Rethinking lesson planning

Screen Shot 2018-01-14 at 8.18.49 PM(from lesson plan templates / Google images)

Writing lesson plans is an integral component of a teacher’s daily practice. The lesson plan template is designed to communicate the topic of the lesson (the curriculum focus), the activities of the lesson (the process through which students engage in the topic) and the anticipated results of the lesson (the product through which the students demonstrate their understanding of the lesson). That certainly sounds like a sensible approach to organizing a teacher’s instructional day — through organization comes success in student learning.

If only it were that easy.

Every teacher knows that even the “best” lesson plans — the ones that we have spent hours perfecting, that our peers have recommended, that were created by our favourite teacher gurus, even those lesson plans that we’ve used successfully in past years, can fail miserably.  About 5 minutes into the lesson, we realize that we’ve lost our focus, the students are not engaged, the anticipated connections are not being made and we know, in the pit of our stomach, that the results will be much less than what we anticipated. Often, we struggle through to complete the lesson and wonder, “What went wrong?”

The easiest way to this question is to assign blame:

  • the students are uncooperative
  • the students weren’t prepared
  • there are too many students in the class
  • the students don’t care
  • I’m a terrible teacher

But blaming others or ourselves takes us backwards. Even if one or more of the answers listed above are true, what we need is a way forward. So let’s rethink the lesson planning process.

We begin with a shift in mindset about lesson panning.

Often, the mindset of lesson planning is focused on determining what students don’t know and providing the information to fill that gap. Not so — the mindset of lesson planning should focus on how to scaffold student learning from what Dr. Marie Clay referred to as the student’s “known” to the student’s “new”.

What does that look like?

A “known to new” lesson plan is responsive to student learning, integrates prior learning strategies from all subject areas, focuses on student progress AND, perhaps most important, allows the teacher the flexibility to adapt and alter the process and the product while maintaining the original focus of the lesson. Sounds complicated . . . but it doesn’t have to be. With a shift in mindset, all the pieces fall into place.

Here are the entry points to a “known to new” lesson planning mindset:

1. Gather information about the student and reflect on the student’s “known”.

Ask yourself:

  • What information do I have about each student?
  • Do my observations, conferences, conversations and work samples tell me about the each student’s known? This includes the student’s progress to date, interests, and levels of engagement with different formats of learning.
  • As I reflect on the information gathered, what patterns in the class’s or group’s “known” emerge? This information allows you to plan effective small group and large group lessons.

If you don’t have this information yet, start gathering it now.  The observations and information gathered throughout the day about individual student learning provide the foundation on which to plan the next lesson.  Lesson plans without a foundation of the known are built on quicksand and the probability of sinking is high.

2. Review the similar trends and patterns among individual student results. Use this information to determine the participants in small group and large group lessons. 

3. Find or develop a lesson plan template that provides explicit space to acknowledge the known and the scaffolding activities that lead to the new.

4. Use a “known to new” mindset to plan the lesson.

Ask yourself:

  • Does the focus of this lesson build on the students’ known? If the answer is no, then rethink your entry point or the students will be stuck before they begin. (Think of your car being stuck in the mud — you can continue to spin your tires and go deeper into the mud, or you back up to reconnect with the roadway. Once again, going back takes additional time, but the time taken ends up being time saved.)
  • Are my expectations for success clearly stated in the lesson plan?
  • How will I convey my expectations to the students?
  • How will the lesson unfold? Is there some time to teach, lots of time for students to practice, some time to respond/share?
  • How will I ensure each student has a voice in this lesson?
  • How will I gather information about student learning?
  • How will I schedule time for conferencing and feedback?
  • How will the strategies learned in this lesson be integrated with other subject areas?
  • How will the lesson be differentiated and still maintain the lesson’s focus?

  4. Use what you know about the students’ known to choose engaging teaching resources.

Ask yourself:

  • What introductory images, quotes, activities, stories, videos, etc. will capture the attention of the students?
  • Are the teaching resources culturally relevant and/or diverse?
  • Can the resources be integrated with other subject areas?
  • Do the texts, images etc. match the developmental and /or instructional level of the students?
  • Can the resources be differentiated?

NOTE: Remember that an image, news item, story or account of a sporting event from the student’s community is a much more powerful teaching resource (and MUCH less expensive) than those created in a location and culture far away.

