As September looms there has been many posts on Twitter from teachers starting their ITT or NQT years looking for advice. I remember that period five years ago vividly, sitting at home wondering what I ‘should’ be doing to prepare. Many people gave the same advice that I would give now, which is to plan your first couple of lessons because anything you do plan will have to be changed and adapted as you go. I did the Teach First route into teaching, and like many doing other ‘school-based’ routes I was expected, quite early on to plan SOWs. I found this incredibly challenging and time consuming, as every lesson I planned took between an hour and two hours (if not more sometimes). This invariably means late nights at school and weekends spent working when I probably needed space and perspective more than anything else. One of the biggest lessons for an ITT or NQT is how to sequence a unit of learning and move away from planning individual lessons on a day by day basis. I remember looking at medium term plans and not being able to use these to help my own planning. It seems second nature now, but it is something I feel that I wasn’t adequately trained to do and if I was it would have helped my teaching and workload. Therefore, I wanted to write a blog, aimed at ITTs and NQTs that set out the process of developing a unit of work and the thought process I go through.
I’m using the example of the Lord of the Flies SOW I’m creating for my Y9 class.
The Blank Computer Screen:
The hardest thing, in any creative endeavour is the blank page/ screen. The feeling of ‘where do I start?’
At this stage it is important to begin at the end and plan backwards. Firstly, look at the end of unit assessment and work out what pupils will need to be able to succeed.
In Y9, pupils sit a ‘GCSE Literature’ style question, which will be closed book and will look something like.
‘How does Golding present the character of Piggy in Lord of the Flies’
On that basis pupils will need:
- To be able to use quotations and textual references to support their ideas
- To analyse the use of language
- To understand how context shapes ideas within the text
- To be able to structure their ideas into topic paragraphs
- To construct a line of argument
- To express their ideas clearly in an analytical style
- To write with accuracy
Secondly, and most importantly, I like to think about the ’30 year test’. What do I want pupils to take from this book that will stay with them until adulthood? I think it is important when studying a text to think about these in terms of ‘big questions’. By taking time to think about these in advance, this will help you with your planning and focus throughout the SOW.
In Lord of the Flies the ‘big questions’ might look something like this:
- What makes a successful society?
- Are humans naturally good or evil?
- What prevents us from doing bad things?
- What makes a successful leader?
The next step I would take is to look at how many weeks/ lessons I have to teach the topic. As I’ll discuss later, you need to be flexible, but it is useful to look at where you want them to be on a week to week basis, so that you are not rushing at the end, or (the biggest sin) that you have time to finish the novel/text!
At this point, look at any requirements that your department has. Are there any ‘mid term assessments’ that need to be completed? If so, add these to your plan. If your school has a restrictive marking policy, work out at what point you will need to complete a piece of marking and add this. Try to be clever about this, it often gets out of sync but it is a good idea to try and ensure that across your classes, your extended marking doesn’t fall on the same week.
Once you have done this you should have a skeleton plan that you can sequence your lessons around it.
Sequence of Lessons:
When you begin planning lessons, it’s really hard to break the habit of ‘fire fighting planning’; planning individual lessons the night before and spending longer planning than it takes to deliver the lesson. In English, try to see learning as happening in a sequence that might span more than one lesson. For example, studying a chapter of Lord of the Flies or doing a practice question might take three lessons to be completed properly.
Now, I understand that in certain schools you might have some ‘non negotiables’ such as ‘four part lesson' structure or such other restrictive planning frameworks. You can work around these, but I would recommend doing what your school wants, as an ITT or NQT you are not in a position to fight the good fight on an issue like this and it is likely to end up causing you more stress in the long run.
You can work around this, have a bank of starters that are linked to literacy, or create a short recap quiz. These are good starters for challenging classes as they are not open ended. You can set a timer and check the work has been completed giving praise or sanctions as necessary. If you have a class you can trust, set a discussion point linked to previous learning and take feedback. Both these styles of starter can easily be added to the beginning of a lesson so that you can then carry on what you had started the previous lesson.
