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Teaching Guide: Planning a Class

If you've ever given a formal presentation on a topic, you've probably done some kind of planning. You may have considered who your audience was and gathered information to meet their needs and interests. Or, you may have considered your own objective and worked to meet this goal. Either way, you probably spent more time gathering and arranging information than you did actually presenting it. Your confidence and ability to present may have also depended on the plan you created.

Planning a class presents similar challenges. Sure, we've all known the instructor who can "wing-it" and still amaze us with their infinite wit and wisdom. But many of us feel that we are not that instructor. In fact, some readers of this guide may be teaching a writing course for the first time. If so, you're probably beginning to realize that planning can be the most challenging part of teaching.

This guide will help you construct successful lesson plans. First, we'll review some effective strategies and techniques. Since there are many factors to consider when planning a class, this chapter is broken down into six different sections. If you are reading this for the first time, is useful to look at all six sections, as each one builds off the one before. In the future, you may decide to only reference the section that serves your immediate purposes.

Guidelines for planning an effective class are:

How This Guide Can Help

This guide will help you construct successful lesson plans. First, we'll review some effective strategies and techniques. Since there are many factors to consider when planning a class, this chapter is broken down into six different sections. If you are reading this for the first time, is useful to look at all six sections, as each one builds off the one before. In the future, you may decide to only reference the section that serves your immediate purposes.

Guidelines for planning an effective class are:

Using Goals to Shape a Lesson

Begin planning a lesson by considering your goals. In addition to keeping in mind the overall goals for the course, consider the specific goals for that lesson. Ask yourself what you want your students to gain most from the lesson. Often, you'll come up with a list of two or three goals for the class. A successful lesson will combine various goals into a cohesive plan.

Let's say the goals in the syllabus for one class include Discussing and Practicing Critical Reading and Exploring How Purpose, Audience, and Context Influence a Writer's Choices. Lately, however, you've noticed small puddles of drool on your students' desks, a sure sign that they aren't fully involved in class. To help your students become more engaged during class, you create a third goal: Facilitating More Meaningful Discussions. The three goals for this lesson:

Reflect on your goals for the lesson, then prioritize them. Ask yourself what students most need to gain from the lesson. As you prioritize your goals, reflect once again on the overall goals for the course. Consider, as well, the goals for the current assignment.

If, Practicing Critical Reading is the most important goal for the day, focus your activities to meet this goal. Remember, however that Practicing Critical Reading is not your only goal for the class. Try to imagine how all three of the goals you've defined for the class can translate into activities that feed into each other.

Creating Activities that Reflect Goals

Consider the following example. Over the past few days, you and your students have discussed purpose, audience, and focus. To build on these discussions, use them as a starting point. Spend ten minutes at the beginning of class analyzing the context for the essay you're working with. This will help you pursue your goal of Exploring How Purpose, Audience, and Context Influence a Writer's Choices. After you've analyzed the essay's context, meet your goal of Facilitating More Meaningful Discussions by asking students to briefly share their personal reactions to the main ideas in the text. For the remainder of class, engage your students in a critical reading of the essay and an in-depth discussion of its argument and ideas. Since Practicing Critical Reading is the most important goal for the day, the majority of class time will be spent meeting this goal.

A loose outline of goals and activities might look like this:

Planning Transitions

Typically, you'll plan more than one activity per class, so creating transitions between those activities is crucial. Students need to know when you're changing the focus of the class. When writing transitions, ask yourself, what is the significance of each of these activities? How do they connect to the daily goals? Why did I arrange them in this order? Is there a more logical way to organize these procedures?

Be sure to write out transition statements in your lesson plans so you don't find yourself grappling for explanations on the spot. If you can't explain the significance of an activity, look back at the unit assignment sheet or the description of goals in your syllabus. If the relevance of an activity is still unclear, replace it with something different to satisfy the same goal.

Strategies for Creating Effective Transitions

Highlight an Activity's Importance

To help students understand where they are going, use transitions to explain the goal for an activity and why it is important.

For example: "In this second unit, you'll be concentrating on how cultural contexts shape texts. What influences a writer's perspective on an issue? Why does the writer approach this issue from a particular angle? Investigating the writer's context is important because it will help you read and think critically (two skills you'll develop this semester). Let's practice some critical reading by analyzing the context for the essay you've just read. I'd like you to break into five groups..."

Emphasize the Relationships Among Activities

Think of activities as building blocks, carefully arranged to lead students to a predetermined destination. If you want students to write from a rhetorical approach, consider the steps they have to take and plan accordingly. Then, explain to students how one activity leads to another.

For example: "Now that we've talked a bit about purpose, context, and audience in the writing process, let's identify these three concerns in the first essay assignment. "

Emphasize Connections between Activities and Students' Own Writing

Students are more likely to participate when they see how activities relate to their own writing. For this reason, explain to students how an activity will help them become better writers for the next assignment.

