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Lesson Plans – The Truth

The main thing I remember from training was the ‘lesson plan.’ Practiced, perfected, painstaking and of prime importance, we had all done our fair share of (pretend) lesson plans before even getting remotely close to a classroom. It’s understandable. Before actually stepping into a classroom and teaching for that first time, there is really only so much you can learn about the practical side of teaching. For most of us, our teaching experience is limited, and it really is a case of learning on the job. Therefore, having a carefully composed lesson plan should, at the very least, take away any nerves (particularly in your first few lessons), and make things run a little smoother. It’s not the be-all-and-end-all, though. Whilst, it’s undoubtedly more likely that a comprehensive lesson plan will make for a great lesson, it’s not to say you can’t teach without one.

The Boring Bit

No one likes doing them, and, it’s fair to say, some put in far more effort than others. I probably drop somewhere in the middle ground of effort. For me, I find the best lesson plans are short, not very wordy, and involve a flowing, varied array of tasks and games. As far as form goes, I’ve seen specific lesson plan documents, notes in a diary, notes on a hand, on an arm, on a ball, and, if I’m honest, imaginary ones in our heads. I alternate between a post-it note and imaginary in the head categories. On the rare occasion that I am being observed by a senior teacher or presenting to parents, I will (try and) do a comprehensive lesson plan. It’s worth noting that I teach in a school which has a fairly relaxed attitude towards administration, so I can get away without having formal lesson plans for every lesson. I know there are lots of schools, though, who ask for this. The most important thing, though, is that a lack of written plan doesn’t necessarily mean a detrimental effect on the lesson, nor does the best plan in the world make for a perfect lesson.

The Perfect Plan

IMG_0864So, your perfect lesson plan has clearly highlighted the language you will be teaching, how you are going to teach it, and resolved all of the problems that will arise during the lesson. It also includes a list of all imaginable materials you will need to teach the lesson, as well as specific timings, all accurate to the minute. Perfect. A robot could deliver the perfect lesson from your carefully-composed masterplan. Possibly even a monkey. So, you walk into your class, a spring in your step, but only three of your class of eight have turned up today. That puts pay to those 4-on-4 team tasks you had planned. Not to worry, we’ll change that to a (er, umm), small game of dodgeball? Oops, Little Johnny, still on a high from last week’s dodgeball triumph, has just lobbed your only ball out of the window. Never mind, just refer to that trusty lesson plan. Oh, good. True to form, Little Johnny’s succeeded in spilling your fresh cup of coffee all over said plan, as well as the wordsearch you had as a filler, for emergencies such as those currently occurring. Palms sweaty, the last thing you need is to be standing in front of these chirpy, inquisitive kids, who, if they knew what “vein popping out of forehead” was in English, would be pointing it out right now.

Still, you’ve still got that fail safe, the video song. Thank god. The song, completely irrelevant and way below the kids’ level, placed at the bottom of your lesson plan for severe emergencies only, in the hope that you will never have to use it. Turning on the TV, your palms are drying, the vein’s receded, and everything, for the next 2 minutes and 36 seconds, will be fine. What could possibly go wrong now? Oh, yes. The fuse. (Insert expletive here). Why did you even bother with a plan?

No plan? No Problem

WP_000230 (2)So, your lesson has taken a severe turn for the worse. In a similar instance, you may have been called in to cover a colleague, without ample time to plan. Or, there’s been a confusion in your curriculum, and you’ve somehow planned next week’s lesson for today. Whatever the situation, the most important thing, when things go wrong, is to not let the kids know. Stay, calm, take your time, and act. You could turn to a tried and tested game from before, make up a game on the spot or use a quick filler game (Chinese whispers is perfect, as it’s quick to set up, doesn’t require materials, and is quiet, giving you a chance to gather your thoughts). Another alternative, which appears lazy, but works with some classes, is to give them the initiative, and ask what they want to do. Obviously, it’s your responsibility to make sure whatever the choose is anchored by the language of the lesson, but giving some responsibility to the students can be popular.

Tried and Tested vs The Untried

So, whilst it’s important to vary your tasks and games to keep the kids interested and challenged, it’s also worth keeping a few tried and tested in reserve, to fall back upon. With some of the longer, ‘free practise’, games in particular, sometimes it takes a little while for the kids to pick up a new game. At this point, you need to be able to gauge, if it’s not going to plan, whether or not to persist, or cut it short. Likewise, if a game is going well, I often let it run much longer than planned. It’s not always easy to keep the kids on the ball talking English. So when you get them on the ball, let them stay they for as long as possible. Basically, my main objective is to keep learning fun. So when it gets to the point where you’re introducing that same old game to a series of groans, it’s time to change it up!

On the Spot

One of the funnier conversations I’ve had, is talking about the series of games some of us have made up on the spot. It’s usually a case of turning to the nearest available material, then doing something funny with it. Whilst you wouldn’t want to be doing this all the time, I can confidently say that I’ve come up with some pretty fun games on the spot. The first example, was getting the kids to stand up and throw whatever they could get their hands on, at me. Body parts was the language, and they just had to say where it hit. Whoever caused me the most pain was the winner. One area, in particular, seemed a popular target, but wasn’t suitable vocabulary to teach. Another easy one, is the house of cards. Using vocabulary flash cards, the students build a house of cards using the grammar structure of the day to form a sentence for each card they add. There are countless other ones, some better than others it has to be said. But, it’s fair to say, your delivery, attitude and ability to improvise is as important, if not more important, than just a lesson plan.

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Shane English - Shanghai China

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About the Author:

Darren Ralphs
Darren Ralphs is an English Teacher at Shane English in Shanghai.
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