1st Period Or 6th: Teaching The Same Lesson Differently

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1st Period Or 6th: Teaching The Same Lesson Differently

by Rachelle Ploth

What did we do in class today?

This is common question that either you have been asked by a student or you have heard one student asking another. I remember back when I was in school,  we always talked about what our teachers were doing in class, or asked our friends if there was a pop quiz, did “Mr. or Mrs. so and so collect the homework?,” “How hard was the test?” and other questions to figure out what to expect when we got to class. And a lot of the time everything was the exact same for each class. So the Algebra test I took during 2nd period, would be the same test given later in the day. This realization led to conversations between classes, students asking for test questions or seeking answers, looking for as much information as they could get.  

So why did students do this? My guess is that besides the “investigative/fact-finding” element, it was a way to dispel fears and calm nerves. However, for some students, it also increased nervousness because they heard from a friend “the test was the hardest test ever.” Or led to a loss in points because they heard that “the homework wasn’t collected”, but then it ended up being collected. The point is that you can’t stop people from having conversations like these.

These conversations occurred when I went to school and they occur now as well. There are countless times I have had students  enter my classroom telling me that they “heard all about the class today” or they heard “the test was brutal” or told me they didn’t do the homework because they “heard” that I didn’t collect it. These are just a few of the statements that are the most common.

While this is probably a common occurrence for many teachers, I find that it is an interesting phenomenon and one which requires our attention as educators.

Why Change Anything?

Depending on the courses you teach and the number of preps you have, it is understandable why teaching the same lesson for every class would be easier, or why assigning the same homework and creating only one test are more efficient in terms of time management. Teacher schedules are full with so many tasks that it can be challenging to change things for each class.  It would be a lie if I said I had never taught the exact same lesson or used the same test from one class to another.

Why did I do this? The truth is that I was not trying to take the easy way out or that I was lazy. Sometimes it just happened that way and other times, at least as far as teaching the same lesson, it was my way for improving my instructional skills. The first time you teach a new concept, it may not go as you had planned and so you want that next try to kind of work through it, reflect and change things to see how you can do better. I get all of this and it makes sense to me why this happened in the past and why it happens today.

Teachers may opt to teach the exact same lesson with the same routine and same assignments because it seems like the “right” thing to do. A way to make sure that students are receiving the same opportunities for learning. Or we may decide to assign the same homework because it provides practice in the content area that we are trying to focus on, or we give the same test because maybe we just really think it’s a good test that assesses the students in a fair way and provides valuable data that will help guide our instruction. These are all valid reasons and I am not saying whether they are good or bad, but having had more time recently to think about some things, this was an area that caught my attention more this year than any other. So combining this self-realization with the ongoing discussions regarding the value of homework, led me to give my classroom procedures more serious thought.

So what do I suggest?  I am by no means an expert, but I do have some clear objectives for myself and my classroom. I do want some structure. I want my students to know what to expect in the classroom on a daily basis. To be familiar with our routines, comfortable in our classroom interactions, supported and safe, and most of all, to know that they matter. Conveying these objectives to my students and building relationships are the most important areas that I focus on from the beginning of the year. But when it comes to each day’s lesson, I don’t really want the students to know exactly what to expect and I prefer a little less structure.  

The Simplest Tweaks

Teachers work hard to plan different, engaging and unique learning activities. I know that on many occasions, I could barely contain myself because of my anticipation of trying something new in class and seeing the student responses. But I also know that because students talk, if I tried a new activity in the morning, the afternoon class is kind of at a disadvantage because that element of surprise is lost or their engagement may be decreased because they “already heard about it.” And I want the students to all have unique learning experiences so the only way to do that starts with me and my choices for each class.

So maybe the easiest way to do this, is not to totally change each lesson. For example, if I’m teaching Spanish 1 three times a day, do I really want to create three separate lessons? Maybe. But if I create these individual lessons,  the time spent doing that takes away from other equally if not more important tasks. So one suggestion is to simply mix up the order in which you present the material. Instead of starting class with that fun game, place it randomly in the middle of your lesson, that will surprise the second class. And then when the third class comes in, put that game at the end of class, squeeze it in just before the bell, so you have enough time, so maybe they’re thinking you really aren’t doing the exact same thing.

Maybe another way is to have a student be the “teacher for a day” and randomly select a student each day, to help with some part of the class. It can also be a great way to help develop the leadership skills and confidence in our students, and it also enables the teacher to switch roles a bit, and have the student experience. There are many ways to add this into the classroom. No matter what you choose, let the goal be to keep the students engaged and guessing.

Conclusion

What do I think this will accomplish? I have no illusion that the students will continue to talk about what they did in class and offer their perspectives on the difficulty of the test or the homework. But by making some subtle changes, they may end up talking more about how the classes weren’t the same, what you did differently and they just might realize that because one class did something doesn’t mean the others will. And the lesson at the end of all of this, I hope, is to recognize that people have different perspectives and different experiences. No two people see things the same, and this is an important lesson that I try to teach to my students. We can all read the same book and get a different story.  

As part of our responsibility as teachers, we have to work to engage our students by providing learning experiences which basically keep them guessing and in the process, push ourselves to keep looking for new ways to deliver instruction and create opportunities.  Find ways which are creative and engaging but also reflect flexibility in our practice. Provide different learning experiences for our students, challenge them and challenge ourselves to keep on learning with them. Take turns being the teacher; see what happens.

The change starts with us.

1st Period Or 6th: Teaching The Same Lesson Differently; image attribution flickr user woodleywonderworks