Freitag, 20. September 2013

Lesson Planning in a Foreign Language

Lesson planning has and always will be a mainstay in teaching any subject. Before any music rehearsal with Olde World Music Club, I typically outline what we will be covering by posting our weekly meeting agenda. Although I know we will never get through all the music I would like us to, having a guideline is worth putting together, not only for myself, but for my club members as well. My weekly practices have carried over into teaching, and even before I was president, I would do lesson plans for tutoring, lessons and the few times I've had to teach a class.

Although argument abounds over what format to use, and frankly, I absolutely HATE Hunter's model, when backwards design is much better, lesson planning contains many of the same elements, no matter what subject it is. Having a strong, teachable objective that is measurable through some form of assessment is key, and even formative assessments in group discussions or exit slips work wonders to see how well your lesson went.

With this in mind, I talked to my adviser, mentor and in many ways, my friend, Herr Anderson about his lesson planning strategies. According to him, in the beginning, he used to cling heavily to the outlined lesson plan he would carry to class every day, and would rarely deviate from it. To him, giving up control to the students was like losing a battle, and to deviate from the plan was not a very good option. He used to have many of the little details planned out ahead of time, and would then refer to his notes almost religiously during each lesson. Eventually, as he became more comfortable in the classroom, Herr Anderson moved away from this and put more emphasis on having student-led discussions with guided modeling questions, which means he would have a set of discussion questions set up, but allow students to run with follow-up questions, points and arguments.

Many of Herr Anderson's lesson plans are derived from sharing ideas and strategies with colleagues throughout the Modern Languages and Literature Department at GVSU. When asked about this further, he claimed that Herr Neitzert, a fellow German professor, often came up with incredibly amazing lesson plans and assessments that would push students to use their newly-attained vocabulary in a contextual manner. Rather than doing simple translation vocabulary worksheets the entire class hour, Herr Neitzert created open-ended drill questions that allow the student to gain full points, so long as he or she answers the question in an appropriate manner. Herr Anderson said that he's been using these techniques in his lesson planning, and it has allowed students to grow exponentially in their use of the language. Basically, to be an effective teacher at any level, Herr Anderson said that it is best to become flexible and steal as much as you can from other teachers when developing lesson plans, as well as to hand over power to the students in any activity.

Even though he is willing to experiment with lesson plans and designs, Herr Anderson typically uses a backwards design approach with the end-goals of the class in mind with every unit plan. For instance, in a German literature class, he might come up with a general, over-arching theme which fits into a specific learning objective, and then find the appropriate texts for the smaller units that fit into that theme. Finally, Herr Anderson will work on lessons within a two week time frame, and plan the homework around that. If the plan works, he saves it for next year, updating post-lesson notes as the semester progresses. If the lesson plans are a failure, then he scraps the idea, and tries a different approach.

In essence, if the theme of the class is "Das Individuum gegen die Gesellschaft" (The individual against society), and the learning goals are for students to be able to develop their own reading strategies and to be able to interpret and discuss German literature in a variety of formats, then Herr Anderson will then choose appropriate texts to fit that theme. In this scenario, we'll assume that he is using the anti-fairy tale, Der blonde Eckbert by Tieck, and will build lesson plans around note-taking while reading. The text will tie into the strategies involved, while the strategies being practiced feed directly into the reading. With a goal in mind, Herr Anderson is able to teach towards the test, so to speak, while allowing students to grow in their studies, and maintain a sense of direction within the classroom.

Whereas Herr Anderson is heavily focused on the end goals of his class, my coordinating teacher, Frau Mahoney has a different approach all together. While there are benchmarks in national and state standards within foreign language teaching, Frau Mahoney has much more freedom in lesson planning than Herr Anderson does. She is the only person in the German department at her school, and she has had to build the curriculum, for the most part, on her own. This being said, she of course has goals and themes for each semester/year of study for her students, but she is far more flexible within her lesson and unit planning. If she finds that the students are struggling in a certain area with grammar, she will tailor the next lesson to include that study through activities, homework and games. If the students seem confident and competent in a particular area, she moves on to the next task. Flexibility is key, and there appears to be consensus about that.

