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Productivity Strategies, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Nov 17, 2021

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

By Amy Stohs

2nd Grade

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

By Amy Stohs

Beliefs about lesson planning can feel like a tug of war. We want to plan ahead so we don’t have to stress-plan the night before.

We also want to be responsive to student needs. We think it would be great to have the year mapped out, but we silently judge teachers who do that because we think they must be crazy or overly rigid. Sometimes teachers are anxious to plan too far in advance. They believe that this disregards student needs and won’t allow them to be flexible when the time comes. The opposite is true, though. Reducing your own anxiety and stress around planning and ensuring that you have paced out the most important skills over the year is what allows you to teach students in the moment with what they need at their own pace as opposed to always feeling like you need to get to the next lesson and the next skill. You know when those things are coming because they’re on your calendar already. Here are 8 ways you can stay ahead in lesson planning that still allow you to meet student needs every step of the way.

Sketch out the year. Consider end goals for each unit of study.

Why? If you’ve ever felt the anxiety of not being sure what to do the next day or started out a morning scrambling for something to pull together or wondering how you got so far behind in pacing, then imagine the opposite of that. Imagine knowing that today you’re talking about adding integers on a number line or today you’re teaching the parts of a plant or today you’re working on writing theme sentences. Even if you don’t have official lesson plans for any of those topics, you can start with the lesson objective. Teachers who plan out their year in advance are not planning entire lessons and activities in advance. They are planning the focus of the day. The reason for this is to ensure that the most important skills and standards are taught throughout the year. This means dedicating more time in the calendar to the most important skills and pacing out standards in a way that ensures students move on into future grade levels (and life!) with the most meaningful learning targets mastered. Other skills and standards can be placed into the pacing guide to take up less time.

How? This concept of planning out with the end goal of a year in mind is backwards design. When you’re planning out your year, consider what the most important skills and standards are that require mastery. Of course, you would love students to master everything you teach them. That is not realistic. There will be things they learn that are unexpected and surprising that you did not plan in addition to things they can learn more thoroughly in coming years. Decide the most important units and block out a little bit more time for those while shortening others. Consider how some units may say “3 weeks” but the three weeks on the calendar line up as having a 3 day week, 2 half days, and a Friday school assembly. You might need to block out 4 weeks in order to ensure those learning targets receive the attention needed and shorten another unit to compensate depending on how much value you place on that unit. The goal of pacing out units ahead of time is so that you know going into each unit how many true class days are allocated to each unit. I like to do this long term planning on a calendar that has all the important information of a school year calendar on it. The only thing that needs to be paced out are the essential learning targets for each day. If there is a special activity or event you want to do, mark it in the calendar as a placeholder. It could always be moved, but if it’s on the calendar, you’re making the time for it now.

See this document for links to example year long calendars by day (more detailed) or by week (general unit names only).

Connect lessons from one day to the next.

Why? As you do long term planning, think about the end goals of each unit. This way, you can carry over from one day to the next as opposed to planning each day on its own as an individual lesson. This helps you because it provides more flexibility within each unit while still staying within the timeline boundaries you’ve dedicated to these learning targets. This plan also helps students retain information because they are constantly connecting ideas from different lessons. They have multiple opportunities to latch onto skills because the skills get re-addressed throughout the unit even if only as informal reminders.

How? Consider how you can create throughlines for each unit.  There are many ways to do this:

  • Guide a unit towards a final product using project based learning where the lessons feed into what is necessary to complete the project
  • Use concept based instruction to keep a motif in mind throughout a unit such as “change”
  • Focus your instruction on a topic that could be interdisciplinary such as chocolate
  • Use problem based learning to consider a problem that needs to be solved over time
  • Ask a question throughout a unit such as “How have these civil rights leaders improved the lives of US citizens?”

Choose a daily structure.

