Help me stay sane while I try to plan lessons!
January 1, 2013 11:25 PM   Subscribe

Teacher Filter: Increasing the efficiency of creating lesson plans

I am a first year teacher. It probably goes without saying that I am stressed out. I try to actively deal with stress as it comes and not let it pile up.

I have been having mild to low success.

One of the areas of issue is in my lesson planning, more specifically coming up with activities and materials to best meet my learning objectives.

Being a new teacher, I don't have a large cache of materials that I can just pull out and use.

I stay at least 10-12 hours just at the school, and that's just doing administrative work (grading, phone calls, and the like), and then I get home and spend 3-4 hours more planning the lesson and creating the activities and printed materials for the next day right before I hit the hay.

I feel like I'm living, breathing, and eating teaching.

The actual planning part of what I need the students to learn is not difficult. I already have my objectives for the entire year planned out. I use Google Forms to quickly and easily document my lesson plans. The huge time consumption comes from having to search for good activity ideas, typing up worksheets and materials, writing up fill-in the blank notes, creating powerpoints and prezis, finding short videos, gathering materials (for labs), figuring out how I'm going to manage the logistics of complex activities, and this is all while dealing with my other duties such as staying up to date on my grading, making sure I improve my classroom management and control, and all the other responsibilities that come with teaching.

What I would like would be a guide from start to finish on how to most effectively plan my lessons. I don't need the stuff like the anticipatory set, blah blah, or the five E's of inquiry, I want to know how you approach it.

Do you plan on paper or on the computer? Do you pick a set day to begin planning each week? Each month? Do you plan in week or month, or 3-day intervals or maybe just the day before?

Do you create mind-maps to map out objectives and then place each objective on a certain calendar date and then figure out the activity from there?

Do you have internet resources from which you can quickly and easily match activities to meet your objectives? Do you use a lesson ideas book? Do you have a set few lesson templates (i.e. notes, foldables, etc. and you just pull a few general activities from there?)

Do you use specific textbook resources?

Do you plan everything around focus questions or do you pick the questions you're going to answer each day and pose those to students? I want details!!!

P.S. More information:

I teach 8th Grade Physical Sciences (chemistry, physics, astronomy concepts)

I have a CD that contained all the curriculum for 8th grade that I got from a cooperating teacher last year when I interned. He got it from someone else who got it from someone else. It's a start, but I don't really like a lot of the materials that are available there, so I usually end up remaking things from scratch or completely retyping up the materials to best fit my class if I use them at all. The way a lot of the material is presented is not intuitive or well chunked.

Anyway, advice and detailed walk-throughs of your planning strategies are most appreciated!

I would really love not being stressed to the point of tears each night while I freak out about what I'm going to be teaching the next day and all the preparation I have to get done before class starts.
posted by Peregrin5 to Education (11 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

I'm a high school English teacher. This is my 9th year in the classroom.

Here are my lesson planning strategies:
1. Plan backwards. What's the objective for the unit? What do you want kids to know and be able to do? What will the test be? Then use that information to design a series of lessons that can get them to that point. This is roughly an Understanding By Design model. I also use Explore-Flip-Apply for my lesson structures (easier example).

An English example:
End goal: writing a summary that is clear, coherent, and concise.
Diagnostic: write a summary of a video (since video is easier than text for students). See what could be trouble spots.
Unit: Use that info to help guide students to appropriate activities, such as: structured writing, sentence starters, breakdowns of successful and unsuccessful summaries, practice with extensive peer/teacher feedback, etc.

2. Focus on skills, not activities. If the skill is identifying constellations, then think about what they would have to produce to demonstrate that knowledge. Then give them practice at each stage of that process. If you give me an example of your unit objectives/skills, I can give you a better answer.

3. Build your units around hands-on activities as much as possible. What can students do, make, build, experiment with, etc. that will help them learn?

4. Build your PLN (personal learning network) on twitter. Find good science teachers (I know at least 30 amazing HS science teachers on twitter) and ask them for help on specific assignments/activities. They may have videos, worksheets, labs, etc. And they will share. Find me on twitter and I'll send you their way.

5. Get a collaborative partner. I plan all my lessons with my BFF/collaborative teaching partner. He lives 2,500 miles away and we've never met in person. But we make writing and reading instruction videos together, and we do all our planning through google drive or google+ hangouts. He is the first person I go to when I need to talk out an idea. He's my counterpart. He makes my life better, and my job easier. And we're not that special. I know a lot of flipped learning teachers who would love this kind of partnership (and there are WAY more science-typed people on twitter than humanities people).

6. Find videos that deliver the content you're doing in powerpoint/prezi/lecture. I always say to make your own, but in your first year, there's no reason to do that. There are amazing teachers who have done it already. Here are a few:
Brian Bennett
Ramsay Musallam
Carolyn Durley
Jon Bergmann
ShowMe Science community
Frank Noschese

All of those people are my twitter friends. And they are amazing teachers.

