A Taxonomy of Lesson Plans

I was talking to a friend about the limitations of lesson plans.  While every once in a while I find someone else’s lesson plan that does exactly what I want to do, it’s rare.  Usually, I end up either cannibalizing them for primary sources or browsing through them for new approaches.  What I really want are not lesson plans but lesson templates:  “here is a way you may not have thought of to teach this kind of thing.”  How great would it be to have a crowd-sourced repository of that sort of lesson starter?

Thinking about that took me one step back, though.  I realized I mean two different things by ‘types of lessons.’  On the one hand, I collect specific activities that can be applied to many topics, such as “create a newspaper page” or  “write a three minute essay,” but, beyond that, it is useful for me to think about whether these approaches fit well into broader categories. Thinking in these categories might offer more precise language for what is likely to make a successful lesson.

I thought I’d try the exercise of grouping the sorts of lessons that have worked well for me at something like a genus, rather than species, level.  Here’s how I define a successful exercise, for the purpose of discussion:  it must require thinking from the students, it must engage them, the questions it raises must be historically relevant (you’d think that would go without saying, but it is so easy to be seduced by something that meets the first two criteria beautifully and then realize later that one’s learning objectives got lost along the way!), and it must either involve multiple ways of thinking or be short or flexible enough to be easily paired with exercises that balance it out.

Here’s my list.  There are obviously a near infinite number of ways to slice the pie, but the exercise is an interesting one.  I would welcome additions, subtractions, and emendations!

  • Discussions–Harkness tables, Socratic seminars, round tables, “hot seating.”  Among the most profound or the most superficial experiences possible, depending on the framework.  The best, I think, are neither a series of speeches to the teacher nor a rhetorical free-for-all but a self-consciously collaborative pursuit of the answer to a clearly defined question.
  • Question framing–brainstorming, mapping unknowns, charting a topic, paired questioning, identifying problems or points of dispute.  This could be a subset of discussions, but it so often gets overlooked that I wanted to give it its own category.
  • Writing–papers and essays, but also quick writes, T-squares, thesis statements, outlines, essays out loud:  more and more I believe in focused practice on small pieces of the task, much the way athletes learn through skill drills. It is hard to make this meet objective number 2, but most students are proud of themselves when their writing improves and making sure this happens seems to be one of our major goals.
  • Working with evidence–close readings, textual commentaries, labs, analyses of site reports, fine arts and artifacts.  Giving students the keys to the kingdom, directly.
  • Exploration of visuals–PowerPoints, Prezis, video clips, Google Art Project.  History is partly imagining, and it’s easier to imagine something you’ve seen.  The key to these, I think, is to make the kids narrate them for you, rather than vice versa, and, wherever possible to build them around puzzles.
  • Gathering information–webquests, presentations, library work:  the key to critical thinking here is that the information must be a first step, not a final end and must be in service of some broader task which requires informed reasoning.
  • Simulations–Model U.N. style negotiations, roundtables in which students speak as historical characters, solving a hypothetical problem as a group, games designed to reach a certain outcome–hard to design, but deeply memorable
  • Debates and mock trials
  • Making the conceptual visual–mind-mapping, Prezi, card exercises, chalk talks, “take a stand,” charting an argument
  • Exercises in synthesis and review–skits, pictures, fake facebook pages, bad poetry, re-enactments, and a million other variations on the creative summarizing of information.  These break rule 1–they don’t require much critical thinking, though they do help students practice synthesis and prioritization–and I use them sparingly.  Still, I put them on the list because we all use them sometimes:  there are times when you just need a quick, engaging way to be sure everyone is clear on the basic facts of the matter before you start constructing an edifice of analysis.

That’s my list, at least for now!


About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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