Establishing the “what” and the “why” in the first 10–15 minutes pays high dividends.
My high school biology teacher had a sign taped to her desk that read “Failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.” After becoming a teacher, I realized that when it came to lessons, failure to plan on my part did constitute an emergency. And that emergency resulted in feelings of confusion, misunderstanding, frustration, and boredom on the part of my students. That’s not a formula for academic achievement.
Careful and thoughtful planning is a formula for academic achievement. This type of planning involves a great deal of instructional decision making. What to say, when to say it, what to have students do—the number of decisions that go into a single lesson is almost limitless. The effort can feel overwhelming. I find it helps to think of a lesson plan in terms of three parts—beginning, middle, and end—each with its own intricacies and decisions to make. Let’s focus on the part that doesn’t always get much attention when it comes to developing strong lesson plans: the beginning.
Although no one-size-fits-all approach will work in every lesson-planning scenario, teachers should consider several big ideas when preparing the first 10 to 15 minutes of a lesson. Let’s dig into the decisions a teacher needs to make in planning these valuable initial minutes.
“The What” and “The Why”
Because time is short or because we make assumptions about our students’ levels of understanding, teachers often skip the brief but important exercise of clarifying what I call “the what” and “the why” of the work. It’s important that students know exactly what they are learning and why they’re learning it before instruction begins.
The “what” refers to the content, context, and, more specifically, the learning objective for the day. Teachers learn early in their careers that a learning target represents the end goal of a lesson, but we often miss opportunities to clarify this target for students. Effective lessons begin by unpacking this objective.
Discussing “the what” is also an opportunity to provide context by making connections between the day’s content and earlier work—connections that activate students’ background knowledge and reinforce the idea that what they’re learning doesn’t exist in isolation. Students should see their learning as a series of interrelated concepts and ideas linked together to create meaning.
The “why” simply refers to the purpose. Why is the work important? Why is it relevant? Think about your own life: When you’re called on to engage in a task or attend a meeting with an unclear purpose, how do you feel? Probably disengaged, confused, or bored—not emotions we want students to feel. Taking just a minute to remind learners why the day’s work is worth spending time on and its role in the bigger picture of their learning goes a long way toward helping everyone master the lesson’s objective.
It’s worth tightly planning your introduction to the what and why. A quick class discussion, with the teacher making statements about the content and purpose and asking questions to prompt students’ thinking, does the trick nicely. Write down the main points you’ll say and key questions you’ll ask. Some general questions (“In your own words, what are we going to be learning about today?”) will become habit; you’ll use them without needing to note them in your plan. But prepare in advance questions more specific to the goals of the lesson and those that connect to previous learning (“Remember how we looked at the parts of stories last month?”).
“What” and “Why” in Action
Consider a 4th grade teacher’s plan for a lesson on comparing fractions, with the learning target “I can compare fractions with different numerators and different denominators using benchmark fractions.” His script might look like this (with anticipated student responses in italics):
Teacher: Students, today we’re building on yesterday’s work with fractions. What did we learn about fractions yesterday? We used models to compare two different fractions.
Teacher: And when we were comparing two fractions, how did we decide which one was bigger? The fraction whose model was more completely shaded was bigger.
Teacher: Now turn and talk to your partner about how we made our models and decided which fraction was greater. We drew a model for each fraction and divided it into the number of parts that equaled the denominator. Then we shaded the number of parts that equaled the numerator.
Teacher: Right, and remember, when we compare fractions, we use the same size whole. Today we’ll explore another way to compare fractions. Let’s read our learning target. Talk to your partner about what words here seem important or unfamiliar. Compare, different numerators/denominators, benchmark fractions.
At this point, the teacher might note in his planning sheet to be sure to define benchmark fraction (“a familiar fraction that we can easily locate on a number line in our mind, such as one-half”) during class discussion after students’ partner talk. Note how this plan and script connect to students’ earlier learning and give students time to unpack the learning target. The teacher’s final planned comment connects the work to a sense of purpose so students will see where they’re headed—and why.
Teacher: We’re doing this work today so we can become stronger mathematicians! When we use benchmark fractions, we can work more quickly and can compare fractions in our minds. When we’re quick with mental math, we can solve more challenging problems that involve adding, subtracting, multiplying, and even dividing fractions.
Direct or Indirect? That Is the Question
Once you’ve planned how you’ll ground students in their learning objective and purpose, it’s time to plan the next 7–10 minutes of the lesson, when students start working on “the how.” Depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, you’ll need to either show them how to do the work or set up a way they can figure out how to do it on their own. Let’s explore two possible instructional methods of many: direct instruction and indirect instruction.
If your goal is to teach students a discrete skill, such as diagramming a sentence, direct instruction may be the best choice. Direct instruction involves “all eyes on you,” the teacher, as you model, demonstrate, and talk through your own thinking. Such a presentation is often referred to as a mini-lesson or called the “I do” portion of an “I Do-We Do-You Do” approach. Throughout the lesson, the responsibility of thinking and working shifts gradually to the students, but in the beginning, you’re doing the work.
However, if you want students to synthesize different information and draw on multiple skills—to put the pieces together themselves—a more indirect approach, in which students engage with content to construct understanding on their own, is best. This type of lesson often begins with a task that students engage in, usually collaboratively, and then moves into a group discussion, with students sharing their answers and synthesizing what they learned.
To decide between direct and indirect instruction, ask yourself whether you’re teaching a discrete skill. If so, direct instruction may be more useful; if not, use an indirect approach.
