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Lessons Learned: CPS teachers now better tailor education plans for students

Erik Young teacher social studies poses with weekly lessplan one his class's text books King College Prep High School Chicago

Erik Young, teacher of social studies, poses with a weekly lesson plan and one of his class's text books at King College Prep High School in Chicago, Ill., on Wednesday, November 21, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 26, 2012 6:14AM

Mr. Erik Young could try to explain the difficulties of urban migration to his AP Human Geography class.

But what if he let Stevie Wonder do it?

“Living for the City” popped into Young’s head once as a catchy way to introduce the complexities of mass migration of rural Americans to cities to his students at King College Prep High School.

And now it’s part of a lesson.

“I always like to try things, using a song here and there, using role play,” said the social studies teacher, who frequently leans on poems, music and original documents to make a point.

“The way my mind works, having a particular format, having to have a regulated format, would feel like it’s too mundane, too micromanaged.”

Young’s principal at King luckily has afforded teachers flexibility in writing their lesson plans, which show what their students need to learn, and it will be done effectively during class time. But now that freedom is guaranteed in the contract he and his fellow 26,000 Chicago Public Schools teachers just signed in the wake of the city’s first teacher strike in a generation. The less lucky now get to ditch an old district-provided template for whatever written method teachers felt best captured the lesson.

To some degree, CPS is catching up to the norm.

No state mandates a particular format or template, said Linda Gojak, president of the National Council of Teachersof Mathematics, adding, “I don’t know too many districts that actually have a template.”

“It’s also a matter of trust,” Gojak said. “Different people plan in different ways.”

Linda Davin, a senior policy analyst for the DC-based National Education Association, said teachers in training are instructed in how to write and develop effective lesson plans, and graduate from education schools prepared to do so. And no one’s arguing against standards or a curriculum, she said.

“But that need for steadiness or forconsistency does not translate to everyone turning to the same page in the same textbook at the same time every day,” Davin said.

Principal Tara Shelton insisted on templates when she first took the helm at South Loop Elementary five or six years ago “because we were trying to instill a culture of learning.

“Sure we hate cookie-cutter, but sometimes they’re necessary to get people’s mindsets changed,” she said.

Shelton said her requirements have since relaxed: Include kids who need extra help, identify how to make sure everyone’s learning, and upload the plans Mondays to a Google Drive account so everyone in school can see them and collaborate.

Nobody should be spending hours upon hours on the details, she said.

“I just need to know you understand the kids in front of you,” she said. “I don’t want my teachers stressed out. Once you get in front of children, depending on their response or their level of understanding, you’ve got to immediately switch a lesson plan.”

It’s unclear what direct effect any particular lesson plan format will have inside the classroom, good or bad. But it keeps teachers like Young feeling engaged in a creative process needed to teach well, even with motivated kids at King College Prep.

Young jots his ideas down happenstance as they come to him. He moves them around, organizing them in a handwritten book before typing them up in a centralized spot in time to teach. He stays weeks ahead of schedule, tried to remain flexible in case current events pop up, or kids want to stick with a topic a little longer.

Tara Stamps, a 14-year-veteran language arts teacher, also likes to write out her plans by hand to start, then type them for her principal at Edward Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts.

“It’s hard for me to change that practice. I’m a visual learner,” she said. “Being able to write your own lesson plans allows you some creativity and authenticity to them.”

Like finding literature that her children ­— mainly African American kids living in the footprint of the old Cabrini Green housing projects ­— can see themselves in. Stamps said she also works for a “good” principal. She knows not everyone in the district has been so lucky.

“I am aware of some truly unreasonable, insane, unflexible principals,” she said.

The Chicago Teachers Union said some schools are asking teachers to fill out extra forms with their plans. At Jane A. Neil Elementary School, for example, teachers were given a “lesson plan self-assessment” form.

“Complaints about the lesson plan provision of the contract are starting to come into the union and we are starting to address these matters,” said CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin. “We encourage our members to file grievances if they believe their contractual rights are being violated.”

A CPS spokeswoman called the documents “additional resources to aid in lesson planning that were not intended as requirements.”

“Many schools across the District use different varieties of planning tools, all of which are meant for teachers to help improve their practice,” Robyn Ziegler said, insisting the forms were to be used at the teachers’ discretion.

The thing about any lesson plans, said Stamps, is they’re only as good as the teacher who writes them.

Stamps has known at least one teacherwho was “degreed up the ying yang,” and “looks amazing on paper, but less so in front of children.

Because none of it matters if the teacher can’t manage the classroom, Stamps said. Then the most carefully crafted lessons remain on paper.

“If you can’t manage kids, you can’t teach kids,” she said. “If the kids don’t buy into you, they’re not going to learn from you.”

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