Lesson planning – the unexpected twists and turns

We, teachers, like to plan our lessons to the tiniest detail because they say that an hour of planning can save you ten hours of doing. But life and teaching aren’t just about plans – they’re about results, too. So in addition to punctilious planning, we set goals and expect certain outcomes.

That said, regardless of how meticulously we plan or how much we expect, and what specific bits of knowledge we aim to pass on to our students, every student’s takeaway and experience of that lesson will eventually be unique. I mean, each lesson plan, whether on paper or just in our heads, is in effect lifeless. It is through student engagement that it is finally brought to life. When this happens, our students have an experience. As a result, their experience, and particularly their reaction stemming from that experience, may bring about unexpected twists and can even create some new experience we didn’t even imagine it would. In other words, how each student responds to our lesson changes and/or enriches the original plan (or it may well shatter it to pieces) and subsequently affects the experience of others in the classroom, including the teacher.

Obviously, this is something you can’t fully control and predict. If you are an experienced teacher, you know all too well that you need to be prepared for this. But that’s all you can do about it – be ready.

Let’s say that at some point in the lesson, you plan to ask a really intriguing question. You believe it will trigger an interesting debate which will be a springboard for another activity. In your lesson plan, you note down that this debate should last for 5 minutes max. You ask that question. You wait. Silence… You wonder what’s going on in all those little heads. You wonder what the students are experiencing right now; is it embarrassment, boredom, or are they just being shy? Maybe it’s a difficult question and they are thinking about it. To avoid more potential awkwardness, you decide to step in. And here comes the twist you didn’t plan for; you say: “Ok, tell your partner first and then we’ll share some of your ideas together as a class”. Surprisingly, the students start chatting away immediately. It’s been more than 5 minutes now. You should stop them but it seems they are experiencing a lot of excitement. This makes you feel excited too. It’s a good feeling to see that they are fully engaged. It makes you want to keep them in that state a bit longer. You’re weighing your options. While monitoring and pretending that everything is going according to plan, you are experiencing a bit of indecisiveness. It’s somewhat uncomfortable. This discomfort makes you want to get back that good feeling of flow. “What should I do next?” You have a plan to follow and objectives to meet …

The above example clearly illustrates that it’s not just the plan and your expectations that will determine the course and quality of the lesson; it’s all the imperceptible, unexpected and unpredictable that happens on the spot which to a great extent shapes your students’ learning experience and the outcomes. All this uncertainty is not for the faint of heart; it may cause anxiety and concern, especially if you are a novice teacher. But, it’s exciting too. After all, teaching is an adventurous job. Nothing is permanent; everything changes and you are constantly pushed out of your comfort zone by some invisible, intangible forces. All this gradually makes you better and better prepared for what comes next. 

How to survive six lessons in a row?

Without exaggeration, having to teach six consecutive lessons with 5 or 10-minute breaks in between may sometimes be a real ordeal. In my context, it is the maximum you can reach because then you REALLY need a lunch break. If you wanted to sound overly optimistic, you could say that there is a lot of variety. Indeed. We’re talking about a lot of variables here, such as six different groups, ages, mixes of genders, coursebooks, sets of additional materials, classrooms, numbers of students, seating arrangements, vibes, levels of motivation, etc.

Now, if you are good at maths, you know that these variables provide an awful lot of combinations. Let’s say you start with a group of fifteen 12-year-olds (odd number is never ideal) which consists of three boys and twelve girls (not perfect either), you need to grab a specific coursebook (which you may or may not know like the back of your hand), you teach in a small classroom on the top floor (while your office is on the ground floor), the seats are arranged in a horseshoe (good… if it’s your preferred arrangement), the students are eager to learn (excellent!) but are a bit too noisy sometimes (you need to take this into consideration when planning the lesson). Then you go on to teach a group of fourteen 16-year-olds (6 students are missing, 7 haven’t done their homework), the classroom is in the adjacent building, you are using a brand new coursebook you are not quite familiar with yet, etc. If this marathon happens on a Monday (which will be my case from September on), you have the whole weekend to prepare for it. But even with thorough lesson plans, you have to be perfectly fit on that day (no mild colds, headaches, hangovers or other types of sores). And if you are like me, you may even need a lot of coffee all along.

