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Stifling order or cataclysmic chaos?

Lesson planning has always been at the heart of teaching for me. I remember my early days of teaching and how long it would take me to write a simple lesson plan which, in all honesty, could not even be called a plan as it was but a list of engaging activities that would get my students talking until the end of the lesson. There was no aim in mind besides filling up all the available class time with these activities and not being caught up at the end of the ‘plan’ with 30-20 minutes yet to go on the clock. This has actually been a recurrent nightmare of mine over the first 3 years of my career as a teacher.

After this period of making a list of activities to fill up class time, I grew in confidence (Dunning Kruger effect, perhaps?) and sort of stopped handwriting my lesson plans. They would mostly exist inside my head and be much more flexible than before. I used to plan one engaging activity to get things started and then irresponsibly wing it from there. I would always have a fun and engaging activity up my sleeve to fill up that class time and avoid the dread of not having something for students to do until the bell rang.

However, during the CELTA some years ago, I realized that, as you might have expected, that my teaching wasn’t all that great. I planned the first lesson as I would normally and received blunt but deeply honest and constructive feedback from one of my tutors, now role model, Ricardo Barros. His analytical skills of looking at a plan and evaluating the delivery of the lesson had me fall in love with lesson planning. We, the other celtees and I, would thoroughly plan lessons with aims, sub-aims, lesson procedures and aims for each single step of the lesson. It was with this fantastic tutor that I first heard of backwards planning and when I actually felt as if I was really planning a class and not simply writing down a list of fun activities.

Throughout the following years, I believe I have honed my planning skills to a satisfactory level and I have recently taken a deeper interest in the art of lesson planning, talking about it in blog posts, webinars, teacher’s events and professional development initiatives. I took a two-week break last July to spend my birthday with my family and picked up Thornbury and Meddings’ book on Dogme, “Teaching Unplugged” and devoured it over my weeks-off. If you’ve read the book you probably know where I am headed now, right? The authors talk about this philosophy of teaching that involves not planning the lessons, among other provocations. I have always been a fan of Thornbury’s articles, webinars, and blog. Now, advocating for going into the classroom without a thorough lesson plan hit me like a train on a track. And what dazzled me the most was: it makes absolute sense.

Student centeredness, student protagonism, personalized lessons, catering to the learners’ needs are all too common phrases in teachers’ conferences, teachers’ rooms and training sessions. However, how can a lesson be student centered if the teacher has chosen what to teach, how to teach it, how to practice it, and in what context before even getting to class? How can students be protagonists in a process in which they are playing a part in a script that has been written without their participation? How can a lesson be personalized if a course book is duly followed, step by step, unit by unit, exercise by exercise? How can we cater to learners’ needs if the course syllabus is ready before they even enroll in our class? “Traditionally, learners come to class to be ‘given’ a lesson that has been prepared in advance by the teacher” (Thornbury and Meddings, 2009) See the train? I didn’t.

Thornbury and Meddings suggest, then, that lessons are not planned to the letter but rather the teacher gets prepared for the lesson. Students are the main resource of these classes and their lives, likes, dislikes, hobbies, jobs, aspirations, past are what will fuel the lesson and provide the appropriate environment for language to emerge during conversation. This emergent language, this need shown by students, is what becomes the focus of the lesson.

So, what then? Should we advocate for stifling order of pre-planning the whole lesson and course, or perhaps for the (my) nightmarishly, cataclysmic chaos of not planning? I honestly do not have an answer for that but we all know better than to look at the world as zeros or ones, as black or white. I wonder, in my search for order and systematization, have I lost the ‘artsy’, flexible teacher in me and became too strict with my plans? In retrospect, I see my best lessons as being those where I substituted for a colleague who had to be absent and didn’t have time to plan; or that lesson that I let go and had a wonderful time while teaching without following a script. I believe that the key here might be balance, as it often is. Which are the things I should plan for in a lesson and which are the things that I should allow my students to take the wheel and drive? I still don’t have the answers for those questions but here are some suggestions if you would like to give this a try:

  • It might not be a good idea to go all in at first. Perhaps including moments in your lesson plan to be flexible and work on emergent language might give you the necessary scaffolding for a more reactive approach.
  • Teach a lesson outside the course book and without any brought-in material. Design a conversation task that will get students talking about themselves while you pay attention to their language output and choose what to work on based on what they have produced.
  • Working on emergent language does not mean not teaching. There should be a moment to focus on form, meaning, pronunciation, and discourse to help students understand what is being taught.
  • Be part of the classroom conversation as an actively engaged conversationalist. Ask students’ genuine questions and respond accordingly. The more authentic the interest you show, the more authentic and linguistically rich the conversation will be.
  • Mind the gap. A well structured and thoroughly designed lesson plan can do wonders to your self-confidence and efficacy if you’re new in the teaching business. Dogme requires some level of expertise and a vast teaching repertoire to be applied satisfactorily.
About author

In ELT with vast experience teaching primary and secondary learners, adults, and teachers across all proficiency levels. Multi-skilled professional who works as teacher, trainer, speaker, author and editor of teaching materials, and course designer. Educational consultant at Troika, Vice-president of BRAZ-TESOL São Paulo and member of the BRAZ-TESOL national advisory board. I firmly believe in the power of teacher education and how its cascade effect can positively impact thousands of students.
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