Creating a Powerful Lesson Plan part 1: Remember Chekhov’s Gun

I’ve recently started to like the word powerful a lot.

Powerful is different from excellent. Excellent is something people say when they’re judging the idea of something. Excellent is a badge that you get from your boss, from your teacher, from an expert. It’s a lot better than satisfactory; it’s better than good; therefore it’s excellent. 

Powerful is not like that. It doesn’t depend on experts, nor on judgement. Powerful is what happens when the idea meets reality and gets great results. Results that everyone can see. Even more powerful is to get great results from minimal effort.

Vocabulary can be powerful. The verb ‘create’ is easy to memorise, and collocates with all kinds of things: you can create a website, a schedule, an opportunity, a bad atmosphere, art, a fuss, a mess, a trend. Powerful, when you’re not sure which other verb will fit.

The six short words ‘If you could bear with me’ are ones that our learners can utilise in presentations, discussions, meetings, when giving directions, when explaining, when the technology breaks down, when they can’t think of what else to say. An easy phrase to memorise, but one that gives a powerful impression of self-confidence in a plethora of awkward situations.

Bear with me, and let’s pool some ideas! (Photo by Diego Madrigal from Pexels)

Can lesson plans be powerful? I’d like to suggest they can! A powerful lesson plan is one that’s classroom-ready, requires minimal tailoring by whoever teaches it, and gets maximal results. When I say gets results I mean engages the students’ interest for sure, maybe entertains to an extent, and most fundamentally, has the students leaving the classroom with an upgrade in their knowledge, fluency and/or skills.

Over the next days, I’ll be writing about the five things which, to my mind, are most likely to optimise the power of a lesson plan.

I’ll be talking in the most depth about lesson plans which you’re writing down for other people to use, or maybe for yourself in the future. I’m well aware that a lot of the time, the plans we actually work from can look more like a scribbled shopping list. But even if the written-down plan is itself ephemeral, the principles remain the same.

On to our first boost of power:

1. Remember Chekhov’s Gun

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there”.

Anton Chekhov, quoted by Sergius Shchukin

Chekhov’s famous rule applied originally to story writing, but it’s also relevant in teaching: an effective lesson plan has the same kind of logic as a coherent storyline.

Of course, in the classroom, we have to expect the unexpected: a discussion can lead into distant topics, bringing up all kinds of emergent language, and that’s OK. That’s how my Monday evening class got on to the topic of how to grow and cook root vegetables, in the middle of a lesson about successful investors, and that was OK too.

A skilled investor can turnip profit from anything! (Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay)

However, randomness needs to be kept out of the plan, for several reasons. It causes confusion over where the lesson is heading: students won’t know which bits of language they should be paying attention to and which bits they can safely forget. They’re quite likely to ask questions about the ‘wrong’ bits of language, so that the teacher is faced with either shutting down these questions or allowing the lesson to get diverted away from the plan. There’s also the issue of how much language is covered in the lesson – too much unfamiliar vocabulary and students can get overwhelmed and demotivated.

So, keep it tight, lean, mean! A good rule to follow is this: every new item of language introduced via the lesson plan should also be practised and used by students.

Some examples:

  1. Colours and clothes: green t-shirt, red cap, orange jacket. A green t-shirt, a red cap, a orange… hold on! An orange jacket. Now the lesson includes the difference between articles a and an. Have students done this already? If not, it’s a new language point and needs to be developed further in the lesson plan. The students need to understand that the article an is for all noun phrases beginning with a vowel sound and not just an exception for the colour orange. So now we need some more colours beginning with vowels… an amber scarf? Or widen the scope and include adjectives old, expensive, ugly… Too much for one lesson? Then leave out orange this time… a green t-shirt, a red cap, a black jacket…
  2. The present perfect: I’ve eaten 15 slices of pizza, I’ve met Michael Jordan, I’ve seen a wild tiger… I’ve been to New York. Go-went-been. It’s a strange exception. Again, there are two ways to tackle it: either it’s included in the lesson plan, taught and then practised OR the lesson is structured to omit this verb.
  3. Reading: Suppose you’re wanting to include an authentic text which contains a few idioms, once in a blue moon, far and away the best, threw up some problems. These are pretty useful idioms and it’s worth including some short activities to focus on meaning and to get students using the idioms, even when the main purpose of the lesson is something unrelated. The alternative is to take out the idioms and replace them with simpler phrases, at the cost of some of the authenticity.

Finally, a plea to coursebook writers: yes, it’s great that you’re making everything more international by including Juan and Minh alongside Jane and John. But please do compromise: 2-3 unfamiliar names per lesson is plenty, at least for elementary learners (and teachers)! And if chapter 1 is about a day in the life of Jadwiga Świątek, then please consider repaying our name-learning investment by letting us meet Jadwiga again in chapter 4.

I wonder if Jadwiga has an amber scarf (Photo by ehsan ahmadnejad from Pexels)

So that’s it. Stay powerful, bears, and don’t forget to fire that gun!

Next time: Get the ingredients ready before baking the cake.

Cover Photo by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay.

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