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Wednesday / October 17

The Process of Planning, Part 3: Daily Lesson Structure

Disclaimer 1: This post is the third in a series on planning. The first part of the series covered Long Range Plans. The second part of the series covered Unit Planning. You wouldn’t read Prisoner of Azkaban without reading Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, right? (Maybe, you would. I’m not here to judge your journey.) (And yes, I did just compare my blog to the delicate joy of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. You’re not here to judge my journey, either.)

Disclaimer 2: I will be talking specifically about the way I structure an intermediate elementary Language Arts lesson in this post.

Disclaimer 3: I have been extraordinarily lucky to work with administrators who trust my expertise. Therefore, I have been given the latitude to develop a lesson structure that is not necessarily what my district suggests. If you do not have this latitude, don’t rock the boat. But maybe print this post and subtly leave it in the faculty bathroom for your administrator to see.

Disclaimer 4: My Language Arts lesson structure is based on the exquisite training I received at Teachers College at Columbia University for Readers’ and Writers’ Workshop. I taught for two very formative years in Brooklyn, New York, and had the immense honor to receive professional development there.


When I first started teaching, my district provided each school with an anthology series. There were six units in the anthology. Each unit had about four fiction texts and at the end of each fiction text there was a corresponding non-fiction article. I was taught to start on Monday with some prereading activities such as vocabulary development and background building. I would read most of the story to them on Monday and they would finish it on their own. Then, Tuesday and Wednesday, the students would re-read the story. Let me be clear. They were not reading half of it Tuesday and the other half Wednesday. They were reading the whole text twice, after they had already heard/read it Monday. They would do two worksheets each day. Thursday, they would take a quiz. I would keep track of that data on a spreadsheet so my administrators could see how they were progressing. Friday, we would read the non-fiction article and take a quiz.

We did this.

Every week.

All year.

Our Language Arts block was roughly 2 ½ hours. We spent 30 minutes doing Word Work. We spent 30 minutes working out of an English textbook. I also always did a 15 minute Read-Aloud, which was not in the curriculum, but I’m a born rebel. (This is a lie. I hate getting in trouble.) That meant that the other 75 minutes of the block was spent in a painstaking whole group lesson on text features that took 30 minutes to muddle through and 45 minutes of the students reading the text for the first, second, or third time while doing two worksheets as I attempted to pull small groups. Once a quarter, for a few days, we would do a writing project.

Frankly, I thought this format was stupid. But, I was not in a position to question what was being asked of me. So, repetition it was. Sporadic writing it was. Anthology it was. Yes, it felt stupid. But, it was methodical and reproducible and I wouldn’t get in trouble.

I now realize that this format wasn’t stupid. It was dangerous. Children who were already disinterested in reading became completely disenfranchised with reading. And who can blame them? On my watch, I allowed this dispassionate daily routine to extinguish any flame. I LOVE books. I LOVE reading. I LOVE writing. And yet, here I was, hammering away at vocabulary and multiple choice strategies while forcing kids to read the same story over and over from a cold-feeling anthology. If they hadn’t come into my classroom bored with reading, then they were certainly going to leave my classroom bored with reading.

Eventually, the district added an emphasis on learning centers. So, while I “worked” with a small group (a.k.a half paid attention while mostly fussing at kids who were at centers to get to work), the other kids sat strewn about the room “working” at their centers (a.k.a. half paying attention while mostly fussing at the other kids in their group to get to work.) They never got the chance to just read. To just read a book. To just read a book that they find interesting.

Here is where Disclaimer 3 matters so much. I tried my best to avoid being in trouble, but I could quickly feel that I was once again a pernicious gatekeeper shutting down the entryway to the pleasure of reading. I went to my administrator and said, “Hey, I can’t in good conscience use this format.” I was lucky. She encouraged me to do what I knew was right. She explained that the district’s suggestions would change every year, but if I knew what good teaching looked like, I needed to trust myself as a professional. As long as we turned in whatever data points she needed to keep her supervisor happy, I had free reign. She trusted me and didn’t micromanage me. She was a lot like Dumbledore in that way.

Thank you, Dumbledore. Because of your faith in me, I felt confident to develop the following structure.

