I don’t always have a lesson plan. I sometimes don’t know what will happen in class five minutes before the beginning of the period.
Last week my sixth grade English class had one of these days. I had an idea We need to discuss the reading from last night. As class began, we started to work together to figure out what that’d look like on this particular day.
I asked students to turn to the person next to them, come up with two meaty questions (not yes or no, not fact recall) about the assigned reading (from the book Shadow Spinner), and write it on an index card. (Even though I love digital technology, I’m also a huge fan of post-its and index cards.)
As students were discussing and writing, I thought, it’d be nice to have this collected somewhere and to let everyone contribute to the initial discussion. Students had previously expressed that class discussions were sometimes frustrating because they limited how many people could share their ideas. So I asked students to choose the best question from their card and email it to me. (This is where the flexibility being a 1:1 tablet school provides is invaluable.)
While students were emailing their questions, I opened a Google doc, and as the questions came into my email, chose three or four to paste into the document. Once all the groups had submitted their questions, I emailed students the link to the document. We had a brief conversation about the fact that we were going to be writing simultaneously in a public space and some of the challenges and opportunities that might present. Students began writing and the room was silent other than the furious clicking of keys.
We figured out pretty quickly that with 17 students typing in one doc it was a bit challenging to avoid typing on top of each other. So I asked one side of the room to continue to add their thoughts while the other side read through what had been written. Because I could sense a bit of frustration, but also excitement, I created a quick Google form to get student feedback on the use of the Google Doc.
After eight or ten minutes, I revoked the public editing privileges, so students could read but not type. I asked students to read through the discussion (over two single-spaced pages!) and find something they agreed with, disagreed with, or wondered about. After they read, we took some time to discuss their reactions and agreements and disagreements.
In the last four or five minutes of class, I asked students to offer their feedback on the Google Form I’d created. (You can see the student feedback about using the Google Doc.) One student suggested that I should let the other Langugage Arts section comment on the same questions. I agreed this was a great idea, and we made time for it in class later in the week.
As students were leaving the room, I was surprised by how well the class had gone. When thinking back on why that was the case with seemingly so little work on my part, I realized that the students and I had prepared for the lesson. Even though I didn’t have a lesson plan, I’d had the preparation of two years of teaching English and playing around with different web tools. The students had been prepared, too. While the use of the Google Doc was new, they are more than comfortable with using their email, writing in public, having a respectful class discussion, and offering feedback on class. Instead of flying blind, the class reminded me of when my dad would fly single and twin engine planes by instrument. Even though the immediate view might not be clear, we knew where we were going, and we’ve trained ourselves in the skills we needed.
I wouldn’t recommend instrument flying everyday in the classroom. It’s exhausting, having to simultaneously be a step ahead of students and also present with them. There are also typically some efficiency costs. (For example, I probably wouldn’t have had students write their questions on the card and email them.) There’s also the risk of of the class crashing. I worry about that a little less than I used to. Even when you can see exactly where you’re going, things can still go wrong, but occasionally flying by instrument allows us to be in the air when other pilots might ground their planes.