I spent some time today thinking about a particular kind of lesson plan: the kind I borrow from someone else.
Dr. Barbara N. Porter, director of the Casco Bay Assyriological Institute, has kicked off a really interesting new project. (OK, full disclosure: she’s also my mother, but that’s not the only reason I think this is so cool!) In cooperation with the International Association for Assyriology, the CBAI is developing a sort of clearing house meant to connect people teaching about the Ancient Near East at different levels, particularly outside research universities, with the goal of trading thoughts, experiences, and materials.
I’m particularly excited about finding ways to get university professors talking to K-12 teachers and vice versa: having been on both sides of that fence at one time or another, I’m painfully aware that we (a) have a huge amount in common and (b) almost never talk. Why is that again?
Part of the hope is that the project will host a website for trading lesson plans and other materials. My mother asked me if I would jot down some thoughts about what I, as a high school teacher, look for in a lesson plan. It’s an interesting exercise, because part of the target audience, university professors, rarely thinks in terms of lesson plans or, in fact, many of the pedagogical terms like differentiation, valid assessment, or backward design that we K-12 people like to bandy about. So this is my attempt to put the bare essentials into plain language:
“Lesson plans can take many shapes, but the best:
1. Have a clearly stated goal and connect each activity to that goal. This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to get seduced by one great activity and wind up with a lesson that has no clear direction. The best lessons are tightly focused.
2. Require students to think critically, not simply follow directions or synthesize information. Many lessons simply ask students to collect information (maybe from an exciting and interesting source like a website or a video). There’s nothing wrong with this as a first step–students need information–but I’m looking for exercises that ask students to then do something active with the information.
Ex.: “Use the website to compare the early Assyrians and Babylonians on the chart provided and then report on your findings to the rest of the class.”
“Which society would you have chosen to rule in 2000 BCE, the Assyrians or Babylonians? Use the information on the website to help you decide, and be ready to make your case to the rest of the class.”
Another type of common exercise asks students to participate in a craft activity related to the period they are studying. These can be very memorable and a great way to generate interest and energy, and a short exercise can be a great kick off, but be sure students don’t learn more about cutting and pasting than about the lesson topic.
Ex.: “Many beautiful things were found in the tombs at Ur. Color the template provided and then cut and glue the paper to make your own crown like Pu’abi’s.”
“Tomorrow, I’m going to ask you to dress like a Sumerian. Let’s take a few minutes to talk about how we could figure out how Mesopotamians dressed, then use the materials provided to make a plan and start on your costume.”
3. Are active, engaging, or unexpected. Talking and writing are key activities in the classroom, but an unremitting diet of discussions and essays gets old fast. Creative ideas for high energy activities that help students explore material or present their findings in new ways are solid gold–this is the single thing I am most often looking for when I turn to the Web for inspiration.
4. Vary the ways they present material and ask students respond to it. Mixing visual, oral and written activities (and, if you can manage it, activities that involve movement) lets students who approach learning in different ways each have a moment to shine and, simultaneously, gives everybody practice in activities that may not be as intuitive.
5. Are appropriate for the age level you chose. The younger the students, the simpler the language and the more structured the exercise should be. Tasks for younger children should NOT involve less thinking, however!
Lastly, you don’t have to develop a whole lesson to contribute in a useful way. Most teachers pick and choose materials from lesson plans anyway, and good raw materials are as useful as anything else:
- Images–in this day and age, pictures of the most famous artifacts are available everywhere, but I’m always looking for images that are up close (showing details not always visible), in action (excavation pictures clearly showing the artifact emerging always wow my girls, as do museum pictures of objects or reproductions in context–a mannequin wearing ancient jewelry, for example), or personal (I’ve got lots of pictures of the ziggurat at Ur, but my favorite is of a U.S. soldier climbing the steps–it makes it far more real).
- Translations–in simple, readable language (A 9th grader once asked me “Why does Gilgamesh say thou all the time?” Let me tell you about copyright law, my child…)
- Games, puzzles, maps, flashcards, links to websites (particularly ones with good interactive content)…
All of these things will be particularly useful if you provide them under a Creative Commons Share Alike License.”
That’s what I’ve got so far. I’d love to hear feedback from other K-12 teachers. (Note: This is a little different than what I would look for when evaluating my or a colleague’s lesson plans, because I think we use third-party plans differently. I’ve deliberately passed lightly over curriculum design aspects like standards and valid assessment, mostly because in real life I find those are the aspects I am most likely to change when using someone else’s lesson–my goals or local standards are almost never quite the same as those of the author and, once I have a good idea for an activity, I can tweak inputs and assessments to tailor it to my overall curriculum. Do you do the same, or is that a key element you look for in a third-party lesson plan?)