Here's the rough lesson planning sequence I use:
After school, I meet with Andrew (my collaborative partner) through G+. We discuss what has gone on in class that day and what needs to be retaught. We look at the overall objectives for the unit, and decide if there are things we need to cover again, or if we can move on. We then create documents for the next day's lessons. We tend to focus on the overarching skills more than questions, but if we're doing something a little more inquiry-minded, we will do a big question (like: How do people survive trauma?) and then use the resources to help students answer that question.

We organise everything in google drive, which we have shared with both of us and available for students. We are mostly paperless, so we don't have to make too many copies or spend time that way.

That's all I can think of right now. Let me know if you have questions, or if you (or anyone else reading) would like to talk more over memail or gmail (my username @ gmail dot com).

Hang in there. The first few years are a mess, and surviving is the name of the game. You can do it. Just one day at a time. And what doesn't get done, doesn't get done. No one will die if your lesson isn't perfect. I promise.
posted by guster4lovers at 12:00 AM on January 2, 2013 [10 favorites]

Forgot to say:
I'd also suggest looking into a flipped classroom model next year. It has saved me so much difficulty and given me a great community of like-minded educators to help expand and improve my practice. Then you can share the load of curriculum too. :-)

It's a lot of work, but it definitely improved my ability to work with students and move them up in terms of skills and understanding.
posted by guster4lovers at 12:03 AM on January 2, 2013

I totally get this: I hate lesson plans, and I hate that experienced teachers don't seem to have them to show you how to do it. "Experienced teachers do units, not lessons" (nice. what about my lesson for tomorrow, and why do I feel like punching you in the face, mentor?)

I am in the same boat as you are: I start in a month.

I think the stress is the 'oh crap this is TOMORROW' thing. But, I often feel that I can't plan a week etc in advance because you don't know how quick/slow the kids will get through stuff.

I think a good method (for me) is to start with plans on a computer- and leave space to write notes on.

I like to chunk my lessons into 10 minute or 5 minute sections. - I find this helps me move around chunks as needed.
posted by titanium_geek at 12:47 AM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

The reason most experienced teachers don't say: "Do this, then this, then this" is that part of learning to lesson plan is learning to fit activities into units.

Frankly, the most important thing in your first year is learning how to structure solid UNITS that have objectives and a set end point. However, you can easily fit a model like this in with multiple activities:

60 minute period
Warm-up: on the board (when I taught physics I used copied pages of this book and we did them together). Give them some time to write it down/answer it, then go over it together

First activity: something hands-on (this is the "explore" phase of EFA) that takes 20 minutes. Maybe concept exploration, prediction, video of a process, etc.

Second activity: either content delivery or lab/experiment work - 20-25 minutes

Wrap-up: Review major concepts they should have mastered, assign any homework (this is where, in flipped model, you would assign the video), do an exit ticket - maybe a review of the warm-up question, and a rationale for why it's right, based on the work you've done in class.

That structure is research tested. Plus, planning 20 minute activities is much easier. I would use one of those 20 minute blocks for lab/experiment work, and the other block would be for something literacy based. I would have them read current events in science, write journals, do observations, work on projects that involved speaking or listening, etc. I found it as important to develop literacy and numeracy in my classes as science. But I am an English teacher who taught physics for a year. YMMV.

That also makes your life a little easier. One 20 minute experiment with some questions that they write up into a lab report that also takes 20 minutes. The next day, you watch a video in the first 20 minute block about a concept, then use the second block to have a small group discussion about the experiment the day before, and how the principle was at work in the experiment.

Or give every day a theme! Experiment that is inquiry based on Monday, lab reports on Tuesday, concept development Wednesday and practice with that concept/facts, more in-depth experiment Thursday, final discussion, lab report and quiz on Friday.

That will give your brain a break in terms of coming up with new ideas all the time. One concept a week, two experiments, and a few lab-report write-ups and discussion topics. It's psychologically easier to plan in that kind of structure.
posted by guster4lovers at 1:03 AM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

The huge time consumption comes from having to search for good activity ideas, typing up worksheets and materials, writing up fill-in the blank notes, creating powerpoints and prezis, finding short videos, gathering materials (for labs), figuring out how I'm going to manage the logistics of complex activities, and this is all while dealing with my other duties such as staying up to date on my grading, making sure I improve my classroom management and control, and all the other responsibilities that come with teaching.

My other half is a teacher in the same subjects as you, and one thing I have noticed is that as you progress through your career, you will amass a vast archive of resources (videos, diagrams, activities, work sheets, Powerpoints, experiments, etc, plus bookmarks of useful websites that have these resources) that you can use in the future. So the work now pays off in the coming years when you have to teach the same (or similar) classes and you already have a bunch of resources to re-use. Not much help now, I know, but hopefully helps you realise that it will get easier.

