How thorough are your lesson plans? Cecilia Lemos, a colleague in Recife, Brazil, recently asked for teachers to open up about their lesson planning style, format and the evolution of both. At first, I chose not to write anything, not because I didn’t want to share, but more because I felt my current format wouldn’t be helpful or inspire in any way. For the next few days, I reflected on them and the transformation they’ve undergone between 1998 and 2011 and revelations appeared. My lesson plans have gone through a complete cycle (see the graphic below) and though the beginning and end result in the same, they are fundamentally different. Let me explain.
#1 – “Nothing” – When I began teaching in Seoul in 1998, I did so because a lot of other people did after university, including several friends of mine. I wanted to pay off my student loans. I wanted to travel to exotic places for free. I had no formal training for teaching and let’s just suffice it to say that the examples I had to go by when I got to Korea weren’t invested teachers. I was given a text–Interchange 2 incidentally (blech!)–and told to teach. I was unaware of the concept of a lesson plan. I wrote nothing down except the answers as I saw them. I flew by the seat of my pants. I hate to think of my students’ wasted time and money then. Thankfully, I was social with them outside of class–a much more beneficial learning opportunity than my classes, to say the least.
#2 – “Minimal” – At a certain point, I figured out that limiting myself to the textbook activities? Insane boredom! Supplementing with my own stuff? Fun! It was at this time that I began experimenting with different kinds of materials, activities and (at that time, I thought original) approaches. But the problem was that if I were to reuse these materials, I’d forget my flashes of inspiration that worked well. This led me to writing down (always handwritten) a basic order of events, the warm-up question, listing extra material, and sometimes vocabulary I found useful. After some scrounging, I found this is an example of one of these lesson plans I created in 1999 or 2000.
Between 1999 and 2007, this minimalism morphed into varying degrees of notes to myself. I’d expand from the little bubble of ELT working at my school provided to reading more about methodology, activities and other teachers’ experiences from books such as Harmer’s The Practice of English Language Teaching and Ur’s Grammar Practice Activities or websites like Dave’s ESL Cafe. I began branching out to conferences and workshops held around the city. As a result, sometimes I’d add instructions on what to say and how to proceed with an activity. Other times I had pronunciation notes or student errors I’d noticed on previous uses. What was common was that it rarely went longer than one note page.
#3 – “Full-on” – In 2007, with nearly a decade’s experience behind me, I realised that I was stuck where I was. And I was stuck because I didn’t have the formal accreditation needed in my province to work outside the private sector. So I enrolled in a TESL program, basically to get it out of the way. What I didn’t anticipate was that I’d look at activities with a closer eye and be forced to write up full-on lesson plans. These involved very organised layouts with group dynamics and timings concretely defined with point-by-point details on how to run the class. It definitely forced me to reflect on what the activities were meant to do and how they should be facilitated–something I hadn’t fully been previously cognisant of. I ran with this new detailed fascination, rewriting many of my previous lessons into this aesthetically clear, but also so-easy-to-follow-a-monkey-who-could-read-could-follow-it clarity.
As Program Director, one duty I had was to create lesson plans for new courses we’d created. Without the practice of writing these full lesson plans, my ideas simply from handouts created for the course would not have been easy to guess for teachers asked to teach it. I became known for my thorough plans and professional handouts. It was almost my thing.
“Nothing 2” + “Minimal 2” – Let’s face it: writing that type of complete lesson plan for every class is unrealistic. And is it really necessary for an experienced teacher? Does one who’s taught this lesson before really need to read through such a document again? Does the completeness stifle creativity, spontaneity and emergent opportunities in class? For each: possibly yes, possibly no. Now, I tend to vary between Nothing and Minimal–a second coming of each–partially for the sake of ROI and partially because I’ve gotten good at drawing from my mental bank of procedure. When I make handouts, I try to incorporate things in them that help me remember an idea I had for using it. When I get to class, I line up my materials chronologically on my desk. I sometimes have a basic ordered list on my computer so I don’t forget something.
So here were are, through the cycle and back to where I began 13 years ago, but that 23-year-old teacher knew nothing and it showed in his lesson plan.
If you have a chance, check out the other responses to Ceci’s query at the bottom of her original post.