to go off course for a bit to meet them where they are. No matter the source you refer to for deciding what to teach, here are a few questions you might want to keep in mind:
- What do I want my writers to be able TODAY as a result of this lesson?
- What do I want my writers to be able to do in the LONG TERM as a result of this lesson?
- How is what I want to teach like what real writers do?
- What process do I want my writers to learn?
- What do I want my writers to experience today?
- How do I want my writers to feel during this lesson?
- What did I teach yesterday, what am I teaching the rest of this week, and how will tomorrow’s writing lesson fit into this sequence?
- What is Penny Kittle teaching about writing? *Refreshes Penny’s Twitter feed 😉
Not all lessons are skills lessons. Not all lessons have a measurable outcome. One of the best lessons I ever taught was focused on a feeling: I wanted my students to have more confidence moving forward in their current writing project by the end of our brief talk.
Step Two: Do An Authenticity Check
One of the things Rebekah and I always ask ourselves when planning a lesson is: DO REAL WRITERS DO THIS? If the answer is no, we change course. If the answer is yes, we feel confident the brief talk we’re preparing is worthwhile. To do this you might think about what you do as a writer, or talk to other writers you know. You can also just look around you: what is the piece you read this morning over coffee telling you? The article your friend just Tweeted? The headlines from today’s newspapers?
For example, let’s pretend you’re teaching the five paragraph essay because you have to, or because you find it a useful scaffold. You might run through a few questions to determine if this would make for a meaningful talk:
- Do real writers do this? How many five-paragraphs essays do you come across when you do a 10-minute scan of various articles in the newspaper, or whatever magazine you’re reading?
- Think of your last personal writing project. Was it five paragraphs?
- Ask other writers how they determine how many paragraphs to make a piece of writing. Do they usually start with five? Or a number at all?
There are myriad ways to teach structure that don’t involve handing our students a template that ultimately removes their autonomy and decision-making power as writers.
Step Three: Find your Penny Kittle
My professional development library is overflowing. I crave new knowledge and delight in finding new ways to teaching things and different ways of thinking about teaching writing. However, I become quickly overwhelmed when I sit down to plan something, my books open around me like old friends, especially when trying to practice the 10-minute rule. My advice is to pick one guru, one voice, one book that will inform the decisions you make when planning writing lessons and save the rest for another time. For me that is Penny Kittle. Whenever I’m feeing foggy or ungrounded, I reach for Write Beside Them, and that shows me the way.
I’m obsessed with cookbooks and experience the same overwhelm during my weekly meal planning. But recently I took the advice of a beloved podcaster who recommended cooking my way through ONE cookbook, or allowing myself ONE new recipe per week. This simple system has opened up space for me to perfect many dishes, instead of cooking lots of different things one time; to dive deeply into another cook’s brain and heart and kitchen; to relax more around meal planning so its more enjoyable and less of a stressful decision-making process.
Step Four: Rely On Yourself
After you choose a guru and consider how their teachings or examples might inspire your own lesson, close the book. Close the book and turn to yourself and make a decision about how you want to teach the lesson. What feels right? What makes the most sense? What have you done in the past? What would be simple but effective? How do you think the lesson should be taught?
It’s easy to get sidetracked by all the drowning voices: the administrators, the pacing guides, fellow colleagues, the books we love. Most of the voices are well intentioned, but at the end of the day, it’s you standing up in front of your kids–or sitting down beside them–giving the short talk. What feels natural to you?
Step Five: Find Real Examples and Use a Simple Flow
Keeping authenticity in mind, we want to provide as many real examples as we can. If we are teaching a lesson about a specific skill we want our students to have, we find examples of this skill in use in a few different places in real world writing. If we are teaching a process lesson, we might gather quotes from writers (writers we know, or writers we read about) to give students a sense of what the process might look, sound, and feel like. We also use the power of modeling to give students a live demonstration of the process or skill. Decide from where you will pull your examples, and gather them.
Then, use a simple flow to bring everything together. Rebekah and I love this simple five-part flow for creating short writing lessons that will move writers forward. Here’s what it looks like:
I want to point out a few things here:
- This simple flow emphasizes the “why” behind the lesson. It’s essential to communicate to our writers why we are teaching about something. Identifying your why is as simple as asking yourself, “How does this skill/process/experience help real writers? Why might a real writer do this?”
- This pattern can be tweaked for process lessons, as well, or lessons that will simply communicate a feeling or provide an example. The point is, keep it simple and streamlined and predictable. Predictability means that students will never become bogged down in the information of the lesson: they know how your lessons work, so they can get in and get out. They’ll take the information they need and bring it right back to their notebooks where the real learning takes place.
- The last box invites students to try the technique in their writing. This is where the short talk ends. In your planning, leave more time than you want to for writing practice.
- You’ll notice the recipe above does not leave space for an activity. Students are not creating manipulatives or writing scripts to showcase what they learned during the lesson. When you realize that the actual writing is the activity, you will feel a load lift. No more planning 15-step activities that result in tiny projects and classwork items to grade at night. I’ll say it again: the writing is the activity, the most important activity, and the lessons are kept short so as much of the class period can be dedicated to writing as possible.
Give your brain a rest and simplify your lesson planning system. The smarter we work outside of the classroom, the more brain and heart space we have for teaching our writers the next day. What are your tips for streamlined lesson planning? What does your system look like?