Summer Project: Tweaking Those Flawed Lessons

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Every summer I collapse with exhaustion, thankful I made it through another year. About a week into the summer, my refreshed brain starts wondering “What if?” and I know I’m in for a wild ride. I think about all the lessons that faltered or failed and scan my teacher’s toolbox for ways to re-craft the experience so it will have a different outcome next year.

Before I start, I try to sift all the targeted lessons into mental bins, and I decide how much time I’m willing to devote to these overhauls. I sit down and make a list of the lessons I want to zero in on and then I start to classify them. I compare my list to the time I have to invest and just divide it by the number of lessons I have. Sometimes I go back and edit the list because I always have many more lessons than I can reasonably spruce up.

This year, my bins include science and math lessons that need:

• more engagement,

• better scaffolding to help all students progress,

• better content knowledge on my part,

• more literacy tie-ins,

• more and better tie-ins to current events and the real world,

• more technologically-relevant ways of completing the lesson,

• assessment improvements (both formative and summative), or

• complete elimination because the lesson is beyond help or because I realized I wasn’t teaching to my learning target

Although it’s a lot of work to make my bins, they really help me use my time much more efficiently because I know what improvements need to be made. I use a system where I review what’s been written most recently about the area that is lacking in my lessons, read up on the professional literature, and then figure out what remedy I can apply without creating a monster of a summer project. Let me take you through the steps I followed, for example, with creating more engagement as my focus.

Engagement really ties back to the age of the child. So I size up what makes the students in my classroom tick and what makes them buzz. Since I work with 11- to 13-year-olds, I know that learning has to be active and it has to involve talking if I want them to get hooked. Before I fall back on the tried and true methods, I make myself spend at least an hour reading the latest professional journals that address teaching practice. Since I can use online databases, this is not as not as hard as it once was. Where I live, I can use either my school district’s library resources, the state’s library systems resources, or I can go to the public library to connect to their databases (as I did in this case).

Thankfully, I have learned from my school library media specialists always to use the advanced search. I dutifully type the keywords “student engagement” in one box and "2010" in the "Publication Date" box. I also take a moment to check the box that reads "only" under "Full Text Articles." That way I don’t waste my time chasing an article that I can’t access because the library hasn't subscribed to it. I've also learned that if you hover the mouse over the magnifying glass in the list of articles, you can read the article's abstract without opening the whole thing. This makes it super time efficient and I can easily determine which articles I want to read all the way through. So out of the possible 6,000,000 articles in the database, as in this case, I found seven worth scanning.

It took me about 30 minutes to scan through the seven articles, including the time I had to invest in requesting that my public library make a copy of one of the articles for me since it wasn’t available online. I had 30 minutes left, so I scanned the other 17 articles that were also written in 2009.

Out of that hour’s investment, I came up with three neat new ideas to infuse my lessons: more teacher-student feedback loops, more learning objects (tangible things to draw students into the topic), and better ways to differentiate instruction. Sometimes the ideas I uncover are ones I knew about but had forgotten. This is good news because I can usually dig around in my own files and find a workshop or training I’ve attended, modify that, and be done in no time. If I don’t have ideas, then I need to dig a bit more.

I have a few easy ways to search for new ideas: visiting one of my Ning teacher communities; by tweeting my personal learning network (colleagues I can count on) for ideas; searching Delicious or Diigo by keywords; or phoning a friend who teaches something similar to what I looking for. Sometimes you can also use the blog search engine at Google to find other teachers who have posted about the same issue. I’ve even had luck finding a blogger who has written about an idea and is willing to exchange emails with me.

If I need to brush up on my content knowledge, I do pretty much the same thing except I broaden my search to include pertinent professional organizations like National Science Teachers Association. Almost all of these organizations have archived professional development webinars I can listen to and take notes on.

Completely unrelated to my list, I also try to read the latest popular books that have hooked students in my age group. This is probably the most fun I have all summer. My students have been crazy about the Percy Jackson series that ties Greek mythology to a boy about my students' age who must come to terms with the fact that he is part human, part Olympian god. The first novel took me several hours, but now I have the ability to draw references to that book and ask my students about it. I know I’m a math and science teacher, but it helps establish rapport/ And reading their books demonstrates that I’m interested in their lives. Plus the books are just fun to read.

So will I blow off my whole summer spiffing up lesson plans? Not really. I’ve planned on investing about 15 hours over the course of this summer break. I do these improvements in two-hour chunks about once a week so I don’t burn out. I’ve used this system for years, and I can honestly report that it helps keep what I teach fresh and interesting to me as well as to my students. The new pieces in my instructional framework also give me something to look forward to as the school year goes along.

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