Wednesday, April 3, 2013

When Lessons Go Wrong: PLAN B!!!

The week after vacation, as every teacher knows, is crunch time.  We know that the state test is rapidly approaching.  And we know that the pressure is ON.  As veteran teachers, the whole thing is old hat.

It's not old hat to our kids, however!

Usually my fourth graders tend to be well rested after a vacation (a benefit of teaching upper elementary kids; they don't forget about classroom expectations like the little ones).  But on Monday, mine were just not on their game. 

First, I was all excited to do an equivalent fractions activity involving stations and manipulatives and exploring different shapes and amounts of pieces that can equal one whole.  I was going to lead a discussion on patterns we notice and post photos of all their ideas and it was going to be collaborative and hands on and foster real mathematical thinking.

That is not what occurred.  At all. 

Similarly, my plan was to end the day with a fantastic board game I created that help kids practice how heating and cooling results in a solid, liquid, or gas.  I spent my vacation finding cute fonts for the game pieces, typing up directions, and looking forward to more thank yous like I got on 100s day for the fun activity that helped them practice a tricky concept until it was mastered.

Again...nope.  Most of the class was so off task that I called off the game.  I let the kids who had done focused work help me with some coloring/cutting prep, and left it for the next day.

It just confirms the fact that no matter how carefully you plan a lesson, no matter how fun you make it, and no matter how many classes it's worked for in the past, not every lesson works for every group of children.  Otherwise there would be a single curriculum that everyone uses.

So here's how I turned a day 1 disaster into a day 2 triumph!

The first problem was that the kids bicker, a lot.  Despite Morning Meeting and Responsive Classroom, and student generated rules and setting expectations for group work and reminders 5 minutes prior to starting, they still bicker. 

The second problem was that despite modeling each station, posting the model and directions on the board, and answering questions/the same question 10 times, lots of kids just did not understand concept and/or, more likely, the directions. 

So what I decided was to give them an extra day of break...from each other.  I love collaborative learning and I do lots of it.  Which is strange, because I'm an introvert.  Or maybe it's BECAUSE I'm an introvert, and it doesn't come naturally to me, so I want very much to impart the strategies I've learned in order to help other introverts in my class.  But when it's not working, there's no sense beating a dead horse.  When the concept is too hard AND they have to focus on collaborating well, it's too much for them to handle; one of those things has got to give, and today it was the collaboration.

So Tuesday I came in with...a worksheet.  I know, I know, what a horrible teacher I am.  Antiquated methods and all that.  But you know what?  They did it.  They did focused work for the period, they noticed patterns, and they enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere that coloring patterns tends to evoke. 

Once they finished the worksheet, I pulled out the manipulatives once again with a different, higher level skill to work on.  But by starting out with a coloring worksheet (you can get it free from my TPT store) with the exact same skill that didn't come to them when they were collaborating with a hands on activity, suddenly they could do it.     

I continued the theme in the afternoon.  I didn't let them play the science game in their groups.  Instead I told them they were going to "play with me."  I chose only 4 kids to get a game board, and I got one too.  I situated them so that kids could look on with those that got to play.  And then we each took turns, drew cards, read them aloud, talked about our move, practiced the good sportsmanship I was modeling, and applauded the first person who got to the finish line. 

I'd never tried a board game this way.

I liked it!

I'm absolutely using this strategy at the beginning of the year, and whenever a class has a case of the "bickers."  It really helped, and actually, the nearby kids weren't too bored.  They started saying "us," instead of "her" (the person near them playing).  They formed informal teams.  That created a much nicer atmosphere than having 5 separate groups with every man for himself, and bickering.  

Sometimes you just know:  It's time for plan B!


  1. I'm all for antiquated methods (although I really think worksheets of today are nothing like worksheets of days gone by). I'm also for new methods...and methods from three years ago....and...well, you get the picture. I'm for whatever works!

    Like you said, not every activity works for every class. It's great when we can pull things from our teacher bag of tricks and make things work. I'm glad it turned out so well. It sounds like you taught them a lot more than math. :)

    Thanks for sharing this great post!

    1. Exactly; whatever works! I just worry about my principal walking in for a surprise observation while they're all coloring, haha (though he's a sweetheart; he'd probably be fine with it).

  2. I liked how you modeled how to play the game. I think we sometimes take these basic skills for granted. Sometimes kids need a friendly reminder!

    Eclectic Educating

    1. It felt strange to do this in April for fourth grade (September, yes. But April!?) But they really did enjoy it more as a whole class game. I was pleasantly surprised the ones who weren't picked didn't get bored. But sometimes what's boring for one person/group is necessary scaffolding for another. Adding this to my teaching bag of tricks. :)

  3. Thanks for this reminder. I return to work on Monday, and I think I might try your strategy instead of jumping in with the creative activity I have been preparing. Tuesday would probably work better because they will be back to the structure again. I love that you modeled how to play the game too.

    Charlene/Diamond Mom

    1. Yeah, I guess this activity was more of a "Friday type," not a "Monday type." Usually I'm pretty in tune with the daily and weekly cycles, but I just got too excited about trying something new, haha. Next year I'll time it more carefully. :)

  4. Thanks for sharing this, Amber! I love how you turned in around and made it work for you.

    1. Thanks, Amy. :) More importantly; I made it work for THEM! I don't usually like whole class games. I worry that there's more down time for kids whose turn isn't up for a while. But in this case, I was mistaken. :)

  5. As Babymouse would say-"Typical". :) Just when you think you could NOT have planned a better lesson-it goes wrong!

    My stock market lesson today in history didn't actually go wrong, but I learned that 6th graders have NO idea how to apply their addition/subtraction skills in a real life financial situation. SCARY. :)

    So I backed up and modeled, modeled, modeled. This 1 day lesson has now turned into a 2 day lesson. As usual!


    1. I'm the same way; I always over plan. Better to do that than be stuck for the last hour of the day with them staring at me saying, "We're finished and learned it all. Everything was too easy for us today. Please raise the rigor and challenge us more." In our dreams, right!?

  6. Anyone who hasn't had days like this is lyin' to you! Thanks for sharing!

    1. No one I know has ever denied having days like this ;)

      I'm just enjoying this stage in my career, where I am pragmatic enough to step back and say, "Now for something completely different from what I planned..." and it actually fixes things, haha. :)


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