For example: "To write effectively, we have to consider the context of our audience. This will help focus our writing so that it speaks to someone with different expectations. Since the context for essay three is not a familiar academic situation, you'll need to analyze your context and audience before constructing your argument. This next activity is aimed at helping you think more about the context for which we'll be writing."

Sample Outline of Lesson Plan with Transitions

The three goals for this lesson:

Activities and Transitions:

Planning Introductions

Now that you have a loose outline of your lesson, think about how you'll introduce it. Introductions are important because, like transitions, they guide students' understanding of the course and its goals. When you provide an introduction, students see that you have a sense of where the lesson is headed. Not only will this add to your credibility, but students will be less inclined to ask, "Why do we have to do this?"

Use introductions to connect concepts from earlier classes to the upcoming lesson. Also use them as checkpoints or reminders for yourself and your students - this is where we've been and this is where we're going.

When writing introductions, look back at the previous lesson and tie up any loose ends. Perhaps students were walking out the door when you explained the connection between an activity and an upcoming essay assignment. Introductions are ideal times to reinforce important concepts.

Planning Introductions

Your introduction should include an outline of daily activities; but it is equally important to explain the purpose of these activities. Why do students need to practice critical reading in a writing class? How will their writing benefit from learning to analyze the rhetorical context surrounding a text? Without explanations, students wonder if their time would be better spent at home eating cheese puffs.

Methods for introducing class:

Sample Outline of Lesson Plan with Transitions and Introduction

The three goals for this lesson:

Introduction: Last time we discussed the ways context influences the choices a writer makes. Today we'll keep that in mind as we analyze the context for the essay you just read. Since our context is different from the one the writer intended, we'll spend a few minutes discussing your responses to the essay. Then, we'll focus on critical reading because this will help you accurately represent an author's ideas in the summary part of your essay. It will prepare you for the analytical writing we do in units two and three and it will also assist you in gaining the most from texts encountered beyond COCC150.

Activities and Transitions:

Planning Conclusions

Effective transitions and introductions guide students' understanding of how activities, discussions and assignments relate to their own writing. Still, some students won't make these connections until they've engaged in class activities. Conclusions reinforce important connections and help students anticipate the goals for the next class.

Methods for concluding class:

Sample Outline of Lesson Plan with Transitions, Introduction, and a Conclusion

The three goals for this lesson:

Introduction: Last time we discussed the ways context influences the choices a writer makes. Today we'll keep that in mind as we analyze the context for the essay you just read. Since our context is different from the one the writer intended, we'll spend a few minutes discussing your responses to the essay. Then, we'll focus on critical reading because this will help you accurately represent an author's ideas in the summary part of your essay. It will prepare you for the analytical writing we do in units two and three and it will also assist you in gaining the most from texts encountered beyond COCC150.

Activities and Transitions:

Conclusion: Today we reviewed the ways context influences the choices a writer makes. We also shared some of our responses to the essay and practiced critical reading strategies to help you write an accurate summary for essay one. Next time we'll focus on writing a response and consider the choices you'll have to make when drafting your own writing.

Planning Classroom Discussions

Instructors like to believe that if students are awake and engaged in conversation it's a cause for celebration. But there's more to consider. You may witness a spectacular discussion on the effects of teen magazines on youth culture or the implications of cyborgs in science fiction novels, but at some point you need to ask, "How do these discussions help students become better writers?"

When planning a discussion, consider your daily goals. Ask yourself, what do I want students to gain from this discussion? How will it contribute to the overall goal for the lesson? How does it connect to students' own writing?

Shape your outline or discussion plan to reflect the daily goals.

Discussions happen for different reasons. Perhaps you're leading a discussion to introduce a new concept or assignment. Maybe you're critiquing a sample essay, or looking closely at an assigned reading. Whatever the situation, you'll want to consider your role, as well as the goals. Taken together, these provide a starting point to give shape to your classroom discussions.

Planning to Introduce a New Concept or Assignment

When you are explaining what is meant by context, audience, or purpose; or you are describing the writing situation for an essay, it is useful to engage students by asking questions that encourage them to reflect on their own knowledge. For example, when introducing audience as a rhetorical concept, you might ask, "Who did you think of as your audience when you completed your assignment for today? How did you make choices based on that audience?"

At some point though, students will begin to ask specific questions. This is an excellent time to define the concept you're introducing and provide them with clear answers.

Suggestions for Planning to Teach a New Concept

When planning to teach a new concept, write detailed notes in your lesson plans to help guide the discussion. Also, have several examples ready in case you need to present your points differently. After you explain a concept, plan to have students apply it to their own thinking or writing. Prepare questions or activities to gauge students' understanding and consider assigning additional reading to reinforce the lesson.

