According to plan

I taught a lesson this week. I planned it, delivered it and it went according to plan. The stages of the lesson linked in a well oiled machine kind of way, and there were only two or three very minor digressions.

The lesson:
Warmer: vocabulary from the text – students work collaboratively to explain and discuss the language, first in groups of four, then peer supporting across the class.

Then a quick review of the learning outcomes: too quick, I think, and the thing I would change in the lesson.

Lead In: a photo from the news article.
Groups discussed briefly what the article was about (a truck getting stuck under a bridge: funnier than it sounds). Then they read the article and checked their ideas.

The text was a standard news story, but I had, in line with the aims of the lesson, removed all the articles and zero articles from the text.

Students then had a go at adding the articles, with minimal input from me and a little peer support.

We then reviewed the rules: I used a PowerPoint presentation with an example sentence from the text and the question “why do we use … In this sentence?” The students discussed in groups briefly and I selected the group with the best or clearest explanation to do so, supported by me as necessary.

Then I got the group to review the text again, before later going back to review their own writing from a previous lesson.

We played a version of Kim’s Game (what is there? “A stapler” what is missing? “The stapler”) and we closed with a final bit of general speaking where students had to “sell” otherwise ordinary objects in the classroom (empty stapler, dried up felt tip, broken elastic band, paper clip) to the rest of the class.

I planned stuff and almost everything went precisely to plan. There were some fun, high energy moments and discussions, lots of things. Students learned stuff, and we shared strategies to improve articles (basically: check your writing every time.) But if I were to evaluate it, I would say it was all right. Not bad. A bit average. It worked, but the whole thing felt very staged, and really a little bit lacking somehow.

I have the word “sparkle” lurking at the back of my mind now, but aside from being a bloody juvenile term, it’s also deeply unhelpful. What, if you don’t mind my asking, do we mean by “sparkle”? To say that someone lacks it is a pathetic cop out for someone who can’t think of a proper piece of feedback but can neither bring themselves to grant a grade 1 to the lesson. And anyway, it wasn’t that. In fact, while washing up this evening I worked it out.

It’s the difference between this:

and this:

I feel I should apologise for the choice of song, in a sort of “guilty pleasure” way, (although a very wise person once suggested that one should never feel bad about enjoying something), but it makes a point (and come on, the live bit is pretty damn awesome – Budapest, 1986, in case you were wondering).

The point is this: the studio recording is good – it is precise and has all the elements that make the song, just like my lesson. But the live version, with the risks of things going wrong (in the video, there’s a moment where it seems like Freddie has ended up on the wrong side of the stage when he was supposed to start singing), moments of inspiration and crucially, direct engagement with the “audience” is the winner every time. The live song has all the same elements as the recorded song but rendered and managed differently.  The lesson lacked that “live” ness – it was too precisely planned, there were no gaps or moments where learners could insert themselves very much. Partly, I think, the topic was a frustrating one – one of the learners mentioned it in class, and I talked about it in my last post – articles are a very “meta” piece of language – they are largely useless in day to day conversation (if you don’t believe me ask a Russian or a Pole), are unlikely to get corrected or cause a lack of understanding, and as such tend to fall by the wayside. For me, and for the learners, there was engagement with the topic, as with the audience of the studio recorded video, who enjoy the song, but don’t properly connect to it, perhaps. I think, for me, an important element of a good lesson is not the bit where the teacher is showboating, although that can make for some good bits, and by golly I can showboat when it suits me, but rather we are looking for those bits of the lesson where the learners are singing along to the showboating, and the teacher is the ringmaster.

There is also, and this is very personal, the sense that I like a little bit of an edge to a lesson. In this lesson, the precision was scary, especially in the first hour – it was automatic, in the sense that I barely had to engage my brain in order for the lesson to run and the learning to happen. I like there to be a bit of looseness to the planning, where things could go a bit wrong – because that makes me focus on the lesson much more carefully. I’m not reading from a script of pre-planned activities, but rather I am watching and listening to the lesson, looking for a crack into which we can insert a crowbar of learning to open the lesson up wide. I get a lot of (good natured) schtick for being anti-materials, anti-planning, but if I did every lesson by the book, safe, predictable stages, and with safe, predictable resources, very quickly I would get bored and if I am getting bored then that is going to come across to the learners, who are themselves also going to get bored.



  1. I think sparkle might mean buzz which might mean how well you get on with your students and how well they get on with each other. The one time I achieved the “sparkly grade” (quite out of the blue I must add) was when the buzz was there right from the beginning and let’s face it you can’t plan for that.

    One of my students and the weather presented me with the opportunity for a joke right at the beginning of the lesson – and believe you me – that was not my warmer – but it went down well, the students all laughed and it set the fun mood for the whole session although it wasn’t a fun subject (The Census – materials provided by a certain ATLC and amended by yours truly).

    During the lesson I suddenly realised I hadn’t got some of my materials on the VLE as it said in my plan – potential for meltdown and a grade 4, but somehow I held it together – made another joke, told students I was going to swap activities around because I had made a mistake and while they got on with their work I uploaded the stuff I needed while the observer was in the room.

    However, maybe the key item here was the observer who was able to think outside the box (potentially not many of them about). She was able to see that the students were having fun and learning at the same time. Other observers might not have been as sympathetic to my style and they would have reminded me that I didn’t concept check every set of instructions blah blah blah…

    Sparkle might be a bit of a childish word but when someone admits you have it even for 30 minutes of your life you have to let that teacher feel good about his/herself as this could be his/her equivalent to their 15 minutes of fame.

    1. I’m happy enough for it to be used as a word of praise – may we all be sparkly! However my issue with terms like sparkle come from when it is used as something which is lacking in the lesson – it suggests that to have improved that lesson requires something, but how do we go about achieving “sparkle”? Terms like this are also problematic because they suggest there are undefinable built-in qualities to being a teacher – that some element of the job is innate, perhaps even genetically or environmentally influenced in such a way as to be good at teaching. This may well be true, indeed, I rather suspect that it is. However, to suggest that to an extent a good teacher is genetically built to be good at it suggests that not everyone can become a teacher. Yet in our day to day lives to place such limitations on our learners is seen as a bad thing – all people are equally capable of becoming whatever it is they want to become. In fact, to suggest that a particular learner just is never going to be capable of becoming whatever it is they want to become is close to heresy in a college setting.

      Heretically, I am going to agree that there are some things you need to be a good teacher and these are not learned or learnable things. These are things like empathy, interest in the subject, care, adaptability in the face of regular goalpost shifting, ability to cope with ludicrous volumes of unnecessary bureaucracy, that sort of thing. Either you have them or you don’t. Sparkle, however, is not one of those things. Sparkle is a non-thing, impossible to pin down or clarify, and deeply annoying when it comes from people who in other sentences talk about rigorous evidence and robust data, SMART outcomes, and all the rest. “Sparkle” is the antipathy of such things, and so a prime example of hypocrisy. They don’t get to have it both ways…

      1. I very much like what you said in this article. I feel exactly the same. BTW, I am Czech and teach English to Czechs. Like Polish and Russian, no articles. And I’ve been using the same type of exercise for some time, too. It is very frustrating for my students. They, too, tend to think articles are unnecessary:-) But still, it is one of the best exercises for this purpose.
        Sparkle? To me it’s being present and aware; sensitive to the present moment. Like practicing a form and doing the real fight.

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