New Teacher Magic: Organize Your Ideas

In part 1 of this New Teacher series I discussed the importance of being yourself. I noted that for me, that means being fully planned out. I get very anxious if my plans aren't in place well ahead of time. I can work with changing them but I need to have something in place. However, I was never really taught how to plan and organize my class. I was taught lesson planning (poorly) and that's it. So, it is no surprise that one of the first questions I see from new teachers is some form of, "How do I plan my units?"

Let's do it!

First, let's get practical. I do my unit planning on Google Calendar. I keep it very simple. I just write the title of the lesson I plan to do that day. If it isn't created yet I add a note to myself in that title, "ND" for "Not Done." I love that I can color-code my different classes so with just a quick glance I can see which class may not have a lesson planned for a specific day. What I love about this is how easily I can drag the lesson boxes to different days on the calendar. Unlike a purely text calendar like in Word (or worse, a physical one) if I need to make schedule adjustments I don't have to copy/paste or delete/retype. I just drag it to the new day.

Play around with my Calendar below using the blue arrows in the top left. You can see my past plans and the ones yet to come. (And you can see one of the true joys of teaching - nothing in July!)

The other big advantage of planning on Google Calendar is that I can view it in weekly or monthly increments. Especially with the monthly view I can get a good picture of how my lessons flow together (or don't) and it can help me follow Mickey's 7th Commandment: Tell one story at a time. Especially when you're first starting it is easy to just grab a lesson that you saw that looked fun and throw it on your calendar. It may be fun. It may be educational, but does it fit with the lessons around it? Does it flow? Or is your curriculum just a disconnected series of activities? Mine sure was at first. I didn't even know that was an issue. Like I said, I was never taught how to plan whole units.

The most common recommendation to avoid this is to start with your end goal in mind. Write your assessment, then create the lessons to go with it. I think this is fine, but I honestly don't do it. I like my assessments to be more open. I don't know exactly where a particular unit (or lesson) is going to go. One year the emphasis may be on a person, the next year on an idea. If the class goes that way, I'll go too and I want the assessments to reflect that. Still, it is a great way to start as a new teacher. Later, you'll get a better sense of the story you're trying to tell and that will guide your unit layouts. In either case you should be constantly asking yourself, "Does this, or does this not, fit my story?" as you are planning.

How far out should you try to plan? This comes down to you being yourself. I plan out far. Like really far. Like whole semester, sometimes whole year far. You can see my Calendar is currently planned out through October, and it's just now July. That doesn't mean I have a full lesson plan done for each day. Many days I'll just have the topic, the next story beat, and nothing more. I'll often write something like "Something about Lincoln" as my lesson on the calendar. I feel so much better when my calendar is full! I know that even if I wake up that morning without a lesson (which I wouldn't) I at least have my topic in place to know I'm still telling my students one coherent story.

For your sanity, what you really want to build is build some runway. If you've got your first few weeks really well planned then you can use those three weeks to plan what is coming. The key is to never stop planning! If you get comfortable because you're a few weeks "ahead" then do no planning you'll soon find yourself behind again. When you're behind your lessons suffer. You end up doing things just to fill a day (which IS going to happen your first few years, don't get too down on yourself when it does) and not because it is the best learning tool available.

This is a great point to beg you not to use Teachers Pay Teachers for anything. I won't go into it here but if you want to read why I hate, yes hate, TPT, here's a link to a blog post about it. In short, you are better off throwing a random textbook activity at your kids than purchasing an off-the-shelf, one-size fits all lesson from TPT. There are PLENTY of teachers out there willing to share for free, not willing to exploit your new teacher status. Plan ahead so you can take advantage of them. Please don't support a system where we are competing with one another.

So, what about lesson plans? First of all, I rarely do individual lesson plans for myself. You may be required to submit plans but if I make one it is because it was required for an observation or it's because I plan to share it with another teacher and think they could benefit from the detailed information. Instead, if I have a lesson with multiple steps or pieces, I'll simply make a bulleted list inside the Notes/Details of the Google Calendar block. Calendar does not do a good job (or any job as far as I can tell) at alerting me to when a block has notes so I add a + to the title block. So, if I write, "Culture Shock: Early Republic +" then I know I've included more details for myself.

That said, I've been doing this a long time. I know the parts of a lesson I need. You may not. You probably learned some form of planning in your prep courses with things like Anticipatory Set, differentiation for various learners and other random jargon. It's a waste. I know it's a waste because 99% of the time you'll just copy/paste the same exact things into those boxes for every lesson. Let's talk about what really matters - courtesy of the Disney Imagineer's design process.

What do you want your students to experience and learn from your lesson?

What set up will you need to do (printing, sharing docs, room arrangement, etc.) to make those things happen?

What is the arc of your lesson - beginning, middle and end?

Substitute the word lesson for attraction and you're designing a theme park ride!

That's really all you need in planning. You can fill in the other pieces as needed. Those are the core of any lesson and, for me, really all I need. Part of the reason I plan so far ahead is that once I have all those things in place I'm free to then think about things like engagement hooks and how I can continue to "plus" (improve) the lesson before it happens.

Am I saying this is the best way to plan? Yes, yes I am. However, as I began, I say that because it works for me. I suspect it will work very well for others too but be open to doing what works for you. If you haven't found that yet, hopefully my methods will at least get you going. Make a calendar, plan experiences and have a great first year!

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