Most of all, be prepared to cut corners in order to survive. In no particular order, these are some of the tips that have worked for me.

  1. Don’t feel guilty if you come to the classroom a few minutes later. You don’t have a jetpack after all. Explain, apologize and start the lesson as if nothing happened.
  2. Do not overrun a lesson. If possible, finish a minute earlier rather than a minute later.  
  3. If you are preparing some additional fun materials (warmers, games), do not hesitate to use the same activity in two or more lessons (with all the necessary adjustments).
  4. In the morning, put your coursebooks in a pile in the order you are going to need them – with the first one on the top of the pile. The same applies to the additional materials and the equipment you’ll need, such as your CD player. Have everything at hand.
  5. In advance, ask a student from each group to meet you at your office to help you carry all the stuff. Your transfer to the classroom will happen much faster.
  6. To save your vocal cords, include a lot of group/pair work and/or writing/reading practice (or tests). Speak as little as possible. Let the students do the work.
  7. ‘Lay low’, i.e. do not experiment or take too many risks in the form of brand new, untested activities. You don’t really need to spike up your cortison levels.
  8. You may feel tired towards the end of the day. This is when caffeine stops working and your energy levels drop. Thus conflicts may arise (at least in my case). Be careful. Do not be harsh on you or your students.
  9. Do not rely on technology too much. The internet may not be working properly on that day so if you have planned the whole lesson around a YouTube video, you may feel bitter. Also, it may take some time to connect all the cables laying around before you are able to turn on the damn smart TV. In fact, I try to avoid technology completely on such a busy day.
  10. Finally, remember that your students have had six lessons in a row too, so it’s not just you who feels tired (and possibly bored to death). Be patient, especially towards the end of the day.

Most importantly, and this is where you can’t cut corners, you really need some sort of a plan, no matter how experienced and good at improvisation you are. I always look forward to my upcoming lessons, even when there are six consecutive classes ahead of me, but I do have to know that I am well-prepared for each and every one to a certain extent.

If I ever have to teach via Zoom again, what will I do differently?

The first thing that comes to mind here is the workspace. It may seem superficial and quite unimportant given the seriousness of the circumstances we found ourselves in, but to me, it was one of the crucial aspects. At the beginning of the whole lockdown situation, I delivered my classes from my office at school. Later on, we were obviously advised to stay at home. The latter scenario felt more comfortable at first (and definitely safer at that time), but it had a few drawbacks too – there was a fine line between work and my personal life (not that there was much of it). In other words, this situation invaded my and my family’s privacy and eventually ended up feeling incredibly confining. So, next time, if possible, I’d definitely like to stick to going to my office and delivering the lessons from there.

One of the most controversial and generally highly debated topics would probably be the use of web cameras (or rather the lack thereof). There were groups where it was not an issue at all. However, some students were hesitant or absolutely reluctant to turn on their cameras, which caused a bit of friction between us, especially in the beginning. But I finally surrendered (especially after some personal experience of reluctance on my part) and even though sometimes I was the only one visible on the screen, I didn’t mind. What would I do differently next time? Well, I’d probably try to set some clear rules regarding cameras right from the start.  