Suggestions for Introducing a New Assignment

When introducing a new assignment, be sure you've carefully reviewed it yourself beforehand. Highlight key places where you'll want to elaborate with examples or explanation. Also, anticipate any questions or confusions students may have.

Plan to check for understanding by asking students to summarize or interpret certain aspects of the assignment. For example, have them analyze the writing situation by asking, "How does this compare to the essay you just finished? Who is your new audience? How will you need to shape your writing to meet the needs of this audience?"

If a student raises a question about a concept or an assignment that you don't have an answer for, simply tell them you'll get back to them next class.

Planning to Model or Critique Student Samples

The goals for these types of discussions are clearly connected to students' own writing. You are showing them how concepts discussed in class translate into a particular type of writing. Or you are determining whether a writing sample meets the criteria for an assignment. During these discussions, you'll want to guide students with questions like, "What's effective about this piece of writing?" But don't hesitate to point out the problems areas in the sample.

Discussions about writing should be student-centered, but you also need to provide clear judgments. If an essay has some serious problems, be sure students are aware of this when they leave. When planning, highlight places where an essay is effective or ineffective. If students do not raise the same concerns, point these out for them. Your goal for these discussions is to have students walk away with a greater sense of what to focus on and what to avoid in their own writing.

Suggestions for Modeling Effective Writing

Model effective writing from your own students' work whenever possible. It's a good to do this even if some students are still having difficulty with a concept. For example, say you've finished teaching students how to write a summary, but the homework suggests that only eight students got it. You might decide to model two or three strong student samples in class.

Ask these individuals before class if they mind that you share their work (be sure to tell them that you are using their work as a positive model - it is never a good idea to put a student's problematic work on display for critique). Carefully plan out how you will facilitate this process. One approach would be to present a student's sample on an overhead and discuss what is working well in this piece with the class. Or you could ask the student to read their summary aloud. Consider other approaches as well, and decide which works best with your class and your teaching style.

Try to select work from various students throughout the semester. That way, students will see you're not basing judgments on one model for writing, but locating what's effective among various styles and approaches.

Suggestions for Critiquing Sample Writing

The samples for critique should not come from your own students. You should generate these samples or obtain them from another class. Be sure that whomever wrote the sample has given you permission to use it in class, and cross off their name before making copies.

It's useful to do critiques at the end of a unit, or just before a workshop. Have students read the entire sample piece of writing before coming to class and ask them to comment on how well it meets the criteria for the assignment. Consider various approaches to critiquing the sample and choose the approach that works best for you and your students:

Techniques for Teaching Students to Critique

Planning to Lead a Discussion on an Assigned Reading

The goals for discussions will vary depending upon where you are in the sequence of your course. Perhaps you are using an author's ideas to generate ideas for students' writing, or pulling main ideas from a text and arranging them into an academic summary. You might want to determine whether or not a writer's choices are effective. You'll want to ask yourself, when planning these discussions, "What features of a text should we focus on in order to meet the daily goal?"

If the goal is to teach students summary skills, your discussion questions should be geared to accommodate this. You might create questions that ask students to define a writer's purpose and locate the main ideas. In most cases though, discussions will be dynamic, taking into account multiple purposes and goals.

Your text, course outline, or syllabus may include discussion questions as starting points. Use these as a guide, but also practice developing your own. If you are teaching students how to write a good essay, write out a list of questions that you think are relevant to an essay. Then look back at the daily goals and select those that best reflect these goals.

Arrange discussion questions in a logical order, but also plan to be flexible. Make a list of things that must be covered. Create a hierarchy of questions, but try not to insist on a particular order (discussions usually do not follow a linear path). Rather, think about how questions connect to one another. This way you can adapt during discussions.

Unfortunately, students won't always provide the insightful responses we dream of. Anticipate where your questions may receive shallow answers and plan to engage students with questions like, "Interesting, can you give a specific example for that? Or, can anyone take what Tony just said a go a bit further with it?"

Also, think about how you might phrase questions differently. Sometimes students are silent because they're not sure of what you're asking. Next to each question, list a few alternative ways to ask it. This may be all it takes to turn a tedious discussion into something exciting.

Planning Write to Learns

Write to Learns (WTL) are short writing exercises intended to help students collect their thoughts, start a discussion, or reflect on an assignment. As with most activities, consider your goals when planning a WTL. What do you want students to most gain from the WTL? Your questions or prompts should clearly reflect this. If the goal is to have students evaluate a text, ask them to analyze the effectiveness of something rather than react to the main ideas. If the goal is to engage students' ideas and evaluate a text, plan questions that address both goals. Have students react to ideas first, then ask them to evaluate the author's use of evidence to support these ideas.

