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Lesson Planning, Grading Systems, and More: Teachers’ Ultimate Guide to Revamp Your Classroom Processes

Monday, June 26, 2017 -- Sarah Cornelius

The new school year is a time for fresh starts—so why not take the opportunity to rethink some of the day-to-day logistics of your classroom? Whether you’re looking to reclaim your weekends from endless lesson planning, implement a new student-centered grading system, or test out a different communication strategy with parents, we’ve fresh got ideas to get you inspired!

Streamline the lesson planning process

Every teacher has his or her own unique formula for lesson-planning, and even though many schools and districts have moved to online lesson-planning, lots of teachers like to start with some kind of template on paper. Veteran teachers may have been using the same template for years, while new teachers might be trying out a new one every other month. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, but starting with some kind of framework makes the lesson-planning process much smoother.

Instead of offering yet another template that will fulfill all your lesson-planning dreams, lets focus on simply talking about some standard and nonstandard components of lesson plans so that you have the tools to develop your own system. Many of these will probably be familiar, but teachers are always coming up with new components that reflect modern teaching and the shifting requirements of administrators.

Standard components

Almost every lesson plan will incorporate these: 

  • Objective- What skill, competency, or piece of knowledge do you want students to walk away from the lesson with? This should be written in the language of the standard(s) you’re addressing and use age-appropriate terminology so students understand what’s expected of them.
  • Sequence/activities- What’s going to take place during the lesson? And when?
  • Assessment- How will you know if students have accomplished the objective?
  • Resources/materials- What do you need to deliver this lesson?

Also common (although not yet on the “ubiquitous” level) are components that help teachers think about differentiation strategies or accommodations for students with special needs, depending on the populations being served. 

New, cool components

As 21st century skills have been incorporated into state assessments and college and career readiness standards have evolved, many educators have found adding new elements to their lesson-planning tools to be very helpful. Here’re a few to consider:

  • Rationale- How will these skills be used in the worlds of college and careers?
  • Breakdown of assessments- Will your students’ demonstration of learning take the form of a formative or summative assessment? What specific strategy will you employ?
  • Sequence of instruction, broken down - This involves taking the sequence or activities section and breaking it down into the common steps of the gradual release model: focused instruction, guided instruction, collaborative learning, and independent learning.

The section of lesson plans which has perhaps grown the most in importance recently is the component devoted to reflection. Many templates have now graduated beyond a simple question like: “How do you think this lesson went?” Instead, they provide a framework for teachers to dig more deeply into how their results align with 21st century skills by providing space to consider things like:

  • How did the lesson foster collaborative skills? How did students perform in this regard?
  • In what ways did this lesson prove to be rigorous?
  • What evidence is there that students were required to think critically?
  • What evidence is there that students employed problem solving skills?

As standards continue to evolve and our understanding of the learning process continues to improve, lesson-planning tools and frameworks are sure to evolve in tandem. The thing to remember is to not be fearful of evolving your own teaching practices as the demands of the profession change. Embrace new ideas, experiment with new methods, and be open to new resources when it comes to lesson-planning—it will help both you and your students grow!

Build student agency with a new grading system

The approach you take to grading and assessing student progress has a big impact on the classroom environment. Simple changes that encourage students to take ownership over their learning can be a game-changer in terms of motivation. But, these are difficult adjustments to make in the middle of the school year. Take advantage of the summer months to think through some different methods and get a plan in place to go back to school with a new grading system. Here are five options to consider.

Gamification

You may think gamification is only possible with software, but you can monitor a scaled-down system yourself. Establish badges, trophies, achievements, and other rewards that align to your curricular learning goals and keep track of who earns what. Whether you make student progress public is up to you.

Grade/Edit/Replace

Learning is supposed to be a process, but when students hand in work without a chance to rectify their mistakes, the process ends swiftly and sometimes dishearteningly. There are lots of ways to improve that process, starting with giving students the opportunity to try again without penalty. An added challenge is to grade work without identifying what the student has done wrong; ask the student (or a small group of peers) to figure that out themselves.

Projects and rubrics

If you’re considering going project-based this summer, your grading methodology has to change, if for no other reason than you are addressing multiple learning goals with a single work product. When using a rubric for these projects, think about simply identifying progress rather than giving letter-based or number-based feedback. Then, consider giving students another opportunity to succeed, like above.

Democratization

This one isn’t for everybody, but it is an interesting idea. Publish everyone’s work online (anonymously or not) and collect feedback from anyone and everyone – peers, parents, other teachers, etc. Students then choose which feedback to accept during their revision process. This is reflective of how work is done in the creative fields, so it may be especially valuable to consider in those classes.