A similar approach can be taken with ‘plenaries’. However, to keep your marking down avoid getting them to write down unnecessary plenaries that can’t be self or peer marked, you will just be tempted to spend time marking it (waste of your precious time), or if you don’t an over zealous member of SLT might pull you up on it in a book scrutiny.
The more experienced I have become, the less I rely on Power Points. Yet, when I was an ITT an NQT I needed the structure of a Power Point to help remind me what I had planned to do next in a lesson. When I’m nervous or stressed, my short term memory is awful, therefore during early lessons, when I was constantly nervous or stressed, a Power Point really helped me. Some teachers hate Power Points, and I can see their argument but ultimately they are just a tool. If they help you, use them.
To help with planning, set up a Power Point with ‘template’ slides. These could include all the information that you need on a lesson by lesson basis. For example, you might want to set up the following slides:
- A slide with space for the title, learning objective, big question to display at the start of the lesson.
- A slide with 1-10 set out (for doing quick re-cap quizzes or literacy starters)
- A slide with space for a question and success criteria table
I find this speeds up the process of creating a Power Point for a lesson and every little helps at this stage!
Keep things simple:
When I look back at my early lessons one thing jumps out at me: I was planning too many little activities. Now, when I plan a lesson I try to ensure that the bulk of the lesson focuses on doing one thing well. In a Literature lesson this may mean reading a chapter and annotating key parts or designing questions to aid note taking. I use the Cornell note method a lot now- but this takes time to get right with a class. Do it together until the class understand how to do it properly (in my NQT year I gave up on this too early as I thought it wasn’t working- turns out I didn’t model it enough or give it a chance to embed. Good routines take time!)
In a Language lesson we might read the extract, discuss, model how to annotate a section then allow pupils to practise themselves. If there is time, or in the next lesson we might do a practice question where I will model the beginning of the response, pupils then practise and then self assess.
I cannot emphasise the importance of good modelling. If you have access to a visualiser- make it your best friend! However, you are just like a pupil in that you will not be an expert the first time you do something new. Don’t give up. These techniques take time and practice. When you observe experienced teachers they will make it look effortless (and for them NOW it probably is) but for you it will feel like a struggle. Persevere. Once you are confident in these techniques it will reduce your planning time and improve your pupils’ learning.
In a Nutshell:
- Start at the end- be clear about what the end goal is
- Work out what pupils will need to do to be able to get to the end goal
- Think about the '30 year test'- what do you want pupils to remember in 30 year time?
- Work out what assessments need to be completed and think about what pieces you want to give feedback on- space these out so you are not marking everything at once
- Have a bank of 'starter' ideas that you can adapt lesson by lesson (recap or literacy)
- Don't over plan- lots of little activities take hours of preparation and aren't always effective
- Plan in sequences rather than by hourly chunks
- Create a Power Point template so that you can quickly adapt for that lesson
- Things like using the visualiser, modelling on the board and techniques like Cornell note taking will reduce your planning time but will take time for you and your pupils to become comfortable using them. Don't give up- it will save you time in the long run!
- Don't plan too far in advance, you will usually have to change and adapt as you get to know your class- it is likely to be a waste of your very precious time!
Books that helped me:
You will probably be recommended all sorts of books on pedagogy during your ITT year. None of the ones that were on the ‘reading list’ (which I dutifully bought) were useful. The following books, which I bought and read from recommendations on Twitter are the ones I found really useful in helping me improve my planning.
-Making Every English Lesson Count (If you can only buy one I would recommend this)
-Teaching Backwards (This is not English specific but I remember finding it really useful in my ITT year)
I’ve not got round to reading these two yet but both writers are amazing English teachers and have been highly recommended by others on Twitter so I am recommending in advance!
How to Teach English Literature by Jennifer Webb
How to Teach English by Chris Curtis