Thursday, August 23rd, 2012
Diane Ravitch made her case in the summer of 2010. We all agree that our curriculum and our assessment systems must be aligned and reinforce what is taught, but aligning curriculum, selecting experiences and activities that support the curriculum, and designing assessments to document that alignment do not happen by accident (Ravitch, 2010). Daily lesson planning, and beyond that, a lesson planning culture must be accepted by teachers in the classroom. Without a planning culture that focuses student engagement and fosters student achievement, teachers continually struggle to meet their accountability standards. We must look at the lesson plan as a media document that helps the teacher communicate with the student.
Lesson planning is one of the three critical piers of support for classroom instruction (Borich, 2007). A lesson plan, along with the grade book and the attendance roster, are the three principle documents that are mandated by most districts and states. A lesson plan is the document that states how the teacher is scheduling the curriculum, what they have selected for the students to experience, activities they have arranged, what feedback they will give and how they are going to test.
Many teachers see lesson planning as, at best, a necessary evil, and at worst, an imposition requiring time and effort they do not have. Planning daily lessons are often reduced to rough notes on worksheets or scribbled in the margins of teacher texts. Weekly lesson plans are little more than schedules of chapters, quizzes and tests. Unit or long-range plans may include more detail as far as resources are concerned, yet do not address specifics for the classroom. In all, lesson planning does not support alignment, because the process of planning is not utilized. Student achievement is unrealized and not consistent because the planning of activities and feedback is inconsistent. Most telling, lesson delivery is uninspired, dull and of little relevance for the student because the planning for that lesson was incomplete and deemed of little relevance for the work of the classroom. The lesson plan, from unit plans to daily plans, is seen as a documentation exercise to satisfy the administration. We do not use the plan and the planning process for the real purpose of teaching: the communication of ideas. Viewed in this way, a lesson plan is a media tool. It is a communication between the teacher, their colleagues, the principal and department chair, the parents and of course, their students.
Think like a producer, director & scriptwriter…
What does engage the student? Between iPods and YouTube, videogames and streaming movies, entertainment media professionals compete, very successfully, for our student’s time and attention. Planning a lesson is a skill, part of the art of teaching. Planning lessons is also a managed and logical activity involving long term resource management with short term knowledge of student needs and capabilities. To be successful, teachers must incorporate a year-long curriculum, periodic benchmark tests, chapter and unit assessments and episodic classroom activities into a coherent whole. It’s a daunting task, but one that can be mastered. In this way, lesson planning involves many of the aspects of screenwriting or scriptwriting. We should, to use a phrase, ‘go to school’ on their practices and techniques. Let’s look at the media techniques of how producers do long range story planning, how writers outline a strategy or story arc, and how scriptwriters and directors prepare their weekly episodes.
A film or TV project is often planned first as a storyboard: an elaborate series of pictures and notations that dictate camera angles and where the director wants to focus the attention of the audience. Storyboards are then converted into script format with lines and cues and lots of detail in order to capture the vision of the storyboard. Screenwriters use literature, history and human conflict to construct ideas that engage and hold meaning for their audience. In much the same way, a teacher must plan their long term lessons.
A scriptwriter for television or film must blend long-term vision and short term episodes. A writer must have a firm knowledge of the overall plot or storyline, sometimes called the story arc. They must develop both the characters within the arc and keep the audience involved in the plot for the long term. Periodically, the screenwriter must give the audience a mental break. They do this through a variety of devices, but all designed to both meet audience expectations and keep the audience involved in the plot.
Television shows, films and all media must appeal to the target audience. This means that in order to succeed, the writers must present what the audience expects. Occasionally, a show or film may deviate, sometimes radically, from the expectations of the audience, and the audience will still be engaged. But this phenomenon is rare and not replicated very often. Popular shows like Friends, Big Bang Theory, Community, CSI and Law & Order follow rules of form and theme. Movies like The Fugitive, Jurassic Park or Transformers also follow well-defined patterns and stick to central ideas.
In planning unit lessons, we often talk of themes or essential questions or deep understandings (Moore, 2009). These are excellent ideas for capturing and maintaining engagement. In the language of high stakes tests, this focus may be stated as a Performance Indicator or Readiness Standard. Successful writers will stick to their theme. Unsuccessful shows often wander away from their theme or approach. In the media, this is called “jumping the shark.” The phrase comes from an unfortunate episode of the popular ‘70s show Happy Days. In a vain attempt to keep the show fresh, the popular character “Fonzie” jumped over a shark while on water skis. The beginning of the end of audience engagement is when the writer loses sight of their focus. This often happens when too many objectives or unaligned objectives are placed in a unit or chapter plan.
