Lesson Plans: a New Look at Data and Agency

In my first semester beat, I’m exploring the life-saving power of routines–but not just any routines. I’m talking about routines that make life easier, more efficient, and more familiar–even in the most daunting of times (cough, 2020, cough). I’m talking about routines that allow students to thrive whether you are teaching in person, virtually, hybrid, or anything else under the sun. Routines are a compass that can keep us from getting lost in unfamiliar landscapes. Routines are anchors that keep our boats from floating away during the storm. Routines build good instincts so that when the fledglings leave the nest, they soar.

This semester, I’m exploring routines because, as the old Beatles title reminds us, “Tomorrow Never Knows”.

Routines: Controlling the Chaos

When it comes to lesson planning, especially planning writing workshop during a pandemic–that stream of ideas, anxieties, and distractions can feel like water exploding from wrenched open fire hydrant. Routines can help. Routines provide a reliable series of pipes that allow you to harness the flow of ideas. Routines provide the cups into which you can pour your ideas. Routines provide lids so that you can store your ideas.

Routines give you control.

And isn’t that what everybody wants right now?

Today, I want to share a few routines that help you take back control of your planning so that you can deliver the best possible instruction, regardless of your circumstances.

Planning Routines

Whether you are in-person and socially distanced, online, or hybrid, you are in a different situation, don’t forget what we know to be true. Let’s take a minute and review:

Remember in college when we learned that we need to “tap prior knowledge” to find out what students come to you knowing how to do? This is still the case, right? So, when I plan a lesson, series of lessons, or unit, we begin by gathering information on where each student is with the skill(s) being taught.

We also know we need to begin with the end in mind. I like to imagine each skill or strategy as a door one walks through after walking up a staircase. I know learning isn’t that linear, but it helps me when planning to imagine how many steps would be in the stair case and what would have to happen at each step.

Before I go much further, I think that teachers need empathy–to understand what the learning will be like, will feel like, for the students. The best way I know to gain this kind of empathy is to do the assignments. This empathy also provides insight into how you’ll eventually teach students. When they say, “I’m struggling with ___.”, you’ll be able to say, “Oh yeah, that was tough for me, too. Here’s how I worked through that issue.”

We also know that feedback is key–but too often, the chaos of the school day makes it so that providing timely and useful feedback…well, it just gets away from us.

Last, but definitely not least, we know that students need agency–they need to be in control of their learning. This will require them reflecting in ways that make them self-assess their thinking and learning. It will also require that they be in control of some parts of the process–aka, we need to make sure students have opportunities to make decisions.

All of the above are things I have written down on a sheet of paper that sits in front of me every time I set out to make lesson or unit plans. These are my core beliefs. These are my planning routines.

In this post, we’ll focus on how I approach pre-assessment and student agency…through the power of routine.

Pre-assessment Simplified

Some call it tapping prior knowledge, others call it pre-assessment, and lately, many are calling it data-collection. Let’s simplify this to doing your best to figure out which students already know how to do something, which are close, and which need more support.

Please don’t show this to your instructional coach, and if you are an instructional coach, please don’t yell at me, but I really think we overcomplicate the pre-assessment process sometimes. Maybe you and your colleagues are better about this work, but in the my experience, preassessment was always presented as a super-formal “on-demand” process that asked students to show all the things they know how to do. I know that this seems efficient on paper–but how in reality, it functions as a high stakes test, no matter how sweet your tone of voice is as you go over the directions. It’s high stakes because, if you used the data (we’ll get to this in a minute), all of that student’s learning experiences will hinge on this one moment. How much of the pressure from this preassessment situation impacts students showing what they really can do? How much of the macro gets in the way of the micro–in other words, how many little things do students not show us because they are under pressure to complete the larger task?

If you use this form of preassessment, it’s not the worst thing that could happen. You’re trying to differentiate your instruction! You’re trying to plan for students’ diverse needs! This is also to say that there’s nothing wrong, in my view, with giving a preassessment and a post-assessment so that students can reflect on how they’ve grown.

