In our last article, we explored who a lesson plan is for. Now it’s time to look at what makes a lesson plan well worth all the time and energy it takes to create one that really makes a difference in the classroom.

There are plenty of lesson planning templates out there. If you’re a teacher, we’re willing to bet you’re actually currently required to use a template, and there’s also a chance that you might hate it (can you tell that we hear this a lot?).

So here’s the thing: there is no Great Lesson Plan Template. There are some good ones, but, like we said before, it’s not about the document; it’s about the plan (which might be mostly in your head, or mostly in the Notes app on your iPhone, or mostly on a post-it note crammed at the bottom of your bag).

Madeline Hunter offers a good beginning for lesson planning

Like just about every educational researcher on the planet, I’m a big fan of Madeline Hunter. She formalized the basic concept of a lesson plan in the mid-20th century, and she’s still right. A good lesson plan follows her model: start with an anticipatory set, move to direct teaching/modeling, have the kids do some guided practice, and then check for student understanding.

But, to me, these terms have always felt a bit inaccessible.

Bringing more clarity to the idea of lesson planning

In our post, the Top 6 Myths About Lesson Plans, we defined a good lesson plan like this:

“…a good lesson plan—at the very least—ensures that all of the students learned something worth learning, and their teacher knows for certain that every one of them learned it.”

This definition may be more accessible, but it’s still a bit vague. So let’s unpack it a little bit more:

A great lesson plan is a framework for

  • what your students will learn
  • how your students will learn it
  • how students will know they learned it
  • how the teacher will know the students learned it

If you’ve been in a situation where your kids weren’t fully engaged, or they didn’t learn all of the things you wanted them to learn, we have some thoughts about how a better lesson plan might help.

How to know if you have a great lesson plan

A great lesson plan is a sketch for how you’re going to make sure every student in your class engages with the material and grows in their understanding of it during your class period.

At the end of a truly great lesson, you know (for certain!) the following:

  1. Every student in your class engaged with the material
  2. Every student in your class moved forward in their understanding and/or development of skills
  3. Every student in your class knows what they learned, why they learned it, and what their next steps are

If you don’t know these things at the end of the class period, then you didn’t have a great lesson.

Are your students actually engaging?

A great lesson is engaging.

We know the word “engaging” gets tossed around a lot, but it is a crucial aspect of powerful teaching and learning. (Have you ever left a PD session or completely zoned out of it because it was so boring? We have.) With most content, engagement doesn’t happen naturally.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you need your students to learn about the water cycle. They could read about it, but how do you know they learned anything from reading it? Or, honestly, how do you even know for sure that they actually even read it at all? Couldn’t the kids have just stared silently at the book, occasionally turning the pages?

Your students could watch a video about the water cycle, but you’re up against the same conundrum as reading. They may be totally zoning out (spoiler alert: most of them are totally zoning out).

Or maybe they’re going to listen to you tell them about the water cycle. Are you sure they absorbed what you said? Did they take notes? If they took notes, will they actually remember what they wrote down? Will they truly internalize it? Will they be able to explain the water cycle in 5 years? Does it even matter if they remember it? Why?

A caveat about engagement

One of the tricky things is ensuring that you don’t go too far down the spectrum of pure engagement. For example, trying to see who can build the tallest tower out of paper and tape is super engaging. But, there are few scenarios where building that tower leads to any connections to standards. On the other end of the spectrum, watching a teacher give a PowerPoint presentation while you take guided notes is (unless your teacher is a TEDTalk-level speaker), pretty seriously disengaging. Striking the right balance of engagement and actual learning is quite a task, but it’s not insurmountable.

Learning and engagement chart

Easy tips for great lesson plans that engage students in powerful learning

So, how do you engage students in powerful learning? You need tools. Lots of them. We recommend getting started with Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, and a good handful of tech tools. You need to be able to say, “Okay, my kids need to learn how to do _____; what are at least 5 ways I could help them learn that?”

1. Getting every student engaged

Cold-calling: Stop asking kids to raise their hands. Instead, start randomly calling on kids. Yes, this is awkward and uncomfortable. Keep a cup full of popsicle sticks with your students’ names on them if you can’t keep track.

Read, write, think, talk lesson plans: Create lessons that incorporate these four actions and you’ll guarantee some serious engagement.

Movement: Find ways to incorporate movement every 20 minutes or so. Bonus points if you can utilize activities that incorporate movement and content into the same activity (teaching vocabulary terms with movements is a great way to practice this).

2. Making sure you and your students know what they learned

Conferences: Have an individual conversation with every student every week (it’s not that hard, seriously. Set a timer for 1-minute per student if you’re stressed about time, and see if it isn’t a total game-changer for your relationships and behavior)

Exit tickets: Have kids write down what they learned at the end of each class period.

Portfolios: Have students create and maintain a portfolio showcasing their best work and their reflections on why they think it’s so exceptional. Kids can even do this through creating their own websites at free places like Wix and Weebly. The best thing about portfolios is that they require virtually zero effort on the part of the teacher.

3. Making sure you know what you want your students to learn

Questioning: Plan out all of the questions you would want to ask students about the material (that way you don’t end up throwing out tons of easy questions to your kids). Check out these question stems to get started.

“I Can” statements: Reframe your standards into “I Can” statements, and discuss these with your kids.

The 2 Question Test from Wiggins and McTighe: This is one of our favorite tools, and it will help you figure out whether your assessments, products and projects align to what you actually need students to know.

Interested in getting more training for yourself or your school?

If you’re interested in any of the ideas above, but don’t quite know how you might get started, that’s okay! We’re here to help.