Only accept excellence

This one is simple – you don’t accept a work product until it’s worth an A. It’s basically mastery education, but feedback and revision is key. If your school or district won’t consider anything other than number or letter grades, base those on how many revision cycles the student took to reach excellent work.

Become your own most constructive critic

Great teaching doesn't happen in a vacuum. Of course, every teacher goes through observations and reviews from administration, but those only occur periodically. The best teachers know that refining their practice is an ongoing process. A key part of that process is being able to take a step back and consider your own teaching style, strategies, and performance with an objective, critical eye. Make it a priority for next school year to engage in regular self-reflection and evaluation. Here are six of our favorite best-practice tips to get started.

Film your own lessons 

There are lots of different methods to assess your own teaching performance, and each one will yield different views of what happens in your classroom. For the most unbiased view, regularly take videos of your lessons. Invest in a good camera, or simply look into a basic tripod for your phone. And while watching film of yourself may sound a little painful, it’s a great way to quickly identify changes you want to make in your approach as well as those strategies that you really like. You can also share your videos with colleagues and administrators for their input.

Ask for your students’ opinion

Student surveys are another great way to gather feedback on your teaching. Distribute surveys several times throughout the year, and try to incorporate a mix of scale or number-based rating items along with open response questions to give students a chance to provide more detailed feedback. Paper printouts, white board surveys, and free online surveys are all great options to take advantage of.

Enlist your colleagues

Just because you may not have an official mentoring relationship doesn’t mean you can’t invite colleagues to informally observe a lesson. Think about asking a fellow teacher whose classroom management style you really admire to come give you feedback. And, don’t discount your rookie colleagues—their formal training is still top of mind and they may be able to offer you some great insights and new strategies.

Develop a rubric for reflection

As a teacher, you use rubrics as you evaluate student work to keep the process as uniform and impartial as possible. You should do the same for yourself when reflecting upon your own performance. Create a list of questions (or be ambitious, and create a formal rubric for yourself) to help determine if your lessons and teaching style are meeting your goals, and use it every time you engage in self-reflection. Ask anyone you invite to evaluate your practice to use it as well.

Keep your records

When you keep thorough records of your own evaluations, it’s easy to compare your strategies lesson-to-lesson and year-over-year. It also makes it easy to take a comprehensive look back at how your teaching practice and career have evolved—and that can be pretty rewarding. Consider using digital means to gather your self-evaluation artifacts so you don’t need to organize and transport clunky file folders.

Be open to change

Reflection and self-assessment are too important to dread or procrastinate. If the method(s) you’ve been using feel like torture (and keep getting pushed to the bottom of the priority list because of it), take some time to reflect on your reflection process. What do you hate about it? Are there ways to ease your burden? Is there anyone you can consult with your concerns? Pivoting to different methods is not failure; it’s growth. And that’s the goal, right?

Increase parent involvement with Academic Parent-Teacher Teams

The Academic Parent-Teacher Teams (APTT) is a trend that’s been getting buzzed about, and with good reason; it’s a great way to refresh the traditional parent-teacher conference in a way that’s productive and beneficial for you, your students, and their caregivers.

If you’re unfamiliar with the ATPP model, you’ll be glad to know it’s fairly simple. Basically, the ATPP model replaces traditional biannual one-on-one parent-teacher conferences with three larger and longer “team meetings” that include all the parents in your classroom, along with one or more individual meetings with each parent or parent-student pair throughout the year.

The purpose of the team meetings is to review and explain the academic data you’ve been actively gathering and monitoring, making sure to thoroughly explain to parents how you have been collecting data, what it means, and how you are using it. It can also be helpful to prepare individualized data reports to hand out to parents with details on their specific child’s performance. After going over the data, dedicate part of this meeting to give families information and skills to help support ongoing learning. Just as you would teach your students a new skill, coach parents on how they can facilitate instruction and practice to reinforce in-class learning. Include any materials and guided activities to extend learning with their children at home and take time to model this practice with parents and allow them to ask any questions.

By covering class wide academic data and progress with the larger group of parents, you’re freed up to focus on each student’s unique needs in your individual meetings. Traditional meetings with your individual student’s parents should last about 30 minutes each, and the focus should be to review the progress of the student more in-depth. Discuss specific strengths and weaknesses, and talk about what action strategies you’re using in the classroom with the child, as well as what parents can do to support that learning at home. This meeting is also your opportunity to get to know your students’ parents better, and if needed, discuss scheduling additional follow-up-meetings or arranging another conference that includes the student.

Feeling overwhelmed? Although it may seem a lot more intensive than traditional parent-teacher conferences at first, the APTT model is actually pretty simple to integrate into your classroom, and the academic payoffs make it more than worthwhile. Here are a few quick tips to help get you started.

