“Aha!” moments, baby steps, and  Tomorrow’s Lesson Plan

One day long ago, after the AP exam had finally arrived, I assigned a research paper to my classes. 

One “4.0 student” didn’t hand it in and got a poor grade for submitting a very late, poorly researched, rush job. How could this be? 

I realized that my course largely consisted of sit down tests (and even some group work) with few instances of long term, individual responsibility to complete substantive work — like a research paper. Whoa. That hit me like a ton of bricks. Some of my “top students” —as determined by my own criteria and assignments — would be utter failures in college and in careers, where they had to break down long term projects into doable tasks leading to the finished project. 

And conversely, I had students who received top scores on their research papers, but were less successful at on-demand writing tasks and multiple choice tests. 

I couldn’t ignore that “Aha! moment.” I began to add in relatively short term, but individual work to be completed at home. and made them a regular part of course work. A margin-noted reading. A written response to a reading or class discussion (typed and printed — not handwritten on notebook paper in the cafeteria 5 minutes before class). These were now entry tickets to class. 

I assigned short research assignments too. Find a source on X. Print it. Annotate it. Write up an MLA-style citation. Bring to class and share your knowledge. Synthesize. Develop new conclusions, new questions. 

I didn’t stop playing with these shifts, and they had several effects. The work became more student-centered. I really was becoming the “guide on the side” just by the nature of the assignments. Students were busy with more engaging and substantive work. They generally seemed to be more interested, more curious, and a bit more joyful. 

And they knew and understood more deeply the methods and tools as well as some content of history than in previous years. Even without the benefit of my lecture! Imagine that. AP test scores remained as high as previous years (admittedly exceptional, our school typically has a 95% passing rate). My scores matched those of other teachers in my school. Even by the standard and goals of the College Board my students met.  

Each summer, I mapped out my units in a calendar, and inserted another new, student-centered activity or small project to engage students in transferable, higher order skills.  

More importantly, they were developing life skills that matter, an appreciation and knowledge of history, and enjoying it a whole lot more than day after day of rote learning.

Baby steps? Maybe. But at some point it all seemed to snowball. Changes became more dramatic and I developed a common focus on research and historical interpretation. I even created a new elective course that more fully embodied my values and methods. 

Not only did those baby steps lead to more dramatic shifts in my teaching and my students’ learning: they led to a new lease on my career. In fact, I often tell colleagues that I was professionally “reborn” since I took those first baby steps. 

Every lesson plan is a step. It’s up to us to decide where it’ll take us, and our kids.

Have you had an “aha!” moment or taken a baby step that led to something more? Please share it in the comments below.


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