Why? Keeping a class structure as consistent as possible lowers anxiety and saves time. It lowers anxiety for students because they know what’s typically happening and can adjust to the flow of your classroom. It lowers anxiety for you as the teacher because it means you are only inserting different tasks into a pre-decided format. This saves planning time because you’re always just filling in blank spaces that are contained within a structure so you never start from scratch.

How? Look below at these possible lesson structures. When you write or type into a planbook (or use an online version such as planbook.com) you can keep the following as a template. Then, you only have to type in specific details. You may end up alternating between 2-3 different structures depending on the unit you’re in or if you’re working on a project vs. in a unit that heavily relies on lab work. If you teach elementary, you’ll likely have different structures for different content areas as well. When looking at these structures, think about the essential parts of your day. This could include an anticipatory set, number sense routine, read aloud, mini lesson, work period, small groups, stations, etc.

Example 1: I almost always (except on assessment days) start with a number sense routine in math. The number sense routine changes based on units, but I cycle through the same predictable discussion based prompts. The expectations surrounding these number sense routines are always the same. These are also all linked in slideshows so when I link it to my lesson plan, I just note the slide number but can use the same attachment/link nearly every day.

Example 2: My reading or writing workshop starts with a mini lesson on the carpet. The expectation for students to bring their pencil and a notebook and sit facing me and my easel is the same every time. This routine saves class time since students can anticipate transitions and it lets them know when they need to focus intently vs. when they can work at their own pace.


See this document for example lesson plans for primary, upper elementary, and secondary using the following templates/structures.

Consider a weekly or biweekly pattern.

Why? Similar to choosing a daily structure, a weekly or biweekly pattern can relieve you of decision making. If you always do stations on Wednesday and Thursday or start each Monday with a socratic seminar or always do labs on Tuesdays because you have a group of kids that can assist you Monday afternoons to prep, then you are relieved of the decision making needed to pick a day. While it may not seem like a big deal to decide which day you’re going to do a review activity or which day you’ll do a lab, any decisions you can streamline save your energy for other, more important decisions.

How? Each day of the week could hold a different type of mini lesson for you to teach, a different number sense routine, a different exit routine, etc.


  • Community Builders: Monday Motivation, Would You Rather Tuesday, Wednesday Wisdom, Thoughtful Thursday, and Friday Fun Games.
  • Focus Daily Bell Work: Grammar, Vocabulary, Greek and Latin Roots, Famous Quotes, and Spelling Patterns.
  • Assessments on Fridays: I used to do a quiz in math every other Friday. The Fridays when we did not have a quiz were days when quiz corrections were due.
  • Alternate Day A Stations on Monday, Day B Stations on Tuesday, Day A Stations on Wednesday, Day B Stations on Thursday, Review or Assessments on Friday
  • Group by week for activities: Week 1 of the month is Estimation, Week 2 is Logic Puzzles, Week 3 is Test Prep Games, Week 4 is Visual Math

Changes happen to schedules, but those are just a deviation, and it’s easy to get back into a rhythm.

Embrace the MINI lesson and increase the time for students to read, write, work, and do.

Why? The younger your students, the more important it is to keep lessons mini, but high schoolers need focused, short lessons as well. We know the adages “the one who is doing the talking is the one who is doing the learning” and “we remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear,…” and so on. The reason these are adages are not because they are foolproof facts of life but because they reflect what we know as educators that students need time to process learning and interact in order to actually understand the material in our classes.

How? Shorten your teacher directed instruction to the most important 10-15 minute segment so that each lesson is focused and directly applicable to the day’s activity. Focus on what you are going to teach in that amount of time and explicitly state “Today I am going to teach you how to….” or “Today you will know you’ve got this lesson when you can…” If you can’t narrow down your lesson focus into a sentence, break it down more. Think about the underlying skills that are needed to get to the goal you have in mind or consider teaching the lesson over 2 days. During this mini lesson time, you may have stricter expectations for students that they don’t take a break or use the restroom and that they fully demonstrate appropriate listening skills with undivided attention. If students know that this is the time you expect to have their full focus and that it will be directly applicable to the day’s task, they will be more likely to follow through on these expectations. In addition, it is easier for you to hold them accountable when you know you’re only expecting this level of lecture-style focus for a short time.

