By Precious Crabtree
One of my favorite things about teaching- next to working directly with the kids- is planning engaging lessons that are meaningful and fun for all those who walk through the doors of my classroom. However, the joy of lesson planning can be stifled when prescriptive lessons are mandated, and standardized test prep becomes the main focus of instructional delivery.
I was truly miserable years ago when my district made a push for us to use prescriptive art lessons. I tried to be the perfect art teacher, using lessons that were touted as the best of the best, but my creativity was stifled, and the lessons did not engage my students. I felt like I was teaching to widgets whose creativity was also dampened.
So how do you beat the lesson plan blues and break free from the box? As educators, we know we must utilize standards to help students develop necessary skills to be productive citizens. However, teaching those standards doesn’t have to be restrictive. There are many ways to move from the mundane “sit & get” delivery to creative engagement activities. And the very first thing you should do is to rekindle your own passion about the subject. What is it about the content that excites you and drives you to love teaching it?
As you are reflecting on why you love the content and why it is important to us as a civilization, let your mind expand! What are some essential questions you can formulate that will catch students’ attention and help them make their own personal connections? My learning targets state the objectives we cover, but the essential questions guide the conversation and learning for students. Essential questions are phrased differently in order to challenge students to use higher level thinking. For example: Instead of asking “Who was the main character’s best friend?”, you might ask, “What does it mean to be a best friend?”, or “What makes art good or bad?”. This way, the students formulate their own ideas based on what they are reading or seeing, and then use the text/ visual to support their ideas.
After engaging with the curriculum on a personal level and using essential questions, I then create a hook as part of the lesson. Effective hooks may take a little research on your part, but they make learning fun and creative. I often will search for personal stories about those who have overcome odds or helped others. For instance, Malala Yousafzi’s story is an amazing example of how one person can impact an important global issue like education for all children.
- Books, music, visuals, and videos are just a few resources that can breathe energy and stir emotions in your students. In fifth grade, our central idea is globalization… which is a BIG idea to wrap your head around, even as an adult. I have found a series of music videos to help my students make personal connections to global issues. One video, What about Now?, by Chris Daughtry, still gives me chills every time I watch it. Even in my chattiest classes, the room falls silent, and the students instantly see the impact global issues have on us. They understand that despite our culture or ethnic differences, we are all humans with similar needs.
Utilizing the think, pair, and share strategy, students have an opportunity to reflect on their own, and then respond to thevideo with a partner and then with the whole group. This leads us to more essential questions and discussion: How can one person make a difference? What role do the arts serve in advocating and educating others about global issues? I also love using carousel activities to give students a chance to work together. It’s easy to incorporate in your planning using the following steps:
- Choose at least four questions/topics and write them on big pieces of paper. Place in different areas in your classroom.
- Divide the class into four or more teams. Each team starts at one question.
- Provide students three to five minutes to brainstorm ideas and write these on the paper.
- Have groups rotate to each of the other questions and add original ideas to the list. When they return to their original paper, then they work together to highlight three to five of the best ideas, and then share with the whole class.
My final joy in lesson planning is incorporating student or academic choice in my lessons. The idea of many possible solutions to a single concept is enticing to students. Students who have the opportunity to explore and research content, and then share their learning in a way that accesses their strengths, become empowered learners. This also allows you to differentiate more easily for all students. Assessment can be a simple rubric or checklist that also allows them to evaluate themselves. Incorporating choice into your lessons allows students to use a variety of materials and resources as well as demonstrate their knowledge in different ways.
Sharing your passion, using essential questions, incorporating hooks, and providing choices to demonstrate learning are just a few ways to mix lessons up a bit. The truth is, the learning experience is much more fun when you provide students the same autonomy we desire as teachers when it comes to learning and sharing knowledge!
Celebrating her 21st year in education, Precious Crabtree is an elementary art educator and lead mentor teacher in Fairfax County Public Schools, VA. She received the 2014 Virginia Education Association Award for Teaching Excellence and was a finalist for the Fairfax County Public Schools Outstanding Teacher in 2016. As a 2015 NEA Foundation Global Learning fellow, she traveled to Peru after spending a year studying culture, globalization, and how to better serve our diverse students’ needs in this global world. Precious is a member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory, blogs at Educator Advocate and can also be found at @sweetpcrabtree on Twitter.