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The Unplanned Lesson Plan

By Julie Scullen
 | Nov 28, 2017

unplanned-lesson-planFive high school students just spent six weeks teaching me how to be a better teacher.

It started in the usual way. I thought I was teaching them

As a reading intervention specialist, I spend much of my time in a cubicle, in a space that used to be a classroom but is now repurposed as our district office. In my cubicle, I fill out forms, answer emails, plan professional development, write SMART goals, and perform “other duties as assigned.”

I find, however, that every now and then, I need to surface to work with students and teachers. If I don’t, I forget why I’m in the cubicle: to make certain every one of our students sees success. 

In an effort to try out some reading strategies I’d recently read about in education journals, I asked a fellow teacher if I could borrow a small group of students a couple times a week during her reading intervention class. I asked for her reluctant readers, the ones who consistently neglected to remember their book and take the longest to get on task. Masterful avoiders. Strangely, she was incredibly willing. She provided me with five names and asked how soon I could start. 

I thought that if I brought in truly authentic and interesting reads, they’d devour them, instantly discover the joy of reading, and go on to share that joy with all their friends. No problem. I forgot that these boys didn’t read the journals I did, so they didn’t know how great these ideas were.

The first day I just attempted to get to know them. I was not the first person to attempt to “make them like reading.” I was met with eye rolls and snickers when I asked what they liked to read. One young man even retreated into his hoodie like a turtle into his shell and yanked the strings tight so that only his nose was visible. Another informed me, “Just so you know, I have an attitude problem.”


Lesson one: what I find meaningful is not necessarily what they find meaningful

The second day I brought in Terrible Things by Eve Bunting, an allegory of the Holocaust, depicted by animals. I started in confidently, asking them what they would do if they witnessed someone treating others poorly. Would they step in? “It depends. Do I know them?” It was an interesting conversation, but not as life-changing as I had envisioned. After we finished, one of the students asked why I made them read a story about fish, birds, and bunnies. Clearly, he had missed the point of the book.

Lesson two: cool toys and strategies don’t make reluctant readers want to read

Frustrated, I tried something different. Rather than use the authentic and interesting books, I brought in informational texts and tried to infuse useful reading strategies. Who wouldn’t enjoy a strong informational text when they had cool, colored sticky notes to track their thinking? They were bound to engage, right? Wrong. We read, they dutifully put their sticky notes in the appropriate places, they were compliant. But they didn’t engage or have any type of animated conversation. No one asked for more. I was still headed in the wrong direction.

Lesson three: they will engage, if you ask the right questions

Then something horrifying and wonderful happened. I brought in an article about issues facing youth, but it wasn’t long enough to fill the block of time we had that day. I had to figure out what to do with five disengaged students for 15 minutes until lunch. Panicking on the inside, I stalled. “So, what do you think? Was the author right?” Blank stares. “What do WE think? Do WE think he’s right? I don’t get it.” I carried on. “Yes, tell me what YOU think.” After a few tense moments, one of them spoke. From across the table, someone agreed. Then someone disagreed. I let them talk. And talk.

And then, miracle of miracles, one of them pointed to the article and said something that made my heart skip a beat. “Yea, right here he says that, but I don’t think that’s what he MEANT.” More talking.

The next week, I came prepared with more short texts and very little planned.  I let them lead me.

Lesson four: if you build trust, they will come

I realized what I needed to ask “What do YOU want to read about next? I’ll bring that next time.” And we started a list. 

I had one rule: no politics. Otherwise, we could read and talk about whatever they wanted. They wanted to know more about materialism. Time management. World hunger efforts. Stereotypes.  

In this small group, I could probe deeply. Why are you so sure? How do you know that? What makes you so certain? Now, with trust that comes from consistency and without the pressure of a grade, they could call each other out. “Bro. Seriously, what does this have to do with race? You are so wrong, man.”

Unfortunately, things got busy, and I had things that needed to be accomplished back in my cubicle. I had to stop meeting with the students.

On my last day, we read an article together and had our final conversation. The group went to lunch, except one. He was still reading, and he held up his hand so I didn’t interrupt.

Then, he said the most amazing thing: “Am I allowed to have this article? I want to take it home and finish it.”

And I was able to say, “Yep, it’s yours. And I can show you how to find more on your own just like it.”

They taught me well.

Julie ScullenJulie Scullen, an ILA member since 2005, is a teaching and learning specialist for secondary reading in Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, disciplinary literacy, critical literacy, and reading assessment and evaluation.

This piece originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Literacy Today, ILA's member magazine. 

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