1. Mini-lesson (8-10 minutes MAXIMUM)

I ask the students to come to the carpet with their pencils/pens and Language Arts notebook. On the board, I will have premade a chart that supports the work we will be doing. Anything I’ve written in black, the students copy into their notebooks. Anything I’ve written in a color other than black they don’t need to copy. This little trick convinces the students they are writing less than they really are, so reluctant workers feel like I’ve given them a bit of a break. Copying down the chart engages them with the work in a way that is more personal than being the passive recipient of a worksheet.

We start the lesson in earnest by unpacking the objective. For example, “We will summarize by noting main idea and pertinent details.” I ask my students, “What words stand out to you?” We take the time to explore the academic vocabulary in the objective. I never rush this. This is the vocabulary building that matters. This is the vocabulary that will establish a common language in the room.

Then, I will go through the chart with the example I have included in a green or blue marker. Generally, I will already have a complete example and then half of an example written on the chart. Referencing an anchor text, such as a book from a previous day’s read-aloud, or a book that the whole class read earlier in the year, I explain my thought process for the complete example. For the half example, I ask the students to turn and talk to the people around them for what would complete the idea. I eavesdrop during these conversations, noting students who need more support.

2. Checkpoint (2 minutes MAXIMUM)

Still on the carpet, I ask the students to put one complete example on their chart. When they are finished with their example, I ask them to put their notebooks on their heads. I walk around to peek at the notebooks and on my clipboard, I write down the names of students I definitely didn’t reach well enough during the mini-lesson, as well as students who wrote down anything unusual or fascinating that I hadn’t considered. If there are many students whom I should reteach, I know that I need to take the opportunity to reteach the whole class. But, I NEVER do that reteach right away. If I messed up a lesson, I’m not going to punish the children by forcing them to sit even longer on the carpet and listen to my voice. A full class reteach will need to come another day, or even later that same day. I use the checkpoint to prepare for individual conferences.

3. Directions

After the checkpoint, I give directions for independent work. For the objective “We will summarize by noting main idea and pertinent details,” my chart would likely have been a web. So I would say, “Your work today will be to make a web that shows the main idea and pertinent details of the next chapter of the novel you are reading. I expect to see three details connected to a clear main idea. When I grade this, I’ll be looking for three pertinent details. You can do more than three if you want, but no more than five. When you finish your assigned chapter from your novel, read another book from your baggie. DON’T go ahead in your novel! You don’t want to spoil anything for the rest of your Book Club. So, again, three pertinent details on your web. Turn and talk to the person next to you about the directions for today. Make sure everyone around you knows what they’re going to do. Make sure everyone around you understands today’s objective.”

There is a lot of manipulation happening in these directions. (As teachers, we’re all Slytherins pretending to be Hufflepuffs.) What I want is for the kids to focus on just the most important details, not a retelling of the summary. Practically, this makes the work faster to grade. More importantly, it forces the students to be discerning. It also forces them to spend their reading time actually reading and not playing school by writing a bunch of unnecessary notes. But, when I tell the students to write no more than five details, reluctant workers hear that I am giving them an option to do minimal work (three details) and they feel like bada$$es if they don’t opt for the “extra” work of five details. They also feel that I don’t expect an unmanageable amount from them. Workers who have typically been reluctant feel safer to take an academic risk and might even give a fourth or fifth detail.

When I tell the kids to ONLY read their assigned chapter and DON’T go ahead, they instantly hear that as a challenge and will want to keep reading their assigned novel. Like when a server tells you, “Don’t touch this plate. It’s hot,” you are tantalized at the prospect of touching the plate. In this case, when I say “Don’t go ahead. You’ll spoil it for the rest of your Book Club,” the students are tantalized at the prospect of knowing more than the other kids who are reading the same novel. They become so tantalized that they tend to forget that they didn’t pick this novel out for themselves in the first place.

When I tell the kids to ONLY read their assigned chapter and then read the book they chose for themselves, I know that I am actually motivating them to finish their assigned work, which is likely a challenging novel on or slightly above their guided reading level. They see the book that they self-selected as dessert. I see it as THEY ARE READING MORE. Reading two books at once also gives students an opportunity to retain information from multiple texts, a 21st century skill that is critical for window toggling and online reading.