Think about how a WTL fits into your lesson. How does it connect with other activities? How might you use it to focus students' thoughts for a discussion or another activity? You can put WTL prompts on the board, display them on an overhead projector, or post them on your class website.

When to Use Write to Learns

The following are just a few suggestions. Most likely, you'll discover other uses for Write to Learns as you become familiar with your students and their needs. Since WTL's are informal exercises, you don't need to collect or grade them. Let students know that you'll discuss their answers if there's time. Also, let them know that you won't always read WTL's. If time permits, have students read each others' WTL so their responses can be validated by peers.

Some examples of when to use WTL's are:

To Begin a Lesson

Allow students time to focus their thoughts before asking them to engage in activities.

Sample WTL: Take about 5 minutes to free-write your personal reaction to one of the main ideas from one of these authors. Pick one, and keep writing. Don't stop. Just generate any thoughts or feelings you have about what the texts are saying. You can jot down any personal experiences you may have had that relate, or any observations that comment on the idea.

To Jumpstart a Discussion

Students typically participate more if they've had time to pre-write on the topic they're discussing.

Sample WTL: Please take out a piece of paper and write for five minutes or so about what you expect out of today's class. What do you hope to learn and contribute?

To Complete a Portfolio

Ask students to reflect on their writing process before collecting portfolios.

Sample WTL: Reflect on the summary/response paper. What are the strengths in your essay? What did you find most challenging? What did you discover about yourself as a writer when completing this portfolio? How can this discovery be useful to you in the future?

To Check for Understanding

See if students are getting something.

Sample WTL: Please take out a sheet of paper and summarize what we did in class today. What was the significance of each activity and how does it connect to the upcoming assignment?

To Generate Ideas for Papers

Have students begin the writing process with their own ideas and interests.

Sample WTL: List as many contemporary, debatable issues as you can on a piece of paper. Then go back and write down everything you've heard recently about these issues. Also include the sources for this information.

To Refocus a Discussion

Focus a discussion that gets off track or doesn't feel constructive.

Sample WTL: It seems a lot of you are having personal reactions to the ideas in this text. Take about five minutes to write these reactions down. If there's time at the end of class we'll discuss these concerns.

Planning Group Activities

Writing is a dynamic process. As instructors of composition, we value lectures and discussions, but we also believe that writers benefit from collaborating and sharing ideas with other writers. For this reason, we encourage you to try different strategies for planning group activities.

When planning group activities, think about your goals. Then, design very clear and precise tasks to meet these goals. You should provide detailed instructions. Avoid complex language and confusing directions. If students don't understand a task, they tend to zone out and get distracted.

Planning Group Activities

Your role during group work will vary depending on your teaching style and your students' needs. Some instructors roam the class while students are working, making themselves available if a student requests help. Or they join a discussion if students are off track. Other instructors sit quietly away from groups, without interfering. Whatever your approach, keep in mind that group work should center on students' ideas. You may guide their thinking, but the instructional goal for these activities is to help students learn more about the writing process. Therefore, you should try to work with students' ideas and push them to think harder rather than giving them your ideas.

Strategies for Facilitating Group Activities

The following are just a few strategies that instructors have found useful. You will discover other methods for employing group work that best match your own teaching style and your students' needs.

Assign Each Group Member a Role

Assigning roles is helpful in situations where students work as a group. For example, have students act as: the time keeper (who keeps everyone on track), the note taker (who does the writing), the task master (who makes sure everyone is participating), the devil's advocate (who challenges group ideas to ensure they are significant and well-supported), etc. This will keep all students involved and on task.

Give Each Group the Same Task

Put various questions on an overhead and ask all groups to address them. Then, have each group become an "expert" on one question. Have them present their responses to the class. Or, have each group address the same questions and compare their responses.

Give Each Group a Separate Task

Have each group look at a different text. Ask them to summarize it and present their work to the class.

Have Groups Practice Writing Collaboratively

Ask each group to summarize a text on a sheet of paper or an overhead transparency. Then have them display their summaries to the class or post them on the class website. You might also ask other groups to critique and comment on the writing.

Ask Groups to Role Play

Ask groups to role play various audiences (students, parents, teachers, city council persons, government officials, etc...) and analyze the same text. Then, collaborate as a class on the text's effectiveness for each audience.

Logistics of Group Activities

Much of the "know-how" concerning the logistics of group work comes from trial and error. The student who took meticulous notes in class is absent the day his/her group is to present. Or three students forget to bring drafts to class, as you requested. There is no way to avoid all of these hassles, but here's a list of things to think about to help you with some of the trouble shooting.

Things to Think About

Reflecting on Lessons

Reflecting on each lesson will save you time when planning in the future. It will also help you become a more mindful teacher. We recommend saving a space at the end of your lesson plans where you can jot down brief notes on the following: