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40 Hour Workweek

Productivity Strategies, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Podcast Articles   |   Sep 10, 2017

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

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

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

By Angela Watson

This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: Lesson planning tips to help teachers think long range and escape the daily lesson planning trap.

Are you spending countless hours on lesson planning, yet still feel like you don’t know what you’re doing from day to day?

Are you prepping ahead of time, but still have to do more planning every night and aren’t feeling prepared when it’s time to teach?

This blog post is based on a coaching call I conducted with a graduate of the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Her name is Rachel, and she’s beginning her sixth year in the classroom. Currently she’s teaching 5th grade. Rachel and I talked about several different issues during the course of our call, but the one that I thought would be most helpful to share here on the podcast is where we examine her lesson planning process. That’s because Rachel’s dilemma mirrors that of countless teachers I’ve heard from, all across the country.

Many teachers are caught in this trap where even though they have a curriculum map or pacing guide, or they’ve done some collaborative planning with team members, they’re still planning every night for the following day. Like Rachel, these teachers are taking the time to document lesson plans but still feeling like they’re flying by the seat of their pants, forgetting to do certain things with students even though it’s in the plan, and constantly running out of time before getting to finish the lesson.

So what you’re about to read (or hear) is a conversation between Rachel and I tackling all of these problems. Her lesson planning process is essentially done in several steps, and you’ll hear me articulate each of those steps as we go through them, because I think it’s a good model to follow. Certainly, it’s not the only way to plan lessons, but I think many teachers really have never heard another teacher explain exactly how she plans, and everyone’s process is unique. It’s sort of fascinating to listen in on her process, which sounds great in theory and try to figure out where the breakdown is happening.

You see, it’s not that Rachel is failing to plan ahead … she’s NOT just showing up to school and saying, “Well, what should we do today?” She’s prepping ahead of time, but somehow that’s not translating to feeling prepared in the classroom. She’s still having to do a lot of last minute work, particularly with going through all the resources she’s accumulated and trying to decide which ones to use. That part gets overwhelming. Sometimes she’s trying to do too much or just not following through and implementing each aspect of what she planned.

Use the audio player below to listen in on the call (or read the summary below) and see if this can help you identify some places where you might be making missteps in your planning process and can streamline a bit like Rachel.

lesson planning tips

Click the player above (or use the download button to listen on the go)!

1. Have a system for organizing high-quality lesson resources and ideas.

Rachel says, “I collect so many great ideas, but then I’m not sure how to make it all happen. I feel like the problem is that I was buying a lot of stuff from TeachersPayTeachers. I would just see something and feel like that’s a great activity and I’d buy it without thinking about whether I actually need another resource for this particular standard. And sometimes I guess I do feel like I’m reinventing the wheel because I’ve got all this stuff, and I want to use it, but I can’t use it all and it’s too much.”

I asked Rachel what she might want to do differently. For many teachers, the first hurdle to overcome is having a good organizational system. But Rachel’s got that down (and her system might work for you, too). She explained, “What I have is actually pretty well organized. I have it all in Google Drive folders and they’re organized by topic. So there’s a folder for ELA, a folder for math, and so on. Inside each subject area folder, I have it divided into units. It’s organized and easy to find.”

“The problem is that I don’t actually go in the folders and look,” she told me. “I just end up downloading random stuff and then when it’s time to plan the unit, I have too many options.”

I suggested organizing lesson ideas and activities using Pinterest or a similar tool. Rachel replied, “Yes! That would make it easier for me to make decisions about which resources I’ve come across that I actually want to download or buy or use.” The idea is to keep the ideas organized by topic or unit, and then all you have to is go through that Pinterest board before planning each unit and decide what to actually use.

2. Be extremely particular about which resources you collect and hold onto, and get rid of low-quality activities so you have less to sort through when planning.

If you are like Rachel in that you’re spending too much time looking through resources, even if you don’t buy many as many things as she does, you still probably have wayyyy too many options because there are so many free resources available these days. And generally, curriculum companies provide way more activities and resources and worksheets then you will ever want to use. Going through all of that can be very time consuming and overwhelming.

I encourage you to get rid of the things that are lower quality. If you’re afraid you might want them one day, and they’re digital resources, put them in a folder for that unit called “not using” and then they’re out of your way. Next time you plan that unit, you don’t even have to look through them.