Semester and unit plans must also follow a logical sequence or form. The typical lesson planning documents found in education texts are sound examples of cognitive planning. The ubiquitous Hunter Lesson Plan utilizes the sequence in which our brain most often processes new, useful information (Moore, 2009). What do writers do differently? They break up the pattern to allow their audience to process. Characters or conflicts that may have a major impact on the overall story arc may be just introduced in several previous episodes. These media experts allow their audience to ponder and speculate after bringing in a new idea. Producers call this ‘generating water cooler buzz’.
Breaking up the logical cognitive patterns does not destroy the pattern. As an example, using the Madeline Hunter Plan, introducing a concept as the Focus (or Anticipatory Set) and then following up several periods or even days later with Instructional Input allows the student to process new ideas and new information and perhaps do some talking around the water fountain. We’ll discuss how this may fit into different lesson formats later.
Planning is a cyclic process that takes place year round. Prior to the semester, a teacher should lay out the years’ plan, organizing first by semester, then by grading period. Within each grading period, lessons should be organized by unit or chapter. Unit or chapter plans are broken down later into individual lesson plans. Plans are usually organized around time schedules: semesters of 4 or 5 months, six- or nine-week grading periods, two- or three-week units and daily lesson plans. But planning according to schedule is not supporting a learner-centered environment, since not everyone learns at the same pace. Producers and directors plan for specific long-term portions of their story arc. They have to plan for the beginning and end of viewing seasons, periods when advertising ratings are gathered, audience viewing patterns and habits and even special events such as Super Bowl Sunday or other holidays. Following their pattern, a typical season begins with several episodes that refresh old characters and story lines, introduce a few (but not many) new concepts or plots and allows the audience to settle comfortably back into a cognitive pattern. If the season is interrupted with a special holiday or event, when the producers know their audience may not be totally engaged, they often plan reruns. About midway through a typical season pattern, a major issue will emerge. The characters and plots will still maintain a familiar flow, but the new major conflict will grow with each episode until the last few are totally consumed with the idea. Movies follow this similar pattern. The major battle or conflict is not resolved until the last part of the film, with bits and pieces introduced and exposed throughout.
Planning lessons should likewise be based on objective attainment and student needs, not on a time schedule. Lessons at the start of the semester should be a mix of review and new material, but the new material should not be the most intriguing or difficult. The more difficult objectives should be targeted later, but early enough in the year for students to practice skills. It’s OK to build anticipation by leaving hard questions unanswered or difficult problems unsolved.
A director may adjust scenes along the way to improve the story or take advantage of a talented actor’s performance. This does not prevent the writer or producer from planning. On the contrary, a good story outline and multiple plot ideas enable the director to be more flexible in their approach and helps embellish the product.
Planning semesters and units in this way will likely not follow the mandated curriculum documents, bundle packages or textbook chapters. This is a valid concern that each teacher should address with their colleagues and administrators. But even if the long-term planning cycle is not an option, we can still use the media expert’s approach to episode engagement.
Plan for the audience
Ignoring reality TV for the present, the most popular (and therefore engaging) television shows fall into two categories: sitcoms and dramas. Situation comedies are 30-minute slices of life involving several character stereotypes. Dramas are usually hour-long problems in search of a solution. Despite the multitude of channels and media outlets, from cable to streaming services like Netflix, most media offerings fall into these two categories. They do for the simple reason that, cognitively and affectively, they work best. With a few exceptions, most television shows, and also the most popular ones, have had similar formats.
From I Love Lucy to The Big Bang Theory or Two-and-a-Half Men, a sitcom follows this pattern:
- Opening bit or hook; where usually a secondary character is involved in a running joke or incident that will be repeated.
- Commercial break that serves to allow the audience to both process and anticipate what they have seen, and also lets the producers re-connect a product need with their target audience.
- Main idea is introduced; the conflict for the episode involving the principles. This piece utilizes previous understandings for the audience and introduces new ways in which the characters will respond to this problem, thereby revealing more of the character.
- Re-visit of the opening hook.
- Elaboration of the conflict. Perhaps new or recurring characters are involved in assisting the main characters.
- Resolution of the conflict, usually when one of the principle characters learns a little bit more about themselves and their place in the world.
- Resolution of the opening hook or focus; ‘closure’ allows the audience to relax mentally from the main conflict and brings a satisfactory ending.