Now, I should say that there were some things that worked quite well, so I’d like to keep them up next time around. First and foremost, I’d definitely like to keep the flipped learning format. Let me explain what I mean here. Flipped learning was born out of general education long before Covid-19. The key principle is that the learners do the input part of the lesson at home, on their own. Flipped learning takes advantage of technology and lets learners use their own time and technology for lesson input. Class time is then used to do further exercises or controlled practice, to revise main ideas and key points and to work on a project in groups or as a whole class. In practice, this means that I wouldn’t teach 4 out of 4 lessons a week synchronously but 2 asynchronously and 1 or 2 synchronously, for example. In other words, my students would study the content on their own, through materials such as videos and texts I would create for them, and then we would go over the content together in a Zoom lesson. In some schools, the teachers had to deliver all the lessons synchronously. This must have been exhausting for all parties involved (the teachers, the students and the parents) as well as ineffective, in my opinion. The Ministry of Education advised against this layout anyway.

As far as asynchronous lessons are concerned, I think I went out of my way to create interesting and engaging materials. This was the part I enjoyed most. I learned a lot in the course of time and I believe my students truly appreciated my zeal. Still, I realize one needs to be really careful and not overdo it. Too much of a good thing may sometimes be overwhelming. Balance is important here. For instance, escape games may be fun if you include them occasionally but a bit of drill has its place in an online lesson too. Anyway, another tip I’d like to share with my future self is to prepare all the materials in advance (which I basically did) so that I can publish them right in the morning. This brings me to the next point…

The Zoom (synchronous) lessons always had to overlap with the actual timetable, which, in my opinion, was a sensible requirement from the administrators. However, the asynchronous lessons could literally span over the course of the whole day (or longer). It means that I published homework at 8:00 am and the submission deadline was 8:00 am the following day before the next English lesson. If the next lesson was two days later, the students actually had 48 hours to complete the task. This is how I liked to do it. Some students did the assignment as soon as they could while others did it at the last minute. This was not a big deal once they did submit the homework on time. Nevertheless, it made things complicated for me; in the attempt to make sure that each and every student received immediate feedback, I ended up peeking at the submission table all day long. My bad. You get what you ask for. Anyway, next time, I guess it would be wiser to set a strict time limit and get students to do the assignments within the frame of the actual lesson, e.g. from 8:45-9:30. I’m aware that it would be quite restrictive for some (the night owls would not be over the moon) but it may prevent procrastination and make things easier for the teacher. However, all teachers would have to make sure that their assignments don’t take longer than 45 minutes (the length of a typical lesson in the Czech Republic). This might actually prove quite tricky.

Well, if this generally dreaded scenario is ever to materialize again, I would like to be well prepared – mentally as well as physically. That’s why I’ve drafted this post anyway. 🙂

Asynchronous learning – in the center of attention

It’s October 30, the last day of the ‘Autumn holiday’ week. Here I am, working on my lesson plans for next week, when the school ‘starts’ again. Well, it’s not a real holiday and the school doesn’t really start on Monday, at least not in the sense one would normally imagine. I’ve actually been working from home for the past couple of weeks and it seems I will be doing so for another few weeks, months, …? Who knows.

So far, I’ve mostly been teaching asynchronously but since the situation regarding the reopening of schools is more than uncertain here in the Czech Republic, I’m planning to include synchronous lessons as well from Monday 2 on. I must say, however, that so far, teaching asynchronously has been a truly enjoyable and creative process for me. Finally, I have all the time in the world to search the internet for interesting materials. I simply love creating quizzes and making videos and recordings of my own. The sky is the limit. But it’s important to constantly ask questions: Is the process as enjoyable and creative for my students as it is for me? How useful are the materials? Are they as efficient as they appear to be? And how do I actually know?

Based on my experience, an asynchronous lesson has the potential to be much better-thought-out than any real lesson (be it in the actual class or via Zoom). It’s a bit like coursebook writing, I guess; you need to think twice before you include a task and the accompanying instructions. For example, you need to carefully consider the length, the actual wording and the fact that sometimes the students are better off with instructions in their mother tongue. You constantly change and rewrite things before you post them. You include a picture if it’s all too visually boring and delete one if it appears a bit too overwhelming. You shorten an exercise once it seems too daunting and you add a sentence or two to avoid the dumbing-down effect. Balance is the key word. And once everything is in balance, you can enjoy the end result to the fullest.

