Routine reflection on practice is a hallmark of effective teaching, but often this reflection is considered a solitary endeavor—or at most, a discussion among adults in a professional learning community or collaborative team. Students don’t always realize that reflection is part of a teacher’s job.
An early-career lesson flop taught me this. A class discussion about To Kill a Mockingbird sidetracked into a dialogue comparing Atticus Finch to Adolf Hitler. No matter how politely, or forcefully, I redirected the conversation, students were excited about (and ultimately successful at) locating text evidence to support that conclusion.
As we wrapped up, I let out a deep sigh and announced, “That didn’t go how I envisioned it.”
Surprised, my students asked, “You planned for us to do this?”
I explained that yes, I had planned to help them learn to use text evidence to support claims (which they did), but I had not considered how important it would be to focus on the quality of the claim—in focusing them on evidence, I’d neglected claims.
It was a strange revelation to them, I suppose, that the things we did together might have been curated, created, and cobbled together with a specific purpose in mind. I could tell by the looks on their faces that many of them had never considered that a teacher might puzzle over such things.
This moment prompted a shift in my practice. I learned that when I share my intentional lesson design and decision-making with students, they better understand what I expect from them and engage more readily because they can see how the work of the moment fits purposefully into a bigger design.
Sharing our planning might seem like excess noise in an already busy classroom, but I’ve found three key actions I can take in any lesson to reveal to students that not only am I asking them to think but that I’ve put plenty of thought into what we’re doing as well. These actions can be adapted to any learning environment.
3 Ways to Share Our Planning With Students
1. I explain the reasoning behind the daily targets, rather than just write or recite them. In my district, it’s a standard operating procedure to have daily learning targets and to communicate them with students. When I introduce them, I incorporate phrases such as “This is the next step for us because yesterday we _____,” or “This is our focus today because in a few days we will _____.”
It’s even better if I can specifically connect the learning targets to my observations of student progress. For example, “Yesterday I noticed that we were really struggling with _____, so our target today is to focus on _____,” or “You all rocked _____ yesterday, so we’re going to push to the next level with _____ today.” When students know that an activity is not a random event but is based on my observations of them and their learning, they tend to engage more readily and purposefully.
It isn’t a magic pill, but it creates more buy-in from my struggling students who might otherwise hide behind “Why are we even doing this?” The why being front and center at all times enables us to dig into the other reasons why students might be struggling to participate—perhaps my directions were unclear, or they need help with foundational skills, or they’re tired or hungry or not in the right mental state at the moment.
2. I explain why I chose or created the materials we are using. My evenings and weekends are spent one of two ways: sifting through articles, poems, short stories, or images to use in class, or creating handouts, worksheets, or online experiences kids can use to engage with their learning. It’s time-consuming and is the downside of not having a district-provided curriculum beyond a shortlist of purchased novels.
When I tell students something as simple as, “I looked through a bunch of poems for today, but I felt like this was one you’d connect with and appreciate,” it shows both my regard for them as partners in learning and my intentionality about our work. Simply saying “I chose this for you” or “I designed this with you in mind” sparks more engagement from kids than if they are left to assume that what we’re doing is arbitrary or disconnected.
3. I interrupt the flow to identify what is working (or not working). No matter the lesson, I always stop what my students are doing to note what I observe about their work. For example, during small-group discussions, I’ll pause the whole class and share what questions I hear that point in the right direction, what interactions I notice that match what I’m looking for, or conversely, what I see or hear that doesn’t match my intention for the lesson design. If I say, “I’m noticing lots of groups writing only a few simple words for each answer,” this can work as a formative assessment and elicit a conversation about what’s getting in the way. Is the task too easy? Too complicated? Are the expectations too vague? Do we need to do more foundation-building for this activity?
Importantly, I invite the students to problem-solve with me. If they know my goal and why I made the choices I made, and things aren’t working, we can collaborate to find a better path.
I’ve noticed a clear relationship between sharing my own intentional design decisions and how engaged even my most reluctant students are. Not only is the why clearer, but they realize that while I demand hard work and good thinking from them, I’m thinking just as much and working just as hard to facilitate their learning. When they continually hear about the intentionality behind my practice, it inspires them to take their efforts in my classroom more seriously.