Dramas also follow a similar pattern. From Bonanza to Hawaii 5-0 (‘70s & present version) to Law & Order, an hour long drama –
- Opens with a problem. A murder, crime or illness is discovered and must be solved.
- Commercial break, for the same reasons as in a sitcom. Media experts know their audience.
- As the main problem is exposed, the recurring characters bring their individual perspectives to bear on the problem. Unlike the sitcom, which is very much based on the personality of the characters, dramatic characters are based on the way they see the world, what educators call ‘learning styles’.
- The entire first part of a successful drama will not be about solving the problem, but about the ways in which the problem cannot be solved. Dead ends, lack of evidence, poor investigative process or bad luck will all play a role in building interest in what will work.
- Approaching the resolution. Several characters, or the central character, will be seen putting together the proper pieces. At this point, the audience may have guessed the outcome, but the suspense at this point, and the means of engagement is not what, but how the conflict will resolve.
- Short break. Media experts understand both cognitive and affective behaviors. If the final break is too long, they will lose the audience if their story was weak. Even if the story was compelling, a long break only serves to frustrate engagement.
- Resolution of the problem.
If we contrast these formats with the typical lesson plan model, we see very similar cognitive processes. The hook, engagement or focus on audience reaction draws their attention. Makes the audience ask “…what is happening next, where is the next surprise or problem…?” The elaboration or instructional section sets up the conflict or poses a problem for solution. A central period examines various parts of the problem and allows the audience to speculate. Various breaks help cognitive processing. The problem or conflict is resolved sensibly (psychologically speaking) and the audience has new information. Looking at the four core subjects, it seems that Language Arts and Social Studies readily lend themselves to be approached using the sitcom model. Dramas seem to be a good model for Science and Math.
Language Arts and Social Studies often center on human conflicts. Literature and history come alive when the human factor is made tangible for the student. The typical sitcom opening poses a situation with which every audience member can identify. Again, the person involved may not be the principle player in the subsequent story, but they serve to set the time, place and tone for the audience. Helping the student audience become engaged could be done, for example, by reading a diary entry from a Civil War private or showing a picture of Edgar Allan Poe’s grave and commenting on his age when he died. These images and ideas may be used on and off through the lesson, and help connect the student.
We should mention here that sitcoms are many times not hysterically funny or even humorous all the time. They can be poignant, embarrassing, thought-provoking and even sad. Many of the best known episodes of famous sitcoms involved pain and loss. The concept of the medium is to convey humanity against the backdrop of life. They show familiar character types, humans with which we identify, resolving the issues of their lives. Isn’t this what we try to illustrate in literature and social studies?
The bulk of the sitcom cognitive format involves the audience in the emotions of the characters. A key to understanding what happens is often best conveyed by why. Connecting the ‘what’ of the Stamp Act of 1765 is more powerful when the student understands how the colonists felt about the act. Connecting emotion isn’t very difficult in language arts, but teachers do not find it easy to relate long-dead authors to modern contexts. Sitcoms often employ stereotypes and archetypes to explain how we (the audience) should react.
There are also several reasons why sitcoms are a half hour and dramas are hour-long. One of the reasons can be inferred from the way in which the media experts package their products. Sitcoms are usually grouped together with two or four together on one night. Sitcoms can be appreciated in series because they deal with familiar human conditions as the recurring premise. In other words, this is our daily life. Language, literature and societal interactions occur all around us, and sitcoms help us to see ourselves. They are reflections of our world, so their lessons can be absorbed and processed through our own experiences as much as they can be inside the medium. Dramas, on the other hand, pose a single, complex problem that must be solved using a process and involving a team approach. This situation is not part of everyone’s daily life, but is very much a part of the way in which the society progresses.
If a drama is a math or science lesson, then we begin with a problem. Many math and science teachers often start their lessons this way. But the media expert knows that the key to engagement is anticipation, so the answer is never given, nor is it obvious. Dan Meyer has a terrific example of this for math teachers in his talk on TED.com (2010). Additionally, the problem is solvable. It is presented in such a way that it can be answered. One frustration for audiences is the drama that does not seem to ever solve anything. These MAY be popular for short times and serve as a unique change-of-cognitive-pace. Two examples are the ‘80s drama Twin Peaks and Lost. While these were popular, they swiftly lost a large target audience, but had a loyal, smaller following. This sort of thing happens often to teachers who have an interesting personality or are individually liked. They may be able to engage their students with ideas and capture their attention for a time, even a year. But consistency pays the commercial media expert, and the problem that is not solvable is one that not many students will pursue.
