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3 Ways Lesson Plans Flop—and How to Recover

Two Rivers Public Charter School

Grades pre-K to 8 | Washington, DC

Anne Gillyard

First-Grade Teacher at Two Rivers Public Charter School
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A female teacher is standing by and talking to four students at a table with their laptops open.

In an ideal world, all lessons would be flawless, your delivery would be impeccable, and all students would master the content every day.

Unfortunately, we are human, and so are our students. We all know that there are myriad reasons that lessons flop, ranging from poor planning to a fight with your boyfriend over breakfast to the kids already having reached their maximum cognitive load for that day. After eight years of teaching, I have experienced them all.

When your lesson is failing, you can’t tell a classroom of thirty 6-year-old children “Let me get back to you about that” or “I miscalculated—give me a moment to revise my thinking.”

You have seconds to decide how to proceed, and all you see is a carpet populated with thirty wiggling students, their faces looking blankly at you, some of them audibly whining, and many of them slowly reclining.

When a lesson plan is a flop, sometimes we have the freedom to walk away from it. But sometimes we have to persevere. What do we do then? After I describe three types of flops, I have some tips for how to recover from a bad plan.

Three Types of Flops

1. The Flat Flop: “I thought I was clear, but I hear crickets and they’re sleeping.” Sometimes a flop is a flop and there is no recovering from it. It is not often that a lesson cannot be salvaged, even if the purpose changes from instruction to assessment. However, it happens. Sometimes you have to shrug and stop the lesson. Most importantly, do not fight it. There is no point in pushing through a flat flop. It is more harmful than helpful to push through an unsuccessful lesson because it drags on and leads to unwanted behaviors.

If you have a flat flop, stop the lesson, play a game, and then start teaching something else. Most importantly, let it go. It is only a failure if you do not attend to it after the bell rings. Get a cup of tea and think about what you can do differently to teach the same material again tomorrow. Second try is the charm!

2. The Shifted Purpose Flop: “They looked engaged, but boy, was I wrong.” Most of the time, the lesson flop comes as a gradual realization. Students look engaged, they act engaged, and they’re saying (mostly) the right things, so they go off to do work. However, when you check in with your students, they don’t get it. This is a golden opportunity to assess, analyze, and plan for reteaching.

First, with a sampling of kids, figure out what students know and where the misconception or breakdown is happening. Then work with one student to get her where she needs to be and think about the steps it took to get her to the goal. Use this to help you plan a wide-scale reteach. You can even close your Shifted Purpose Flop lesson with a share from the student you helped reach the goal. Use her work as an anchor for the reteach.

3. The Half Flop: “I thought it was awful, but really it’s not so bad.” This is the reason you check for understanding. Sometimes students look confused, but really many of them understood the lesson. It might not be as bad as you think. Many times, it’s only a half flop—if there are misunderstandings, it may be only among a third or so of the class. Because it is not a majority of students, you can proceed with a small group reteach while other students practice their new skills during the next lesson.

Three More Tips to Help You Push Through

Classrooms have to keep going, and sometimes you don’t have the luxury of walking away and trying again later. It is always important to try to assess and analyze the reasons behind a flop, especially if you must continue. However, there are several things you can do to make the experience less painful for you and more enjoyable and successful for your students.

1. Infuse movement. Movement won’t fix everything, but it can get you far. Invite students to stand, act out the directions or the story you’re reading, or play charades to work with vocabulary.

2. Take a break. Sometimes students and teachers need to step away and come back with a fresh perspective. You can give your students this break by having them play an active game, like freeze dance or charades. Bring some joy into the room—a stressful lesson flop is joyful for no one.

3. Switch it up. Continuous whole-group instruction with minimal variety can easily lead to student misbehavior, so mix it up and add variety. Instead of whole-group, independent work, ask students to collaborate with a partner or small group. Usually students just want to talk. Give them some time to orally process the material (plus, it’s better that they are talking about the topic than disrupting class). Give students an opportunity to draw or express their ideas through art, drama, or movement. Invite them to use a different part of their brain to re-energize so they can have the stamina to make it through the lesson.

Make Reflection a Habit

Teaching is hard, and it’s important to remember that every lesson—every day and every year—can lead to improvement. However, improvement only happens when you regularly reflect. Make it a habit after every lesson. Once you do, you may even find it happening while you are teaching. These questions can help you get started:

  • What did I do that made the flop happen?
  • How can I not do that again?
  • What should I do differently next time?

How have you handled a flopped lesson? What did you learn from it?

This post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from Two Rivers Public Charter School.

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Anne Gillyard

First-Grade Teacher at Two Rivers Public Charter School

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