Consider a 6th grade language arts teacher planning a unit that emphasizes comparing and contrasting texts in different genres but with similar themes. Early in the unit, she wants to teach the explicit skills of identifying a theme and finding details in a text that convey that theme. Opening the first lessons in the unit with direct instruction will build students’ ability with these skills. Toward the end of the unit, she’ll want students, on their own, to identify a theme common to multiple texts and compare and contrast texts that share that theme. So she should plan for a more indirect approach.
Essentials for Direct Instruction
Direct instruction is an opportunity to let students see into your brain to help them better understand the concepts they will be working on and prepare them to do the work. It also allows you to develop students’ metacognition. If direct instruction suits your needs best, keep the following essentials in mind. During a mini-lesson, you should be modeling, thinking aloud, and demonstrating. Your talk should be declarative, rather than interrogatory; this is your chance to explain things to students. Too often, teachers jump into asking students questions about how to solve a problem or complete a task before they have explained how to do it. How can students explain how to do something when we haven’t yet shown them how? You can ask me what the first step in repairing a lawn mower engine is, but I’m not going to know the answer unless you show me what to do first.
It’s important to decide exactly what discrete skill you will demonstrate to students, what example of using that skill you’ll model, and what you’ll say during the 7–10 minutes (no longer) that you’ll be giving direct instruction. Select an example that will clearly show your students how to apply this skill and that ties to your lesson’s objective. Write this example as part of your plan, including key talking points you want to mention in your think-aloud that will cover the important concepts you want students to understand. These talking points might include questions that students should ask themselves and ideas you want to be clear in their minds. Just keep in mind that this is a minilesson. It should be helpful to students, but brief.
Direct Instruction in Action
Let’s go back to our 6th grade language arts teacher. She’s decided to teach a lesson that revolves around the skill of identifying how a poem’s theme is conveyed through particular details. The basics of her plan might look like this:
Text: “If—” by Rudyard Kipling
Skill to model: How to identify details and phrases in a poem that support your decision about its theme. (Yesterday we determined that the theme of “If—” is that self-awareness and control are necessary for success.)
Explanation: To identify elements of a poem that support its overall theme, read each line carefully. Consider how the ideas, images, or language of that line connect to the theme.
Think-aloud: Explicitly note how each quoted portion supports and connects to the theme—and show students how this task is relevant to their lives—saying things like,
- “In the line ‘If you can dream—and not make dreams your master,’ I think the speaker is reinforcing the idea of self-control because a person with self-control will not let their dreams take over; this would lead to not achieving success, only thinking about success.”
- “Think about what we’re doing here in terms of making an argument or supporting an opinion. Have you ever tried to convince someone of something? You have to give details to support your opinion, right? This is the same thing: These lines support the theme.”
Essentials for Indirect Instruction
Often, you’ll want to start a lesson with students launching into a task without much (if any) instruction, applying skills they’ve learned through previous direct instruction. Such lessons are often structured with an introduction to the task, followed by students doing the task and then discussing and reflecting on what they learned. It may seem that this type of lesson requires no planning: Just provide the task and let kids dig in. You certainly could execute the lesson that way, but planning in advance will increase its effectiveness.
Task selection is key. A high-quality task—one that ensures students will learn what you want them to—should be aligned to standards, intellectually engaging, and accessible to all. Try for tasks that have more than one solution and more than one “entry point” so all learners can engage with the task on some level.
Once you’ve identified your task, plan how to introduce or frame it for students. Write down key things you want students to know and be thinking about as they begin their work. It’s important to not say too much, however, so that students will still think on their own. The more you say about the task, the more you’ll be thinking for students. Frame it just enough so students can get started.
If students are going to work on the task in pairs or small groups, think about how to set up these groups. Being strategic about grouping can go a long way toward ensuring that all students are successful. Some teachers like to mix groups by ability level; others prefer more homogeneous groups. Consider carefully what’s best for your class and this project.
Finally, identify scaffolds or supports you can provide for students (or groups) who struggle as they begin the task. What prompts might you ask the strugglers? What points of clarification might support their work? Thinking about which misconceptions might arise, where students might get off track, and what parts of the task might be especially challenging will help you plan scaffolds in advance.
Indirect Instruction in Action
Imagine that our language arts teacher wants a later lesson in her unit about theme to center around a student task. Here’s what might be in her plan:
Frame: “Today we’ll work in groups to put together all this learning we’ve been doing. You will have two texts, a story and a poem. Your job is to answer this prompt: What are the themes of these two texts? How are the themes similar? How are they different? Use particular details from each text to support your answer. Remember, the key is to use details to support and explain your answer. Be sure to answer all parts of the prompt.”
Groupings: Mix students by their comfort level with identifying theme and details.
Scaffolds: If students can’t find a difference between two identified themes, have them phrase the themes differently and then find differences. If students struggle to explain how particular details support a theme, talk with them to help clarify their thinking, or encourage them to find different details.
Three Simple Questions
If these suggestions for planning seem overwhelming, you might simplify things at first by thinking about three questions as you consider an upcoming lesson:
- How can I ground students in the lesson’s context and purpose?
- Is a direct or indirect approach best?
- What few statements or questions do I need to script in advance so that the first 10–15 minutes of this lesson are productive?
You’ll quickly find that you become more efficient with each lesson beginning that you plan. And you’ll find your students more engaged and accomplishing more—thanks to a solid start.