Having said that, while a coursebook writer doesn’t usually know their end ‘viewer’, you do. In fact, it’s imperative to think of the actual student doing the tasks. You need to constantly imagine them in front of their computers: how much time will they potentially spend completing your assignment? What resources will they need? Will their need their parents’ help, for example?

No wonder you end up spending far more time on each lesson than you normally would. But it’s a good investment. I believe that students can gain a lot from a good asynchronous lesson. Why? Particularly because the student is finally working most of the time. You, the teacher, no longer rob the student of their precious time, as you would inevitably do in a synchronous lesson. In other words, they don’t get distracted by everything that is going on in the class and they can fully focus on the task. They are in the center of your attention, so to speak. With that said, the fast finishers get no longer bored (because when they finish, they go about their own business). The slow finishers aren’t so stressed anymore (because nobody is impatiently waiting for them to get a move on).

All in all, it’s a whole new world for me, which I’m really enjoying at the moment.

Embracing uncertainty

OK. It’s been a week since I wrote my last post and I must say things have changed a lot. Well, actually, things haven’t changed at all, at least not to the better. Still, I feel my perspective has shifted a great deal.

It’s unbelievable how flexible a human being can be, especially in times of despair. People can bear a lot of load. And the more of it they carry, the lighter the burden from previous days seems in comparison to what they are struggling with at the minute.

The teaching and learning conditions at schools here in the Czech Republic (and I dare say in the rest of the world) are nothing like they used to be, say, a year ago. Apart from the physical changes (masks, disinfectants, social distancing), there are some mental obstacles we need to tackle on a daily basis. At the back of our minds, there is this omnipresent fear of something we don’t quite understand. And that’s a hell of a load.

Yet, we are getting used to the invisible enemy. At least I am.

Last week, the weather was splendid. It was as if Mother Nature wanted to make up for the mess people find themselves in right now. So it was possible to have some lessons outdoors (where no masks are needed). For example, a group of my senior students did a project about their hometown – Šternberk. I split the group into pairs and each pair worked on a different topic. Their task was to find information about some of the places of interests found in the vicinity of our school. Then we wandered around and pretended to be tour guides, meaning each pair presented their findings to the rest of the group in English. Whenever possible, they presented the information on the spot, e.g. when talking about the castle, we were literally standing in front of the sight, Later, they wrote their parts up and sent me the electronic versions so that everybody had the the whole compilation at their disposal for their final exams.

Other group did some ‘outdoor’ collaborative writing. The students were working in pairs, lying on the grass or sitting around in the sun. One group wrote a story starting When I was seven years old … The story was supposed to be written in the past tense (which was the focus of the lesson) and it had to include a moral or an interesting twist. Another group wrote collaborative essays on the topic My future is in my hands? (the question mark is important here). Again, the lesson was based around the topic of future, which we had talked about in the previous lessons. All the stories were finally written up in an electronic version for me to see before the students will present their work in class next week.

Learning outdoors is fun and honestly, it’s great to have a change of scene. However, there are some pitfalls to it too. Firstly, it can get a bit noisy from the traffic. Also, not all students are disciplined enough to be able to concentrate on the given task – there are way too many distractions. Finally, outdoor teaching is not suitable for all types of activities. In fact, unless you have a fully equipped outdoor classroom, it’s something that definitely spices up the time spent at school but it’s just a temporary measure. Not to mention the most important thing – the weather must be nice.

Today is Friday and we are not at school. In an attempt to improve the epidemic situation, The Ministry of Health advised us to stay at home till Tuesday, which is a bank holiday in the Czech Republic. Well, we’ll see what the future holds for us. Hopefully, we’ll be back at school on Tuesday, teaching face to face. Otherwise, hello, online teaching!