Thursday, June 11, 2015

The 7 Things All Good Lessons Have in Common:

A Checklist for History Teachers

Last month I finished a semester of teaching the social studies methods course to would-be secondary social studies teachers. And before summer gets too far along, I figured this might be a good time to review some of the things I did and share them in the hope that they are useful for readers of this blog.

While this post is written from materials designed for new teachers, I have found the checklist I describe a useful reflection tool for any teacher, myself included. As I dig through old lessons when I write this blog, I ask myself whether or not my lessons fit my own checklist for what makes a good lesson. I came up with this list after years of evaluating student teachers. The 7 items on the list reflect things I saw student teachers do or forget to do. These were the things that helped make a lesson succeed, or the things that made the lesson miss the mark.

As you review and revise the lessons you taught this year, try asking yourself whether or not your lesson meets this test. And if you think I have left important things out of this test/rubric/checklist, or whatever you want to call it, do leave a comment.

Also, keep in mind that when I say, "All" good lessons should have these things, we all know that sometimes a lesson is a work day in the library or getting straight into groups to finish a 3 day project, or something like that. So I don't mean that you have to do all 7 of these things on days like that.

Here's my 7 point checklist for what all good lessons should have:

#1: All good lessons, like a good paper, should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

So right out of the gate, I know I'm cheating a little bit because this is really 3 things. Sort of. Together, they make the point that a lesson cannot consist of doing a bunch of random things until the bell rings. A good lesson must be PLANNED. And it should have an introduction, which sets up the main body of the lesson, and the whole thing should be wrapped up in a conclusion. Does that mean all lessons have to fit into a 40, 45, 50 or 80 minute period? Of course not. But the bell will ring at the beginning and end of each period. So even if you are planning a 2 day (or longer) lesson, you need SOME kind of intro and conclusion for each day.

The beginning, or intro: In the educational literature, some folks call the beginning of a lesson a "hook," others describe it as a "set induction" or an "anticipatory set." While each term has subtle differences, the point is that good lessons have a thoughtfully created introduction. Ideally, it should pique students' curiosity and get them excited about what they are going to do today. It should also remind students about where they've been and where they are going. (More on this in number #3, below.) See this link for a brief, but effective general explanation.

There are practical reasons for a good beginning or introduction, too. Diligent teachers have usually spent a lot of time creating a lesson, so they know what their lesson is about. But they forget, sometimes, that their students have just come in from a rough math test, or an argument with their best friend, or lunch, or a million other things. Do your students remember what you did yesterday? Do they have any clue that today you are reviewing the factors leading to the American Revolution? The answer is that most do not. So a good lesson should have a clear beginning that reminds them about what is going on, makes them forget about that math test for now and gets them to focus on history.

How do you do that? Well, I spent the better part of a 2 hour class on that this semester, so I really should write a separate blog post on this (note to self). But in case you want ideas NOW and I forget to write a post about this later, you can always do something like have students respond to an intriguing quote, or a piece of art or music, or a visual like a map, chart, political cartoon or photograph. They can do this by writing in their notebooks, adding to an online journal or blog (or twitter maybe?), or simply discuss with a partner.

The middle: This whole blog is about stuff that goes in the middle. Points #4, 5 and 6, below, are also more specific about what happens in the middle.

The end or conclusion: This is the number one thing missing from over half the lessons I observe from student teachers. In all fairness to them, most student teachers have a conclusion in their lesson plan, but they often run out of time. That, of course, is the difference between a lesson plan and an actual lesson, as all teachers know. (More on this in point #7, below.) 

But when teaching methods this semester, I found that students didn't always know what should be in a conclusion. There is more to this than I can fit in this post, but the short answer is that the conclusion should "conclude." It should tie up the lesson into a sort of package that addresses #2, below. It could refer back to your introduction, or sum up what you did in the body of the lesson. But don't just end because the bell rings. Ideally, you are sharing the burden of concluding the lesson with your students, eventually handing it off to them entirely. If the teacher is the one always summing up, we know the teacher will have learned the material. The key thing is to get our students to do it.