  5. Ensure the assessment – feedback – next steps loop is woven throughout the lesson plan.

Ask yourself:

  • How will the students demonstrate understanding? Are there alternate ways to demonstrate understanding?
  • What assessment tool best matches this task? Examples include: informed observation, anecdotal notes, checklist, rubric, reading record, etc.
  • How will I provide feedback to the student(s)?
  • How will I use the information gathered to plan next steps instruction?

To sum up

To avoid that pit of your stomach feeling of  “What went wrong with this lesson?”  change the mindset of your lesson planning process. Begin with “What has been accomplished?” or “What is the students’ known?”  Set expectations and make a plan that provides the student with opportunities to scaffold to the new. Throughout the lesson, observe and listen to your students, using their words, demonstrations and questions as cues to what they’ve accomplished and what they need to know next. And finally, acknowledge that if and when necessary, a willingness to alter the path to the known is a sign of professional knowledge, not professional failure.

For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at




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Let’s Do Our Homework About Homework

A change in thinking about homework is upon us . . . and it can’t come fast enough.

Here are some articles to start this conversation:

Homework Alert: How Much is Enough? Council of Ministers of Education, Canada

Rethinking Homework by Alfie Kohn

Homework is Wrecking Our Kids

Here are our thoughts about reframing the practice of homework:

In some areas, homework is tightly controlled and monitored, in other areas, teachers have a choice about whether or not to assign homework.  Whether you have a choice to assign homework or are expected to assign homework, here are some things to consider:

  1.  Homework Equity

There’s an assumption that once homework is assigned, it’s up to the student (or the student with the parent/guardian’s help) to complete it. Knowing how diverse our classrooms are, let’s think about that assumption in terms of equity.

  • Does the student have a parent/guardian who can provide assistance?
  • Does the student have a place to complete the homework?
  • Does the student have time to complete homework?
  • Does the student have the background knowledge to complete the homework?
  • Does the student have the language to complete the homework?
  • In addition to your homework assignment, how many more homework assignments is the student responsible for?

2.   Homework Effectiveness

For homework to be effective, it must add value to student learning, so consider these questions:

  • How is this homework assignment tied to prior learning?
  • How does this homework connect lesson content to the real world?
  • Are differentiated versions available for students who excel or students who struggle?
  •  Does the homework provide some challenge, but just enough challenge to be completed independently?
  • Is there variation in the format used to complete the homework? For example, in addition to written responses, are are there opportunities to illustrate, record, photograph, create, observe etc.?
  • How will you mark the homework and provide feedback?
  • How will your feedback enhance student learning?

3.  The Tricky Bits

Once issue of issue and effectiveness are considered, some tricky bits remain.

  • How will you handle the “bookkeeping” of complete, incomplete, late, marked, and resubmitted homework?
  • Is there a consequence for incomplete homework? If so, is the consequence equitable?
  • For how long does a student have to submit a late homework assignment?
  • If the homework is completed incorrectly, should it be reassigned?
  • How will you respond to a parent/guardian who completes the homework for the student?
  • How will you respond to a parent/guardian who questions the value of homework and asks to opt out?
  • How will you respond to parent/guradian or student comments about homework that is “boring”, “too easy” or “too difficult”?

4. Good Homework

Good homework should be meaningful. Vatterot (2010) sums this up:

“Meaningful homework should be purposeful, efficient, personalized, doable, and inviting. Most important, students must be able to freely communicate with teachers when they struggle with homework, knowing they can admit that they don’t understand a task—and can do so without penalty”

Clearly, homework is a complex issue. Perhaps we should move away from the homework as “the school day part deux” format and toward an “explorations and applications of learning”.

For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at

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Gosling Glen and Duckling Dell: Street signs that make us think

Driving through Amherst, Nova Scotia, I saw this street intriguing sign.


The elementary school teacher in me was intrigued. For the rest of my drive, I thought about how to use this image as an anchor for a project that engages students in thinking, research, reading and writing. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Display the image of the street sign. Beside the image, post questions that invite the students to think. Questions such as:
    •      What’s a gosling?
    •      What’s a glen?
    •      What’s a duckling?
    •      What’s a dell?
  • Students work in small groups to share what they know and gather additional information about goslings, glens, ducklings, and dells.
  • The next question to pose is, “If you follow the arrows, where will you go?” The obvious answer is, “to streets named Gosling Glen and Duckling Dell” but, hold on, what if that’s not where the arrows lead?
  • Using a “thinking outside the box” mindset, invite your students to brainstorm other possible answers to, “If you follow the arrows, where will you go?”  The chart below will get you started. It offers a few outside the box answers to the question and some extending research questions chosen to engage students in thinking, reading, and writing in a variety of fiction and nonfiction genres.

