This ripped-from-the-headlines Lesson Plan has sort of developed over the last few months and I have found that in the chaotic and resource-deprived Georgian classrooms, it helps to calm the class, restore some order and forces all of the students to participate.
Two months before I moved overseas and began teaching English, I read an article in the New York Times about Brockton High School in Massachusetts, entitled “4,100 Massachusetts Students Prove ‘Small is Better’ Rule is Wrong.” The article discusses how an ambitious writing-intensive curriculum implemented by the staff of Brockton High School about a decade ago helped to transform the school from being one of the worst performing schools in the state to one of the schools in the top 10% of the state. It’s an incredibly heartwarming success story for those interested in education reform in the United States and left a lasting impression on me. Not long after I arrived in Georgia and after numerous failed attempts to implement some amount of control over the most chaotic classes, the writing-based success of Brockton High School sprang to mind. And so, half way through a rowdy third grade class, I listened for the students to answer my co-teachers questions and then began writing those sentences on the board: “It is a boat. It is slow.” “It is a plane. It is fast.” After the exercise was over, I instructed all of the students to write. After we corralled all of the students into their desks, with their notebooks open and a functioning pen in their hands, a hush fell over the class as the students slowly started copying off of the board. Since then, that co-teacher and I have drastically increased the amount of writing in each class. Whether they are first graders learning the alphabet, second graders trying to master basic sentences or third graders learning about rooms in the house, we make all of the students write sentences pertaining to the lesson. Over the last three months, it has evolved into the following lesson plan:
1. One teacher asks questions about the lesson (my co-teacher usually asks and I usually write but we’ve done it both ways and it works just as well.)
2. The students should answer the questions orally and the other teacher should write their answers on the board. Try to ask some questions that are based directly on the lesson in the book and others that force the students to apply the lesson to situations outside of the book. For example, if you’re going over colors, ask about each picture in the book and then start pointing to objects in the classroom – first ask what the object is and then ask what color the object is.
3. When there are eight to ten sentences written on the board, we instruct all of the students to copy the sentences into their notebooks. This portion of class generally takes a lot of time, in part because the students are so inexperienced with writing that they have to look up at the board for almost every letter. While the students are writing, you and your co-teacher will need to circle the room and make sure that all of the students are actually writing. You’ll have students that say they don’t have notebooks or pens. I always have them go through their backpacks and give me any notebook with spare paper and I instruct them to write in that notebook (they’ll protest but write if you insist). I also always carry spare pens in my backpack. If a student doesn’t have a pen and can’t borrow one from a classmate, I lend them one of mine. The amount of time required for copying should decrease over time as the students have started to absorb more of the language.
4. After the students have finished writing, we say each sentence together as a class, often multiple times until they can say the smoothly.
5. If this does not take the entire class, move onto one of the dialogues or songs in the book that is relevant to the lesson. Students, especially young students, have too much energy and too short of an attention span to just write sentences for 45 minutes (and writing sentences without saying them or learning the meaning isn’t the most effective). Writing might take longer than you want it to but you should include some non-writing activities as well.
Another variation of this one that I have developed recently starts with the song and dialogue. It goes like this:
1. Do the song/chant first. Say each line. Have the whole class repeat it back to you.
2. After you go through the song once or twice, add hand motions to each word. Make them simple and things that the students can do while sitting down. Try to make them reflect the definition of the word. For example, the lesson one song goes like this: Round we go, Round we go, Round we go, Round we go, Round we go, Hello, Hello. Hand motion for “round” can be to move your hand, palm facing the students, in a circle. “We” can be a gesture that includes everyone – I use both hands to make big circles as though I’m including the students. “Go” pretend to walk in place; if you want the students to stay sitting, just move your arms like you’re walking.
3. While doing hand motions, go through the song multiple times until the students can say the words without your help. I mime the hand motions to help them remember but only talk if they don’t remember. Watch their mouths and make sure everyone is talking. Call out the students who are not talking. For the last two or three rehearsals of the song, encourage the students to yell the lines (listen carefully to make sure you can still hear the correct word and not just loud noises). They get really into this part.
4. Do the dialogue. Depending on how many students you have and their ability to behave properly, break the students into pairs and have each pair practice multiple times. Select a few to perform in front of the class. Most of my students are not calm enough to do this and so we select two students to read in front of the group and then, after a couple pairs have gone, go through the dialogue as a class – with all of the girls reading the girl’s lines and the boys reading the boy’s line.
5. Switch to the writing-based lesson as described above in steps one through 4.
I will acknowledge that this lesson plan is not the most exciting, creative or glamorous lesson plan. But it has worked well in my classes for several reasons. One, it forces all of the students to participate, regardless of whether they have books. Two, it uses resources that you already have in class – chalk, books, notebooks and pens. Almost every student, buried somewhere in their backpacks, has a notebook (but not always an English notebook) and a writing utensil (for those who don’t, a classmate almost always has an extra pen or you can lend them one. Three, writing forces all of the students to stay in their desks and work on a task – two things that drastically improve their behavior and immediately make an otherwise chaotic class of twenty five energetic nine year-olds manageable for you and your co-teacher. Four, writing makes the English stay in the student’s brain for a longer period of time than if they just say the words. Five, it is a plan that your co-teacher can use in class even when if you are not present. My co-teacher has several very energetic first, second and third grade classes but my schedule only allows me to enter these classes once a week. She makes them write sentences when I am not in class and all of them are much better behaved now than they were in February. These lessons involve the weakest students and students who were previously ignored and, as a result, English levels of all the students have improved.