Whether you’re teaching during a pandemic, a pregnancy, or with a sick loved one, sometimes we teachers have to enter into a school year, semester, or week without knowing that we’ll actually be there to see our lessons through. I’m writing this during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, unsure if or when we’ll be returning to our classrooms in the fall. However, there are all kinds of situations in which you might walk into your classroom without knowing that you’ll actually be there long enough to see your planning through. In this post, I hope to provide some tips for how to lesson plan for unexpected events or for when the future is uncertain.
Unexpected Lesson Plan Tip #1: Decide on your Big Skills
Even though Common Core would let you believe that students should master 13492842834 different skills every year, we know this is impossible. Instead, choose 2-3 skills that you believe would really “move the needle” for your students.
For me, citing textual evidence is one that I’m always working on with students. Often, proper grammar is another.
No doubt that in really honing in on these skills, you’ll end up teaching and practicing others. But we need to have a narrow focus so that we can prioritize properly.
Build your unit or course and your final assessments around these skills. Students should have multiple opportunities to practice them and get direct feedback. You won’t have the time (or possibly the mental capacity) to grade everything in detail, so schedule and plan out these big priorities first!
Unexpected Lesson Plan Tip #2: Keep it Simple
We want our end-of-the-unit/end-of-the-year, summative assessments to really focus on those 2-3 skills we just chose. These are the skills for which we’ll put in the time and effort to leave detailed feedback, meet with students over video chat, or try to make super engaging.
For everything else, we’re going to simplify.
Even if you’re not in a situation where you’ll have to use distance learning, technology can make sub plans or contingency lesson planning a whole lot easier.
Look ahead to any quizzes or assessments you need to give. Can you turn those into automatically grading Google form quizzes? Don’t forget Quizlet and Kahoot, too.
Does your school provide any kind of online teaching platforms or software? Are there lessons, videos, or activities that you can push out quickly and easily?
Our school subscribes to Naiku, an online assessment platform. Perhaps your school has a similar platform? So many of these subscriptions go unused; it’s time to reach out to your school’s tech team to see how you can shave time off of the backend of your teaching.
The goal is to keep things simple so that we don’t lose our minds and time to grading. If I really want students to be able to identify the main idea of a reading, then I will meet over video to discuss a story with them. I’ll create complex small-group discussions or in-depth writing projects.
For everything else, I’ll let a computer do the grading. I’ll use Ted-ed videos. I’ll let them work independently on a webquest.
Unexpected Lesson Plan Tip #3: Plan Around Your Resources
Given all of the above and knowing that in an emergency much of your material may have to be presented online, by a sub, or figured out independently, I recommend planning your instruction around your resources.
Take stock of the tools you have to make your life easier. What digital tools does your school provide? What websites offer free educational materials?
It’s also important to note what you don’t have. Are some of your students lacking in technology at home? Do they each have a copy of the text you’re reading? A textbook?
It might help to make a quick list of the resources you do have. Let these be the bread and butter of your curriculum planning. Now is not the time to spend hours crafting a whole new website, so that you can then make a webquest specially tailored for your students.
Use what you already have.
If your school already provides textbooks, this might be the time to lean into them, even if the units inside feel a little lackluster. Now might be the time to use that learning platform your school pays for and keeps pushing on you, even if you know you can do it better.
While you are your students’ best learning tool, remember that in an emergency you might not be there. By planning around the resources you have, you give them the best hope for success if they don’t have you.
Unexpected Lesson Plan #4: Make a Contingency Plan
Let’s say you’re teaching a novel. What will you do if you’re suddenly not able to teach students the text yourself?
Is there a way for students to access an audio version? Are there chapter summaries or notes that a sub can work from or that you can give to students directly?
As much as I love teaching young adult literature, it may be better to stick to classic text during uncertain times. Stories that have entered into the public domain are easier to find text and audio for free online. Most likely, there are movie adaptations and SparkNotes out there to help scaffold for struggling students.
When you make your plan, plan for the best-case scenario and the worst-case scenario.
Browse websites like CommonLit and NewsELA. These free online text providers should provide enough variety to allow you to plan a unit, if not a whole school year, around widely available classic literature and informational texts.
When possible in your planning, have an in-class plan, an online plan, and a sub-plan in the back of your head. I know that sounds like triple the work, but often it’s not! If your students can access computers in the classroom or you can easily reserve a computer lab, then your online plan can also be a sub-plan.
Sometimes it’s as easy as using a textbook with an online platform or purchasing Teachers Pay Teachers resources that include a digital and printable version.
Unexpected Lesson Plan Tip #5: Research Differentiation Options
You’re irreplaceable. We all know that. But your students’ individualized learning doesn’t need to stop just because they’re not with you.