A few links regarding conclusions:
  • Here is a link to a bunch of ideas for ending a lesson compiled by Ann Sipe of Grandview School District in Washington. I don't necessarily endorse all of these ideas. Some of them just don't work for my personal teaching style. Others are better suited for elementary school. But there a lot of suggestions to get you started if this you're looking for ideas on ending lessons.
  • Also, check out this post, "Teaching Like We Write--Introduction and Conclusion in the Lecture." I came up with the idea for #1 on my checklist long before I read this post. And this post is specifically about coming up with conclusions for college lectures. But there is still useful material there for any teacher and any kind of lesson, not just lectures. I have linked to this blog post before, so you may have already seen this.
Your lesson might have a spectacular introduction and conclusion, but the most important part of a lesson is really #2.

#2 All good lessons should have a point.

This should go without saying, you may think. But think a little harder. Can you give an "elevator speech" for every lesson you teach? More importantly, can your students? Does your lesson clearly address an essential question or an important concept or idea? While it is true that some ideas are far too big for one single lesson (federalism, sectionalism, Civil War, industrialization, immigration, etc.), each lesson within a unit should build to some larger point. (e.g. you might have a few days about immigration but one of those days would focus specifically on the problem of assimilation.)

The point of "the point" is that there should be some reason why you are teaching this lesson. Something which addresses the number one question that all of our students ask,

Why do we have to know this???

The pre-service teachers I work with typically teach at least a few lessons in the semester before their student teaching. They sometimes tell me things like, "My cooperating teacher wants me to do a lesson on ___________ " and then they fill in the blank with a random topic, such as the legislation of the New Deal or comparing the North and the South before the Civil War or the five pillars of Islam (not all my students are in U.S. history). And then they want to know where they should start. 

And realistically, that's what a lot of us do. We know what we did last year, and yesterday, and so what comes next is comparing the North and South. But we should--every year--ask ourselves why do students need to know about the similarities and differences between the North and South? What is the point? How does this understanding help us better comprehend both the onset of the Civil War as well as its outcome? Do any of these differences still exist? In what way(s) does studying this topic improve the quality of our students' lives?

Did I lose you on that last one? Agreed, it's a little "out there." After all, we all know adults who live happy and successful lives who may not realize how many miles of railroad track the North had compared to the South. But thinking about the "bigger" questions behind the main topic of a lesson can help us consider why it may have mattered that the North had more railroads than the South in the first place. And then we can turn the question around and point out that the British had far greater resources than the colonists during the Revolution, and yet in that case, the advantages did not result in a British victory. Nor did the superior weaponry the United States had compared to the Vietnamese. (FYI, the last chapter of Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, David and Goliath, has a great chapter on the Vietnam War that touches on this very point. It also good stuff on the Civil Rights movement and things that make you think about education in general. A good summer read.) So your lesson about differences between North and South can lead students to thinking about war and winners and losers in general. And how big guys beat little guys but not always. And that is an idea that students can really sink their teeth into.

Many of us went into teaching to make a difference in our students' lives. And, as I pointed out in an earlier post about my high school chemistry teacher, we can make a difference even if our students don't love history the way we do.

If we ask ourselves the same questions our students are wondering--why do we have to know this--our answers will help us make our lessons more meaningful. Easier said than done, I realize. One of the ways to think about the point of each lesson is to ask ourselves how it connects to the larger unit of which it is a part. Which brings me to #3...

#3 All good lessons should make a connection with the lesson before and the lesson after.

As I have emphasized repeatedly in this blog (see here, for example, or my recent one on the end of the year), we have to work hard as history teachers to prevent our class from becoming an endless trudge through Every Single Thing That Is In The Textbook. To do that, we have to conceptualize what we teach into clearly defined units that address key issues and essential questions.

That kind of planning should be made visible to our students. We should find ways to make it clear to them how and why each lesson logically follows to the next. Whether we do this through a syllabus, through our intro/conclusions for each day, or some other method, it is important that students make these connections.  Taking time at the beginning, middle or end of each lesson to have students make these connections is a key part to making sure students get the big picture.

And yet, we need to elaborate on the big picture. Put some flesh on the bones. To do that, you need #4...

#4 All good lessons should have a few cool facts.

This is maybe the more controversial point of my 7 point checklist. After all, if we are supposed to avoid a history class that emphasizes fact after fact after fact, why should we even bother with this point at all?