When I ask the kids to turn and talk about directions, they think they are getting a chance to show some authority and expertise. They immediately try to one-up each other with how well they understand the directions. When they use the objective to explain what they’re going to do, they have become the teacher and feel a sense of ownership. But I know that I’m getting one last opportunity to hear if someone is still confused, to reach kids who had been tuning out during the lesson because they will listen to their peers better than they’ll listen to me, and to trick them into using nerdy academic language as part of their vernacular so that when they encounter it in the big, bad testing world it feels as quaint as tablecloths and wallpaper

4. Independent reading and individual conferencing (30-40 minutes)

The students then scatter to do their work. In my classroom, students get the opportunity to choose a special seat and take it wherever they want in the room. I have gaming chairs, bean bag chairs, bouncy chairs, little lap desks, cushions, pillows, sofas, and plenty of area carpets in my room. Students who turned in their homework get first dibs. As I call students’ names, they may calmly take the seat they want and move it to where they want in the room, or they can always opt to go back to their table to work. If a student appears unfocused while at a special spot, I will redirect them back to their regular seat. They also may not move once they’ve settled into their spot.

Once the students have settled into their spots, usually after a countdown, I wait about five minutes before I start conferencing. I use this time to circulate, make sure that the students are focusing, and give anyone an opportunity to ask clarifying questions.

I don’t pull small groups.

I know this is blasphemy.

Small groups work well for a lot of teachers. They don’t work well for me. I am not good at them. I’m not good at managing the rest of the class while I’m focused on my small group. I’m not good at managing the transitions as one group leaves the table and another group comes to the table.

I am very good at individual conferences. I keep a clipboard with a page for each student. I can conference with 5-7 students each day. We have one-on-one time in which they read to me in a guided reading style conference. In addition to checking their fluency, I can check in on their comprehension and their work on the day’s strategy. I use the checkpoint to determine with which students I absolutely need to conference early. From there, I go through the clipboard to assure that I conference with every student in class at least once a week, usually twice a week, sometimes three times a week. This one-on-one time is quiet. I am the only one moving, so the room is silent as the kids are enveloped in their books. And we bond. We build relationships in those whispered conferences. It is not scary to take a risk if I’m the only one paying attention. I can give very direct instruction. “Try reading this again, but read it like an actor would in a movie.” “Defend for me why this detail supports this main idea.” “Use both sides of the notebook page so you don’t waste the paper and so it’s easy for me to find your work.” “What did you think of what happened in last night’s chapter? I thought it was bananas!” “If you don’t like using a web, would you like to make a different kind of chart? I’d love to learn a new way to do this.”

My school is a guided reading school. I also use this conference time to benchmark kids when I think they are ready to move on to the next guided reading level. With the individual conferences, I’m able to deliver the data my school requires without sacrificing the joy of reading.

5. Book Clubs (8 minutes MAXIMUM)

At the beginning of a unit, I will have grouped the class into Book Clubs. We spend time in September building skills to have conversations about books, so Book Clubs start up in October and are self-sufficient. I will circulate the room and take notes about what how the Book Clubs are operating, making sure to have a compliment ready for each group. Book Clubs are also the kids’ last chance to finish their work, so this way they can get help from each other before I stick a grade on it. When time is up, I will share those compliments with the whole class.

One week out of each month, instead of simultaneous Book Clubs, each club will be featured in a fishbowl discussion. The featured club will sit in the center of the carpet while the rest of the class sits in a surrounding circle and takes notes on what they hear. This takes a carefully cultivated classroom environment, but I’ve never had a group of students, regardless of prior challenging behavior, who could not handle this.

6. Conclusion and Transition (2 minutes)

The students clean up the room, returning all of the special seats, and come back to the carpet with their notebooks. We review the objective and the work that they did. This leads right into our Writing work.

7. Writing Minilesson (8 minutes MAXIMUM)

Same thing. Notebooks. Copy what is in black. Unpack the objective. I teach the strategy using my own writing example. They turn and talk. I skip the checkpoint here, though, because my conference style for writing is different.

