Saturday, September 1, 2012

Teachers: Save your Weekends

How do we light the flame of learning in our students with lessons that are motivational, interactive, and substantial without spending our weekends creating lesson plans for the next week? My colleagues have teased me for years about how I am so proactive with my planning, but I just smile, knowing that my weekends are mine, and not the school district’s.
In order to create detailed lesson plans, to adapt selected teaching literature ideas to each specific unit, and to provide reinforcement from a variety of handouts, worksheets and assessments, I have to consider:

  • Who is learning (address  student needs and learning styles)
  •  What my students know and I want them to know
  • Where I want them to end up
  • When I want them to learn (Time-Frame)
  • Why (objectives: begin with the end in mind)
  • How (Directed Method and/or Constructivist Method)
  • Closure (What are three ideas/concepts/skills will students take with them each day?)

For every unit I divide the lessons into daily increments that summarize the class work, tests and quizzes for that day.  I print off an agenda, in calendar format, which includes homework and projects, too, and hand them out the first day of the unit.  I design the units to take approximately one month, depending on the length of time given for each class period. Each day is comprised of three of the Program of Studies strands: literature, vocabulary, grammar, writing, research and oral presentations. Studies show that following the Rule of Three holds students’ attention better and results in better retention.

This agenda method increases responsibility by offering students a time- management rubric. Students are always be aware of what will occur in the next class and can prepare. Procrastinating students can no longer offer any excuses for unfinished homework or for coming to class unprepared for planned assessments. Many parents also request copies so they can be aware of the assignments and assessments for each unit.

The time limit for each aspect of the daily lesson is malleable, allowing for adjustments according to class needs and student understanding. Teachers can adapt it so discussions or lessons that ran over from the previous day or that were interrupted for assemblies, or cancelled due to inclement weather, etc. can be completed. Although teachers will have to orally note the changes for the students, this is a minor issue. Because of the elasticity of the discussion times on the agendas, I can still finished on schedule without omitting any of the lessons because I combine some activities into group or individual work and shorten the vocabulary and grammar activities.

Most days a literature discussion will comprise the bulk of the period. Studying the writing process takes place on days when we brainstorm essay topics, and on peer critique days. To increase student writing, believing as I do that the more they write the better they will master writing skills and techniques, I use daily openers where they write for ten minutes while they settle down and I take roll. Some days, I choose specific concepts that crop up in the papers during grading, using anonymous student examples for prompts that reinforce grammar, usage and writing concepts.

Here is an example of my unit planning method using Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.  The agenda presents the novel in 24 chapters with an introductory session for reading The Custom House and a concluding segment, Endicott and the Red Cross.  The following steps show how to set up a unit study. This is long because I have tried to clarify what I am doing and why. Your plans won’t be as detailed because you know your what, how and why.

Common Core Anchor Standards:
Reading: R1, R2, R3, R4, R5, R6, R10
Writing: W1, W2, W3, W4, W5, W10
Speaking and Listening: SL1, SL2, SL3, SL4, SL10
Language: L1, L2, L6
5 W’s and H:

  • Who (A Grade 11 class with students showing mixed skills in comprehension and writing.)
  • What and Where: elements of the Colonial period, literary terms, elements of fiction concepts, and writing (analytic or creative, or both)
  • When: Divide the book into sets of four chapters each. This is a total of twelve ninety-minute block periods or twenty-one fifty-five minute periods.
  • How: 
1.   Set aside one day for the introduction to the unit, one day for Custom House, one for the discussion of each set of chapters, one for the concluding segment, one for drafting essays, one for peer critiquing the essays and for reviewing unit concepts, one day for the test and to start viewing the movie and one day to finish the movie and for closure. 
2.   Choose teaching ideas.
3.   Select vocabulary from the novel and focal literary terms.
4.   Choose the types of writing students will complete.
5.   After reviewing the needs of the students, decide what grammar will be taught in conjunction with student writing

By the time the book is completed,  I have incorporated all seven concepts of Bloom’s Taxonomy into their lessons: Evaluation, Synthesis, Analysis, Application, Comprehension and Knowledge.

