Lesson Planning vs Less Planning

Below are excerpts from letters to the Sunday Times Magazine.  The previous week had featured an article inveighing against the idea that great teaching can result from some scripted formula:
I want my teacher/doctor to know professional “best practice” and to use it fluently and flexibly. Teaching is not merely art; it is science — just like medicine. We now possess a body of expert knowledge about how the mind works, how motivation works, how to design effective work and how to adjust learning in the face of results that I expect every teacher to know and use.... It is simply a false romantic notion to say we must choose between scripts and creativity in teaching.
And this
He walks in five minutes late to first period, half-shaven, cup of coffee in hand. He walks over to the white board, his stage, puts his coffee down, and looks into the eyes of every student. He’s not given the best students, and so his standardized test scores are average. Instead, they leave with something more; they leave inspired...  It’s [this] teacher who is worth the five-minute wait, the smell of coffee — and if anyone questions his half-shaven beard, he’ll learn a whole lot more about life.
Sadly, I am seldom the first kind of teacher described above. I scribble lesson plans on cocktail napkins or scraps of paper during my drive in to work.  I find old ones on the fly leafs of paperbacks or scrawled on discarded post-it notes crumpled up in my desk.  Certainly I have some grand strategic notion of where I'm going, and I like to think I've intuited some of that "body of expert knowledge" over the years.  But, frankly, I'm just making it up on most days.  My shameful secret is that I far too often pull my day-to-day approach out of my (well, let's just say thin air). 

A lot of the time it works.  Or maybe it's better to say it works like a slot machine, paying off just enough to keep me pulling the improvisational handle.   I keep telling myself I need to get serious about lesson planning, need to set daily learning objectives that fit seamlessly into some well-conceived, over-arching course plan, but I also know myself well enough to know that this is never going to happen. 

And I am certainly not the second type of teacher described above, which is simply a Hollywood cliche.   The truth is I'm a lousy planner, but I do have a plan.  I'm good at strategy, weak on tactics.  For better or for worse, this is the educator I am.  Some days I shine, some I stink it up.

I was reminded by a colleague the other day of a quote from the movie Shakespeare in Love.  It's an inexcusable and no doubt overly-romantic way to describe my lamentable approach to teaching and learning, but it sure feels accurate.  In the scene, the Globe Theater's Philip Henslowe explains to one of his creditors how the theater business really works:

Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theater business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?

Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Fennyman: How?

Henslowe: I don't know. It's a mystery.


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