Same thing with the teacher’s’ guide for your curriculum — get a feel for which types of resources from the publisher tend to be worthwhile for your kids and then tune out the rest of the suggestions. You don’t need to read or sort through or weigh them all in your mind.

If you try to explore every possible option for teaching a skill, you’re NEVER going to make a decision, because the more you see, the more overwhelmed you’ll become.

Make it your goal to do fewer things, so you can do the things that remain even better. Keep only the best resources at your fingertips so that you don’t have to waste time sifting through the things that aren’t that great. Create a collection of versatile, open-ended activities you can plug into any lesson. More is not better — not when you’re planning, and not when you’re teaching.

3. Do long-range planning and big picture work once a quarter.

Rachel explains, “Each quarter, teachers are given substitutes to cover their classes while they do long-range co-planning. This is when we map out when we will cover the standards on the pacing guide. We also discuss and plan instructional materials, assessments, etc. We look at where we need kids to be at the end of the school year and work backward to figure out how we’re going to assess that and plan out our units together.”

This is the step where Rachel ensures her pacing is correct and she’s hitting all the standards. I highly recommend that process for any teacher, even if you can’t get sub coverage to do it. That’s time well spent because it’s going to keep you from feeling like you’re behind or not going to be able to adequately teach all the standards before the year is over. You’ve got to do the big picture planning so you’re sure you’re moving students toward their goals — that has to be done in advance and at a time you can concentrate.

I used to do this kind of work at home on the weekend — again, it’s just once a quarter — and spend several hours really immersing myself in the essential questions and making sure I was approaching my plans holistically, because I knew once it came time to do that daily planning, I was not going to have the mental bandwidth or the time to think big picture.

This is basically a quarterly big picture look at what you’re doing with kids and an excellent first step. Rachel felt like this was a good use of her time and very effective and isn’t going to change much in this step.

4. Plan the details of your lesson on a weekly basis (preferably with a colleague or team).

Rachel says, “My co-teacher and I would meet weekly to discuss what the standard we’re addressing that week meant, what activities we would do, and what assessment we would give. We would also discuss the structure of each class.”

This type of weekly meeting with your grade level or subject area team (or at the very least, someone else who teaches what you do so you can bounce ideas off each other) is extremely valuable. But even if you do it alone, you’re setting aside time to look at the specific learning standards you’ll be addressing that week and planning the activities and assessments that go with it.

This is the step where you want to break down what you’ll be doing each day. You’re planning all five days in advance. That’s really important because otherwise, you’re going to be stuck on this hamster wheel where you never know what you’re doing the next day in the classroom. You’ll have no choice but to spend every evening planning the next day’s lessons, which is exhausting for you as the teacher and tends to lead to lessons that aren’t necessarily cohesive.

When you plan day by day, it’s much harder to look at the connection between the lessons and keep sight of the unit as a whole. That doesn’t mean you won’t adjust your lessons each day, but the majority of the planning work should be done before Monday morning so that you’re not floundering every night trying to figure out what you’re going to do with your students the next day.

Rachel felt like this step was useful, but explained a pitfall. “I’m really good friends with the person I’m co-teaching with. We’d end up talking about other things and not really being focused during the meeting. We’d get off track about things that are sort of related to the lessons, but basically, I’d walk away feeling like I still had a lot of work to do to iron out the details of what I’d actually be teaching the following week.”

Together, we decided on a better plan. “I think that really breaking things down and figuring out the structure of what we’re doing and who is taking responsibility for what will have to be a bigger priority.” Rachel and her team will set aside other times for socializing and work to be more specific and detailed in their planning so they don’t have to go back afterward and do so much.

Specifically, Rachel says, “In that weekly meeting, I need to nail down what kids need to be able to do and then think about what resource I have that might get them there. I need to make sure I know that before leaving the meeting. Because even though I know where I want them to be by the end of the week, making sure I’ve written down where I want them to be at the end of the day — like what they’re doing specifically that day, and what we’re accomplishing — that has to be firmer in my mind and written down more clearly in my lesson plans.”

5. Before, during, or after your weekly planning, sort through the materials and resources that correspond with your unit, and pencil in which ones you’ll use. (Do NOT leave yourself 5 different options and wait until the day of the lesson to decide what to use!)

