So here we go with Round 2, starting where we left off having mapped out a half-term. If you haven’t read the first post in this category, I suggest you read that first – this article will make much more sense if you do! This article is not so much about lesson-planning as managing your workload as you plan your lessons.
Now you can start your lesson-planning!
There is little point in getting too far ahead with lesson planning, because in the complex life of a school, all sorts of things will crop up, things that are decided late, things that should have been communicated but haven’t been, which will affect what you are able to do. You may have a day off sick, or the school is closed because of snow (you never know your luck!) and you will have to change your plans. Nevertheless, it can be useful to do a similar exercise for each of your classes as you have done for the whole half-term in drawing up your table. For example if you are planning to do a wonderful activity which involves lots of preparation, with cards which you need to design, photocopy, cut up, etc., you’re heading for a work crisis if you plan that lesson to take place the day after parents’ evening, or the day after you are due to take in a time-consuming homework, unless you have seen it coming and planned accordingly.
I like to draw up a table, as I do for the whole half-term, write in potential tensions (such as parents’ evenings, speaking tests for another year group, report deadlines, etc.) and then plot out very simply when I want to do what in the scheme of work for that half-term. These would just be key words for each day: e.g., clothes (masculine nouns), colours, materials, etc., but very importantly, I don’t fill up all the squares with things to do. If I fill every square, it doesn’t leave me time for the unexpected to crop up (days off, trips out, exams, etc.), or for some things to take longer to teach than others, or at least differently to how I planned them. Particularly at the beginning of the year, things will take much longer than you would expect, and allowing for that time will allow you to be calmer in front of your class. The surest thing to set up chaos in the classroom is where the teacher is under time pressure and, in the rush to get through things, explanations and instructions become mangled, pupils don’t understand and react, either by everyone putting their hand up wanting help, or, more likely, with misbehaviour or poor work which you then have to deal with or mark. If you pretend you have got less time than you actually have, and plan your lessons to fit the reduced time, you are more likely to succeed. Most importantly, you need to leave yourself time to devote to routines, which will be much more fruitful linguistically in the long run than content language. Unless you allow for this in your plan, you can find routines get squeezed out of the week. I usually leave at least a week blank at the end of the half-term and 3 or 4 lessons during the half-term so that I have some slack. This always gets used up!
And how about trying these ideas?
- Favourite Lesson Formats which fulfil different objectives. Once you’ve hit on a sequence of activities you enjoy teaching and pupils enjoy engaging in, and, most importantly, which will enable pupils to achieve particular outcomes, you’re well on your way to reducing your workload. Then, the next time you want, for example, to present 9 new items of vocabulary, have pupils repeat them in pairs and get them in their books using VAK strategies, with challenge, pace, paraphrase, intensity and so on, before going on to a more open-ended practice activity, you already have a format within which to do it. You will probably have to set the context differently, and there may be other minor differences here and there, but your overall work is reduced when you know that you need, say, one slide/OHT/visualiser sheet of pictures, one overlay of the language, A5 copies of the pictures for pupils to stick in their books, the language typed up (in the wrong order, perhaps) and copied, etc. And the more you do this, the more confidently the lesson is delivered and the more successful it will be, because you know that it will achieve the end you have in mind, and you will convey a greater sense of confidence in what you are doing.
- Activity of the Week. This is linked to the last point. It is well worth taking a particular activity and doing it with all of your classes, or as many as possible, in the same week, albeit with different language. By the end of the week, you will have a much better sense of what makes it work because you have done it so often within a short space of time. It will also cut down your preparation time. Make sure, of course, that you think about what precisely pupils learn from doing that particular activity so that your teaching remains objectives-focused rather than activity-based. Then, on another occasion when you need an activity which will fulfil a particular aim, and that activity fits the bill, you can put it in your lesson with confidence.