Build in a workshop time where students can do a meaningful task and you can support students as they work through it. There are many ways to embed student work time in a way that allows you to be responsive to student needs and more easily differentiate the pace, content, or task.


  • Allow students to choose if they do the task on their own at their desk or with you in a more centralized spot/carpet area. You could always “invite” certain students to join you.
  • Move around with a clipboard and take notes of what students are doing as an observer only. This will let you know what to bring up at the closing reflection time or for the next day’s mini lesson.
  • Move around with a clipboard and interview each student about “How’s it going?” with their project or task and take notes afterwards about their progress. Use a different color pen each day so that you remember which kids you talked to when.
  • Set up a rotation of 3 different stations and go through all 3 in one day.
  • Set up a rotation of 4 different stations and alternate 2 on one day and 2 on another.
  • Do the same task with each small group but do fewer problems with some groups and more with another.
  • Do the same task with each small group but go more slowly and provide more scaffolds with some groups than others.
  • Plan to review mistakes from a quiz with each small group and group students based on the type of mistake/content missed.
  • Have students swap out a station for an intervention task; if this is undesirable, perhaps they can pick which task they swap out as long as they complete the intervention assignment.
  • Pull one small group each day and do a short lesson with them. Spend the rest of your time checking in with individual students and/or answering questions.
  • Allow students to sign up for conference times with you for whoever feels like they need help today and go down the list. If you don’t get to someone, pick up where you left off last class.
  • Work with ½ the class on a task while the other ½ works on something else more independent. Then, switch groups halfway through the period or the next day.

All of those structures are more desirable than a structure where each student is doing the exact same thing at the exact same time all day. People work at different paces and the workshop model, stations, conferences, and small groups all provide the structure for allowing that natural differentiation of pace, content, and style.

Build in buffer time and spaces for responsive instruction.

Why? The first note was to plan out your year so that you can keep track of what is essential for students to know over the course of a year. You also want to think as you approach each unit what is essential to the unit. As teachers we must be ruthless in cutting things that will not be the very best and highest use of our instructional time. When we schedule in buffer time, it allows us to ensure we are doing the most important things with our time and that we are providing the time needed to do those things well as opposed to just finishing a task as quickly as possible. It also means that we can stay on schedule when disruptions occur because you can shorten a lesson to combine it with another day’s lesson without panicking. It means rearranging schedules to accommodate for an unexpected assembly doesn’t break you into a sweat about how you’ll possibly still be ready for that district assessment next week.

How? Leave blank spaces, buffer time, and spaces for responsive instruction. This can be just planning a little bit more time than you think is necessary for a task or setting aside entire days without plans if you feel like you’re always running one day’s plans into the next. The goal is that you’re giving yourself buffer time within the day. If you’re stressed thinking, “What if they finish early?” have a plan for early finishers that’s evergreen and not something new you create, such as independent reading, math challenges they can work through at their own pace, online programs vetted by you, etc.

Examples of whole days I could plan as buffer time:

  • A day to just check in on student rough drafts so you don’t plan a separate lesson
  • A whole day for a math task that maybe could be finished in a half period
  • A whole day for an assessment; if students are finished early, you can do a review activity
  • A whole day to let students pick out books for an upcoming book club unit
  • A whole day for review games
  • Time for questions halfway through a project
  • Gallery walk day for peer feedback
  • Mini lesson that is focused only on reflection not new material
  • Reteaching period to catch kids who need to do test/quiz corrections
  • Day for missing work completion and 1-1 conferences for kids who need to redo work