Rachel explained why this step was so difficult and time-consuming for her. “When the big picture work is done, I go through the resources provided by the county, look at various TpT purchases or other digital resources, and basically just print off a bunch of resources that I thought I might use. I felt like there were so many things I had that I wanted to use that it was overwhelming, and I wasn’t really thinking about which ones I was going to use. I was just sort of printing them out and then deciding.

“I wouldn’t take the time to think about: Okay, if I’m doing this one thing and it’s gonna take 20 minutes, then I’m not going to also have time for this other thing. So I wasn’t really being intentional about what I was collecting and what I was printing out, and thinking about how it fit into the lesson or the unit as a whole. So it was just like this stack of papers that maybe I would use and maybe I wouldn’t.”

This is the step that in my experience is the hardest and has the most potential for wasting teachers’ time. We fool ourselves into thinking the lesson planning for the week is done because we have 20 different things we can do. But that means we still have to plan every night (or every morning) and make that final decision about which resources to use and which not to.

It’s okay to leave some flexibility in your weekly plans so you can be responsive to your kids’ needs. But don’t start your day with a stack of 5 different worksheets and activities you could use and then try to cram in as many as possible. The decision fatigue will become overwhelming.

Instead, plan less. There’s no reason to print out stuff and THEN decide what you’re going to use. Look for gaps in the lessons: I need something for the kids to do here to practice X skill — which one of these resources will fill in that gap? And print just that one thing. That will keep you from getting overwhelmed and also keep you from over planning and over-scheduling yourself.

Focus on doing fewer things better. Don’t include an activity in your lesson plans because you downloaded it for free and it’s just there. Focus on things that are the best and highest use of your class time. If you never have enough class time to do everything you want to do with kids, you must be extremely selective about what you include in your plans.

6. Use your daily lesson plans to keep you on track while teaching so you don’t forget things or run out of time.

Rachel told me that despite having a solid plan for the week, she often ends up forgetting to do something or forgetting what she had planned. That signals to me that she might need a different method for recording her plans. Theoretically, what you’re going to be doing should be listed out, maybe in bullet points, so when you’re teaching, you simply glance at your plans to see what’s next.

I asked Rachel about this to see if we could identify where things are falling apart for her: Was she not writing everything down or not checking her plans throughout the lesson?

She replied, “It’s kinda both. I won’t write down enough detail but then I also won’t look at the lesson plans far enough in advance for it to help me make sure I know what I’m doing that day. I feel like maybe if I looked at my lesson plans, again, a few minutes before starting the lesson, it would help me remember what I need to do and then I wouldn’t leave anything out.”

I don’t know if everyone does it like this, but I would constantly check my plans while teaching. My plans would usually have 3-7 bullet points: anticipatory set, warm up activity, direct instruction, guided instruction, independent practice, etc. It’s nothing like a formal lesson plan, but the elements are there: Pose this question to kids, use this book to instruct on this skill, have them do this activity, release them to do this other activity on their own, and so on. Each element was there in a bullet point.

So I would have my planner nearby while I was teaching, and when I finished one element, I’d glance down to see what the next element was. This took probably five seconds, and I doubt the kids even noticed because I kept talking through the whole thing. But, that was enough to help me make sure I was on track.

Rachel responded, “I think that’s the missing piece for me — the way I’m recording what I’m doing. I use planbook.com, which I like a lot, but when I’m typing into the template, I don’t like the way it looks when there’s too much information. I feel like I have to scroll to see it all and that’s a hassle. It’s just too hard to reference and I just don’t really want to look at it during a lesson because it’s too much to read.”

She continued, “If I put a lot of detail, it’s too much to read through during a lesson, but if I don’t put enough detail, I’m afraid I’ll forget what I’m supposed to be doing and it won’t be enough to keep me on track. I feel like maybe if I put my plans on a piece of paper, or something where it’s easy for me to look at while I’m teaching, that might help.”

I agreed with Rachel that it’s worth the time investment to experiment with lesson planning systems and find a template or approach that will actually serve as a useful document for her. When she has a solid lesson plan format, she can then check it during a lesson, and use it as a tool to help her adjust her lessons.