Because she has more flexibility, Frau Mahoney told me that she often plans each unit out on a large piece of paper, emphasizing the goals of that unit, objectives and themes. If the The students are expected to be able to speak and write in the past perfect tense by the end of the unit, she will then pick texts in that Vergangenheitsform, and build exercises, warmup activities, and homework around it. However, she has one of the most unique and interesting ways of building a unit out of lesson plans that I have ever seen.

Rather than use the rigid structures employed by the College of Education, Frau Mahoney keeps her end goals and objectives in mind constantly, but writes down what little objectives she wants to work towards each particular day and/or week. She then takes those objectives, and puts them on ten pieces of paper, and writes out what activities each day she can do to meet those smaller goals. Once that is done, she cuts out the pieces of paper, and lays them out, and maps out what lesson she wants to do when. This allows her to remain extra flexible, delete a lesson plan if the students need more time on something else, or to meld two or three lessons together. It really is an amazing idea that nobody has ever talked about in the College of Education, and I think I will be trying it out when I start working on my unit lesson plans for my History and German classes.

From what I've learned, just by talking with a college professor and a high school teacher, lesson planning has a lot of different approaches. I agree that borrowing, collaborating and stealing is one of the best ways to build effective lesson plans in any classroom. In fact, my first-ever German lesson plan on reading strategies has now become a weekly warmup for the students. Of course, they groan over having to do work/read hard texts, but their improvement is apparent, and it shows how good Frau Mahoney is as a teacher by simply being willing to take an idea from somebody else. If there is nothing else I use or learn from this, it's that borrowing from other teachers is a good, worth-while effort.

I do like Herr Anderson's overall unit approach by doing backward design, but I also like Frau Mahoney's scrapbooking technique. I think I will be doing a combination of the two. With a definitive developmental end goal with a piece of literature as the basis of that unit, I can then turn around and build each lesson plan as a part feeding into a bigger river of knowledge. If that is my approach, it won't matter what activity we do when, so long as we have the same end goal the entire time, and each day we work on everything in a steady manner.

I have a lot of good ideas, but we'll have to see how it goes. I want to experiment around a little and develop my own style, and now is the time to do it. I'm looking at doing around three units this semester, and I can try my own approach, Frau Mahoney's and Herr Anderson's for each of them, and compare at the end as to what I like best. I'll probably return to this idea later on so I can reflect on it further and share any further thoughts I develop as time goes on.

Bis dann,


  1. I've used the "scrapbooking" approach before and love it!

  2. Hi Evan,

    Great writing in this blog post. It was as if you took all that psychology jargon and turned it into a more understandable yet professional article. Very nice to read!

    First of all, I began to associate your explanation of "implicit" and "explicit" memory with an idea we learned in my Teaching Methods for Spanish class last year. I cannot recall who the author of the theory was, but we learned about "fault" and "error," and the differences between the two. Sometimes our students will make errors in their speech in the target language because they actually are unaware of the rule and are unable to use it properly, making errors a problem with what the student is able to understand. A fault is a mistake of carelessness by the student that is uncommon in their speech and can be easily fixed.

    In regards to your article, I feel that we can identify our students errors or faults with an implicit or explicit knowledge of the language. It would seem logical that an error [a foundational mistake in how the student understands the language] would show the need for growth in the student's ability to use their implicit reasoning. Maybe the student should focus on growing their explicit reasoning to help combat this lapse in ability. If the student makes careless mistakes, it could show that their implicit reasoning is higher.

    I wonder if this implicit reasoning is what we need to focus on then, if we are trying to help students learn without explicitly telling them they are learning? These articles are both interesting, but I would be interested in discovering how they tie in to each other from research. Is implicit reasoning more important than explicit? How do they tie in to each other?

    Thank you for pushing me to ponder these questions. I enjoyed this!