Anatomy of a Challenging Lesson
Over the last year or so I seem to have slipped into a way of structuring a large percentage of my lessons in a particular way. I have to admit that this has worried me – I’ve always been an avid agitator against structures that are prescribed from above upon teachers, feeling that these are very often designed to control the way lessons are taught and consequently lead to a constriction of creativity and flexibility. As an English teacher, these are probably two of the most important qualities that I want from my lessons. Creativity is essential on my part in the planning of lessons, but more importantly, I would argue, in the lesson itself, and this is inherently linked to flexibility. The way we respond to the unforeseen and myriad spontaneous emergencies that arise within every lesson is what makes our lessons effective, and this is what makes me an enemy of over-planning. Fascinating insights from students as their brains grapple with concepts and ideas pop up ad infinitum during the day to day delivery of lessons, and the way that we harness and then develop these is to my mind, what makes truly great teaching. But as well as these, we have to deal also with the mundane yet challenging things that are just part and parcel of the job; the nose-bleed, the sudden tear-bursting, epileptic fits, faints, asthma attacks, fallings out, even, albeit very rarely, the threat or actual occurrence of physical violence. These are just the things that happen when we work with people.
So I’ve always been a great advocate of minimal planning and prefer an approach where we ensure that we really know our students and can react to, engage and challenge them in situ, rather than spending long and wasted hours trying to anticipate what might happen in a lesson and planning for it. But I think that the ability to work in this way comes from having a clear idea of an over-arching structure of the learning that will take place. It’s a lot like musical improvisation; the most exciting music is often heard when seasoned musicians get together for an impromptu jam, and yet they are working within predefined structures to ensure that things still hang together in a way that works. In the same way, a carefully thought out lesson structure allows teachers and students the freedom and flexibility to improvise within that structure.
So, to allow me and my students to be endlessly creative and flexible, I seem to have, somewhat unconsciously, settled on a general structure that I would say probably permeates about 60% of my lessons. It was only through reflecting on my teaching this year that I even realised this had happened and, like I said before, initially it concerned me. I thought that maybe I had become a slave to formula (I suppose you might argue that I have), but I now know that it’s the infinitely different things that occur within that structure that make the lessons great. I could start to bring in analogies with cooking (most of mine starts with olive oil, garlic and onions…) or even literary study (the identification of similar narrative structures and plots), but you get the point and we could be here forever.
So, what is this structure to which I have succumbed? It’s dead simple. Invariably, I begin the lesson with an image or a clip from YouTube. This could be to reinforce or rekindle an idea from the previous lesson or simply to allow a way back into the topic. It may be explicitly linked or not, and the question you ask may be focused or general (I had a great opening to a lesson on Macbeth last week where I showed an image of a man and a woman riding a motorbike through scrubland. The task was simply to link the image to the play; some of the ideas that the students came up with were dazzling and way beyond what my average mind would have conceived in isolation). This clearly very much depends on the group you are teaching or even how much time you’ve had to think it through first.
Secondly, my objective is always phrased as an open question which we return to constantly. I always used to have a separate title on the board with the objective written at the side and would get the students to write the title but never the objective; recently it occurred to me that this was pointless. By having your title as a big objective question, students can jot down notes that help them to answer the question as the lesson develops. Some recent ones have been:
• How does Shakespeare use Act 1 to engage the audience and set up the rest of the play?
• How does Golding give us clues about Jack’s character in chapter 6?
• Why are some themes more important than others?
• What do you learn from your questionnaire results?
• How have social media changed society in the last decade?
• How does (insert writer) create atmosphere through his/her description of setting?
Clearly these are huge questions and require lots of small steps that entail careful reading, discussion and other activities to build up to. And this, by its very nature, creates challenge and allows for differentiation. Students will naturally engage with a question like this at their own level, whilst you as their teacher can skilfully push them to the next level through careful questioning and allocation of time.
Once we have discussed our initial thoughts on the question, we tend to read some text that is relevant to what we are doing. This could be a broadsheet newspaper article, a scene from a play, a poem or a chapter from a novel. What is important here is that, whatever the text, we discuss it as we go, and students are encouraged to stop the reading if they have comments or questions. Reading tasks can take a multitude of guises; at the most elemental they can be individual, group or whole class based. But within these are huge varieties too, which I won’t go into here.
Usually these readings are accompanied by or followed up with other tasks that allow students to develop their thoughts and ideas about the texts they have read or the writing they will produce. This could involve group discussion, silent debate or carousel and jigsaw activities that ensure ideas are spread throughout the room and involve the production of rough working examples that can be analysed and evaluated later and used as models of good practice. Whilst this is happening I usually combine two separate activities for myself: modelling and monitoring. I always try to produce an excellent example of what the students are doing on the board to give them an idea of what they’re working towards and to support those who struggle to get started, whilst intermittently circling the room and listening to discussions or looking at what is being produced. In these situations I try to improve the challenge by throwing in extra questions, informed by Bloom’s and SOLO, to push and deepen their learning.
Once these activities have run their course, I like to bring the discussion back to the whole class to gauge the success of the activity before giving the students plenty of time to write an informed answer to the objective question. The write-up is always done in silence and I always take part, producing a model answer on the whiteboard. This develops good habits in the students (I call it “focused writing time”) and gives them the space to really reflect on their learning and the topic. I am not, however, slavish about timings here. If the previous activity hasn’t run its course I will allow it to continue and may begin the next lesson with the write-up session, before then starting on the new objective midway through the next lesson. And I really don’t worry if these big objectives end up running over a series of lessons; the fact that they are so huge means that they could develop in infinite ways that cannot be planned for meaningfully in any long term way.
And this is why I never plan more than one lesson ahead. Who can say what direction a lesson will take or what new and exciting ideas will crop up? Providing these are related back to the key learning intention and grounded in our threshold concepts, why should we worry about deviation from what was anticipated in a lesson? Again, the key is short term flexibility and creativity that works to improvise in response to a classes need within a bigger overarching structure.
So, to sum up, this is roughly what my lesson structure looks like:
Stimulating image/clip – Big Question – Reading – Discussion – Write-up
Clearly within each of the stages there are an infinite number of ways of engaging and challenging students through a variety of approaches and activities, but I find that it is working within this cycle for most of the time that allows me and my students to flourish, develop and grow.