Breaking and Remaking Lesson Plans

I just had an interesting lab session with a school district we’re working with this year. The teachers (K-2) want to extend the scope and dynamics of their lesson plans, and make sure they challenge their students. But the teachers also don’t have much free time, are, in many cases, new to the curriculum, and also feel that they need to be in alignment with the curriculum, for various administrative reasons. (Although the expectation from admin is that the curriculum will be supplemented. But still.)

The implications for me were that rather than demo one of my favorite Math for Love games or lessons, I wanted to model how one might break and remake a lesson plan. I wanted a process that would be quick and dirty, so teachers could implement ideas quickly; after all, they might have only a short time to review a lesson plan from the curriculum before teaching it.

The lesson that was given to me to demo was flawed in some pretty intense ways. For one thing, it was a lesson for 1st graders that was meant to be teacher-led instruction for a full hour. (Let that sink in.) The goal of the lesson was to have students connect story problems and subtraction equations. It included, in the middle, almost as an afterthought, the instruction to let students come up with a few of their own ideas for story problems, which the teacher would transcribe on the board and solve altogether.

Here’s the process I wrote down, which I think does a pretty good job of imitating the sieve I pass lesson plans through in my own mind.

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I thought this was a pretty good draft, and a good introduction to breaking and refashioning lesson plans to fit your classroom better. I’d appreciate feedback, especially if you have some favorite strategies my list is missing.

For this particular lesson, I launched with a related warmup (Target Number), and built an example story problem with the class. In fifteen minutes, we had accomplished what the lesson had said should take forty minutes, and then I released the kids for what we decided should be the main event: writing and solving their own story problems, and challenging each other with the ones they’d written. By launching quickly and letting the students generate their own work, we’d also succeeded in raising the ceiling of the task, and many of the students showed that they were comfortable with much larger numbers than the class had explored up to that point, adhering, as it had, to the curriculum.

And more than that, it was fun. The students were proud of their work, and stayed engaged, even though the material, without their input, wouldn’t necessarily have held their interest. Here are some of the student’s problems.

student-crafted-story-problems1 student-crafted-story-problems2 student-crafted-story-problems3

After 15-20 minutes of students dreaming up and solving their own problems, we had plenty of time to wrap up and pose even more difficult problems, involving one-digit numbers everyone was comfortable with, but more complicated stories, involving addition AND subtraction.

Many teachers don’t have the time, expertise, or permission to go too far outside their curriculum. But the good news is that most lesson plans in your curriculum are built around some good idea, even if it’s only a kernel at the center. But there’s a filter you can put these lessons through that accentuates the good while straining out the bad.

You’ve seen my draft above. Try it out, and let me know how it works for you, and if there are changes that should be made to it.

Comments 2

  1. Anna Blinstein

    Really like this formulation – seems like an extension of the Three Act approach to creating tasks, but is more general. Two questions:
    1) Do you work with high school math teachers and if so, do you see any differences in lesson planning between elementary/middle/high school lessons?
    2) Do you have thoughts on how to move past the level of the daily lesson and what principles you use to tie lessons together?

    1. Post

      Thanks, Anna. That’s an interesting connection you make between these questions and the three act structure. The three act structure is a powerful one, but a lot of teachers I work with find it daunting to begin making their own lessons using it. Even trying out existing three act lessons can be a big step for many of them, and can often feel like they’re having to generate new curriculum, or abandon what they’re already using. What I’m really grappling with is how teachers can take a small first step within the curriculum they’re already using, and then feel confident in repeating that step every day. I see some similarities for sure, though, especially in terms of starting with a question, and letting students pose the questions.

      To answer your questions:

      1) We currently work mostly with K-8. However, I myself used to be a high school teacher, and I remember my shock at moving to work with 4th graders for the first time. I think the main difference is that middle and especially high school students can continue working and focusing on something once you’ve got them interested, while younger kids sometimes need to be reengaged in a task, or simply need to have a change of gears after a certain amount of time. There sometimes needs to be a little more structure and clear guidelines in one’s instructions to students, and a few more ideas about where to go in one’s back pocket, since class can flop out of control if you’re not careful, especially with little kids. With older kids I think it’s much easier to pose a really interesting question, help get them started, and let their own momentum carry them along for an hour.

      2) This is such an excellent question. I have answers for my own lessons, but I’ll have to think about it more when it comes to the curricula the book uses. I’ll be chewing it over in preparation for my next meeting with these teachers.

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