What Goes Into Teaching a Regular, Non-Amazing Lesson?

Happy Easter to those who celebrate it.  Religious celebrations this time of year tend to celebrate rebirth, hope and promise.  My wife and I are celebrating this holiday weekend with family, but in other years, we have opted to stay home and spend our Easter Sunday doing what many teachers do on Sundays, which is planning for the week ahead, and forgetting that the supermarket is closed on Easter.  

Last week, we dug into a topic that will be a recurring theme in The Unrealized Maine Classroom.  If you missed it, I recommend going back and giving it a quick read to give you some background before we tackle today’s topic.  If you haven’t got time right now to take in two of my entries, last week’s installment addressed the lack of non-instructional professional time in a teacher’s work day and how that impacts the lessons we teach.  A week prior to that, I shared a language arts teacher’s story of an extraordinary writing project and how much time and effort went into making it a reality.  My hope is that readers will begin to make connections between the two previous posts and draw the following conclusions:  Planning, preparing, teaching and reviewing great lessons is not only possible, it is invigorating and satisfying.  Also, these innovative and effective learning experiences take a great deal of time and effort to execute, and most public school teachers simply don’t have a great deal of time during which they can channel that great deal of effort toward such innovation and excellence in lesson planning.  That energy instead goes toward time management, trying desperately to fit as much planning and preparation as possible into a 45 minute “prep period,” and likely, before the work day begins, after it ends, before supper, after supper, on weekends, and during vacations.  

We established last week that teaching is hard, but not necessarily harder or more stressful than other occupations where workers carry heavy responsibilities and weighty burdens.  Teachers face an expectation to engage, inspire and enlighten young minds during lessons that are taught back-to-back four, five and six times a day.  There just isn’t enough professional time left in the work day to make that expectation realistic, which can be dizzyingly frustrating for teachers, as they want to provide meaningful, lasting learning experiences for their students.  

(Here’s another link to last week’s post in case you want to explore that topic in more detail.  You know, later.) 

This week I want to look at the time issue from a slightly different angle, and explore a different kind of lesson, one that already exists in a popular mathematics curriculum.  We’re not talking about an award-winning, tear-jerking unforgettable learning creation here; this is just a regular math lesson.  And by regular, I don’t mean boring, or sub-par, or insufficient in any way.  I just mean it comes from a pre-written curriculum, it meets the standards (for more about the Common Core Standards for Mathematics, see this earlier post), and it does not require an unusual amount of effort to execute.  Full disclosure:  I like this lesson.  While it is not one a student might rush home to tell Mom and Dad about, it is one that I think gets students thinking and applies practical mathematical tasks to real life problem solving.

Incidentally, if you don’t think of yourself as a “math person,” please don’t click your way out of here just yet.  Stay with me.  This is just as much for you as it is for anyone else, and I’m not going to make your brain hurt (we math teachers share something in common with dentists, but I’ll maybe talk about that another time).  It won’t take any long division calculating or formula memorizing to illustrate my point, I promise.  Okay? Ready to have a look at this lesson? Open wide, this won’t hurt a bit.

Here goes.  Sixth graders who work from the latest edition of a popular elementary math curriculum spend a couple of days early in the school year talking about a salary dispute at a fictitious tech company.  The management wants to keep the salaries stagnant, and the workers’ union wants salaries increased.  A set of data is provided, in the form of all twenty employees’ salaries, along with the mean salary for the city in which the company is located.   The focus of the lesson involves the students writing a convincing argument for both sides of the dispute, and drawing a graph to represent their argument.  Students are asked to carefully examine the data and try to actually manipulate the data with a visual representation in order to make a convincing argument both for and against raising salaries at the company.

This lesson was designed by mathematicians and math teachers employed by a prominent university, and it was published by a leading, albeit large, education publishing corporation.  I love the possibilities this lesson presents.  When I was first introduced to this lesson, beautiful images of children role playing and debating came to mind.  I pictured students separated into groups representing the management and the workers’ union, sending delegates across the room to negotiate, with rebuttals, counter-offers, and maybe even a vote in the end whether to raise salaries or not, or even to go on strike!  I might want to be sensitive to make sure the topic doesn’t hit too close to home for my students, but there are quite a lot of interesting possibilities for this lesson.

