The Joys of Lesson Planning

One year ago, a torrent of thoughts flooded my mind.

“I’m teaching high school?  What? I didn’t know these jobs existed!?

“I don’t teach from a textbook?  Oh my god! What will I teach?”

“I can teach whatever I want?  No! Give me direction, damn it!”

When I arrived at Namak High School, I had planned one lesson in my entire life – a flaw-riddled monstrosity that I submitted for my EPIK application.

Now I was not only responsible for my own lesson planning, but I had no textbook to serve as a guide.  Early on, I drowned in an endless sea of possibility.

Though I found this endless sea of red and yellow leaves quite lovely.

My first lessons were a bit crude.  Many involved partner dialogue activities and individual writing exercises.  They weren’t poor lessons, but there was vast room for improvement.

Fortunately, I encountered an essential lesson planning resource – constraints.  These constraints came graciously from my co-teacher.

“Ian, this lesson does not incorporate enough speaking.”

“Ian, I don’t  think this will be very fun for the students.”

“This activity does not necessitate to speaking English.  They will just speak Korean to each other.”

I am eternally grateful for this advice.  Thanks to these constraints and constructive critiques, my lessons vastly improved over the course of my first semester.  Soon I was designing my own games, incorporating plenty of speaking, and motivating students.

Each lesson provided valuable feedback.  This was true regardless of whether or not my co-teachers provided commentary.  The students’ performance was all the feedback I needed. Some lessons produced great energy but not enough English speaking.  Other activities kept students on the English straight-and-narrow but sapped their energy.

But visiting Buddhist temples in Korea never saps my energy  I always welcome the chance to bow three times – one to the Buddha, one to the Dharma, and one to the Sangha.

My intelligent students revealed loopholes in my game structures as well.  While I enjoy fostering some low-stakes competition to raise intrigue, my co-teacher made a great point.

“If we are not careful, students’ goals will shift away from communication and towards simply winning the game.”

This is a week-to-week arms race.  How do I trick my students into having fun speaking English?

This is not a knock on my students.  Many are motivated to do my activities in good faith.  However, others are not so diligent. Therefore, it is my job to create activities that challenge and entertain.  When I present activities with an appropriate difficulty and just the right mix of collaborative and competitive elements, student engagement flourishes.

While I initially floundered with boundless freedom, the craft of lesson planning has grown on me as I slowly cultivate greater competence and enjoyment.  In terms of competence, I am not surprised.  With sufficient repetitions, it is rare for an activity to remain permanently difficult.

However, as I plan more and more lessons, I appreciate the creative element.

I also appreciate the element of photo-ception (the photo within a photo).

Since I was young, my parents and teachers praised my creativity.  Most of this praise took aim at my writing.  In young adulthood, I held (naive) dreams of becoming a professional screenwriter.  I believed that whatever career I settled on would require creativity in some degree.

Today I relish the creativity of lesson planning.  I do not enjoy creativity because of its freedom. On the contrary, constraints make lesson planning more enjoyable.

With too many possibilities, people can founder within the paradox of choice.  It is hard to settle on creating any one thing when one has the freedom to create anything.

Lesson planning, on the other hand, introduces meaningful constraints that guide its creation.  The end objective is clear – students speaking English. The obstacles are clear as well.  Many students are not passionate about the English language demand some kind of enjoyment in order to engage.

With a clear goal and obstacle, lesson planning becomes a creative puzzle.  It is a puzzle that benefits from observation and iteration.

“Hmm…students are more likely to speak if they have a written copy of a dialogue.”

“Interesting…students are more excited to speak a dialogue they produce themselves rather than one produced by me.”

“It seems that introducing some element of chance or intermittent reinforcement keeps students hooked on the activity.”

“Perhaps some low-stakes competition will bring more attention to the activity at hand.”

Or maybe the students need more “thumbs up.”  Or more cowbell.  There can always be more cowbell.

My whole process is an ever-optimizing progression of trial and error.  How many slides should I ask students to read verbatim? One is too few (they don’t get enough practice).  Four is too many (students tire of rote repetition). Two or three seem to be just enough (they can practice a bit before boredom takes over).

How long should an activity be?  How much time should I give students to form an answer?  How should I award points for this game? How should I pace these two activities for a 50-minute class?  How should I start the class? How should I finish the class?

Lesson planning is a consistently rewarding challenge because I perpetually uncover new dimensions of class that beg for improvement.  Lesson planning is an ideal creative challenge for me.  It provides ample freedom coupled with just enough constraints to focus my efforts.

Just as my lessons tend to involve language games, lesson planning itself is a game for me.  With immediate feedback and opportunities to fail, I relish in challenging myself to perform better each and every class.

(Update:  I’ve since moved away from games in my classroom.  I will write a post about this in the future.)

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