Saturday, July 20, 2013

Planning Lessons with a Year-Long Focus

I teach in Georgia.  The academic content of Georgia schools is guided by the GPS (Georgia Performance Standards).  There are some people who don't like the GPS, and some who feel they compel educators to teach to the test

I do not feel this way. 

If I taught only what the standards ask me to teach, and if I taught it in a way that had no relevant, worldly relate-ability, then YES, I would be teaching to the test... But no good teacher teaches that way.  And furthermore, it usually takes a few years for a teacher to create relevant & relate-able lessons.  Unfortunately, if teachers are constantly being shuffled from position-to-position each year, they will probably end up teaching to the test because they don't have time to become content experts. 

All that aside, you've now been asked to teach social studies and you need to start planning some lessons.  Let's get rolling.

A picture of me my first year teaching.  My arms and legs are a little bigger now.

What you'll need:
  • a paper calendar (preferably of the entire school year - be sure to include important dates like the end of terms, standardized tests, and student holidays)
  • your favorite writing utensil!! 
  • classroom white board with markers
  • a notebook or a bunch of paper (for random lesson ideas that will inevitably pop into your head while planning)
  • the standards you must teach for the year
  • a content resource of some kind (test prep book, text book, or even the internet)
This might be a little time consuming at first, but the more you do it, the more efficient you'll become. 

Step 1: Clean off the white board of everything.  Make a giant grid on the board, 5 rows by 36 columns.  There should be a box for every day of the school year (Our system has a 180-day calendar).  Put the dates (small) in the upper corners of the boxes. 

Step 2: Using your standards, county pacing guide (if you have one), white board, and paper calendar, give every day a standard.  I recommend going day-by-day, from start of school year to the end.  Write the standards on the days you will cover them.  Write when you will give your tests (or projects).  When will you give a quiz?  If a standard will take 2 days, give it 2 days.  Keep your 9-week terms in mind if you will need a certain number of grades within a 9-week period.  Keep writing until you have no more standards left.  My collaborative team and I can usually complete this in about 2-3 hours.  While I'm writing, the other teachers look up articles, find past tests, edit the tests (if necessary), and help me 'guesstimate' how long a standard might take us.

This is what the board looks like when we're done.  Not pictured: Unexplainable Relief
Some other things you might want to include:
  • 'Pass out study guide' dates (I try to have study guides in students' hands 3 days prior to a test)
  • 'Introduce the Unit' days (come up with something fun to get kids excited about what they're about to learn)
  • 'Catch-Up' dates (give yourself some wiggle-room!)
  • Movie dates (if you plan to show any content related movies)
  • Standardized test dates (those are your Superbowl, after all!)
  • Early-release days or short-schedule days (you will not be able to cover as much content on these days)

Step 3: Start planning.  The nice thing about getting the calendar done is that you can plan individual lessons on a weekly basis (or monthly if you're amazing like that!).  All of my lessons need 4 things:
  1. A content-resource (article, primary document(s), textbook, CRCT practice book, video, PPT or Prezi presentation (rare!), etc.) 
  2. A way for students to organize their information (graphic organizer, guided notes, poster, essay, "Clue-Organizer", "Learning-Team Pass-Around", etc.)
  3. A real-world connection (current events, famous movies/music/tv shows, personal stories, video games, smart phone apps, "When you grow up" advice, etc.)
  4. HUMOR!  Add it in as often as possible.  They'll listen more because they don't want to miss something!
Stick to your calendar.  Use learning teams as often as possible to avoid burn-out.  Use your content resources to answer the question "What do I need students to know about this standard before we move on?"  But be careful!  Sometimes you'll feel compelled to teach TOO much!  In college, I took a semester long class called "The History of Modern India".  If we wanted to, we could teach the entire year on only one topic - it just depends on how deep you go.  Which leads us to...

Step 4: Be realistic with what you should/shouldn't teach (in terms of time).  Google the word 'monarchy'.  Wait... I'll do it for you.

17,400,000 results!
I have to teach this concept each year, but I cannot teach everything there is to know about monarchies (nor do I want to)!  I teach based on the context of my other standards, the countries I cover, and the age of my students (6th grade - 10/11 years).  I keep it as simple as possible while still teaching with rigor.  What does the standard require me to teach?  "What is a constitutional monarchy?"  I could teach this in 5 minutes.  However, it wouldn't be very relevant or memorable.  So instead, I do something like this:
-teach the basic definition of constitutional monarchy
-discuss it (via student-led groups) in context of the countries where it can be found
-bring in an article about the royal family (Last year it was an article about the marriage of Will & Kate)
-compare constitutional monarchies to what we have in the USA

I really want to incorporate this picture into my lesson this year.  Amazing!

After a few months have passed, we bring it up again in the context of Canada (and then later again in the context of Australia).  Any students that didn't "get-it" the first time will hopefully hop on this time... And those students who "got-it" the 1st time are building long-term memory understanding.  WIN WIN!!

What do you do to make sure you cover all the material before time runs out?  I'd love to hear your hints, tips... whatever!  As always, if you have any questions, you can contact me at

Best of luck!


  1. I teaching high school geography in Texas. We have Texas standards and the district writes a scope and sequence with specificity as to what we cover. We have had a difficult time getting the district to understand we want the students to understand the big picture of the concepts rather than memorize specific facts. If students grasp a big concept they should be able to apply their learning. I find when student scratch the surface and only memorize the student is not as successful in application. I want to share your organization suggestions with my department because I believe organization and preparation is the key to minimal discipline issues and maximum success. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for you great comment, Stephanie! I sincerely appreciate your sharing this with me. Best wishes!