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 2.55.19 PM

  • Have each small group of students complete one of the “possible answer/research questions.” When complete, share the results.
  • Go back to the beginning by reminding the students that all of their work originated from looking at, talking about, and thinking about 4 words on a simple (albeit intriguing) street sign. Kinda cool!
  • Search for other intriguing signs, images, or questions that provide anchors for students to share knowledge, research, read, write and, most of all, think.

What’s the purpose of this sort of project? Think about the group discussions in terms of the grade level’s expectations for speaking, listening, vocabulary building, and cooperative learning. Then think about grade level expectations for strategic thinking, using research skills, questioning, and writing for a specific purpose. Needless to say, there are cross curricular links as well. As you observe the process unfold, decide on the focus points of your observations and make notes about student progress.

Stay tuned, because we’re visiting another Nova Scotia town named Pugwash, where the street signs are written in Gaelic . . . maybe that will lead to a project linking home language to school language.

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For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at



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Close Looking (1): An “After the Storm” Beach Alphabet

At Beyond the Apple, we’re always looking for an interesting image or piece of text to create an engaging anchor for a lesson. Who knew we’d find our next image on a Nova Scotia beach after a mid-summer Nor’easter?

After the storm raged, the outgoing tide revealed a beach littered with individual strands of beach grass. As we walked along the beach, we noticed that each strand had been shaped into a unique curve or angle; many strands of grass were in the shape of  a letter. At that point, a lesson beginning with a close looking experience began to take shape.

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While this close looking lesson begins with a search for naturally occurring letters, it quickly moves into learning opportunities focused on science, categorization, the arts, and language use. Here are some of our ideas:

  • After viewing the samples above, begin your lesson on close looking with a search for naturally occurring letter shapes (not shapes created by manually placing twigs, leaves, rocks, etc. into letter shapes). If you live by the sea, finish our beach alphabet with shapes found on a beach; if you live inland, create a nature alphabet with shapes found in plants, rocks, or in the clouds.
  • Discuss the force(s) of nature that created the shape. Was it wind, water, angle to the sun, erosion or a combination of several forces?
  • Brainstorm a word bank for each letter that links the letter to the location. For example, “b” is beach, ball, baleen; “s” is sand, sea, storm; “c” is for castle, conch, crest.
  • Do some research about the words in each letter’s word bank and create labelled diagrams, definition trees, or “Did you know?”  fact sheets.
  • Use the words chosen to create poems.
  • Illustrate each word with a scenario that brings the word to life.
  • Link the beach / nature alphabet to the stories and language of home; for example, if “c” is for “conch”, invite a community member to share their knowledge about how conchs are used as a food and as a wind instrument.
  • Honour the home language(s) of the school’s community by using the same letters to create a multi-lingual alphabet or personal thesaurus.

Close looking encourages learners of all ages to take time to observe, to think, to discuss, question, to debate, to read and to write. Close looking is a great example of  learning in action. To get started, all you have to do is open your eyes.

For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at

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Close Looking (2): Using logos to develop critical thinking

You may know about close reading as a “thoughtful, critical analysis of a text that focuses on significant details or patterns in order to develop a deep, precise understanding of the text’s form, craft, meanings, etc.” (

But have you heard of close looking? If not, simply reread the definition above, and replace the word “text” with “visual image”.

Hackberry General Store’s front window is covered with logos for everything from highway markers to blacksmith shops to political statements. This window provides a great introduction to the process of close looking.


