Trim the Fat on Your Lessons

For many, the new year inspires new resolve to move more, eat better, and shed excess weight. I have never been a big fan of drastic new year resolutions, but this year I began to think about how teachers can trim the metaphorical fat on their lessons. What changes could educators make this year that would improve their lessons and maximize their time with students?

As a blended learning coach, I spend a lot of time in classrooms observing lessons. As an observer, it is easier for me to identify moments in a lesson where adjustments can be made to maximize the limited time that teachers have with their students. We all know that time is the biggest barrier most educators face when they think about their work. There are not enough hours in the day to get everything done that we need, or want, to do. Yet, I believe there are places in most lessons where minor modifications could have a major impact.

I am a creature of habit and love my routines. I understand why so many teachers have daily routines that they enjoy and are unwilling to alter. I cannot count the number of coaching sessions that have begun with a teacher explaining that they don’t have time to try a new strategy, technology tool, or instructional model. They already feel like they are racing against the bell, struggling to cover curriculum, and falling behind on their pacing guide. I get it. This job is tough. Teachers are tasked with WAY too much. So, we have to be strategic. We have to think critically about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and whether or not it is what is best for students

Many of the routines that teachers enjoy create time. Starting a lesson with a bell ringer or welcome task allows teachers a few minutes to catch their breath at the start of class or complete small tasks, like taking roll or collecting student work. Unfortunately, many of these routines rob us of valuable face time with students. I believe the goal of every lesson should be to increase our time working directly with students. If the routines currently in place isolate learners or create distance between the teacher and students, then we need to re-evaluate them.

Below are five places in the lesson when teachers can trim the fat and gain valuable time with their students.

#1 The Whole Group Welcome

Building a community is crucial, but the whole group welcome is not a particularly effective strategy. It typically entails the teacher doing the majority of the talking with a few vocal students jumping in to contribute. Most of the class sits idly listening. If teachers want to start the day with a quick check-in, I recommend presenting a question for pairs to discuss in a two-minute talk format. A two-minute talk gives two students two minutes to discuss a simple question or chat about a current event or issue.

I suggest switching partners every day or two so that students have the opportunity to get to know all of their classmates. Here is a document with 21 questions that teachers can pull from to spark fun conversations at the start of each class. Two-minute talks build community, break the ice, and ease students into class while giving teachers a couple of minutes to take attendance.

Instead of a whole group welcome that can eat up five minutes and only engages a handful of students, two-minute talks are short and give every student a chance to engage in a quick conversation.

#2 Bell Ringers and Welcome Tasks

Often bell ringer activities and welcome tasks are used to create space for teachers to deal with administrative tasks. These activities, like daily oral language in English or number of the day in math, require more time than most teachers intend to spend on them. I frequently see these warm-up activities balloon from the intended 5-10 minutes to 15-20 minutes as teachers review the answers with students.

Instead of a silent practice followed by a teacher-led review of the answers, I’d love to see teachers start the day with a quick goal setting or self-assessment activity. This time could be used to help students to think about their learning and develop their metacognitive muscles.

If teachers have an activity they think is worthwhile, I suggest building it into a station or small group activity. Allow students time to tackle the task collaboratively in an offline station or with the guidance of the teacher in a teacher-led station, as opposed to doing it as a whole group at the start of the lesson.

#3 The Lesson Overview

Teachers are often tempted to begin class by providing a detailed overview of the lesson. They describe what students will be doing in each part of the lesson. This tendency to frontload the lesson with an explanation is rarely effective. As soon as the teacher finishes talking, the first question most students ask is, “What are we supposed to do?” This is maddening from the teacher’s perspective. I suggest teachers ditch the lesson overview entirely.

Any introduction to the lesson should focus on the why, not the how. Begin the lesson with a quick explanation of WHY students are doing what they are doing. What is the purpose of the work they are doing today? What do you hope they get out of today? What is your goal for this lesson?

Instead of writing an agenda on the board, I suggest teachers create dynamic multimedia agendas using a presentation tool, like Google Slides.

This makes it possible for teachers to provide students with access to an overview of the lesson as well as detailed directions, media, and links to resources. That way, students can access the information at any point in the lesson and review the information at their own pace (not the teacher’s pace). The multimedia agenda, which can be shared via Google Classroom, frees the teacher from feeling like they need to frontload the lesson with a lengthy explanation of what the class will be doing.

#4 Directions

Last month I published a blog titled “Record Video Directions and Maximize Your Minutes” that encouraged teachers to use video to replicate themselves in the classroom. There are few things more frustrating than explaining the same thing over and over and over. Yet that is what most of us do every day. Instead of repeating the same directions multiple times each day, record them. That way, students can access video explanations, instructions, and directions when they need them during a lesson.

These video explanations can be short and sweet. They do not need to be polished or perfect. They are also a great addition to a multimedia agenda!

#5 Collecting and Disseminating Student Work

One word: baskets.

The paper trail most teachers manage is exhausting. Implementing a simple system for collecting student work and returning graded work can eliminate the time and chaos associated with asking students to pass back graded work during class. If work needs to be collected, I recommend training your class to put finished work in a designated basket on the way into or out of the classroom. Graded work can then be placed in an “outgoing basket” to be picked up. I would not spend class time passing back student work.

So, what is your new year resolution? Which of these strategies might help you reclaim precious minutes with students? Is there another strategy you have used to maximize your time with students? Please take a moment and post a comment to share what you are doing (or planning to do)!

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2 Responses to Trim the Fat on Your Lessons

  1. David says:

    Love the ideas, especially the “Two-Minute Talk”. What would you recommend for teachers who open class with a version of sustained silent reading?

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