Teacher Notes:
Day 1: Introduction:
A.    Students will divide into small groups and brainstorm what they know about the Colonial Period. 
B.     Group Charts showing their knowledge of the literature, history and societal mores of this period.  The charts are tacked up around the classroom so students can take notes.
C.     The story is introduced by using a clip from the film (starring Daniel Day Lewis), and books are handed out.
D.    Hand out the vocabulary (25 words) for the unit with the page numbers along with directions for students to: define the word according to how it is used in the text, and compose an original sentence that shows the meaning of the word.
E.     I explain the process for the Peer Pal assignment: (Peer Pals.  Pair each student with one in their class or another one that is studying the same piece of literature. Each day the first student writes a letter responding to the assigned pages.  The teacher collects all logs and passes them out to the partners in the next class.  That student reads his/her partners’ writing and responds to what was said and/or opens another topic from the assigned section. Ideas that can be discussed include: facts presented, concepts, personal
reactions, confusions, response to characters and their actions/decisions, themes: what is the author saying about society; what should the author have included; what scene(s) is unnecessary.  Taboo discussions: any personal discussions not related to book.  No attacks on what a partner wrote; just agree or disagree with any statements, interpretations.  No discussions of who the partner is should occur, either. Identities may be revealed at the end of the unit if both parties agree).
F. Students are allotted ten minutes to write their letter, and ten minutes to respond to their partner’s thoughts. 
G. Review the homework assignment: (Read the section, The Custom House and write Peer Pal Letter #1 on how contemporary society “brands” people who break societal rules.
Day 2:
A.  Review the homework for knowledge and understanding.
B.  Write Peer Pal letter #2 on their reaction to the pages just discussed.
C.  Grammar (phrases and clauses): students write sentences from their vocabulary assignment on the board. Discuss.
D.  The last 20 minutes, students will read the homework assignment (Chapters 1-4).
Days 3-8:
A.  Forty-five to fifty minutes a day: Discuss the previous night’s assigned set of chapters.
B.  Complete a Peer Pal Letter.
C.  Either a grammar lesson utilizing sentences from their letters or the vocabulary sentences.
Day 8:
A.  Students brainstorm essay topics.
B.   Practice writing thesis statements
C.   Homework: Read Endicott and the Red Cross, write a Peer Pal Letter and choose an essay topic.
Day 9:
A.  Discuss the reading assignment.
B.  Write a draft for their essay. 
C.  Homework: Finish the rough draft and complete the tenth and last Peer Pal Letter covering their final thoughts on the book. 
Day 10:
A.  Students critique each other’s essays. 
B.   Review the book.  
C.   Homework: Revise the final draft of their essay and study for the test.
Day 11:
A.  Test on The Scarlet Letter.
B.   Final draft of the essay is due.  
C.   Peer Pal Letters are due.
D.   View the movie, The Scarlet Letter.
Day 12:
A.  Complete viewing the movie.
B.   In groups, students complete the Comparing Books and Movies worksheet (see Notes at the end of this essay).

This planning took me one hour.  All that I have left is to jot down some teacher-generated discussion prompts, type up a list of the vocabulary words from the book and create a test.  The flexibility lies in the daily Peer Pal Letters and the grammar/vocabulary discussions, which I can shorten if we need more time for the literature analysis.  In addition, students can complete the essay rough draft for homework, giving an extra day to focus on any objectives that need more emphasis.  Students can write their Peer Pal Letters for homework, leaving the response step for class.  I prefer that students write them in class so they are finished for the next lesson.

This method of unit planning provides a variety of benefits for teachers.  When deciding on the day-by-day structures, teachers need to insure that whenever possible, essays, tests, projects and any other assessments come due on Mondays through Thursdays. To avoid burn-out, weekends should not be used for grading. Another major plus is that I never have to worry about life getting in the way of teaching. When emergencies, illnesses, unannounced observations and other factors threaten my stress level, I know that I have my preset agenda on which to fall back. 

This method allows me the freedom to expend my teaching energies where they are most needed: with the students.  With some tweaking and explanations, I can leave these plans for a substitute teacher, also. Where I would have held a class discussion, for example, I have the students work individually or in groups to address any literature points I had wanted to cover.

Agendas offer clear paths of communication between a teacher and the students, a teacher and parents, and a teacher and administrators.  The goals and objectives are always set from the first moment of planning, and the activities, assignments, projects and assessments follow.   Not only do I cover all of my bases with this method, but I have also KEPT MY WEEKENDS for me. Give it a shot. Don’t lose your precious Saturdays and Sundays.

Update Note: The Unit Structure, Common Core and Activities Plan charts are from my book, The House of Comprehension, released in March 2013.

Happy Teaching,


  1. Great advice, Connie! I really need to do this more so I'm not grading/planning every weekend.

    1. Thanks, Tracee. This method of planning really saved my sanity. I'd plan the first quarter in August, and then each following quarter about two weeks before it began. If you do this, work in flex days for interruptions (the weather, assemblies, pep rallies, etc.). It allowed me to use my planning periods for grading, administrative duties, communicating with parents and all those other teacher responsibilities. Yes, I did grade in the evenings Monday through Thursday, but my weekends were for my family amd me. ALso, on Sunday nights, I never had to think about what I was teaching the next day. One hint, when possible, I would have only a section a day turn assignments that would take a long time to grade, i.e. essays, projects. This allowed me to finish that grading before the next day and the next stack of papaers (I was anal about getting the graded work back to the students the next class day. We were on a block schedule where classes met every other day, so this made my grading strategy easier.