Maybe find a more experienced teacher in your department and ask them if they can share any useful resources, even if it's just some websites which have good videos and ready-made Powerpoints or worksheets.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:32 AM on January 2, 2013

I'm not a teacher (although, as the saying goes, 'Some of my best friends . . .'), but I'm aware that there are some useful online resources that might be of help to you.

The Times Educational Supplement (tes) has a lot of resources, including lesson plans; see: They've also partnered with the AFT to provide Also, the New York Times provides lesson plans (and more) based on its content; see

The Open Culture site also provides a wealth of free educational resources, with links to material gleaned from all over the web.

Hope this is of some use.
posted by davemack at 6:18 AM on January 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I taught high school English and I did it in two-hour blocks. Talk about a challenge. I was given a text book and a classroom and let loose on the world of 14-year-olds. I'm amazed I'm still here.

The good news is that once you do the lesson plans, you'll have them forever. So sure, the first year SUCKS, but after that it gets so much easier.

I had to not only break up the class sesson to keep the kids from going insane, I was also responsible for two graded items per session, so lots to keep me busy.

In English we had two things that I used as a basis for covering things in my lesson plans:

Florida Sunshine State Standards

Six Elements of Writing

By using these as a guide, I was able to fill in my days with things like:

Content, Cause and Effect, Romeo and Juliet

So while I was teaching Romeo and Juliet, I would also cover the writing trait of Content, and the concept of Cause and Effect.

I found it really easy to work within that kind of structure.

Another thing that helped was teaming up with other teachers. We started a program where every teacher was covering the same material at the same time. That way we could share ideas and lesson plans with each other, and if a kid needed to go from one class to another, he would still be getting the same content at the same time.

There are tons of amazing resources out there, let Google be your guide.

Personally, it wasn't the lesson plans that stressed me out, it was classroom management that nearly killed me.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:19 AM on January 2, 2013

Hi, I was in your shoes a few years ago, teaching math. I think the people who say to plan whole units are sort of right - it is more efficient to search for all the resources on a topic, then organize them on different days of a unit. If you can do the resource-gathering part of your work in unit chunks it will save you a lot of time.

Other thoughts -

*fill-in-the-blank notes are good training but they are a lot of work for you. Can you start to train the kids to take notes in a notebook on their own paper?

*Can you spend more class time on discussion? Once you give the kids expectations and sentence stems for how to talk to each other, discussion-heavy lessons need less teacher planning.

*Prezis are cool but you do not have to be super-teacher all the time. Maybe replace with a brain-pop video every once in a while?

*I also personally feel that powerpoints are often more work than they are worth. Or see if you force yourself to limit them to four slides, very little text. The kids tend to zone out anyway :)

*Grade less! Some things don't need to be graded - glance at them and throw them in the trash - I promise no one will know. Other stuff should be graded by the kids in class - switch papers style. I think they learn more from doing it themselves.

*ask your administrator to get you a bunch of sample textbooks from various publishers - they will send a sample for free. Use these as a resource.

*do you know about FOSS kits? Labs in a box with accompanying booklets. Good on physical science, inquiry-based.

Good luck to you and hang in there! It gets easier, I promise.
posted by mai at 9:28 AM on January 2, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice so far guys!

I also wanted to note that I do plan by units. Before the year started I broke up the year into different units (based on the standards and what I remembered from intern teaching last year -- luckily I am teaching the same grade and subject).

I determined the objectives (written in skill format *students will be able to -blah-*). I even tried adding things like keywords, etc. An example of a unit plan I created looks like this.

I'm just trying to figure out how to get from my unit plan and my unit objectives to my daily activities, more explicitly, I can do this already, because we're already halfway through the year and I've already planned a lot of successful lessons, but I want to figure out how to streamline my ability to create documents and materials or find them.

Finding all the materials I need by unit chunks sounds like a great idea. It would have to be a horribly long weekend but if it gets rid of most of my stress during the rest of the month, it's worth it. One thing I thought of while reading this thread, is that my unit objectives are all kind of tossed into my mind map. I should probably number and prioritize them by the sequence I should teach them in class.

I've been trying a number of different structures, and I'm trying to solidify it now. By all means keep the advice coming!
posted by Peregrin5 at 10:29 AM on January 2, 2013

A few thoughts from a HS Lit teacher friend of mine:

I too will try to plan out a whole week in advance so that I am not freaking out every night.
I would rather spend all Saturday planning the week than all of my free time on weekdays planning the next day.
And the secret is: don't be super teacher. Make the students do the work. Don't talk all the time and lecture all the time.

posted by luckynerd at 10:56 AM on January 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I teach K-8 music full time to 600+ kids each week. I'm in year two and I still get bogged down with the lesson planning. Though it is less helpful to me and my needs, many teachers at my work get their ideas and materials through
posted by beloveddoll at 4:12 PM on January 2, 2013

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