- Easy-on-yourself lessons for difficult days. We all have days when we are so tired we can hardly move! These are days when it is helpful to have a few lesson formats up your sleeve, where you can ditch your lesson at a moment’s notice and run with a different one, which may have little to do with the topic the class is currently working on, but it will keep them usefully busy. Sometimes, by trying determinedly to push ahead with a lesson we have planned when we are exhausted, we can cause extra problems for ourselves: it feels like it matters more to us on those days that the activity we spent ages preparing works perfectly, and if it doesn’t, we can over-react in a way that we wouldn’t normally. It may be better to accept that we will save that lesson for the next day, when we will probably teach it better and pupils will learn more from it, and today we will switch to the “fall-back lesson”. A particular favourite of mine starts with a ball game where I spell words for pupils to guess and then sit down. It continues with Countdown, both the letters game and the numbers game, and finishes with a spelling game. Pupils work together in pairs against all the other pairs in the class. Each pair has an envelope containing small letter cards (the alphabet is repeated 3 times in each pack, with extra accents). I call out words, or mime them if I know they will guess them, and they race to choose the right letters and spell them on the table. While they’re searching, I put some music on (the Benny Hill theme – Yakkity Sax – is perfect for this), then count down from 10 to 0, and stop the music, by which time all have to put their hands on their heads while I go round and check. Anyone who touches a card a card after that is eliminated from the round. Everyone who has the word correctly spelt wins a point (a thumbs-up card). The points are totalled at the end to decide the winning pair. This is a lesson which involves no preparation at all (once you have made your letters packs) and is always ready to go. The pupils are very busy all the way through, but it requires little of me apart from leading it. The fast pace of the music saves me from “driving” them to work fast and it adds humour to proceedings. If a class is really not in the mood for a quiet lesson and are likely to misbehave if I impose one, but I haven’t got the energy for the usual, this lesson works really well, with any age group.
- A filing system. There is little worse than spending a long time making good resources and then not being able to find them. The only thing worse is re-making them, only to find the original when you have finished! Having tried several different systems, the one I have used happily for several years now is to get a large archive box for each half-term, and smaller “transfer boxes” for each year group to fit inside. The only resources which go in these boxes are card games in A5 envelopes. For a long time I kept OHTs in box files, one box per half-term per year group. This worked well, but it encouraged me to keep more than I needed, so now I used a good old filing cabinet, one folder per half-term per year group. Flipcharts and Powerpoints are of course much easier to file, but beware of preparing Powerpoints simply because they are easier to file and retrieve quickly. That would not be a good educational reason for using any resource!
- A file of photocopy masters. Every time you go to a photocopier, make sure you put the original in a folder so that, as the year progresses, you build up a bank of photocopy masters. I’m happy to share ideas and resources with colleagues, but I don’t lend out sets of card games (a jumbled set is a real pain the next time you try to play the same game with your own class!). If your school has a shared area on the computer network, that will help, but I never find time to scan in hand-written OHTs or visualiser sheets, although I do photocopy them for pupils to stick in their books. This means that you can give out your resources for others to use and /or adapt, but you’re not left in a position where an OHT/visualiser sheet doesn’t come back to you, and you only realise the next time you want to use it, or you end up making card games for everyone else to use after you’ve done all the hard work!
- Decide how you will use your frees. Frees are very easily frittered away. Remember that in your NQT year you have a slightly reduced timetable. However busy you feel, you will never have such a light (?!) timetable until you take on extra responsibilities, which will then fill up the frees you have just gained! Use this time to observe colleagues, as it will help you with ideas as well as make you reflect on your own teaching as you see both successes and mistakes around the department. If there is something in particular that you want to try in your teaching but you never seem to get round to trying it, make an appointment with yourself in one of your frees to sit down and do the thinking or preparation for it.
- A “to do” list. Whether you use a diary, a notebook, or some whizzy technological thingy, a “to do” list is essential and, if you make a habit of drawing one up each day, you will feel much more on top of your work. Contrast that with someone having to come to you to remind you that you are late with something and you have to do it quickly. It will also help you to switch off at the end of the day because you don’t have to remember anything. Probably the most useful advice I was ever give on paperwork was, “If you touch it, deal with it”. (Thank you, Wendy). Your colleagues will appreciate your efficiency (it means they can get on with whatever they need to do with your paperwork after you’ve finished), and it means you can forget it once it’s done. And it’s another task ticked off your “to do” list!
- Stick to your plan. Making all these plans is good, but only if you stick to them. If you don’t, you’ll have wasted your time! Although I love going off on tangents in lessons, I have learned not to change plans about homework-setting/deadlines on the hoof, if I made the initial plans at home when all was calm!
And finally, …
Don’t be tempted to work all through half-term, however much there is to do! Resolve not to do any more work than you would normally do in a weekend. If you don’t get a break, you will wear out much sooner in the second half-term than would otherwise have been the case.