Choosing Spices

Once you’ve been a professional educator for a few years, your toolbox gets pretty crammed with strategies/initiatives/systems/foci.  As a middle-school science teacher at a brand-new single-gender public leadership academy, I am expected to integrate each of the following into my lessons:

  • Inquiry
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Math skills
  • Cooperative learning
  • Differentiated instruction
  • Best practices for teaching boys
  • Formative assessment
  • Global awareness
  • Technology
  • Problem-based learning
  • Leadership development

Now, I recognize that many of these overlap and it is both feasible and advisable to plan lessons that address multiple items from the list above.  But, that doesn’t lessen the stress of trying to keep all of these balls juggling in the air.  It is a real challenge that is shared by all teachers.

I look at these elements as spices that good teachers use to turn simple lesson plans into more effective and engaging ones.  And, as any experienced chef knows, the best dishes have just the right amount and mix of spices.  The key, learned through training and experience, is which spices work well with which dishes and other spices.

Lest you believe that I’m only writing to gripe about the challenges of my chosen career, let me explain.  Following in the footsteps of my friend and like-minded colleague, Russ Goerend, who has written several posts about his “workflow“, I have a solution.  Er, a partial solution.  It’s not elegant or sophisticated.  It’s not digital or electronic.  But, it’s inexpensive and simple.

I maintain index cards with ideas on them, like pre-reading strategies and cooperative learning structures, that I keep organized by type.  In a small index card box, I have color-coded sections for reading, inquiry, group work, tech tools, etc.  Each section has cards that list the name of the tool/technique and a short description of how it works.  If I have the time, I try to write the source from which I learned about the tool.  The box actually resembles a recipe box, keeping our little metaphor going.

When I sit down to plan lessons, tweak old lessons, or shift gears in class, I pull out the box and sift through the cards.  I try to put a card at the back of the section after I use it, encouraging me to try new things.  If something doesn’t work, I pull the card and try to take a closer look at a later time.  When it does work, I still put it at the back of the section because using the same spices over and over again gets boring.

This method forces me to remember all of the different initiatives competing for my focus everyday, while also maintaining enough variety to engage my students (and myself) full-time in the learning taking place in my classroom.  Just the right amount of the just the right spices.

How do you manage lesson planning priorities?

photo credit: enigmachck1 via photo pin cc
photo credit: hawkexpress via photo pin cc



I’ve always been one of “those” teachers.

From Day 1, in July 2001, I have continually arrived early, stayed late, and worked my butt off in-between.  Even after I had young children of my own, I was lucky enough to have an understanding wife and a situation that has allowed me to put in more hours than I should.  I spent this time developing brand-new lesson plans (because nobody else’s were good enough), creating handouts and lab sheets from scratch, and providing detailed feedback to my students.

For years, I watched other teachers pulling out of the teacher parking lot before the final bell had even finished ringing.  I watched young novice teachers already recycling old lessons without even considering evaluating their effectiveness and revising them.  I preached about the power of digital tools for engaging students while convincing reluctant educators that the extra effort at the beginning was worth it–and then did much of the work for them to ensure their participation.

I knew that most other teachers had it easy.  They didn’t spend every waking moment thinking about what they were doing “wrong” and reading about pedagogical research in order to try new methods.  They were content in their efforts.  Never once, though, did I wish to be one of them.  Never once did I try to “turn off” this drive to be more effective in the classroom.


And then, at Thanksgiving, my mother got sick.  Eighteen days later, she was gone.

And, I spent weeks buried in a fog of doubt.  Time and effort had new importance.  I rethought my priorities and reconsidered by ambitions.  Why did I spend so much time outside the school day on school work?  Why couldn’t I just teach the lessons in the district pacing guide without modification?  Why did I think my ideas were so important that I needed to post them online each week?


Christmas came and went.  Inspired by the work we had done at my mom’s condo after her death, My wife and I spent the Christmas-to-New Years week cleaning out our own house.  Instead of grading papers, I threw out years-old broken toys.  Rather than plan out brand-new lessons for a unit I’ve already taught a half-dozen times, I put together new furniture to replace the plastic bins we had been using.  Being an active part of my family seemed more important.

And, at the end of the holiday I came back to school ill-prepared for the unit I was to begin. I was greeted by hugs, cards, and gifts from my colleagues.  My students showed subtle appreciation for my loss and welcomed me back.  The familiar surroundings and daily routine comforted me greatly.


A few days into my return, the urge to improve began to re-emerge.  I looked at my students’ faces and saw their apathy toward the lessons I was using.  I felt the return of my overachiever streak.

I tossed out the hastily made plans based on the district’s “cookbook”.  I got back into the rhythm of informally assessing my students and adjusting my lessons to meet their needs.  I slowly began to ramp up my goals for the quarter and looked for ways to reach those who seemed to struggle with the more abstract science concepts of the unit.  With my family’s approval I spent more hours at home on school work.

And, eventually, I opened up my blog editor again.  And, the keyboard felt like a confessional.

And, it felt good.