Thursday, September 17, 2015

"This is hard!"

"This is hard!" one of my students exclaimed in class this afternoon.

It is my middle school curriculum and instruction course; in the catalog, we call it Planning, Instruction, and Assessment in Middle Schools. Basically, it's a general methods course for thinking about what teachers do (plan, instruct, and assess) and it's tailored to folks who are hoping and planning to teach in grades 5-8.

It's a new course for me. I have a strong background in curriculum and instruction (my masters degree was in this field) and I taught middle school for 14 years before beginning this adventure of teaching future teachers. But it's a new course for me. And, the first time you teach anything, you can't be quite sure how it's going to go.

I'm thankful that I have some fantastic colleagues who are teaching the elementary and high school versions of this course. (Ed and Mary Beth, you are gems!) The three of us are able to share ideas and resources and try to keep things more or less similar in structure between these three courses, while also recognizing that there are some differences in the way elementary, middle school, and high school teachers conduct their work.

However...all teachers, regardless of the age of their students, have to plan, instruct, and assess.

Image by David Muir [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

We have done some reading about these three elements, and I've lectured a bit, and we have discussed these topics a bit. We have looked at some curriculum materials and textbooks. We've done some initial examination of standards documents, such as the Common Core State Standards. I have shared with them Wiggins & McTighe's Understanding by Design framework for thinking about planning, assessment, and instruction. We have examined a few different lesson planning templates.

But we've really only had a taste of each of these so far. And, at the encouragement of my colleagues, I figured it's time to start pulling things together, and putting it into practice.

So, in class today, I sort of tossed my students into the deep end of the pool.

I decided I would give them a few choices for an objective to teach, and then give them workshop-style time in class to design a lesson to teach their objective of choice; planning assessment strategies, and planning for learning activities. They partnered up, selected an objective, and got to it.

And it was about 10 minutes in to this work that my student made her comment: "This is hard!"

Welcome to teaching. :-)

Teaching well is hard. Planning well takes time and thoughtfulness. Designing an assessment that really gets at what you value (rather than just what is easy to assess) is very challenging. Crafting instruction that will ensure that your students know, understand, and are able to do the things outlined in your objectives requires creativity, resourcefulness, and a deep understanding of what students at that grade level need.

After about 25 minutes of thinking, discussing, pulling resources off of the shelves (it's great to have class in the curriculum lab!), searching online for ideas, and putting these ideas down on paper or in pixels, each duo was ready to share a bit of what they had developed.

Yes, there was room for improvement; they aren't professional educators just yet. I fully recognize that for most of them, this was their very first attempt at creating a lesson. But I have to say, I was pretty proud of these future middle school teachers. It was a very strong first attempt all around!

This was encouraging for me: I had been worried that I might be doing it wrong, planning this way. Should I try to make sure that they know all the things they need to know in the abstract before we tried to make it concrete?

I confess, I used to think that a lot of reading and lecture and examples from me was a stronger way to begin. Now, I'm not so sure. Every teacher has to start somewhere. And this was their first attempt. We will do more planning. We will learn more about how to write essential questions, how to trace from standards to assessments, how to select effective teaching methods, and more as this course unfolds. And we will keep writing lesson plans together to practice and refine and reflect on the process!

The best part: my student who had exclaimed, "This is hard!" also stayed after class for a moment. She just wanted to express her appreciation for jumping in and trying it: "You know, I've never written a lesson plan before, and even though it was hard today, I know I'm going to get better at this."

She's right.

And we all have to begin somewhere...let's just commit to not stop at our starting point. We all can get better. We all can keep learning about the craft of teaching.

I'm still learning, after all. Here's the meta-narrative of this whole experience: I'm trying new things in my teaching practice here too. I am planning how to teach them to plan. I am assessing their ability to assess. I am instructing them in how to design instruction.

Teaching--planning, instruction, and assessment--is hard. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth the hard work.


  1. Reflective practice is a powerful thing. You could give your students few greater gifts than to help them see and experience that power. Excellent work, Dave! Thanks for sharing (with your students and with us).

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, my friend! That is what I'm hoping for with them: helping them develop as reflective practitioners. We're going to keep working on it throughout the semester!

  2. Dave,

    Great posting! This fall I have been focusing on re-designing a College Transfer Success course to serve as a model online active learning course as part of my Innovative Experience. As you mentioned, "I confess, I used to think that a lot of reading and lecture and examples from me was a stronger way to begin." I will admit that I have shared very similar thoughts and feelings. However, the more I focused on the active and engaging piece, the farther from that statement I found myself moving. Great activity and great posting! As always, I am very envious of your professional career!

    1. Thanks for commenting, my friend! It's a joy for me to teach future teachers. I'm glad I'm not alone in figuring this out--about getting students to experience things first-hand, I mean. Blessings to you in your work too, Chris!