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Productivity Strategies, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Jan 4, 2023

8 ways to adjust lessons for student needs WITHOUT planning everything last minute

By Megan Faherty

High School History/Social Studies

8 ways to adjust lessons for student needs WITHOUT planning everything last minute

By Megan Faherty

Advance lesson planning is the first and main step in reducing my work hours, and I believe it is the only way to end the cycle of falling behind on other work because there’s always urgent planning for the following day.

And yet when I coach teachers on this, a frequent response is, “I can’t plan that far ahead because I need to adjust to student needs.”

Adjusting to student needs versus planning ahead is a false dichotomy, and I’ve found that advance planning enables me to adjust to student needs far more effectively than planning lessons every night for the next day.

For example, imagine my 9th-grade world history students are struggling with a particular concept when teaching about the Industrial Revolution — communism versus capitalism. In last-minute planning mode, I decide to spend one more day practicing this concept than I originally meant to. Students get more practice, and the unit assessment ends up being a day later than it would have been — not a big problem.

But what if I take a similar approach often? If I add an extra day on a topic every other week, that’s 10 days in a semester — which could easily equal an entire unit! That’s 20 days or 4 weeks of school in a whole year – definitely a problem if I run out of time for that much of my curriculum. Sure, I can say my students understand communism versus capitalism — but what did they miss in those 4 weeks of instruction I’ve skipped or had to abandon?

In advance planning mode, I know exactly how many days I should spend on the Industrial Revolution unit to ensure I get through the whole curriculum, and how many days within that unit I have for communism versus capitalism. If I realize my students need more time on this concept, I can look at the big picture and make choices to meet this need without throwing off the rest of the year. I can look at the Industrial Revolution unit and see if there’s a topic coming up that I can spend less time on, or skills practice that I can combine with more communism versus capitalism practice.

I can look at the rest of the semester and decide to spend an extra day on this unit, knowing exactly where I will have to cut that day later on. I can look at my full curriculum and decide that since communism versus capitalism will come up again in two later units, I will use the assessment data from this unit to inform my instruction later, making sure to spiral back to what students misunderstood and build on what they did grasp.

When I have an advanced plan, I have many options, and I can choose among them knowing exactly what the consequences will be. When I plan at the last minute, every time I adjust for immediate student needs, I’m setting myself up to fail to meet their needs in the future, because I don’t have a clear idea of what the consequences will be.

Read about my advanced planning method here:

A peek inside one teacher’s lesson planning process (and how she streamlines to stay ahead)

Before getting into specific strategies, it’s important to reflect on your current practice. How much are you really adjusting to student needs when you plan at the last minute?

Be honest with yourself. I think it’s easy to use “adjusting for student needs” to justify to ourselves why we plan at the last minute when in reality, we’re just too busy to plan in advance.

Also, reflect on the ways in which you currently adjust to student needs or the ways you’d like to add. Brainstorm a list of the types of adjustments you make, so you can look for strategies to make those adjustments within the framework of a larger plan.

Needs that often prompt me to adjust my lesson plans

In my teaching, I often adjust lesson plans due to the following:

  1. Extra practice: some or all students need more practice on a skill or concept
  2. Reteaching: based on formative assessment, some or all students need more or different instruction to master a skill or concept
  3. Student interests: something comes up that students are super interested in, and I want to embrace and encourage that spontaneous interest in learning; or students in a particular class really enjoy a specific type of activity (for example, my 4th hour loves debates but my 6th hour prefers discussions)
  4. Differentiation: I need to modify instruction, assignments, or assessments to meet the needs of learners as outlined in IEPs, ILPs, 505 plans, etc.
  5. Time: an activity takes longer than I anticipated, or an unexpected event interrupts teaching
  6. Unprepared students: the activity I’ve planned depends on students having done some kind of preparation or homework

Strategies I use for last-minute adjustments to planned lessons

Below, I’ve outlined strategies to address each of these needs within the framework of advance planning.

