When the Lesson Fails and Rethinking Lesson Design Matters Most

Wednesday, March 16, 20168:06 PM


What to do when a lesson just doesn’t work but the cameras are about to roll. Literally.


This was an exciting week. Last Thursday, I received an e-mail from a CNN International reporter asking some questions about Twitter in education. We talked on the phone the next day and had a good conversation. I explained how my students are using social media and Twitter in class and told her about my plans for this week. Her response left me flabbergasted: “Do you think we can come film that?”

After a few seconds of stunned silence and a few days of prep, CNN reporter Clare Sebastian was in my classroom, along with a cameraman and microphone operator. They filmed a full class period and then interviewed three students and me.

It was such a cool experience and my students truly stepped up and really displayed their enthusiasm, insights, and engagement for the world to see. The students’ responses during the interviews had me silently cheering from behind the camera; when asked about the dangers of social media, my student Helen replied, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

As a teacher and nerd, I’ve never been prouder. But it’s not the responsibility of social media I want to write about today. Below, I’ll share a slideshow of pictures from the day, and next week after it airs, I’ll blog about the lesson and the segment more, and will definitely link to it.

Instead, today I want to discuss what happened before the CNN lesson, when I taught it earlier in the day. I have two chances to practice the lesson with other classes, and to put it simply, it bombed. Badly. The lesson that excited me just did not work. And I panicked a little.




When the Lesson Fails

No matter how hard we teachers work, not every lesson is a winner. Most of the time, my students meet the objective and accomplish the learning goals. Sometimes it only works in part, and it requires some reteaching or clarification. Other times, it just doesn’t work. Some days, you just need to throw in the towel and realize that it’s just not working. But then you need to try again.

It can be hard to admit defeat. But it can be even harder to figure out what didn’t work and to make it right. It can be humbling, embarrassing, and frustrating to have to admit to students--and to yourself--that you didn’t get right and need to do better. But I think it also makes us human. For my two morning classes today, that’s exactly what I did.

I today started by explaining how I realized what was wrong yesterday and what we needed to fix. We adapted, gave it another shot, and things went better, thankfully. But in the high stakes world of testing, Common Core, and the rare TV interview, you don’t always have that next day. What do we do when the camera’s about to roll or the time just isn’t there?



Rethinking Lesson Design

This experience reminded me of the fundamentals of good lesson design: know what students need to learn or do, and then find the best learning activities to get them there. With clear, student centered, achievable objectives, all students should have an understanding of what’s expected. And you can’t forget who your students are, where they are, and what they need.

And here is where I faltered. Interestingly, it wasn’t about the technology or social media at all--that worked just fine. The lesson modified the fishbowl discussion format, in which groups of students rotated in and out of an inner circle to discuss a text, and an outer circle listened in and backchanneled in a Twitter chat. The problem was twofold:

  • My discussion questions did not lead to good arguments. They were about the text, but too broad to require the students to really take a side and back it up.
  • I counted on students being able to activate prior knowledge without enough time for it in class. Students needed time to review the questions beforehand so that they were ready with contributions.
I knew where I wanted students to go, but they didn’t. Without time to prep, process, and make textual connections, they just couldn’t get the job done. And they shouldn’t have had to. I planned the lesson for a class that typically won’t shut up--focusing their conversation was so rarely an issue. Instead, I needed to plan with all of my students in mind, and provide the time, scaffolding, and support to help them all achieve.


Lessons Learned

Luckily, I think quickly on my feet. But even more luckily, I have a best friend at work I can count on. My colleague Katie came into my class and helped troubleshoot the problems. She kicked me out to talk to my students and get honest feedback. I wasn’t angry that it wasn’t working, but was clearly confused and frustrated. She asked me to take a lap, like we might ask that frustrated student, and helped me realize the two problems described above.

She then helped me rewrite the questions. We removed one to give students more time to prep at the start of the period. I also then divided the class in half, so each student only needed to prep for two questions instead of four, allowing more time for finding more evidence and preparing for a deeper analysis. And thankfully, it all worked beautifully. In the end, the lesson worked and it was awesome. I’ll share more about that awesome next time, for sure.

But here are my takeaways from the experience. The ideas aren't new, but for me they were essential reminders. 

  • Good teachers make changes before, during, and after teaching. We need to be proactive, reactive, and reflective in our practice. And sometimes we need that frustration or confusion to drive us to be better.
  • Teach to all of your students. I always want to be able to reach all of my students, meet them where they are, and help them get where they need to go. When we teach only to the top or bottom, we do everyone a disservice. Instead, I want to plan better and differentiate more to reach all learners.
  • Technology in education should be driven by learning goals. When I started telling this story a few times already, everyone assumed that the technology caused problems, not the discussion. But because technology was used so purposefully here, that wasn’t the problem at all. Instead, it reminded me never to forget good lesson design and clear objectives.
  • Always have someone you count on to tell you when you’re wrong and help you fix it. Teaching doesn’t need to be a solitary job--get connected, make friends, and ask for help when you need it. As we talked all about in this week’s #ShiftED Blab, have someone you can count on in your foxhole.

We can’t let technology--or anything else--get in the way of good teaching practices. Sometimes, it’s important to revisit the basics to help students and teachers make change.



Breaking News…

Next week, I’ll share the CNN segment and more details about the lesson itself. In the end, it was engaging and effective, and something I will definitely try again. If you want a preview of the students’ work, check out #SchoenTell on Twitter or the Storify from the class period.



For more about my students work with social media, check out Why I Want My Students Using Social Media Reason #1: Community, #2: Crowdsourcing & Connecting, and #3: Sharing our Awesome. Don't forget to leave a comment below or share your thoughts on Twitter!




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