Let’s say I planned out the first day of my new fantasy unit as looking through novels and doing a book tasting. I gave myself the whole 45 minutes to do it. As I end my previous literary essay unit, I realize that kids needed to do a bit more self assessing. I now have time to hand out an editing checklist and we can spend the first 15 minutes of class going through that checklist before they switch to picking out books. We have time for both because I allowed that buffer time. Alternatively, we have the whole day to pick out books and I’m on pace. I could use the last 15 minutes of the day to get a head start on the lesson for the next day (and because I planned my unit in advance I know what I’ll teach tomorrow) or I could read aloud the anchor short story for our unit which I was going to do on Friday. Any of those ways give me the chance to ensure best work from students and feel on top of my lesson plans versus behind and stressed.

Keep special days special.

Why? Think back to lesson plans you may have created in your imagination – the ones where your classroom is transformed into a jungle or kids perform a play with all sorts of props you have painstakingly gathered, or you set your room up as a crime scene and kids have to follow the clues in the stories they read to solve the murder. All of those creative ideas are amazing! Some teachers embrace these more than others. These activities are memorable and fun for students, and I would never dissuade a teacher from doing something that was fun for them, too. These types of activities require a lot of preparation, though, and they should not become the norm. Even if you did have endless hours to devote to this, the constant uncertainty of there always being a special day would be anxiety-producing for many students. Kids like to know where their desk will be and what is happening next and if they are supposed to act like a book character one day. Keep the special days as special treats.

How? Plan days that require a lot of preparation on your part rarely and solicit students and/or parent volunteers to help you. Many students want to do extra jobs over a lunch period or come early or stay late to gather materials.  It will make them feel ahead when they get to class as well. I’ve had the experience of some kids who struggled with directions doing immensely better in class following a lab because they already had a preview. Also, many kids encourage their peers to use the supplies carefully or clean up after themselves when they already invested time into setting it up. Many parents are willing to donate supplies, organize materials, prepare things at home and send it in, or even be in the room to help monitor. You want eager volunteers so don’t pressure someone to join you. Leave requests vague so that you could always adjust your own expectations and plans based on how much support you receive. Release yourself from the expectation that these are the types of lessons you should always plan and allow them to be treats. Solid, reliable instruction is more important in the long run than a few fun days. Fun activities are memorable for students, but the lasting impact will be felt in the day to day lesson plans.

Use resources that allow you to merely plug in high quality elements spontaneously without deep planning.

Why? As I mentioned above when describing how to choose a daily plan, your lesson plans will be immensely faster to create if you have a routine structure every day. You can create a bank of resources for each part of your typical lesson plan and then draw from that pile of resources for each part of your day.

How: See if any of the following ideas grouped by content area work for your context.

Science: Create a slideshow of images for science or wonder day images/videos that can kick off a discussion. Check out the Smithsonian Open Access Resources and Image Library. You can increase this slideshow in volume over time. Thinking routines that could be used with these images are suggested below.

Social Studies: Create a bank of images of historical figures (such as paintings and artwork from the Library of Congress or Smithsonian Image Library) that can be used for thinking routines to start a discussion. You can also create mini-stories with historical scenarios but change the names so that students can think about relationships between historical figures or dynamics between countries without preconceived notions. Thinking routines that could be used with these images are suggested below.

Math: Put a bunch of math number sense routines that work for your context into a slideshow and run through different slides on different days. Link anything you put there so you could go back to a particular resource if needed. See below for many links to resources.

Language Arts: Collect picture books that are great for read alouds and teaching multiple skills so you can revisit the same text throughout the year. One of my favorites, for instance, is Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson which is great for unexpected endings, repeated phrases, sentence structure variety, characterization, and theme/author’s message.

Any class: Think about structures that work in any context and create a box of tricks for yourself – things with which you have experienced success and you’re comfortable delivering. This could include gallery walks, jigsaw discussions, socratic seminars, certain thinking routines, and so on.

