Posted in Class Discussion, Conversation, Education, Humanities, Students, Teaching

Is it Okay to Throw the Lesson Plan Out the Window?

I’m not suggesting, in my title, that I use a real window because my classroom only has one, tiny window that actually opens to the outside and that has a screen on it that can’t be removed.  So, even if I wanted to throw something out a window, I couldn’t.  Heck, I can’t even throw something out a door that leads to the outside in my classroom.  The one door in my classroom that does lead right outside to a beautiful porch overlooking my school’s name sake, Cardigan Mountain, is locked shut as I’m told the deck is too unsafe to walk on.  So really, the best I could do with a lesson plan is recycle it.  No, I don’t mean I can just put it away to reuse next year.  I mean, basketball-throw it into the recycling bin that will be brought to our local recycling plant to be turned into new copy paper or toilet paper.  Is that possible?  Can copy paper be recycled to produce toilet paper?  That’s cool because I do often write stuff that some people might consider excrement.  So that’s fitting.  Anyway, my title wasn’t meant to be taken literally because that would be littering.  I’m merely asking if it’s okay to veer from one’s original plan when teaching.  Can I scrap my first plan and try something new?  Do I have to follow my lesson plan like a script or can I adlib a bit?  Is it okay to try something new and different in the classroom if it seems to work?  As a teacher, can I model a growth mindset while teaching or do I need my students to see how to persevere through insanity?

My original plan for Humanities class today was to introduce our new unit on the American Presidential Election Process.  I had intended to give the students an overview of the unit before digging into the election process in our country.  My goal was to get a discussion going around the American election process.  I want my students to understand how we elect leaders in our country.  Originally, I had intended to close class with a little free writing activity.  I thought it would help to vary my instructional strategies a bit throughout the period.  It seemed like a solid plan.  I was pumped and excited.  Then came reality and a little thing I like to call, flexibility.

Everything seemed to be going according to plan, at first.  We wrapped up our previous unit on the Canaan Community.  I collected their final projects due today before having the students complete a feedback survey for my co-teacher and I.  I always like to ask the students for feedback on how a unit went.  What did you like or dislike and why?  What went well?  What should we change if we repeat this unit next year?  It was a simple questionnaire.  The students completed that before we broke them into small groups to continue reading our class read aloud novel Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman.  The boys were really into the book today.  After I finished one vignette, they wanted me to keep reading even though it was snack time.  They seemed very engaged in the story.  It was awesome.  Then, I introduced our new unit by describing the various stages of it.  The boys seemed pumped and upbeat about it.  I was feeling good.  Then we watched a short video detailing the American presidential election process.  At this point, everything had gone just as I had intended.  It was like I was following a script, a well-written script that is.

Then, following the video, I asked the students some follow-up questions regarding the video.  What are the stages of the presidential election process in our country?  I called on a few students to recap the big ideas discussed from the video.  And that’s when I noticed that my students hadn’t extracted the main ideas from the video in a meaningful and relevant way.  So, I began clarifying the primary election process.  I detailed and explained how the primary election process in our country works using student-friendly language.  Then came the questions.  The students were curious.  But aren’t there other candidates running besides just a democrat and a republican?  Aren’t there other parties?  So, I began fielding their questions.  My answers and explanations only lead to more questions.  It’s not that they were confused.  They simply wanted to know and learn more.  They were processing the information and trying to make sense of it all.  They were thinking critically about the content.  I was very impressed.  I then went through the rest of the election process as I answered more questions.  At that point, I looked at the clock and noticed that there were only 15 minutes of class left.  Man, I thought, I need to move onto the free write.  But, there were still so many more questions.  The students wanted to know about the branches of government, why we need a president, and how the members of the legislative branch are selected.  So, I faced a bit of a crossroads.  No, not that horrible movie with Britney Spears.  I needed to make a decision.  Do I keep on addressing their questions or move on in my script?  I can’t veer from the plan, I thought.  But the students are so engaged in our discussion.  I don’t want to stifle the development of their critical thinking skills.

As I glanced at the clock and then back out onto the sea of smiles and raised hands, I called an audible.  I decided to keep the discussion going.  I answered more questions and provided the class with more information on the American government and political system.  What was supposed to be a short discussion on how we elect a new president ended up transforming into a civics lesson.  It was phenomenal.  The boys were so into the topic and discussion.  In fact, I had to end the discussion as hands were still in the air because class had finished.  They didn’t want it to end.  I’m pretty sure that we could have kept our discussion going for at least another hour.  They were curious, engaged, and excited talking about how America elects new leaders.  I left class feeling energized and relieved.  They were way more focused on the lesson today than I thought they would be.  Civics tends to be a bit boring for students.  I mean, I like it, but I do remember hating it when I was a student.  It seemed so dry and banal.  For some reason though, my students loved it today.

So, I changed things up a bit today in class.  I took the road less travelled by and boy did it feel good.  I love venturing into unchartered territory from time to time.  It feels empowering and exciting.  My adrenalin was pumping.  The boys were thinking critically about today’s topic and wanted to know more.  Wow!  Imagine if I had stayed the course and stopped the discussion so that we could complete the free write activity I had planned.  The students would have been frustrated and upset.  They wanted answers not a writing assignment.  I know how I feel when I have a question that goes unanswered, and I didn’t want my students to have to deal with that feeling in the classroom.  I want my students to feel heard and to be engaged, and my change in the plan definitely allowed both of those goals to be met today.  Sometimes it’s good to go with the flow and let the amoeba that is a class discussion or lesson evolve in real-time and not in a predetermined manner.  My students were thrilled to be discussing a topic that engaged them.  They wanted to know more about the branches of government and the process we use to elect a new president.  There was an electricity in the classroom today and it felt amazing.  Who doesn’t like a good jolt of energy or shock to the system every once in awhile?

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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