When an intriguing image such as this is first displayed in the classroom, students will search for the familiar and the unfamiliar. But once they learn how to close look, they  will appreciate how each seemingly simple design is strategically crafted to share a message. The closer they look, the more they:

  • wonder (about the message of the image)
  • search (for information that clarifies the message)
  • think critically (about the obvious and subtle, intended and unintended impact of that message)

That sounds like something worth exploring, so here’s a suggestion about how to use this image as an anchor to develop critical thought through close looking:

  1. Display the image for a day or two and simply observe how students respond. Make note of the questions they ask and observations they make.
  2. After a few days, divide the image into 6 sections and assign each section to a group.
  3. Each group chooses 2-4 images for a close look. The process of choosing the images is actually an exercise in close looking, so make notes about the questions and comments generated during this decision making process.
  4. Once the groups have decided on their images, bring the class back together and  co-construct a set of “close look” research questions. Set the stage for this co-construction with the questions you collected during Step 1 and Step 3. As students generate additional questions, listen for and highlight questions that provide opportunities critical thought. These questions are often linked with the verbs such as connect, analyze, interpret, question.
  5. Now provide time for the groups to do some product or message based research. This research will lead to many languages, many communities, many varying political messages and a “a deep, precise understanding of the (image’s) form, craft, meanings, etc.” (adapted from
  6. Be prepared for some very interesting and highly charged discussions, so encourage students to choose presentation style or medium that will encourage their audience to take a close look at their research.
  7. Now shift from this teacher supplied image to a student generated collection of common logos found in their social community. Throughout the year, share one of these images and engage the class in a close looking exercise to encourage a critical analysis of the obvious and subtle, intended and unintended impact of a visual image.

For more conversations about education, please visit:Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education or contact us at

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Close Looking (3): What is this?

Spotted on the door of a classroom:

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 2.38.37 PM

When students enter this classroom, a “Wondering Prompt” such as an image, soundscape, or object invites them to look closely, listen closely, or read closely. Students begin each day with a mindset focused on wondering, questioning, and problem solving.

Here’s an example that focuses on close looking.

Close looking is  “a deep, precise understanding of the (image’s or object’s) form, craft, meanings, etc.” (adapted from

Wrap a few small unusual objects (avocado seed, darning egg, piece of bamboo, an old and worn shard of pottery, etc.), and place them throughout the classroom with a note:

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 2.49.45 PM                                                                                                                         Screen Shot 2017-04-26 at 2.31.21 PM

The wondering begins. Listen as the students look closely and gather information about the object’s size and possible shape.

Next, open the door to problem solving a bit wider.

Screen Shot 2017-04-26 at 2.32.22 PM

Now, more information about the object can be gathered and shared – the shape, the hardness, the thickness, and possibly the scent.  Listening to the students guessing and sharing ideas is a great opportunity for formative assessment of background knowledge, problem solving, and the depth of vocabulary, so listen closely and take notes.

Give the students a cue to unwrap the object.

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 2.50.37 PM

NOTE: You may or may not know what this is. If you don’t know, continue the exploration with your students; some of the questions will provide clues (and we’ll provide lots of information at the end).

Now, encourage the students to extend their “close looking” skills with information gathered through research into these questions:

  • If you were told this was found on a beach, how did it get there?
  • Is the blue colour significant?
  • Does this object come in other colours?  If so, how are the other colours significant?
  • Why is this translucent? Was it always translucent?
  • Originally, this object had sharp edges. How did the edges become dull?
  • Can you predict the age of this object?

From a small object, many lessons are born – a lesson in how to search for information, a history lesson,  a science lesson, and a vocabulary lesson focused on descriptive words.

And it all started by taking a close look.

Click here for all you need to know about this object

For more conversations about education, please visit:Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education or contact us at


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What Does Problem Solving Look Like?

We can learn a lot by taking a close look at problem solving in action – particularly when the problem solver is very young and the challenge is just difficult enough to encourage them to build on what they know. A close look at problem solving is ideal opportunity to view what it means to approach a challenge from a perspective of possibility.

Have a close look at this video – a really close look. Notice the child’s facial expressions, movements, pauses, and decision making. Make note of how the challenge is noticed, how the search for information unfolds, and the satisfaction of completing the task.

Share this close looking activity with your colleagues. It’s a great way to start a professional conversation about how to establish effective levels of challenge by building on the known, how to encourage problem solving, the roots of intrinsic motivation, and what is really meant by the zone of proximal development.

Share this close looking activity with your students. Their challenge is to search for and observe other problem solving opportunities and create a “Close Look on Problem Solving Diary”, which can be created with images, sound, or words. The components of this diary are:

  • How do we notice a problem?
  • How do we search for information?
  • How do we make sure we’ve solved the problem?

This diary becomes a student’s go-to reference when personal challenges are encountered.

Here’s another video to help you get started.


For more conversations about education, please visit:Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education or contact us at

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