Friday, October 12, 2012

Tone Up Attention Spans with Lesson Plan Muscle

As the vibrations from the bell faded and my students settled into their seats, I grabbed my marker and wrote Descartes’ famous quote, “I think, therefore I am” in bold purple letters on the whiteboard. So excited about opening their minds to the existentialist philosophy and the wonders of Albert Camus’ minimalist writing via The Stranger, I enthusiastically scribbled important points my seniors needed to know on the board as I rambled on…and on…and on. Stopping for a breath, I spun around, expecting to see students avidly taking notes while hanging on my every word. My enthusiasm for this unit had to be contagious, right? Not!
Glazed eyes, slumping postures and binders bereft of notes greeted my eyes. My shoulders sagging, I glanced at the clock, astonished to see that twenty-five minutes had flown by. Well, flown for me; not for my students. Why? I had ignored one of the most important tenets of teaching: The Rule of Three.
Since its inception, the number three has been a cornerstone of most all religions, and an integral concept in mathematics, the sciences, music and literature, to name a few areas of its importance. Shakespeare, Dante, and Dumas used the number three as did the writers of children’s’ stories (think: Pigs, bears and mice). Much of grammar is based on the triad format: in the tenses: the past, the present and the future as well as in gender categories: masculine, feminine and neuter. In fact, all of the human experience is rendered by the formula: thought + word + deed= human capability.
When creating lesson plans, teachers must focus on both what to present and how to present the information. As in many professions (acting, music, athletics) timing is KEY. Studies show that student attention spans last about 18-20 minutes, shortening as a lecture continues to about 3-4 minutes by the end of lesson. In order to tone up their charges’ attention spans, to keep them actively sparking instead of fizzling into passivity, teachers must Change It Up.
Every lesson should include three major aspects: the lesson (presenting new concepts while building on learned knowledge/skills), an individual activity (check individual students’ grasp of the information) and some type of student-centered group activity (relating, collaborating, sharing understanding of the concepts, and their knowledge). Minor facets of every lesson should include a warm-up activity (settle down time) and closure. The latter are not separate entities but should be tied to the topics/concepts that center the major three portions of the lesson.
As every school district’s class times differ, I’ll share my thoughts for planning for a 55-minute class and for an 85-minute class since they are what I’m used to. When dividing the lesson into time periods, though, each teacher must consider the abilities, needs and prior knowledge of his/her students, so the times can be raised or lowered for each component as needed.
55-Minute Class:
Warm-up: 5 minutes (i.e. journal writing; grammar or vocabulary worksheet)
Lesson: (Teacher-led) 20 minutes (presenting new concepts; literature discussion)
Activity: (Individual) 15 minutes (worksheets; short writings connecting books with the elements of literature; grammar, writing or vocabulary handouts)
Activity (whole class) 10 minutes (oral presentation of individual activity)
Closure: 5 minutes (i.e. Exit Slips: “Write down then share three concepts you learned today;” or students ideas on thoughts to pursue during the next class)

Total: 55 minutes

85-Minute Class:

Warm-up: 10 minutes
Lesson: 25 minutes
Activity: (individual) 20 minutes
Activity: (groups) 20 minutes (build on concepts with charts, short skits, etc)
Closure: 10 minutes

Total: 85 minutes

The above times are flexible and not cut in stone. When considering the time spent on each portion of the lesson with strengthening mental muscle (attention spans) as the goal, teachers must focus on their students’ needs just as all people concentrate on which part of the body to exercise when building physical muscle. The key is to stay active by Changing It Up…every day. For me, there will be no more student catatonia in my classroom. I look forward to each lesson plan I create like a favorite dessert. I’ll take thirds, please.

Happy Teaching,