A sub doesn’t know your students the way you do. If you’re stuck teaching remotely, you probably won’t be able to examine every assignment from every student and give amazing one-on-one feedback every single time.
While it’s not a perfect substitute for your expertise, compassion, and intuition, sometimes we have to make do with an algorithm.
Learn about the tools that are out there to help meet students where they are and tailor learning to them.
For grammar, there are a couple of great options.
NoRedInk.com and Quill.org give students a diagnostic test. From there, you can either assign students activities and lessons or let students work through lessons based on their diagnostic results.
Pushing out these activities can allow you students to continue growing in their grammar skills without relying on you to do all of the heavy lifting. The websites will even grade work for you, so all you have to do is plug the numbers into your gradebook.
There are other tools out there as well. Our school subscribes to Achieve3000, a website for differentiating information text reading skills. Like NoRedInk and Quill, students first take a diagnostic. Then, every article you assign is automatically adjusted to the “just right” Lexile for each student.
Figure out what skills you won’t be able to teach one-on-one and then try to find a tool to help fill in the gaps. Reach out to your department head, tech and IT gurus, and district curriculum experts. There may already be an in-district solution!
Unexpected Lesson Plan Tip #6: Plan Ahead as Much as Possible
Ok, this tip goes for every school year, but especially if you know there’s a chance that you might be separated from your students, plan ahead!
If there are quizzes or tests you know you’ll need to give, make them now. Better yet, upload them or create them into a self-grading platform.
Gather together examples of projects and upload pictures of them into a Google folder that can quickly be shared with a Google Classroom or a substitute. If you can’t share them in person, at least students can still benefit from them.
Put together answer keys and rubrics.
And, I know this idea won’t be popular, but consider pre-recording videos. If there are lessons you teach over and over, then having a digital video of that lesson won’t hurt. If you don’t need it this year, you can always provide the video for absent students.
In addition to lectures, consider recording how-to videos. How do students log in to the digital version of their textbook? How do you want them to turn in work online?
If you are absolutely terrified of being on video, consider recording your voice over a PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation. You could even just begin curating a list of useful YouTube videos or Ted Talks you can repurpose.
Unexpected Lesson Plan Tip #7: Be Flexible
I know this tip is in direct contrast to the previous one, but so goes teaching, am I right?
Plan and create materials and resources ahead of time, but don’t plan out every minute of every day. It’s good to have a general guideline of when you want to get to big assessments, a rough timeline of how you’ll tackle long readings, and you also want to know when assemblies and testing might interfere.
But don’t plan so tightly that you have nowhere to go.
When I plan my quarter, I make a rough plan for eight weeks. Then, I leave the last week blank. I’ll even schedule final due dates and test-taking days for the eighth week.
I always plan out a nine-week quarter for eight. Why? Because when we inevitably fall behind, there’s still some time to catch up.
I also try to build in a couple of “buffer days” about every 3-4 weeks. These are days that I just leave blank on the calendar.
If we’re right on schedule, I can also come up with enrichment or give students extra work time. But if (when) we fall behind, I already have a “catch up” day scheduled, so I can get right back on track.
Build some buffer days into your calendar and find some fun activities for them just in case you don’t need them. But build in flexibility!
Unexpected Lesson Plan #8: Put Yourself First
I’m anticipating getting some pushback on this one. I’ve said it before, and they will probably be my dying words: teachers need to be more selfish.
We all know the analogy of putting on your oxygen mask first in the event of an airplane crash. Well, a pandemic, early childbirth, or sudden hospital stay in the middle of the year can make our stomachs flip much like a plan crash.
But if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t be there for your students.
Yes, instruction should be student-centered. But the instruction simply cannot happen without the instructor: you.
Don’t push yourself and don’t hold yourself to teacher-of-the-year level standards. Sometimes in your career you will enter into periods where survival is first and foremost. In those times, it’s ok if you slap up a poster on the wall instead of spending eight hours decorating your bulletin board.
It’s ok if you funnel students into a Google form quiz after a reading instead of trying to coordinate thirty students’ schedules into a classroom Google Meet literary discussion.
Obviously, I’m not telling you to phone it in. But you’re an educator. You wouldn’t do that anyway. What I’m saying is this: don’t kill yourself trying to achieve perfection.
Any engagement with new material that you provide for your students will be additional learning that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Besides, students don’t want to have to rely on distance learning either! No matter how engaging the webquest, students don’t want to do one every day for eight hours. A few simple assignments followed by a high-stakes, multi-part summative assessment is just fine.
Remember, students will struggle without your one-on-one guidance as well. Those amazing lesson plans are often complicated for students to figure out on their own. But everyone knows how to take a multiple-choice quiz or how to watch a video on YouTube.
I hope you found something helpful in these tips! If you’re in need of some distance learning resources, I’ve categorized them all together here.