At my dyad teaching placement in a middle school, a colleague and I wound up teaching a lesson this week. It was the first time I’ve ever attempted to teach middle schoolers, and I fear I was a bit nervous. That and some conceptual errors in the planning process led to a lesson which was a bit off target; yet much was learned, and I’m looking forward to the next attempt.

The topic was “perpendicular bisectors”, taught to a small class of eighth-graders. I believe our central error lay in our over-emphasis on a learning activity, rather than a focus on learning objectives – what we wanted them to know or be able to do by the end of the lesson. It was the best support for the validity of the backwards-design philosophy we all learned about in our lesson-planning class that I have seen so far – I’m confident that if we’d followed that process, our lesson would have made a lot more sense, to both us and the kids.

Here is the labor of love I designed as a learning activity:

It’s a set of three problems which require construction of perpendicular bisectors to solve. The intent was to show kids that problems like this are not confined to theory, or to goofy problems from the textbook involving post offices on fictional islands. The irony is that our focus on this worksheet as a learning activity, combined with our over-ambition regarding what we had time to teach, left us preparing the kids very poorly for what they actually had to do: use compasses to construct intersecting arcs and thereby find the perpendicular bisector of a line segment. Instead, we found many students folding the pages of their journals in mimicry of what we had done with paddy-paper, or assigning arbitrary center-points to line segments.

It was almost textbook – the students were working with what we’d taught them, and what we hadn’t taught them. The result was that we got a very clear and instant picture of how effective our lesson had been.

The two take-aways:

1. Backwards design! Too much focus was put on a nifty worksheet with pretty drawings. Proud as I am of my art, it doesn’t mean a thing if the kids don’t learn.

2. Time. I’m going to make it a practice in the coming weeks to plan activities which take up approximately half of the allotted time. My justification for this is multi-pronged: I need to train myself to be more realistic about what I have time to teach, I need to incorporate student participation and student construction of knowledge into my process – and leave lots of room for the inevitable questions and course-changes – instead of talking at them. Additionally, I need to remember that is very easy to teach too much – having recent experience of my own in the act of being overwhelmed, I need to make sure not to overwhelm my students – to pursue depth of knowledge, in cases where depth is more important than breadth.