Strategy 1: Building in buffer time.

Helps with: adjusting for extra practice, reteaching, or student interests

As described in my planning article, I start every semester by tallying how many teaching days I have and dividing those days up by unit. I start planning each unit by dividing up the days by learning target or topic. Whenever possible, I build in buffer time at these steps.

I might assign 80 of the 83 days in the semester to units, leaving 3 days as a buffer if I need to extend any unit. Or I only plan instruction and activities for 14 of the 15 days in a unit. I can also leave buffer time in a single week’s or day’s plans — I might know Tuesday’s activity won’t take the entire period, but I don’t plan anything else to fill the time.

Buffer time left at the end of the semester, unit, or class period can be used to meet many different student needs. Whether you need to take an extra day of practice on a concept like in my opening example, reteach a concept to a small group of students, or run with the conversation that got students excited or curious, you have time to do so without trashing your whole semester plan or curriculum. You can also designate specific buffer time for specific needs, such as including at least one reteaching day and one student interest day in every unit plan.

Strategy 2: Creating a standard student-interest activity.

Helps with: adjusting for student interests

One way to adjust for student interests is to include a lot of choices in learning activities — allowing students to choose a topic, group, format, or type of assessment. But what about those magical times when a specific topic comes up and carries the whole class away with fascination? How can we plan ahead to make the most of those times and not end up doing last-minute preparation? My strategy is to create a standard activity that can apply to any topic of interest.

In a history class, this might be a primary source gallery, where every student finds a primary source on the topic and we share them around the room, with a standard protocol for students to process and discuss the sources. I do a similar activity in psychology, with students searching for current research on a topic. I also do mini-inquiries, with students proposing hypotheses on a high-interest question, researching as individuals or small groups, and then sharing conclusions. This works well with current event topics, such as, “Why did Russia invade Ukraine?”

Other possibilities are Socratic seminars or student-led discussions. With each of these activities, I can have a template pre-made and all I have to do is throw in the specific topic that has sparked the class’s interest. Since we use the same format multiple times, students get familiar with the directions, so we can use our time more efficiently to get right to the good stuff.

Strategy 3: Incorporating self-paced days.

Helps with: adjusting for extra practice, reteaching, student interests, differentiation, and unprepared students

Last year’s Episode 252 introduced me to the Modern Classrooms Project, an approach to teaching that incorporates blended instruction (using videos), self-paced structures, and mastery-based grading. When I listened to Angela’s conversation with MCP co-founder Kareem Farah, I felt like I had come around a corner to discover something I’d long been searching for — a structure that can actually enable students to keep working on a concept or skill until they master it. I’m working on incorporating the whole Modern Classrooms approach in my classes, but for me, the quickest and easiest component to use is self-paced days.

A self-paced day is a bit different from just an open work day, with more structure for students. This year, I’m planning to have a self-paced day about every other day in my AP European History classes. I will prepare the lessons for the entire unit, and students will work through them at their own pace (with periodic hard deadlines to keep them on track). I can use the class time for one-on-one conferences or small group instruction, making this structure perfect for providing reteaching and differentiation.

The mastery approach of Modern Classrooms means students must master each lesson before moving on to the next, providing a structure for extra practice. I can incorporate optional lessons or one of my standard student interest activities for students who finish the required lessons quickly, to make space for students to pursue their interests. And students start a self-paced day from wherever they left off, meaning there’s really no such thing as an unprepared student. Students who have missed a lot of class or didn’t do the homework have the chance to catch up rather than being dumped into instruction they’re not prepared for.

You might be thinking, sounds great, but there’s no way I have time for that in my curriculum. So far, having worked on shifting my first 2 units to this model, I’ve been surprised at how easy it is to make every other day a self-paced day. I’m not really adding the self-paced days, I’m just rearranging activities. I already incorporate a lot of self-paced or small group work into my teaching. I frequently give students a task to complete individually or with a group and then call the class together to process what they did. It only takes a slight shift to turn the first part into a self-paced day and incorporate the follow-up for 2 or more lessons into the same instructional day.

