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.

LP cycle#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.

1999LP#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.

2007LP#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.

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13 Responses to The lesson plan transformation

  1. How could you ever have thought you had nothing to add to the discussion (and the challenge) Tyson???

    For me, reading your post was fascinating, because your lesson plan history is very different from what we usually see. Even those of us, like you (and me!) that started teaching English because it was “a nice way to earn some money” usually have to take some teacher training course before doing so, which means we learn about lesson planning and start at the “full-on” mode you described and then move towards minimal – or even nothing. And you went the other way around. Seeing that and understanding (by reading your explanation)the process you went through, why you actually went around the cycle twice was a great insight on how you developed as a teacher as well.

    Like you, I also think the full-on/complete lesson plan is unrealistic once you reach a certain stage in your teaching life, usually with many groups to teach as well as other responsibilities. Unrealistic and a bit pointless to me, for, like we have discussed, with experience and time a lot of what the complete plan encompasses becomes automatic to us. Despite my not writing everything down I can give that information that I left out without hesitating if needed. But I am even more assured now of the importance of going through the “full-on” plan stage in the development of a teacher’s practice. Don’t you agree?

    I think with time each teacher finds the lesson plan format that best suits her/him, usually it means a much simpler and shorter plan (because as Marisa says as we build confidence in our teaching we become less dependent on the plan itself). There’s no right or wrong, no perfect formula – what’s perfect for one might not work for another.

    And I’m glad the challenge I proposed made some teachers reflect on their planning, see their own development and evolution. Even more because it gave me the opportunity to sneak a peek in the minds of teachers I admire.

    I am thrilled you changed your mind about participating in the challenge Tyson. Thank you for a really great post. And I loved to learn we have yet another thing in common – Justice League is no Pooh, but if it worked for you…fine. ;-)

    • seburnt says:

      Honestly, I hadn’t really thought of my evolution as a teacher to be much different than most (ie. going abroad to teach before being qualified, learning from experience and self-interest, getting the piece of paper, etc). It seems to be a common path here. What changes is that a large number of people who went abroad originally don’t take the leap to develop themselves as teachers since they often consider ESL a way to support themselves while searching for their ‘real’ job. I guess that’s not true for everyone, but it was largely true for the private sector that I began in.

      I’m sorry I’d originally decided not to blog about this as I now see that it was valuable for others, but for me also. Reflection is an ongoing process of accepting the opportunity. =)

  2. [...] The lesson plan transformation | TESLtree Says: February 27, 2011 at 10:00 pm [...]

  3. Ceri says:

    A great post, Ty, and so clearly articulated. There are so many “me too” moments for me as I read through. I can really identify with the reincarnations of Nothing 2 and Minimal 2. And also the growth and development that comes from planning with and for other teachers. Mmm … I think I may need to post a second response on exactly that topic.
    Thanks for keeping the inspiration flowing :)

    • seburnt says:

      Hi Ceri! I’m sure a lot of our PLN can identify with the Nothing 2 & Minimal 2. If you don’t adapt through experience and build your confidence as a teacher, you’d be spending hours and hours lesson planning–a Return-on-investment out of proportion!

      Looking forward to your new posts.

  4. Marisa Pavan says:

    Hello Tyson!
    What a detailed reflection on your planning! I loved reading it. I think Cecilia’s challenge has been really inspirational.
    Hugs from Argentina!

  5. Sandy says:

    Hi Tyson,
    I think your contribution was definitely worth it! It’s good to see different people’s approachs – it could motivate fresh teachers too: they can see that though we all started in different ways and went through different stages, the detailed lesson plans are a necessary transition, but you probably won’t be doing them for the rest of your teaching career! We could definitely do some compare and contrast exercise with them :)
    PS Although I never had cartoon characters on my notepaper, I did go through a brief stage at summer school where all of plans were in a brightly spotted notebook. Does that count? ;)

    • seburnt says:

      You’re very right in saying that what’s common in all our evolutions is that the full-on LP was a valuable exercise to go through–one which new teachers definitely need the experience with.

      And nope, your brightly spotted notebook pales in comparison to cartoon characters. Sorry. =)

  6. Once again, you amaze me!
    Some of what you described so well clearly mirrors my own experience.I started teaching before I graduated with no practical training in lesson planning (got it later!). I also went through many different cycles with my plans!

    In addition, I was impresed by the direction in which you took the challenge. I hadn’t thought to participate in this challenge because I don’t have a lesson plan framework to offer (who else teaches in a learning center?!).But now you’ve added another perspective!

    Thanks again!

  7. debby says:

    Hi Tyson,
    i was once a temporary teacher with no knowledge of teaching pedagogy. Through my experience, lesson plan helping me so much in managing what topic and how can i delivery the content. my ideas said lesson plan is likely a dairy or daily plan book. It is good to have it as you can revise which pupils have problem, what strategy did u not apply yet and it is working? But i do believe on unexpected events that might alter your lesson plan, thus affect time management and the objective. For me, teaching is about the strategies, how well you delivery it and able to drive the student to participate. my point here is lesson plan is needed. without lesson plan could leads repeating of same strategy and less innovative, less critical thinking. to build an excellent building need an excellent architecture, to produce an excellent student need an excellent lesson plan. What do you think?

    • seburnt says:

      Thanks for popping by, Debby. =)

      I agree with you that lesson plans are very important as they provide a framework for various classroom management issues, activity order, keeping outcomes forefront in your mind and feedback for what worked and what didn’t. Teachers with little experience in the classroom and lesson planning particularly see the value of the “full-on” plan. Once a teacher has taught that lesson enough times and/or has the classroom hours under their belts, the lesson plan often becomes less and less thorough. Of course, it all depends on the individual teacher and their preferences.

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