First impressions are everything

All parents want to see their children succeed, and as an educator, you can help coach parents in the right direction. At the beginning of the school year or semester, send out a newsletter or email to parents explaining how you’ll be using the APTT model throughout the term and get them engaged early on. Make sure that you focus on the benefits of the model, such as developing strong home-to-school partnerships, a stronger sense of community within the classroom and school, increased student engagement at home and in class, and overall gains in student confidence and performance. Encourage parents to ask questions, and be sure to take time to address any concerns they raise. Keep in mind that some parents may not be totally on board with the APTT model at first—they may prefer more one-on-one time with you as their child’s teacher or may have scheduling difficulties attending longer group meetings. Hear them out, promise to work with them, and stress that the key to the model’s success lies in partnership and open communication.  

Keep in touch

Consistent connection with your students’ parents is one of the keys to success in the APTT model. Effective teams are built through communication, so make it a priority to keep parents engaged with regular emails, newsletters, and other convenient updates like social media posts or a classroom blog. This kind of reliable communication will help you when you need to reach out to schedule dates and times to hold group and individual meetings. Stress that your goal in using the APTT model is to bridge the gap between the classroom and home, so your students’ parents should always feel comfortable reaching out to you with questions, concerns, or feedback about their children’s performance at home. Understand that not all parents are going to be enthusiastic in the beginning, and it’s inevitable that some will be more engaged than others. Don’t get discouraged! Be patient, accommodating, and accessible; with time, the approach will pay off. 

Rock your team meetings

One of the best ways to earn the trust of your students’ parents and keep them engaged as members of your classroom team is to show them you are organized and thoughtful during your whole-group meetings. Start off meetings on a positive note, discussing student achievement, talking about the things students are currently learning, and presenting the class data you’ve been gathering. Next, reiterate to parents that their involvement matters, that they play a significant role in their children’s academic success, and that you appreciate the time they’re taking to participate in these meetings. When you introduce activities and strategies for parents to implement at home, give them time to work in small groups and practice using the techniques so that they understand their benefits and will feel comfortable trying them with their children. The goal should always be to have parents leave your meetings feeling empowered in their ability to help their children learn and succeed in the classroom.

Don’t let hiccups get you down

If it’s your first year implementing APTT in your classroom, don’t be surprised if things don’t run exactly as envisioned. Maybe some of the take-home activities you introduce to parents are a flop, you run into roadblocks getting parents to attend team meetings, or parents give you feedback that they felt like they weren’t receiving enough individual attention. Take note of any failures, mistakes, and flubs—as well as successes—and then learn from them. Encourage parents and students to give you feedback about the approach, and be open to constructive criticism. It’s also important to keep in mind that just like your class of students will be different every year, so will your parent teams. What worked the year before may not always work in the future, and that’s OK. What’s important is that you establish trust and open lines of communication between you and your students’ parents and work together to improve each student’s academic achievement.

Prioritize time management in the classroom

Every teacher knows—time is a precious commodity. And with the demands of lesson planning, grading, and administrative work on top of classroom instruction time (not to mention the wildcard of students’ needs), you probably feel like you don’t have an extra second to spare in your workday. And while much of your daily schedule is likely dictated by your school’s or district’s master building schedule, there are lots of tricks of the trade to help make it work for you.

Within the classroom, there are many strategies that can be implemented to maximize instructional time and create flex time to work with students in need of additional support. Here are a few of our favorite simple ideas to improve time-on-task for students and reduce time lost for all:

Share the classroom with your students

Talk to your students about how you can all work together to protect instructional time during the school day. Help them understand how they will benefit from time management in the classroom so that it becomes a shared priority.

Set up students for success with clear classroom management expectations

Even we as adults thrive on routine (to a degree). When students know what to expect, time is much more easily managed. Teach these expectations. Schedule regular activities, and set firm guidelines for behavior during unstructured time like labs or teamwork. Make sure that these expectations are clearly communicated and documented for your students.

Choose an instructional management model that works for you

 Some educators use a flipped classroom, while others use learning centers or stations. There’s no right or wrong model to use; try a few different methods, and choose the one that works with your teaching and organization style. The goal is simply to make your time more manageable so that you are better able to reach each learner. One of the best tips for maximizing classroom time is to make starting class on time a focus for both you and your students. When students are taught routines for starting class on time, it will happen. Many educators implement bell work or seatwork so that students get started right away with daily routines that naturally transition into instruction time. Communicate clear expectations and consequences for when students are late. Implementing schoolwide programs can also help start class on time.

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