8. Directions

Same thing. I give specifics that sound manageable. The directions are very specific to where they are in the writing process. If they are gathering ideas, then they are doing quickwrites and the directions have more to do with time. “I’m going to set the timer for 12, no just 11 minutes. Write as much as you can in that time. But it’s a quickwrite, so you don’t need to stop and think and make it perfect. Just write, write, write! And if you get bored of writing one idea, draw a line and start writing about a new one!”

If they are drafting, revising, or editing, the directions are more about precision. “Look for every action verb and decide if it would be more vivid if you included an adverb.” “Look for every time you wrote the word ‘and.’ If you don’t really need it, cross it off, put a period, and capitalize the next letter.” “Today you are JUST focusing on the rising action. DON’T get to the climax of your story yet! Build the tension!”

9. Independent work and individual conferencing (20-30 minutes)

I give the students the choice of either staying on the carpet to write or returning to their tables to write. On gathering entries days when they’re using their notebooks, most students will stay at the carpet. When they are drafting, revising, editing, or publishing and they are using their portfolios and/or computers, most students opt to return to their tables. With writing, my conferences are different and are not based on a rotation or a checkpoint. Writing is a highly personal experience. Engaged writers are happy to revise, take suggestions, and ask for help. Reluctant writers resent revisions, reject suggestions, and are embarrassed or annoyed by help. I establish during the first writing unit that I am a consultant, but they are the authors. I will look at your work, offer you suggestions, and point out areas for improvement only if you want an editor’s eye. I teach them how to recognize when they are “stuck.” If they would like my help, they can raise their hand and I’ll come conference with them. If I’m already conferencing with someone and they feel stuck, they can write more quickwrites about other topics until I become available so they don’t just have to sit with their hand in the air. Again, I’m coming to them. They are not coming to a table. Some students will not ask for help in those first couple of writing pieces. This doesn’t worry me. They are building their tolerance for advice. At the end of each writing unit, the students read each other’s pieces. Generally, the kids who asked for help do have stronger pieces and that is evident when we share them. Without fail, by the third writing unit, even students who initially rejected my help become open to it.

I do not teach a separate grammar or Word Work lesson. Instead, grammar and word work are concepts I teach purposefully but so they appear incidental. As I’m writing an example, I point out where I’m placing punctuation and why I’m capitalizing. As we’re exploring vocabulary, I’m diagramming the word for its base and affixes. There are some very deliberate lessons in the beginning of the school year on some foundational skills, but throughout the rest of the year, I teach these seamlessly throughout all other content.

10. Conclusion and Transition

I ask the students to read their work out loud to themselves or to someone else in the class and then point out how they used the objective. This gives them a chance to share, to talk, to move around, and eventually to get goofy. They have worked hard all morning. We all need to unwind. I give them two minutes to put their notebook, or portfolios, or computers away, and I tell them I’ll meet them on the carpet for Read-Aloud.

11. Read-Aloud (10-15 minutes)

I end my Language Arts block with Read-Aloud. I LOVE Read-Aloud. It is my favorite part of the day. My students LOVE Read-Aloud. There are certain books I’ve read every single year to every group of students and I know them so well I can truly perform them. There is no work associated with Read-Aloud. No charts. No essays. No Book Clubs even. I just read to them, stopping for teachable moments as they happen, connecting to prior knowledge as possible, but mostly just enjoying the experience of words and stories and imagination and passion and immersion. This is why I became a teacher.

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Cara Jeanne is a veteran teacher in Baltimore, Maryland. She teaches 5th grade Language Arts and Social Studies at the same elementary school she attended as a child. She is pursuing her phD in Instructional Leadership for Changing Populations at Notre Dame of Maryland University, where she also received her Masters degree and a certificate in Equity and Cultural Proficiency. Cara completed her undergraduate work at St. Mary’s College of Maryland where she studied Psychology and English. Cara was a finalist for Baltimore County Teacher of the Year and is honored to serve on the Equity Team and Faculty Council at her school.

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  • Thank you for sharing. I’m a high school principal (math teacher prior to administration) in SC, but I have still gleaned a lot of great information from your article. I appreciate you sharing it. We “read aloud” to our high school students too; no matter the age, they still love it! We also have 20 minutes set aside during the school day (each day) for our high school students to read anything of their choosing. We are working hard to instill of love of reading in our students.

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