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Teaching Secrets: How to Deliver Instruction That Sizzles

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There’s a funny scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”—one of my all-time favorite movie moments. The teacher, played by Ben Stein (no relation), bulldozes through a lesson, oblivious to the fact that his students are bored out of their minds. From time to time, he poses a question to a classroom full of blank-faced teenagers. Nothing. Then, the immortal line: “Anyone? Anyone?”

I learned one of my most valuable lessons about teaching when I was 10 years old—only I didn’t realize it until decades later. Mr. Schulman, my 5th grade teacher, was reading from our social studies textbook. He sat on the edge of his desk in a comfortable pose, one leg anchored on the ground, while the other swayed hypnotically. Smack in the middle of this lesson, he stopped talking. As he glanced around the room, about half the class, including me, sat up straight. We folded our hands on our desks and waited for him to either continue or to reprimand the disengaged.

But he didn’t continue. And he didn’t reprimand. Instead, Mr. Schulman smiled and said, “There’s no use continuing if most of the class is falling asleep.” Rather than resume his reading, he decided to take a few minutes to review the key points and share his personal stories and thoughts about the topic. His manner was relaxed and engaging, and each student listened with intent. The class perked up.

Inside this little snippet of school-girl history lies the secret to effective lesson planning and instructional delivery. I call it: “the student perspective factor”—a teacher’s awareness of her students’ state-of-mind, individually and collectively, throughout the lesson. Mr. Schulman was aware, and when the opportunity and need for greater engagement arrived, he was ready.

Effective lessons incorporate meaningful objectives, procedures and assessments, and weave in standards and expectations. We’ve learned to write these lessons according to a specific format. But it’s within the spaces of this instructional fabric that we find the intangible student-perspective factor. Effective teachers develop a keen awareness of this dynamic and know how to work with it as the lesson plan unfolds.

How to Put Your Awareness to Work

We often hear of the “teachable moment.” The difference with this idea, however, is that we don’t wait for random opportunities to increase student connectedness. We anticipate and encourage these moments.

Here are several ways I recognize, manage, and respond to the student-perspective factor.

Overplan—When I plan, I jot down related ideas when they come to mind. This not only saves time during future lesson planning; these linked ideas can also be pulled from my “bag of tricks” opportunistically.

Make the topic come alive—Get past textbooks, contrived teacher manuals, and dull drill. Make the topic jump off the page with examples and stories sure to energize your age group. Allow focused excitement to take over as facts are learned.

Get personal—Kids love to know us as “real people.” Share personal thoughts and experiences that connect to the topic being discussed.

Connect to real life—Make time for students to evaluate the lesson by thinking about any personal context it may have. They can compare and contrast elements of the topic to their lives and current events. Make it relevant.

Active engagement—Get the kids involved. Avoid the “Pez dispenser” teacher-directed mode of lesson delivery. Provide opportunities for students to make sense of the information—actively. This can be accomplished through cooperative-learning activities and effective questioning techniques that nudge them to engage with the material.

Keep your “withitness” level set on high—Notice their expressions, body language, and interest level. Make eye contact, use your voice, and walk around the room. Turn up the voltage when heads begin to nod. Keep them reading, writing, listening, and speaking in a variety of ways for optimal learning.

Specific feedback—Acknowledge each student as an individual. Provide specific feedback that encourages students to self-monitor their learning. Saying something as simple as, “Jesse, I noticed that you…” or, “Brian, what made you think that?” keeps them alert to the learning process. Sometimes your proximity to them and a quick smile is all that’s needed. You can circulate around the room during a think-pair-share session. Listen in and make each student feel like a valued member of the learning process.

I weave in the student-perspective factor naturally, yet strategically, throughout my daily lessons. As I plan lessons, my written objectives answer three questions: What will students be learning? What will they be doing? How will I know when I have taught it and they have learned it?

I always present essential questions because it becomes a focal point for students’ attention and understanding—and it keeps me on track. The best essential questions are open-ended with plenty of room for a variety of correct answers and lively discussions. The most successful lessons conclude with a room filled with students who are excited to learn more.

At the planning stage, the student-perspective factor can be sensed but not seen. It presents itself as the lesson unfolds during actual teaching moments. Teachers gain the student perspective by observing, evaluating, and caring about what students are thinking and feeling at the start, in the middle, and at the end of the class.

There is a flow to an effective lesson that good teachers can discern. When the flow begins to falter—and sometimes it will—your keen sense of the student-perspective factor will help you restore the rhythm of learning and deliver instruction that sizzles.

How are you incorporating the student-perspective factor into your lessons?

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