Lesson Planning

From Course Design to Lesson Planning

Just as I carefully construct a series of lessons to build the overall arc of the semester in my syllabi, I consider the succession of activities that form the arc of each day’s lesson plan.  Like Matryoshka dolls, each activity nests within a lesson, and each lesson nests within the syllabus.  And in fact, I approach each lesson plan as a miniature syllabus: a specific amount of time in which to use a shifting set of activities and materials help students achieve small learning goals. Over the course of many lessons, these discrete steps build towards the overarching learning goals for our course.  Each lesson, and each activity in that lesson, involves pre- and post-segments.  Pre-segments often involve personal observation, description, and listing, all easy ways for them to quickly engage with new material.  Post-segments ask students to explain how they will use the skill or lesson learned in the main activity, a move that demystifies the learning process and helps students to commit to their own learning by articulating their, rather than my, motivations for practicing these skills.  My goal is to create a seamless series of connections between our activities, our lessons, and ultimately our syllabus so that students engage with the material and with their intrinsic goals for taking our course.

What do students do in a typical class?

SpiraxAs every teacher will tell you, “There is no typical class.”  That said, I return over and over to certain types of activities in almost every class that I teach because they teach what I consider to be core skills, such as understanding others’ viewpoints while articulating one’s own, synthesizing complex information and helping others to understand it, and approaching unknown realms with patience, curiosity, and gusto.   Along those lines, here are some of my favorite activity types.  I describe their application using specific courses, but I also reconfigure these activities to support different learning goals in different courses.

Students as Teachers

This is my favorite activity, and I use it in every course I teach.  Simply put, I switch roles with my students for a short portion of the class period.  I divide the class into groups of 3-4 students, and then assign each group a portion of the previous night’s reading to teach to the rest of the class.  Together, they reread their section aloud, identify motifs and stylistic technique, and discuss their possible significance.  Then, they debate which ideas are most important to teach to the class and why.  Limited presentation time offers a productive constraint at this early point in the exercise, in that student must thoughtfully select the evidence that will best illustrate their points from their larger lists.  At the this point, I instruct each group to design one section of the board that they will use to teach their lesson to the class.  They can  cite passages, enumerate points, or illustrate imagery.  Crafting board work helps the students to outline their thoughts, providing practice for the writing homework to come.  Finally, with boardwork complete and books open, each group teaches their lesson to the class.  Sometimes I instruct the non-presenting groups to ask questions of the presenters, as students might query a teacher, and sometimes I ask the presenters to quiz their listeners in a professorial fashion.  In addition to offering a succession of different activities and practice with a range of different scholarly skills, the “Students as Teachers” activity allows almost the entire class to participate at the same time.  And perhaps most importantly, it offers students the opportunity to learn from one another by trying on different classroom roles.

Role-Play and Debate

Along these lines, I use role-play and debate not only to increase student participation in the lessons, but also to provide students with the opportunity to play with difficult questions in a safe space. But I structure these activities carefully: otherwise, both debate and role-play can devolve into antagonistic exercises wherein only the most dominant voices in the classroom are heard.  One easy solution: when designating roles for role-play exercises, I sometimes assign the character’s personality as well.  This one-sentence fix provides students with written permission to act out of character.  As a result, it gives quiet students speaking practice, and louder students with listening practice. Conversely, a solicitous group can pose the opposite problem: students interpret class-wide consensus to be the unstated goal of the activity.  In the pursuit of unanimity, which appears to “solve” the debate, students sometimes inhibit their own quiet doubts and difficult questions.

When I use debate or role-play, as in this lesson plan for Introduction to Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, I structure the activity to encourage students to thoughtfully consider the opposing side’s arguments, but also to work with their perceived antagonists to generate “third way” solutions, alternate viewpoints beyond the pro/con binary, and issues for further examination.  These activity elements help me to encourage students to move beyond subtle but deeply felt social issues of dominance or compliance, and develop a more flexible, empathetic approach to argumentation.  My hope is that this type of activity will prepare students to participate in future debates as inventive thinkers, persuasive speakers, and engaged listeners, able to create mutually beneficial solutions with those who do, and don’t, share their views.

Connecting Outside the Classroom

To allow students to work on real questions with authentic materials, I create activities to bridge the gap between the classroom and the outside world.  In some cases, this means bringing experts into the classroom via technology.  As part of the “Gender Online” lesson that I taught for Introduction to Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, I arranged for journalist Amanda Hess to Skype with interested students.  This activity not only allowed them to pose their questions directly to the author of the day’s reading (“Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet“), but also gave them the opportunity to connect with a potential mentor working in the field.  Similarly, I assign this sort of “connection work” as a specific step that students must complete in preparation for their major research projects.  In “Edible/Poltical” for example, students must initiate and sustain email correspondence with an advanced scholar currently working on their topic. Part of the reason that I create these activities is to help students to establish their professional networks.  Interacting with experts provides the kind of critical feedback and inspirational advice that can help students to succeed both during the course and afterwards in their future careers.  I design these activities to help students practice and improve on these blended academic and professional skills.

EccoThis type of assignment works with beginners as well as well as more advanced students. To teach regional culinary culture in my Elementary Italian class, I post questions to Facebook walls for Italian cities.  Students read the questions, conduct research on Wikipedia.it, and then log in to their Facebook accounts to respond.  I connect my computer to the overhead, so that students can see their answers go live on the Internet in real time.  Students also enjoy reading answers that Italian Facebook users post to my questions, as these responses often involve language elements that typical textbooks do not include, such as dialect, slang, and Internet shorthand.  Incorporating technology and alternate forms of media does not constitute my teaching goal – rather, I use these novel methods and materials for their capacity to engage student interest and enhance learning outcomes.

These activities can take place in the real world as well as online.  One homework activity for my Freshman Writing Seminar, “European Modernism,” an early homework assignment is a private field trip: I ask them to visit one of the campus libraries that they have never visited, such as the Fine Arts Library or the Music Library, and to chat with a librarian about that space’s resources.  This visit prepares them for their research to come by forging a personal connection with a new research space.  And in fact, many of our classroom activities do not take place in the classroom at all.  Our “European Modernism” syllabus included two trips to the Johnson Museum so that students could study their new collection of Le Corbusier prints and ask questions of the resident curator in preparation for their curation assignment.  They also visited the Cornell Cinema to view a film and engage in a Q&A session with Director Amie Siegel.  We rounded out these field trips with two visits library visits: one to Kroch Library so that they could learn how to handle rare architectural manuscripts, and one to Uris Library to learn to use ARTstor in advance of their ePortfolio projects.  Expanding the classroom is a double movement: I create some activities to bring students into new environments, and design other activities to bring novel materials and expert speakers into the traditional classroom.  In using activities to creating connections beyond the classroom, I hope to make learning opportunities both more authentic and longer-lasting for my students.