In the end, I’m not about canceling preassessment–I want us to reimagine it. I want us to break it into pieces because, even if you are a teacher who defies my logic–even if you are a teacher who has cracked the code to giving expansive and robust preassessments, how often, if you are being honest, do you consult your pre-assessments? How useful is this data if you don’t pore over it before each lesson? If you don’t have that data (which again, may not be as accurate as you think) with you on a clipboard at all times, it’s like ordering a massive combo meal, eating a few fries, and throwing the rest away.

So, what if you had a routine where you simplified your “data collection”? What if you only ordered what you could eat?

For me, this routine looks like giving a quick assignment (or exit slip) that allows me to group students for the next lesson. Cris Tovani recommends that with these assignments, you just give students an “A” for completing it and put their papers into piles (or names into columns of a spreadsheet): ready for the next step / almost there / needs extra support with this.

Side note: these kinds of pre-assessments are often informal and eliminate the pressure on students that can corrupt the “data”.

When it comes time to teach these small groups, I give the whole class something to work on–usually just drafting a piece–and I pull small groups (have students work in three different Zoom breakout rooms, and I pop into each to teach a lesson).

So, to re-cap, instead of giving one massive pre-assessment that I may or may not use, and which may or may not accurately reflect a student’s abilities, I create a pre-assessment routine that ensures I’ll be able to differentiate my instruction and act on the data gleaned from student work.

The Right Kind of Agency

Are you still with me? I hope I didn’t lose you when I trash-talked preassessment just then…because I’m about to do the same thing to student choice!

Let’s face it: just giving students choices is not the answer. It is human nature to make choices that will make life feel easier–and not necessarily make life better. It’s why we eat food that will harm us long term (Wow. I’m talking about food a lot in this article. Must be lunch time). It’s why we drink things that will give us a headache tomorrow. It’s why we binge-watch Ozark when we should be writing a blog post. I digress.

Yes, we want to embed agency into our lessons so students have power over their learning–but, the thing is, agency alone won’t cut it. In order to make good choices, we need to know which choices will lead us to success. We also need to feel the pull toward success. On top of that, we need to know exactly what success does and does not look like.

Agency is more complicated than just giving students choices!

So, what kinds of planning routines can we dispatch that will put students in a situation that gives them the right kind of agency?

I think it starts with metacognition. More specifically, it starts with a culture of metacognition. Even more specifically, it starts with metacognitive routines. Last time, I talked about how routines are tricky, and that they don’t become routines until we get used to them. In other words, routines stink until they don’t. So, we can’t just plan to do a little bit of metacognition, and then do a little bit more in a few months. It needs to be a routine that is embedded into weekly, even daily, plans. On top of that, metacognitive activities also need to be presented in a few different ways–because it’s easy for something to slip from being a routine into “Oh god, this AGAIN?”

We want our routines, especially our metacognitive routines to have a bit of novelty to them so that the experience feels new–and yet completely familiar.

As you plan out ways you’ll be asking students to self-assess, you’ll want to have a bunch of different metacognitive methods in your back pocket. Not sure where to start? Tanny McGregor is my go-to.

Once you’ve got students into the routine of monitoring their own learning and growth, they’ll be more prepared to make better choices. One of my favorite choice routines for metacognitive students is to, instead of planning a sequence of revision lessons, put all my revision lessons on the board (or in a shared document) and allow students to sign up for which lesson they need. Before this, of course, students will have re-read their paper and written a bit about where they think they’ll be focusing during revision.

Then, I bounce from group to group (or from Zoom breakout room to Zoom breakout room), teaching lessons to students who signed up.

But what if the routine breaks down? What if they choose easy lessons instead of the ones they need? What if?! WHAT IF!!!!!

Well, if you’ve read any of my other articles, you know what’s coming next. We can meet with a student who is struggling with making good learning decisions, and we can problem-solve. In these “learning how to learn effectively” conferences, I can teach students how to make better learning decisions. I do this all the time, by the way. As I mentioned last time–problem-solving when things don’t go perfectly is a routine in my classroom.

That’s right! Even when we do everything right, things can still go wrong, and what do we do when things go wrong? We pause. We take a deep breath. We lean on our routines.

What kinds of planning routines do you lean on? What routines do you employ during even the most uncertain times? I’d love to know! Leave me a comment below or connect with me on Twitter: @MrWteach. You can also join our Facebook community at movingwriters.org/MovingWriters

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