The answer is what I call, "The Fjord Factor," after an experience I had my first year of teaching. It was in a 7th grade world geography class in central Wisconsin, where there are no fjords. I can't remember if the lesson was on Scandinavia or geographic features, but somehow fjords came up and my students wondered what those looked like. This was pre-Google and before 1:1, let alone any computers in class, and I hadn't come prepared with a picture. But I found one and brought it in the next day, and all at once, the whole class went, "whoa!" because fjords are really cool looking.

What's the takeaway from this? Students get excited when they learn, hear or see something interesting. Now, what is interesting to those of us who have chosen a career in teaching history might not be as exciting to a jaded high school junior, but it is a big, wide world out there. And if we are teaching about it, surely there is some interesting or unusual tidbit of information that will make even a second semester senior say, if not "whoa" like my seventh graders, at least "hmm, that's kinda interesting."

That's why I include "cool facts" as something that a good lesson needs. Because school should be interesting. Who wouldn't want students to go home at night and tell their parents, hey, did you know that....? Hopefully, that will get them thinking and talking more about the point of the lesson.

An important caveat about "cool facts"

Emphasizing "cool facts" if you've left out "the point" doesn't make a whole lot of sense. For more on this problem, see my description of what I call, "The Problem of Andrew Jackson's horse" in this earlier post, keeping in mind that the name of Andrew Jackson's horse is NOT really what I mean by "a cool fact." A better example might be the bit about Thomas Jefferson and John Adams dying on the same day which happened to be on July 4th, 1826. (More on that in this earlier post).

So remember that a few cool facts does not a good lesson make. It would be incomplete without more substantial material. Which brings us to point #5...

#5 All good lessons should have interesting material appropriate to your students' level(s).

This is for the bulk of your lesson. If a lesson only includes a textbook, I'd say you better keep looking. This is where you find the outside reading, the primary source(s), the film clip, the questions students will debate or discuss, etc. Throughout this blog, I have tried to present interesting material and links to websites where you can find more. Also, check out the "Other Useful Links" tab at the top of the page for more. Over the summer, I hope to update this annotated list of useful websites, but really, that's just icing. You've got Google. If you found this blog, you can find a good reading on the War of 1812 or Spanish-American War or McCarthyism or whatever else you're looking for.

Keep in mind that while the "interesting material" can certainly include your brilliant lecture on Andrew Jackson and the Bank of the United States, it may not be brilliant enough to capture your students' attention for an entire period. Which brings me to #6...

#6 All good lessons should strive to have students actively doing something other than simply taking notes.

Students tend to be rather passive during a lecture, even if they are taking notes. There are ways to make lectures more interactive, for example by pausing to ask open-ended questions, or having students turn and discuss something with a partner. Or including a visual and having students spend some time reacting to what they see through discussion or a written exercise.  But ideally, a lecture will only take up part of a lesson. And not every day. Because there are so many other things to do. That is a topic far too broad to cover within a post, although I tried in this one.

Certainly some lessons are going to be more student-centered than others. And sometimes you can make the balance come out during the week as opposed to the lesson. But ideally, students should have the opportunity to read, write, think and/or discuss something EVERY DAY. They cannot be passive recipients of material all period.

And moving around a little is always a good idea.

If you want a sobering picture of what happens when we our lessons don't meet #6, read this post that went sort of viral last fall by the daughter of the late Grant Wiggins on his blog. Read especially key takeaway #1 and #2 in that post.

#7 Timing: advance consideration should be given to how to expand or contract the lesson as necessary.

This is especially a challenge for beginning teachers who don't have the experience in understanding how long something is going to take. But even those of us who have been teaching for years encounter the problem of running over or under. Running under is a problem easily solved by good planning. I have never had a problem simply extending the discussing, having students write a reaction to something we did in class, reviewing how this lesson connects to yesterday's or some other kind of activity. But any loquacious or energetic teacher has the problem of running over. In part, this problem can also be solved by careful planning and by remembering #6 and making sure we don't talk too much.

Of course, sometimes it's not our fault. Fire drills, announcements, and nosebleeds can ruin the best laid plans of mice and men and teachers. But my advice to my student teachers has always been, know ahead of time what you can cut so you don't run out of time for your conclusion, in point #1. Because all good lessons, and all good blog posts, should have an ending.

1 comment:

  1. I wrote you a comment, but it was more than the maximum 4,096 characters allowed. I posted it at the open thread on my blog. Here is the link: