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Anne Guarnera is a doctoral candidate in Spanish at the University of Virginia. You can find her discussing teaching and learning on Twitter as @aguarnera and learn more about her work on her website.
It seems like the ultimate teaching hack: sharing lesson plans with other instructors to reduce your overall workload. One person writes a lesson on the female characters of Othello, another develops discussion questions on jealousy in the play, and soon enough, you’ve got yourself a unit on Othello.
Rarely, however, does collaborative lesson planning go as smoothly as that. Somebody gets behind on their planning, or your colleague's lesson just doesn’t make sense to you, or students’ changing needs leave you out of sync. Despite these common challenges, it is worth considering collaborative lesson planning as something worth doing, particularly if you are a TA teaching one section of a widely offered course. Not only is it a powerful time-saving tool, but it can also help you improve your teaching by expanding your pedagogical repertoire. Especially if you are new to the classroom, sharing the planning workload with other TAs (particularly experienced ones) can help you organize your course creatively (even if it’s an online class), acquire necessary resources to handle difficult course content, and ensure that your assessments are aligned with what you’re actually teaching in the class.
I have had one very successful collaborative lesson planning relationship, which was born out of desperate necessity. Fresh out of college and new to teaching, I was assigned to teach high school English to tenth- and eleventh-grade students—that’s two lesson plans per day, every weekday. The workload was intense. Lucky for me, before school started, I befriended one of the other new teachers at my school who was also teaching tenth-grade English that year. That first semester, she and I designed and planned an entire tenth-grade curriculum (using basic design principles), and in the process, learned a lot about what makes collaborative planning work. Here are some suggestions from my experience that might help you streamline your planning with this approach:
1. Choose wisely who you work with. Two factors are important to consider: the number of collaborators you team up with and their individual personalities. While a larger group can distribute the work better, it may be harder to match teaching styles and to maintain accountability among the members of the group. A smaller group means more work for each individual, but it also provides greater control over the kinds of lessons that you develop. Also consider the level of experience of group members. A balance between new TAs and veteran instructors can benefit everyone; ideally, experienced teachers will contribute their hard-earned wisdom to refine the group’s plans, and newer instructors will offer novel ideas for teaching the skills and content of the course. If your department has staff meetings for its TAs, this is a great place to look for potential collaborators; if not, it might be worth asking around the department to see who is teaching the same class(es) as you and following up with them to gauge their interest in working together.
2. Figure out the best planning routine. When do you want to plan your lessons and how? There are many ways to divide the work, but it is key to find a schedule and style that work for you and the rest of your group members. Here’s an example of how it worked with my lesson planning partner: Our first (long) meeting was at the beginning of the semester, when we met to brainstorm the syllabus contents, choosing which texts we would teach and how we would sequence them to align with our course’s learning objectives. From then on, we would meet about once a month to check in and plan out individual units of study in more detail. For the actual lesson planning itself, we traded off every other week. Two weeks per month, I would write all of the lesson plans and for the other two weeks, she would do the same. We’d share these on Sunday mornings, so that the other teacher would have an entire day to review them and ask any questions or make necessary changes.
This isn’t the only model for planning, however. Some collaborators prefer to do all the planning together, and so they meet every week (or at another set interval) to write lesson plans together instead of trading off the responsibility. If this is the road you choose, know that there are particular benefits to planning in this way.
3. Agree to be accountable to one another and to honestly—and promptly—voice any concerns that you have over the arrangement. The same rules that apply to other academic groups also apply here. For collaborative lesson planning to work, there has to be a good relationship between everyone involved. In particular, there should be a set protocol for what happens if someone thinks that they will miss a planning deadline. How will they communicate that fact to the group? When will they give notice? When will they make up the work and how will they do so in a way that generates the least negative impact on the other group members? Likewise, the group should plan to periodically evaluate the planning process itself. Consider scheduling brief monthly check-ins to ensure that group members are satisfied with the distribution of work, students’ mastery of the lessons, and any other issues that should be evaluated. Conducting a group self-evaluation like this will go a long way toward a fruitful collaboration!
Have you ever used collaborative lesson planning in your teaching? What are some other tips that you would add to help others make it work for them?
[Image provided by Flickr user Drew-Henry and used under a Creative Commons license]