Strategy 4: Spiraling content and skills (separately).

Helps with: adjusting for extra practice, reteaching, and differentiation

In my opening example, I talked about spiraling content. Spiraling in a curriculum means circling back to the same skills or content again and again, but each time, at a more advanced level – creating the shape of a spiral.

In a content-heavy class like social studies, a lot of content does not spiral – we learn the effects of the Industrial Revolution, and later the causes of the Cold War, and they’re not related or repeated. But core disciplinary concepts are repeated, such as capitalism versus communism, causes of wars, phases of a revolution, or characteristics of democracy. And these big concepts are the ideas we really want students to take away from our classes, so it’s worthwhile to spiral them.

It’s often easier to think of skills as spiraling. It’s easy to practice and advance the same reading, writing, and analysis skills as we move through new content. Even better, in a class like social studies with both, we can spiral content and skills separately from each other, and individually for students. The writing assessment for the Cold War doesn’t always have to be a three-paragraph essay. If most of the class mastered that a couple of units ago, I can make the Cold War writing assessment a five-paragraph essay incorporating primary sources. And the students who need more practice on a three-paragraph essay can be assessed at that level, allowing for differentiation.

When students are struggling with a concept or skill, I consider whether and when that concept or skill comes up again. Do I need to reteach or give extra practice now, or can I use the current data to plan for more effective instruction and practice the next time? In some cases, it may be important to reteach immediately — if the next concept builds directly on the current one, for example. But in some cases, I can plan for reteaching the next time the spiral comes around to the concept or skill.

8 ways to stay ahead in lesson planning (without sacrificing student needs)

Strategy 5: Using mastery or standards-based grading.

Helps with: adjusting for extra practice, reteaching, differentiation, and unprepared students

Both self-paced days and spiraling work best in the context of mastery or standards-based grading. In the self-paced structure, students need to master a lesson before moving on, and the number of attempts it takes them to get there shouldn’t affect their grade, as long as they achieve that mastery (within reasonable limits, of course). If I’m going to spiral content like communism versus capitalism, then students’ level of understanding in the earlier unit shouldn’t count against them if they get it in the later unit.

Mastery or standards-based grading enables students’ grades to grow as their knowledge and skills do. I used a simple form of mastery grading in my AP Euro class for years with essays. When I first started teaching the class, it was quickly obvious that it didn’t make sense for students’ first essay attempts, which are frequently terrible by AP standards, to drag down their grades for the whole semester. Yet I also needed to give students accurate grades (not participation or “you tried” grades), and I needed them to pay attention to and care about the feedback (which many would ignore if the essay simply didn’t count in their grade).

In mastery grading, each new essay score replaced the last one, and at the end of the semester, I counted their last and their best scores. This structure enables extra practice, differentiation, and spiraling as I gave students practice tasks individualized to their level of writing at that time between each full essay. It enables reteaching, as I can give more instruction on any writing skill many students are struggling with. And if students are unprepared on a specific day or for a specific essay topic, they will have a chance to show their true skill level in the next essay.

Full standards-based grading can be more complicated, with the need to assign a score for each learning target, whether content or skills. It usually requires a completely different grade book setup, record-keeping approach, and type of assessment. This year I’m moving my AP Euro class to full standards-based grading for the first time, and I’m sure there will be a learning curve. I am super excited about this voluntary change, however, because I believe standards-based grading will work together with self-paced days to allow students to learn at their own pace more than in a traditional classroom.

Strategy 6: Planning for essentials only (the pandemic approach).

Helps with: adjusting for time

As teachers, time gets away from us for a variety of reasons — activities take longer than we expected (which is really a planning issue); there was a fire alarm or a student crisis, or we just keep having to add extra days and push the curriculum back. When I find myself in this position, I now return to the lesson of the pandemic years — stick to the essentials.

