Learning From Lessons That Don’t Work

Master Teacher Guest Blog Series

Part 4: Reflect Honestly

Post 2 of 4

Welcome back to the Master Teacher Guest Blog Series! As part 4 of our series, we are exploring the importance of honest reflection on a teacher’s growth. Last week, Maria Laws described how she used focus groups to invite her high school science students into her reflective process.

Today, Andrea Praught shows us that honest reflection is a practice that can benefit all teachers, regardless of where they are in their career. As part of the a BetterLesson Master Teacher Project, Andrea completed a reflection after every lesson, a practice that helped her make adjustments to her lessons and improve outcomes for her students.

Let’s start with three vignettes that are sure to resonate with every teacher:

  • You ask students questions at the end of the lesson to assess what they’ve learned and no hands go up. Instead, your question is met with crushing silence.
  • You eagerly read students’ exit slips only to realize that most everyone is way off base; it seems that nothing from your lesson got through to your students.
  • You find the perfect website to tie together your lesson, but the internet connection goes out at the start of class and you don’t have a backup plan.

It happens to us all: Lessons that didn’t work, materials that didn’t fit, websites that crashed, discussions that fell flat. Any number of complications can derail a lesson and leave a teacher thinking, “now what?” Just as ‘teachable moments’ for the kids in the classroom provide a silver lining to an otherwise disappointing experience, lessons that don’t work provide teachable moments for the teacher, as long as you first reflect honestly!

Anytime you teach but things go awry and kids don’t “get it,” don’t be discouraged! Here is an opportunity to fail forward, change things up, create new materials, and rethink your plans. Growth in teaching doesn’t come from the easy lessons, but from the lessons that don’t work.

Let’s take a look at some ‘teachable moments’ I encountered in lessons that appear on the BetterLesson site. I framed them as reflections of what I could do next time, what I should have done, and what I did in the moment that wasn’t part of the original plan.

In the lesson, Hunting for Good Books!, I reflected after the lesson, “I needed more explanation when it was the students’ turn. I should have spent a few more minutes on iPad rules. I should have set guidelines and talked about group rules.” With these helpful notes in hand, I’ll be able to to have those rules and guidelines in place the next time I teach this lesson.

It is important to remember that just because a lesson may need some improvement, it doesn’t mean that it was a waste of time. In this case, it just took a little extra time to back and re-explain the rules after the fact.

Another reflection on this lesson was, “Have LOTS of reading materials! I neglected my Scholastic, Highlights and poetry materials.” The lesson wasn’t bad without these materials, but it could have been better. Next time I’ll remember to include those additional informational texts.

The lesson, Characters Change — Looking at Pictures, didn’t go as planned. I realized as I was teaching that I needed to tweak the materials. In my reflection I noted, “You may notice that I’ve changed the chart headings for the teachers’ chart. I had ‘before’ and ‘after’ but to stay true to the CCSS, I changed them to ‘beginning’ and ‘end’.”

It is important to embrace a flexible attitude and be willing to change things up as you’re teaching. It doesn’t mean that this was an unsuccessful lesson, but it could have been better aligned to the CCSS and truer to the standards if I’d started with the correct headings. I made a note of this for myself and next time I employed a similar chart in class, I was sure to use the revised language.

With its inherent complexities, technology provides a prime opportunity for both success and misadventure. In the lesson Prezint the ideas as you imagine, I have the students use a computer to create a prezi. Despite my detailed planning, the lesson didn’t work at all; it was too complicated! I realized during the lesson that the iPad I’d practiced on myself was a different interface than the desktops I had students using, and the desktop version was too complicated for them to manage.

Despite the fact that students were unable to complete this project in the amount of time I allotted, they still benefited from this failed experience. In fact, the lesson became a catalyst for an engaging discussion of the benefits and frustrations of technology.

As a final example, let me share an instance when I thought everything was going so well, only to be proven otherwise. In the lesson Dogs and Haikus — what’s the plot, I thought my explanation of haikus had been very clear. The kids were all nodding their heads, but no, “I was sure that I explained that a Hauku was 3 lines of syllables (5–7–5), but I was surprised when one of my kids asked me if a Haiku had 3 or 4 lines.”

I reflected, ”Maybe I need to emphasize that more clearly and use examples from the book.” Proof that using the ‘extend the lesson’ part of my plan was valuable — it let me see what the kids know and where they need more clarification.

These examples all illustrate the importance of honest reflection in my growth as a teacher. No lesson is ever perfect, but by reflecting honestly on what went well, what didn’t, and what I could change next time, I’ve been able to make my lessons better, year after year.

Rather than beat yourself up when a lesson falters, be happy when you have ‘teacher teachable moments’. If things go badly, consider it a sign that something needs to be tweaked, and relish the opportunity to polish your lesson.

A lesson that doesn’t work is not a bad lesson, it’s a learning opportunity for you and the students, a teachable moment!

Andrea Praught is a 2nd-grade teacher at Prairie Point Elementary School in Oswego, Illinois. She holds a Master’s in Special Education, and a Bachelor’s in Elementary and Deaf Education, and was awarded a National Board Certification as an Exceptional Needs Specialist. To see all of Andrea’s lessons, please click here.

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