Commercial breaks are a key factor in the cognition and affective behaviors that the writer and producer want to achieve, and the savvy lesson planner should not ignore this. First, a commercial is a mental break, allowing the audience, without interruption for new information, to process briefly what has just happened. The producer needs the commercial break to connect their audience (their TARGET audience) with a tool or product they may need. Teachers can use this time for reminders of upcoming events, deadlines for projects or even a formula or recurring writing technique that will be used in the lesson. Instead, teachers usually do this at the very beginning of class, taking a full 10 minutes or more of time, half of which the average student is thinking of something else. Spacing these issues through the period reflects the media experts’ understanding of how we process. In science and math lessons, the commercial break could be a review of a problem-solving technique or a reminder of the format in which to present particular information. It could be a 2-3 minute review of a formula or problem-solving technique that the teacher would like to emphasize. Breaking up review and general information into blocks like commercials serve to allow processing and to save time.
The dramatic cognitive plan spends the next significant block of time in failure. This may seem counter-productive, but the idea is to help the audience engage in the solution. Many times, we need to try and discard alternatives. The savvy media expert builds a series of dead ends or blind alleys that start out like good ideas, but mainly serve to reinforce the concepts that 1) it’s NEVER that easy, and 2) problems worth solving take time.
Dramas do incorporate interesting characters. But the difference between personality type on dramas and on sitcoms is worth noting. Sitcoms are often star vehicles for particular personalities. We like to see familiar faces deal with life. History and literature are best understood through the eyes of the people who were there. Lesson plans for ELA and Social Studies should focus on a few central characters that inhabit the time and place and help the student see their perspective.
In a drama, characters are better known for their talents, strengths and weaknesses instead of their peculiar personalities. The characters become interchangeable or they become part of a famous team. In either case, the dramatic problem is resolved through the process and the teamwork of the characters. Many dramas, like Law & Order or CSI drop old characters and introduce new ones that are integrated into the team process. The idea of teamwork is a direct reflection of Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences and other cognitive learning styles.
The teamwork concept should be a significant part of the science or math process, allowing students to collaborate and contribute. Sometimes, it is just one character that comes up with the right dramatic solution, and other times it is the entire team. But in all cases, the team is valued above the individual. Perhaps the best illustration of teamwork and cognitive learning theory is found in the original Star Trek series. There were four principle characters, each one embodying a very particular cognitive perspective. Dr. McCoy was always asking, “Why?”, Mr. Spock was always focused on the “What”, Scotty the Engineer was interested in the “How” , and the Captain was always asking, “What if…?” Together, they pooled their talents and cognitive gifts to solve interesting and complex problems. It’s probably this point that attracted so many loyal fans.
Dramas resolve their complex problem within an hour, but not always. Sometimes there are two-part episodes and occasionally there are cliffhangers or a new problem that is introduced that must be solved next time. Really compelling dramas will sometimes (but NOT often) stretch a problem over several episodes. Consider a drama where a mysterious terrorist is stalking a particular character over several weeks. Or a two-part episode that links a very complex crime. In these instances, the media expert employs a technique to invite the audience to consider the problem for a long time and in depth. This technique also allows the director or writer to show how the various characters view and respond to the problem. It helps the audience see a bigger picture and become more involved in the solution process. In science and math, larger issues and complex problems do not have to be introduced and practiced within a few periods. Complex issues and thorny problems should be broken up into a variety of tasks, looked at in various ways and then resolved.
The creative process of developing and scripting a successful television show may seem to have little to do with the formulaic approach to lesson planning. Consider Dan Harmon, the creative mind behind the very successful sitcom Community. He very consciously uses a structure that contains the steps in building a compelling story (Raftery, 2011). In 30 minute segments, he engages his audience in the bizarre lives of his characters by: 1) showing the character in a zone of comfort, 2) having them want something, 3) getting them into an unfamiliar situation, 4) adapting them to it, 5) getting what they want, 6) but paying a heavy price for it, 7) then returning them to their comfort zone but, 8) they have changed in some way. Although this approach may seem stilted and pedantic, his track record of successful audience engagement and loyalty has stood the test of network accountability.
To experts in the education profession, the lesson plan is seen as only a documentation of curriculum standards, chapter exercises and periodic assessments. The resulting experience is often dry and disconnected from reality. We pay for that disconnect with disengaged students and low achievement. The experts in the media profession view their planning process in terms of their audience and how best to gain interest and maintain their engagement, often for extended periods of time. They are rewarded with high ratings and commercial dollars. Which one seems to have been more successful?
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