Whether it was totally asynchronous instruction in the spring of 2020, or A-day, B-day hybrid in 2021 (meaning I only saw students 2 days a week), I simply did not have the instructional time I was used to. Over the last few years, we’ve all had to strip our classes down to the absolute essentials — the core disciplinary concepts, the foundational skills for the next class, the bare minimum. I think this is actually a gift from the pandemic years — I’ve never been better at focusing on fewer things, better.

So when you find yourself out of time, identify the essentials, and cut the rest. Is there an activity that helps students learn, but you mostly include because it’s fun? Do they mostly learn that content from something else? Do you typically include four examples or four chances for practice — can you cut that back to two? Would you normally introduce a new topic with student reflection or discussion questions, but you can really get right to the instruction? None of these choices is ideal, but time is finite.

Strategy 7: Creating a differentiation toolkit based on common accommodations.

Helps with: adjusting for differentiation

Differentiation is a huge category of planning. Every student is an individual, with specific strengths and needs. However, we can still plan for a lot of our differentiation in advance, before even knowing our specific students, because while the students’ needs are varied and unique, many of the accommodations to meet those needs are not.

There are many reasons students struggle with writing in English, whether a learning disability, dyslexia, emotional trauma, missed school, or being a native speaker of a different language. But the accommodations that support these students are often the same — sentence stems, outlines, and checklists for writing tasks. So I can make a version of any writing assignment with those accommodations ahead of time.

On my World History teaching team, we’ve been creating a differentiation toolkit for every unit we teach. We have a short list of common accommodations and strategies that work for students with various needs. The toolkit will have a version of each of these accommodations and strategies based on the content for that specific unit.

For example, for students with intellectual disabilities, we often have modified versions of tasks with pictures rather than words, so the toolkit includes an image bank for all the vocabulary of the unit. We use drag-and-drop type activities with these students as well, so every unit has a version of that. We will always need to tweak these activities for certain students, but we can make the whole toolkit ahead of time, so we’re never starting from scratch on differentiation.

How to move out of the day-by-day lesson planning trap and think big picture

Strategy 8: Flipping days around.

Helps with: adjusting for time and unprepared students

This is a simple but powerful way to adjust for student needs, and it’s only possible in advance planning mode. When I have an entire unit planned out ahead of time, I can move the days around like puzzle pieces to find the right fit.

If a fire drill is scheduled for 3rd hour on Wednesday, and I don’t want it to interrupt the discussion, I can flip it with the activity on Friday. I use this most often when I’ve planned an amazing interactive activity that depends on students having background knowledge or specific preparation, and on the day, I find many students haven’t done the prep work. If I power through the activity, I will have students who are lost, disengaged, and simply not learning what they need to learn. Instead, I can look at my whole unit plan, and flip with a day that doesn’t require any student preparation. This would simply not be possible in last-minute planning mode.

You can plan in advance AND make day-to-day adjustments

Though I’m committed to advance planning as the best way to meet student needs and maintain work-life balance, I definitely still make day-to-day adjustments — I’m not a robot compulsively following a plan.

I plan ahead to include a warm-up or exit ticket, but I adjust the specific prompt based on how the class went the day before.

I plan ahead for a discussion or group work time, but I adjust the amount of class time for that activity based on students’ level of focus.

I plan source analysis with four sources ahead of time but decide during class how many sources to require, or how many to analyze together as a class versus in small groups or individually.

And sometimes, I simply have to push the end of the unit back a day.

The goal is not to create a rigid plan that never changes. The goal is to create a flexible advance plan so that when you need to change it, you can do so deliberately and effectively, enhancing student learning rather than sacrificing it.

Megan Faherty

High School History/Social Studies

Megan is in her 17th year of teaching high school social studies, including world history, European history, and psychology. She is committed to creating a safe, inclusive, and challenging learning environment for all students. As the curriculum facilitator (or department...
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