Reframing a Chaotic Lesson "Fail"

It was Friday morning; I was psyched and ready.  Cue the Rocky theme music.  Lesson in hand, I moved the desks, got out the clip boards, and found my copy of Woolbur by Leslie Helakowski.  I took a few deep breaths and couldn't wait for my students to arrive.  I was changing things up a bit, and this lesson was going to be a GREAT. Bring on the kids!

And then they arrived.  

In their usual manner, the twelve boisterous high school students in this class came in, playfully shoving, yelling across the room, stretching out their last few minutes of freedom.  I directed them to pull chairs into a circle and grab clipboards.  Fleeting quizzical looks graced a few faces, but they complied.  Volume did not lower even when the bell rang.  I persisted.  This was going to be fabulous!  I explained the task and tried to begin.  

The boys, sitting next to each other in the circle, were whispering loudly, elbowing each other.  "I don't have a pen!" one shouted.  I pointed to the can on my desk.  "What?  We're reading a preschool book today?" another yelled out.  

I breathed.  This IS going to be fabulous, I told myself.  I plunged in.  As I began modeling, three out of twelve took notes.  Nine out of twelve made comments, ranging from totally off-task to negative remarks about reading a picture book.  A late student arrived, saw the circle, said, "I'm not doing that," and walked out.  Another student kept saying, "What are we doing again?" The recess-style jostling in the circle continued.  I asked one student to step out in the hall to get himself together.

I plowed on.  "Turn and talk a shoulder partner.  Share what you've written." THIS. IS. GOING. TO. BE. FABULOUS.  I concentrated on breathing and listening.  Five kids were sharing.  One was sitting. Five were off-task.  

I began again.  All eleven scribbled something about their thinking and gave it to me.   Finally, it was time for lunch - that lovely break half way though this particular class period.

I walked to the teachers lounge in a major funk.  This was terrible.  Didn't I remember that I teach struggling readers?  These kids clearly can't handle anything new - not a new configuration of seats, not a new activity, not new thinking.  This lesson was terrible.  What was I thinking?  It's a Friday, for God's sake.  Why did I think doing a new structure on Friday was a good idea? Stupid, stupid, stupid.  

The second half of class, kids back in their seats, silently reading their choice books, with a few sticky notes to document their thinking, calm resumed.  This was familiar territory and life was back to normal.  

The same thing, perhaps a little milder, happened in my other block that day.  I went home kicking myself for a lesson flop.  

But that evening, I began to think about the lesson, the chaos, the off-task behavior.  It was a well-planned lesson, but I had pushed my students out of their comfort zones with a new structure and deeper thinking, and they had reacted as students do when they are uncomfortable.  Especially struggling students.  

We teachers tend to think of discomfort and chaos as bad.  It felt out-of-control, and oh, do we love control.  The chaos, I suddenly realized, needed to happen more often in my class.  Chaos marks the beginning of something new, and it’s scary. Struggling students often have strong reactions to fear - they try to make it a game (my boys goofing around in the circle and making negative comments), they try to avoid it ("What are we doing?"  and "I don't have a pen."), or they refuse to participate (the kid who walked out of class).  Chaotic days can make the best, most experienced teachers retreat, back up into a structure that is calm, controlled and comfortable.  

We also have another choice.  We could choose to meet the chaos head on.  We could dive in and embrace it.  We could realize we're on to something, just beginning some new learning that needs to happen.  

What To Do When A Lesson Flops:

      1.  Evaluate the lesson:  Was it well-planned?  What did students stumble on?  If it truly is just different, or a new structure that is worth learning, go forward!  Monday I have my alternate day class, and I am not changing my lesson; I'm diving in.  This time around, however, I'll expect the chaos and the resistance.  Will a kid refuse to participate?  Will there be some off-task comments and behaviors? Will there be a kid that gets sent out for major disruption?  Possibly.  But, I will calmly persist.  And then I'll plan another lesson that is similar, another chance to learn both structure and strategy, and it will get better.  That is how learning goes.  If we always have calm, smooth classes, I suspect we're not really challenging our students to grow.  

2.  Recognize that struggle is part of the process:  My Learning Mountain graphic guides not only my grading, but all our learning.  At the bottom of the mountain, there is chaos and confusion. We're embarking on a new journey into the uncertain.  If we choose to retreat (which would be so easy because firm ground is close by), we will never climb any higher.  If we persist, however, we have a chance to work through the discomfort, to find a foot-hold, and ultimately to climb higher.  When things get too comfortable, it should be a signal to us that we're sitting on a summit.  Yes, relax for a minute, revel in the beautiful view.  But then, if learning is to continue, we must look for our next mountain and start the process again.

      3.  Individual Triage:  I know that not all the mountains I climb are classroom mountains.  Some are individual, and I need to meet with those students one-on-one before our next class.  My friend that chose to skip class needs me.  He needs to hear first-hand what we are doing and be assured that I’ll help him and that he can do this.  My friend who got sent out also needs me.  We need to discuss his job in class and what my expectations are upon his return.  No guarantees we’ll fix it the first time around, but by keeping my expectations high, and letting him know I believe in him, we’ll at least move closer.  Students who sabotage the class’s learning don’t get to stay, but they do get to come back and try again, as many times as it takes.

Monday, that Rocky theme song needs to play louder than ever in my head because I’m not quitting.  I will strap on my backpack and my hiking boots, take my kids by the hand, and we will forge on.  “Failed lessons” are beginnings, not endings.


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