Don’t Reinvent the Wheel – Reuse It

By Brian Rock

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may recall the article, Not Every Lesson Is a Lexus. The thrust of the argument was that you cannot – and should not – try to go above and beyond while planning every lesson. It’s not sustainable, and you’ll burn out. Well today we’re going to talk about a corollary to that. Don’t reinvent the wheel – reuse it.

Many teachers are overwhelmed by stress and work. Some of this comes with the territory, but a lot of it is caused by undue pressure from a number of sources.

Lesson plan templates that call for excruciating detail.

Administrators who harp on student engagement and expect every lesson to be as engaging as an amusement park.

New initiatives that call for every iota of content to be relevant and for every task you assign to be high on Bloom’s taxonomy.

The expectation that every piece of student work receives substantive, meaningful feedback.

It’s just not possible.

That’s not to say any of these things are bad. But as the old saying goes, moderation in all things.

You can’t turn it up to 11 every day. From time to time, you should bust out one of those Lexus lessons. But you need to have some tried and true, work-a-day lessons to sustain yourself in the meantime.

This is where having a core set of procedures, methods, and activities in your bag of tricks goes a long way. The wheel has already been invented. You shouldn’t re-invent it every day. Adapt it to your circumstances and re-use it.

Assembling Your Toolbox

When I was in grad school and preparing to become a teacher, one of our assignments was to create a methods log. At the time, I thought it was a bit mundane. In the years since, I’ve realized it was one of the most valuable things I did while at Rutgers.

The methods log was a part of our methods class and practicum. While we learned about how to teach and while we completed our various field placements, we kept a log of different activities and methods we used. This included a short description of the method, an example of how it was used, and an explanation of the circumstances in which it would be useful.

I vaguely remember scrambling at the end of the semester to complete my log and fill it up with a sufficient number of entries. But at the end, I was left with something extremely useful – a bag of reusable tricks.

When I started teaching that fall, I fell back on this bag of tricks.

I did take some time at the end of the summer to thoroughly prepare for those first few weeks. But pretty soon, I was caught up in the day to day hecticness of teaching, and I didn’t have hours to spend planning a single, 40-minute lesson.

Separate the Content from the Process

So instead, to expedite the process, I focused on two simple questions. What am I going to teach? And how am I going to teach it?

The first question was simple. It usually involved looking at the curriculum and pacing guide and knowing that I had to teach something about, say, the War of 1812. Then, I’d think back to my methods log, pick something off the list, and presto. Instant lesson. Sometimes there was a little more preparation involved, locating primary sources or creating graphic organizers. But really it all boils down to the same process: Students consume information. That could be a lecture, a reading, a video, a set of primary sources. Students complete an activity. We assess and continue.

Before I came to teaching, I was considering becoming a software engineer. And an analogy about computer programming is useful here. Software is built on functions. A function is a process where you feed in some kind of data, the software does something with it, and then it spits back out the data you want.

For example, a simple function might take a date – October 18, 2019 – and return the day of the week – Friday. When you’re writing your code, it doesn’t matter how that function works. The process itself has been abstracted so that you don’t have to worry about how it works. You just supply the information and use what you get back.

Amateur programmers have a tendency to hardcode these functions. They write everything from scratch, instead of reusing existing functions. One of the most challenging things about first learning to program is how to think abstractly and how to break your program down into functions. But once you do, it’s a game-changer.

Similarly, you may have a tendency to think about each lesson as unique and try to build it from the ground up. But once you learn to abstract the process and separate the content you’re teaching from the process that you’re using to teach it, it’s a game-changer. You might as well be doing mad-libs. Insert content here, select method there, and voila. Lesson.

How I Reused the Wheel in My Class

Throughout the years, I reused a lot of methods from that methods log. The jigsaw was a popular one, as was the think-pair-share. Gallery walks are great for getting people up and moving, and historical heads give students an opportunity to communicate their ideas in pictures. But I’ll close with a specific example of how I’ve lived this philosophy in my classroom – weekly current events.

As a social studies teacher who cares deeply about civics education, I made a conscious decision to allocate a significant amount of class time to current events. I wanted my students to know what was going on in the world and have an opportunity to discuss and think about those events.

So once a week, typically Fridays, we do some variation on the same lesson. I ask students to share anything they’ve heard about in the news or on social media. We watch a couple episodes of CNN10 and discuss each one in turn. Then, they write as an exit ticket a summary of what we saw and their opinion about one of the stories.

It achieves my goal of giving students an opportunity to learn about and discuss current events. It alleviates the need for me to spend any amount of time planning for the day. And it also gives my students a sense of familiarity with my expectations for writing.

To spice things up, we vary it from time to time. Instead of CNN10, we might watch another video – like the President’s State of the Union Address or a similar speech. Or we might spend some sustained silent reading time with a newspaper and then share out what we’ve read. But these are all variations on a theme, and they are simple adjustments to make.

So think about your own class and your own curriculum. Try and abstract things to separate the “what” of your teaching from the “how.” Polish those methods, and reuse them. Pace yourself, because this is most assuredly a marathon and not a sprint.

Brian Rock is a social studies teacher in New Jersey. He writes a blog about civics education – The Civic Educator. You can read more about proven practices for improving civics education, like teaching current events, in this post: “Six Research Based Methods for Teaching Civics Education.” You can also follow the blog on Facebook and connect with Brian on LinkedIn.

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