The Lesson-Plan Challenge


“But what do you do when the material you’re teaching is just boring?” The question came about halfway through an informal workshop I was running on public speaking. We had been talking about the importance of passion in effective public speaking: If we aren’t passionate about what we’re talking about, how can we expect the audience to be engaged and perhaps even excited?

For TED talks, presenters are asked to focus on one idea worth spreading. Implicit in that catchphrase is the idea that we’re so passionate about the idea that we feel compelled to share it. That’s why we’re giving the talk in the first place.

At that moment in the workshop, I mentioned that I think the same general principle applies in teaching. As teachers, we should be excited every day to work with students on the material and/or activities for that day — excited to help them think about something in a new way, to hear their thoughts, to do an activity that will help them really understand a key concept, to surprise and be surprised.

I now require myself to be excited about a lesson plan before I get to call it finished. If I am not energized by the plan, how in the world can I ask students to get energized about learning the material?

This challenge to myself has made for some late nights. I remember at one point returning to a lesson plan on semantics from the previous year’s iteration of a course. The plan was thorough, clearly organized, and altogether fine. And I could muster no excitement about going to class the next day to enact the plan. I thought, “Anne, if that is how you feel, think about the students!”

It took a couple more hours: It is always hard to rethink the way we have done things in the past. But I finally had that “aha!” moment where I could feel the energy return to the lesson plan. Rather than just talking through different theoretical approaches to defining words, I would start by asking students the question: “Is chess a sport?” Now I was curious about what they would say — and oh, did they have a lot to say! In both small groups and as a full class, students debated with each other about what counted as a sport. Then I could use this example to talk about prototypes and what it means to try to define a concept like sport.

So what do we do when the material we need to cover is just boring?

I’m going to dispute the question. I don’t believe in inherently boring material. It might be technical or complicated or even basic, but that’s not the same as boring. We as instructors can make any material boring, but that’s on us, not the material.

It is our job to rediscover the curiosity, exploration, and fun that is embedded in what we’re teaching. Even when we’re reviewing rather than introducing, we should be asking ourselves if there are examples or stories or participatory competitions or anything else that will make the activity engaging.

This principle means that I teach English phonology with lollipops (a big shout-out to my colleague Alicia Beckford Wassink for that inspired idea). With syntax, as students try to make sure they control the terminology and the concepts, we look at how justified the advice in the Word grammar checker is. With semantics, I challenge students to stump me with true synonyms, to counter my argument that there might be no such thing.

Of course, not everything that I think students are going to find interesting or exciting meets with that reaction from the students themselves. Fair enough. But way more often than not, an instructor’s energy for a lesson plan proves contagious. Almost every academic I know got into our field because we love what we study, and teaching is a wonderful weekly opportunity to revisit and share that passion with students.

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