Adjusting the pacing of lessons is an important element. Maybe you thought that practice activity would take 10 minutes but it ended up taking 20. So what are you going to cut from your lesson to accommodate that? Constantly analyzing priorities — what is the best and highest use of our class time — is critical.

You have to be willing to let go of activities you won’t have time for. Only move the things that are absolutely essential to the next day. So for example, if you don’t have time to give a test on Monday, and you absolutely have to have that test grade and a quick formative assessment won’t do as a replacement, then sure, add it to Tuesday’s lessons. But you need to take something else out of Tuesday’s lesson to make time for it. Don’t try to cram in the test on top of everything else you had planned. Ask yourself what you can let go of to make time for the test.

Rachel agreed, saying, “Things often take so much longer than I planned. I’ll write down in my plans that we’ll spend 15 minutes on something and then it takes 30 minutes. And I feel like if I had things documented in my lesson plans a little better — if it was more obvious everything I had planned and needed to do during the period — I would be a little more cognizant of maybe not letting things go on so long.”

She added, “When I’m teaching, I’m not really thinking about what comes next. I just need to be more aware of how much time I have, what else we need to get done, and where we want to be going each day.”

I asked Rachel to sum up her biggest takeaway from our coaching call. She replied, “Making sure that when I leave that weekly planning meeting, I feel like I have detailed enough plans for the week so I don’t have to go back and fill in all the gaps on my own and end up having to plan twice.

My other big takeaway is to be more intentional — thinking about what resources I actually need, and not just trying to do more or buy more. I’m going to really stay focused on figuring out which lessons are most impactful and making time for those lessons. I think that intentionally planning is the big takeaway for me.”

Want to listen to my full conversation with Rachel? Click the podcast player above, or use the downward arrow button to download the MP3 and listen on the go. 

You can also subscribe to the podcast in iTunes.

This post is based on an episode from my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 15-20 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. 

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. This was extremely helpful. Teachers joke that my plans are really small books. I’m always afraid if I don’t have everything in there I will forget it. Our district has a template for us to use and when I print it up, it is hard to find the details I need to focus on each day.

    1. What type of template does your district use? I’m deciding to use UbD unit planning and will do so for this first unit about Geography and Maps. I’ll see how it goes. I also use Planbook for day to day plans which is great!

  2. I love the idea of planning with a team or colleague. Unfortunately, this is something that doesn’t happen as far as creating lessons beyond the planning that tends to be “Lesson 1 on Tuesday, lesson 2 on Wednesday…..”

    I’m the kind of person that likes to try new things, and would love to be able to team up with another peer to look long term or just a unit, but this is not the case in my situation.

    Any suggestions on blogs that help with planning activities, projects, implement technology, etc…. that might be helpful? Like I said, I enjoy trying new things and this year, we are 1:1 with Chrome books so new technology ideas are also of interest in my 4th grade room.

    1. I would recommend finding a teacher at another school within your district (or if that’s not possible, within your state) to co-plan with online. You don’t have to be in the same building to co-plan 🙂

  3. This was helpful. I also have fallen into a day-by-day planning trap. It leaves me feeling overwhelmed. Thanks for helping me think more about this.

  4. This was extremely helpful. I’m starting my 14th year of teaching but feel like I’m constantly reinventing the wheel. Thanks for all the good info.

  5. Thank you for this. I have been teaching a long time and have tried almost every combination you shared here. I’ve tried the online planner, planning books, sheets of paper, weekend planning, quarterly planning, and the dreaded daily planning. Here’s what works for me. Monthly big picture. Weekend planning for the week. Using a plan book, yes, I’ve gone back to a traditional plan book that I use a pencil in each weekend for that weekly planning. And then for math,which is so challenging for me I use a sheet of paper for my daily plans. I also tape that plan into my planbook, with notes from how the lesson went, hoping it will help for next year. I’ve never saved plans from year to year before and am now thinking that may have been a mistake. Even us older veteran teachers are still learning. So thank you!

    1. I keep my real teaching plans on the teacher’s addition. Arrows! Exclamation points, and if it didn’t work out, an x on it. I submit plans and learning targets once a week, to the principal. I have an old fashioned plan-book on my desk, and I write down WHAT REALLY happened on Tuesday.

      Works for me.

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