Further specific resources to support your planning:

1. The Reading Strategies Book and The Writing Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo

These books are completely filled with one page lesson plans that are organized by reading level and strategy type to make it an incredibly useful resource. These are not your average professional development books.

2. How’s it Going? by Carl Anderson

This is a book specifically for writing conferences but includes information on how to do any kind of 1-1 conference with students that would allow for formative assessment.

  1. Number Sense Routines and Math Tasks: These are all FREE
    1. Steve Wyborney’s Website with Esti-Mysteries, Splat, and so much more!
    2. Would You Rather Math
    3. Same but Different Math
    4. Which One Doesn’t Belong
    5. Mash Up Math Algebra Picture Puzzles
    6. Estimation 180
    7. 101 questions (Penny Pyramid example with questions)
    8. 3 Act Tasks
    9. Clothesline Math (Kristen Acosta and Daniel Kaufmann)
    10. Open Middle
    11. Array Chats (or Unit Chats) search #arraychat on Twitter to see images
  2. Thinking routines through Project Zero: The instructions for each routine are FREE. Below are recommended by me for their versatility.
    1. Chalk Talk: students respond to short quotes, word problems, images, passages on chart paper, connecting to other ideas as they move around the room to different chart papers.
    2. Connect, Extend, Challenge: students respond to a text or another student’s response by making a connection, explaining how this extended or affirmed their thinking, and explaining how it challenged or changed their thinking
    3. See, Think, Wonder: students look at an image and explain what they see (direct observations without inference), what they think (inferences), and what they wonder (questions they have)
    4. Color Symbol Image: students encapsulate a character, chapter of a book, or broad idea with a color, a symbol (such as a street sign where you know what it means without much explanation), and an image (more complex visual)
    5. Parts Purposes Complexities: students analyze a concrete object or abstract system by describing its parts, the purposes of each part, and how complex the relationship is between parts
    6. I used to think…Now I think…: students reflect using these sentence frames
    7. What makes you say that?: The go to response as a teacher for any statement a student makes which draws out reasoning and deeper thinking or explanation – use for correct and incorrect answers indiscriminately
    8. Think, Feel, Care: Look at a person – real or fictional – and imagine “What do they think? What do they feel? What do they care about?” It can be great to stand in the physical posture of the person and imagine physical as well as emotional feelings (heat and breeze as well as anxiety).
    9. Compass Points: North – Need to Know list for a unit or project, East – what are you excited about?, West – what are you worried about?, South – suggestions for the unit or project or stance/opinion on it at present
  3. Teacher Box of Tricks by Angela Watson – a pre-made set of ideas that can be used for almost any teaching context. This could help you build your own teacher box of tricks and get you started.

Final Thoughts:

Overall, lesson planning in advance allows you to meet student needs in the moment because it relieves the stress of knowing which learning targets are the most important, which have been covered, which will be covered in later units, what the parts of your day look like, and what resources you have available and ready to go already. If you can plan in advance your mini-lesson and your learning targets for each day, then most of the class period is available for you to be the best version of yourself as a teacher and guide students through tasks, problems, creative projects, experiments, and more. If you always have a teacher-led station for small groups, you can plan that the day before to be most responsive to student needs.

Teaching in small groups naturally allows you to differentiate the pace even if you do the same task with each group. It also allows students to open up to you; they’ll be far more willing to admit difficulties and ask for help in small group situations. Teaching in 1-on-1 conferences allows you to respond to each student and give them individualized feedback. You will have the freedom to interact with students freely if you plan the framework in advance. There is freedom in structure. The structure that yearly and daily plans provide is what allows you to do what you know is best in the moment for your students. Just like finding the corner pieces and edges to a puzzle first, the rest of the picture becomes clearer once you have a few boundaries.

Amy Stohs

2nd Grade

Amy Stohs is currently a 2nd grade teacher in Northern Virginia. She was named Teacher of the Year in 2019 by her coworkers while previously teaching 6th grade. Her passions include great books for all ages, the workshop model, Responsive...
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