For some of us, it is extremely difficult to “shut off” being a teacher after the last bell rings. I used to work until the wee hours of the morning, only to wake up early the next day and start all over again. I almost burnt out because I was spending so much time working. What did I spend most of my time doing? Lesson planning.
Lesson planning can be the most creative part of teaching science, and also the most burdensome. Here are six tips I follow to lesson plan effectively and efficiently—allowing me to spend some free time doing things for myself!
#1. Plan in Peace
Your planning periods are precious drops of time that all too often get sucked away by others or yourself. When I started teaching, I didn’t use my planning periods to lesson plan. They were spent commiserating with colleagues, just sitting in my chair, shell-shocked from the class I had just taught, or cleaning my room. By the time I actually lesson planned, I was exhausted, so it took me three times as long and I often wasn’t happy with the results. The first step to lesson planning is to find a place and time of day where you can be the most productive.
Maia Heck Merlin, author of The Together Teacher advises teachers to sketch out their week and find times where their energy is high to do important tasks (like lesson planning). The second aspect of this is to find a place where you can work undisturbed. I recommend locking your door and shutting lights out (yes, I really have done this!) or putting on headphones so that others do not disturb you. Carving out an hour or two for planning and not letting an email, teacher, or your own thoughts to dig into that time, is important.
#2. Start with the End in Mind
It feels wrong to plan the assessment, which is at the end of the unit, before digging in to the first lesson, but using backwards design is crucial to teaching effectively.
Hopefully you’ve looked at the book (if not, find a copy at your school or get your school to purchase you a copy!). I won’t go into the details here, but the basic principle is to have a clear understanding of what you want students to know before you start planning your lessons. Create the assessment or final project first, and work backwards from there! Before I have hit burn-out mode, I usually sit down for an hour or two and sift through past state exams, pulling questions into different quiz banks that align to my different units. When it comes time to teach that unit, I form a test based on the quiz bank items, along with more challenging questions. I also like to scaffold in vocabulary questions and other key conceptual understandings. Lastly, I am sure to include relevant hands-on (lab practical) skills. For example, I would have students answer a few questions requiring them to use a microscopes for a unit on cells. I usually don’t format and finalize the test, but I keep it open while planning and make sure that I have prepared students for the final assessment. It also helps to model Do Now, exit ticket and homework questions from the exams.
Once you know your unit test, you can then chunk smaller goals together for weekly quizzes or assessments. I like to sit down with a big lesson planning book and my yearly overview open, and sketch out the topics I will hit each week. I am careful to include buffer time, knowing that some lessons will take longer than I expect. I then break down my week-long topics to individual days. I try to only have one science content objective for each day. For the more challenging objectives, I give two or three days.
#3. Have Routines
While I’m sketching out my week in the lesson planner, I like to have some routines that repeat each week. I have a Do Now and Exit Ticket (or some close) every day. I like to plan for an assessment every Friday. The schools I have taught at had a block period every Wednesday/Thursday. I always planned a lab or some kind of hands on activity for that day. I also tried to follow the 5E Model when planning lessons. Therefore, I try to start with some kind of Engage and/or Explore activity (I find the “explore” can very easily be an engagement! It could be an exploratory inquiry lab, a graph or data that sparks discussion, one of Page Keeley’s Uncovering Student Ideas probes, a cool demo without an explanation, or some other hook. Whatever it is, I try to have the students think through what is happening, rather than telling them the information. From there, students hopefully elicit key concepts or vocabulary that are necessary to process for the lesson. After we discuss key concepts and practice vocabulary, we are typically ready for an elaboration—some kind of hands-on activity or experiment that digs deeper into the concepts. Students then are evaluated on their work from the week.
I find that having a weekly routine helps students know what is coming up, and also makes lesson planning a lot more structured and easy to dig into!
#4. Think Twice, Plan Once
Do you spend most of your nights re-thinking the next day’s lesson? Don’t! You will likely burn out—teaching is a marathon, not a sprint and it is so important to plan in a way that keeps you from doing this.
A frequent issue that arises in my work with new science teachers is that they have a hard time leaving lesson plans alone. At the end of each day, they re-think and change the lessons for the next one. On some level, this is good teaching—lessons should respond to students’ needs. However, if it comes at the cost of teacher’s sanity because he/she is up all night re-working lessons, then everyone loses; the teacher is not going to be their best self to teach the lesson.
Learning to let go of the perfect lesson takes time, but I also think it can be accelerated by consciously resisting the urge to re-do lessons every night. One solution for the urge to respond to students’ understandings and their pace is to leave time in every lesson for a short address of the day before. This could be a 2 minute talk right after the Do Now (especially if your Do Nows specifically review material from the day before!). I also leave buffer time by having a whole day assigned to a quiz on Friday. I typically use the first half of class to finish work from the week before giving the quiz, or I give a Do Now quiz and use class time to finish something.
Besides buffering time into your lessons, remember that the beginning of the year and the first week after the holiday break are times when students will need practice meeting your expectations. That means activities will take longer to complete. Don’t pack a lot of activities and transitions into your lessons during these times, because you may be spending some of your time redirecting students to meet expectations.
Lastly, when you find yourself wanting to re-shuffle lessons, instead think of ways you can shorten them. Labs are usually the victim of re-shuffling because students can never finish them in time. If this happens to you quite a bit, consider having only one or two discussion questions that get at the key aspect of the lab. Shorter often is better.
#5 Multi Task & Stay on Task
Your planning periods are precious! The more you can get done in one planning session, the better. Once I have thought through the big ideas and have a clear objective and activity for each day, I like to drill down to the daily lesson plan. I do this by filling in my lesson plan template while also completing PowerPoint slides for the week, using another template . (I prefer to use daily PowerPoint slides to keep students and myself organized and have resources for absent students.)
If you have the luxury of co-planning with a fellow science teacher, one can write up the lesson plan while the other creates the PowerPoint slides. (This is how I learned the trick—thank you Gretchen!).
While you are lesson planning, you may get stuck somewhere—you can’t think of a good Do Now, or you are about to spend 40 minutes looking for the perfect image for a handout… STOP!! Setting these time-wasting activities aside, and moving on to other aspects of the lesson results in getting more done. Often ideas will pop into your head after you have skipped them, and you don’t waste precious energy searching for the perfect (often non-existent) solution.
#6 Manage Expectations
Finally, realize that you cannot put every idea you have into your lessons and still cover all the content in time. Trying to cram too many activities into a day will only leave you and your students stressed out and unhappy. It is difficult to set aside or cut an idea in order to keep your lessons simple and efficient, but in the long run it will be better. I leave a section in my lesson plan for reflections and remind myself that I can always try something else next year.
Remember, teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. Follow these tips and be mindful of your time. The best thing you can do is have a healthy work-life balance so you are your best self when the bell rings!