But let’s back up first.  Let’s say this lesson isn’t a September lesson, but comes up during report card week in November, or the week of parent-teacher conferences, or even during a week when there are unexpected commitments in life outside of work.  As a teacher, would no longer be bent on spicing up this lesson with organized role plays and controlled debates.  I’d just want to have faith in the authors of the lesson and teach it as it is written.  

The reader should be informed the complete lesson includes much more than just the task I described.  There is also an introductory piece designed to get students estimating operations and thinking mathematically, followed by an exercise to refresh their skills at making graphs to represent data, so they can use those skills to help with their problem solving later on in the lesson.  There is a second day to the lesson to allow students to look at and review their work, and others’ work, and then make revisions before handing in a final submission with confidence.

The first thing I see when I turn to the beginning of that lesson in the teacher guide is a note to the teacher that says (I’m paraphrasing):

Before you teach the lesson, solve the problem yourself in as many ways as you can.  If possible, schedule time to review your students’ work and plan for day 2 of this lesson with your grade-level team.

As a math coach, I recommend to all teachers that they do this.  Do the math assignment before you ask your students to do it.  It gives the teacher a much better idea of how long it will take to complete the assignment, and it helps to give the an idea of what parts of an assignment some students might struggle with.  And for this type of 2-day lesson, reviewing student work between day one and day two is essential in order to be able to give feedback and provide support for those who need it as students review and revise their work.   

Now here’s the bad news:  If I am the teacher following these instructions, I just used up my entire planning period and beyond, two days in a row, preparing for this one lesson.  If I am teaching the same sixth grade math lesson all day long, this might not be such a big deal, except that instead of reviewing 20 or 25 students’ work, I am reviewing 100 or 125 students’ work, which takes hours.  If I am teaching other lessons in my day, I have left little to no room for planning and preparing those other lessons, or for reviewing or grading the work from those lessons.

I neglected to mention there is photocopying and other organizational tasks involved in preparing to teach this two-day lesson.  As I stated before, I really it.  Pre-authored and pre-published, it encourages great mathematical thinking, debate, use of visual data representations, manipulating measures of center, and it ties it all to real-life problem solving.  But in order for it to really have an impact on students, to engage them and result in a net gain of learning, it requires absolutely intentional planning, thinking ahead, and physical preparations.  

I chose a sixth grade lesson as a demonstration, but this and other math curriculums are loaded with similar rich learning experiences in all grades that require just as much careful planning and organizing.  If I walk into a classroom and see a teacher really nailing a lesson like this, with active engagement and total participation from students, and great evidence of learning in the end, I know the teacher put in a great deal of time and energy into it.  Unfortunately, I also know that teacher made significant sacrifices in order to make that lesson special.  Maybe it was sleep that was sacrificed, or family time, or maybe it was a reading lesson, or a science lesson, or the next day’s math lesson, or all of the above.  Something, somewhere, was sacrificed.

My favorite professor in college comes to mind.  She used to work me and my classmates to the bone, but I loved the assignments.  Sometimes, though, it was absolutely overwhelming.  I remember a 500 page book, written by Sigmund Freud, was assigned to be read with responses due in one week’s time.  I had never read any 500 page book that fast, let alone one written in 1918 about the foundations of psychoanalysis.  But I did it, with the help of a disgusting number of Pepsi’s and the total sacrifice of all other assignments from other classes.  I learned a lot, and it was worth it!  But the sacrifices I made impacted only me, my grades in other classes, and my nervous system responding to large quantities of caffeine consumed over a sustained period of time.  

When a teacher puts in the necessary time to make a lesson really engaging, intentional and effective, the sacrifices that are made in order for that to take place have a much greater impact.  Paul makes off with a win, but Peter pays the price.  

As we look ahead to the months of April and May with crocuses and daffodils reminding us of all the great possibilities that come with a renewed sense of hope and promise, I hope we can look at new ways to support teachers who want to be innovative and experimental in their classrooms.  How can schools in Maine model ways to make this happen?  Send me your ideas.  Comment here, visit the Facebook page and keep coming back to The Unrealized Maine Classroom.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for eleven years, and a passionate writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a certificate in math leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife and dog in Bowdoinham.