Jason Renshaw, on his superb blog, challenged teachers to take on an “upside-down, inside-out” approach to a lesson, namely to teach the lesson first and plan it afterwards. I’m not sure if I’ve done the challenge justice, so please check out Jason’s wording here.
Part of the challenge was to go into a lesson with absolutely no lesson plan – or lesson planned. (Here I’m differentiating between a fairly formal lesson plan, written down in some form or other, with aims, activities and interaction all more or less in place, and materials ready to hand, and a possibly more “organic” lesson plan, that may, or may not be written down on paper, that may or may not involve preparing materials beforehand, but will definitely consist of clear aims and a core or shape that I’d like the lesson to follow.)
Now there’s nothing new about going into a lesson without a plan. As a standby teacher, as a DOS in a busy school, as a TP (teaching practice) tutor, there have been plenty of times when I’ve had to go into a classroom with no lesson plan or planned. But I have to confess that my internal lesson planning machine was whirring away as I walked in through the door, flicking through the files of no-prep templates stored away after years of teaching last minute lessons. And rather than just let go, I’d usually grab for one of these templates, a lesson plan from the past, dusting it off and adapting to fit the occasion and the mood of the class.
The challenge here – if I understand it correctly – was to go into the class with none of that. A kind of blank slate and let the lesson evolve. So I must confess I kind of fluffed that first part a little. The class I choose was a first class with a new group, which meant I went in there with at least one clear aim in mind – to learn their names and get to know them. And as I’m hoping to integrate the use of technology in their lessons, there was also a second aim lurking, that of finding out what role technology (smartphones, internet, social networks etc) plays in their lives. So I guess I failed already to go in without a plan.
And so to the second part of the challenge – to turn the planning process on its head and write the “plan” after the lesson.
So, in the absence of a plan, what did we do? Well, we talked about names quite a lot. The conversation touched on a range of topics, names that run in the family, common regional and local names, the origins of those names, and then we moved on to the origins of their surnames and their parents, and passed generations. An interesting lexical set built up on the board – not your usual family members set but a nice variation – it included great grandmother, paternal grandfather, my father’s family – along with the usual suspects of aunts, uncles and cousins. And the usual suspects threw up a nice pronunciation focus on vowel sounds. As a kind of winding up, consolidation stage I asked the students to write a few sentences about their names. Each took a slightly different tack, each wrote something interesting. I asked them to read their texts to the group (something I would not normally ever do – peer reading and feedback yes, reading aloud, no) but everybody was interested and focused and the short texts were great – crafted, with the weaker students performing well above their spoken level.
Then the conversation shifted to learning experiences and aims. This was another one of those first lesson aims pushing its way forward, but again the language that emerged was interesting, mainly lexical, some pronunciation work, quite a lot of discussion of cultural differences. The same again as we shifted to the students’ use of technology. Here the students took over more and interesting things started to happen from an affective and motivational point of view. There was a discussion of the pros and cons of facebook and tuenti (a Spanish social networking service) and the oldest and most reticent student, the one who might potentially be considered the “digital immigrant” and the outsider in the conversation, introduced all the other younger students to skype. We used my laptop as a “show and tell” tool. The others were suitably impressed!
This led to exchanging emails addresses in order to create a channel for communication outside the classroom. My main aim was to start the ball rolling by emailing a list of suggested follow up activities after the lesson and to set tasks for our next class. This was probably where the clearest “teaching” aim came in as the students dictated their email addresses to me, asking for the language needed to say @, _ and ., as well as the inevitable stumbling over the alphabet. Interestingly, this functional aim was greeted as warmly and attended to as attentively by all the students (in a class where the level ranges from A2 to B2). Definitely a leveller, and definitely seen as being useful by everyone.
We finished off with a discussion of phoneography versus digital cameras, and this is where I regressed into “fall back” mode and grabbed for a lesson template based on a photo I’ve posted on this blog(see Waves). It worked fine, the students loved talking about beaches, their beaches, the local beaches. Here in Cádiz, on the Western coast of Andalucia, beaches are pretty important. And I think it’ll work well as a springboard for our next class, but it wasn’t quite as successful as the earlier discussions, where, even if the initial stimulus came from me (questions about names, shifting topics to language learning and technology) – the impetus and the information and the thrust of the conversation was coming from the students.
So, what did we achieve? We all learnt each other’s names :). We established a starting point for a class culture based on collaboration and respect for each other’s contributions. We set up a few systems which will hopefully stand us in good stead. We laid the ground for the discussion – and the learning – to continue outside the classroom.
Will I do this again? Part one (going in plan free) : Of course. Not every lesson, or at least not for the whole lesson. But space for the students to take over and dictate the pace and direction of the class is something I’ve long valued.
Part two (writing the lesson plan after the lesson): this is the part that really interests me. There’s so little time to really reflect on a lesson. There’s certainly not enough time to write a blog post after each lesson! But what I did do after this lesson was write a summary of the lesson and email it to the students. The summary covered the topics of our discussions, recycling and highlighting the new language that came up and nudging their memories to review the language areas that emerged. I plan to do this as soon as I can after each lesson in the future, when it’s still fresh in my mind, and email it to the class along with suggestions for follow up tasks. I’d like this to become a collaborative task, one that all the class gets involved in, but I think I need to take the lead first and slowly hand over the reins bit by bit as we get to know each other.
So that’s it. No I didn’t plunge in totally unprepared – sorry! But yes, I did do something new, and on the whole I enjoyed it, though in retrospect I also thought of lots of little ways I could have done it better, but hey, I can always try again!