Anatomy of a Lesson

 aolAnatomy of a Lesson: AOL Lesson Planning Guide

Recently, I came across a resource my one of my old professor’s shared with us.  I don’t think this is the “end all – be all” formula for effective teaching, but it might serve as a helpful resource for some, or at least stimulate some reflective thinking.

Rather than just posting a link I thought I would take some time to discuss each section below: While reading there is one thing to keep in mind:

A lesson can span more than one class period, so don’t I think this template  indicates we do all of these everyday – just every lesson.

Section 1: Objective & Why it is important:

The First section regarding objectives I’ve talked about at length here and here, So I won’t go into too much detail.  Assuming that we are on board with the practice of using objectives (learning targets) and sharing objectives with students, I would like to focus on the second part of that statement “Why It is Important.”  In the beginning of a lesson, motivating students to learn material is a difficult challenge depending on the content, but one thing we can agree on is that if students determine if what they are about to learn as useful, they will probably put more effort into learning it.  Although it is easier said than done, taking the time to explain why our objectives are useful to students is time well spent.

Section 2: Activate/Assess Prior Knowledge:

This format indicates that we spend up to 20% of class getting students to think about what they already know about an objective.  This is another motivating factor that may allow kids to access text, or content, a little easier.  It is natural that people like to do things that we are good at.  As learners, we feel more comfortable learning about content we already know something about.  This section of a lesson could involve various front loading strategies: KWL, Anticipation Statements, Whole class brainstorming, any activity where students compile their knowledge of a topic prior to a more in depth study.

Teacher input 20%/Student Active participation 45%:

Me: What do I do alone to help students understand the content? (lecture, think aloud, demonstrations,  modeling…)

We: What do we do whole class? (whole class discussion, share-outs, interactive notes…)

2: What do we do in small groups or pairs? (Think Pair Share, reciprocal teaching, summary activities, compare notes…)

You: What do students do on their own: (Interactive notes, independent reading, annotating text, Think, Pair, Share,…)

When interpreting the above, I don’t think necessarily that these steps must occur in order, although they certainly could, but I do see value in hitting each of the four elements during a lesson. I think most lessons involve an element of teacher-directed input- whether that is a lecture, power point, or film, but students also need to process the content or practice the skill.  Doing so in small groups (closely monitored by a teacher) allows students to see how they are progressing in relationship with their peers and can give them immediate feedback and/or validation, while sharing out whole class exposes entire class to how the content or skills were processed by different students.

Identify Student Success 15%:

Ultimately, at the end of the day (or lesson), we need to ask ourselves “How do I know my students have it?”  This is where formative assessments comes into play – a topic which entire books have addressed.  But in terms of lesson planning, it is helpful to always have that question in the back of our minds – How can we tell if students have it? This requires students to demonstrate content knowledge or skill in various formats: paper pencil tests, discussions, conferences, observable behaviors, graphic organizers, summaries, ticket out the door activities…

Connected Practice:

This simply involves, as I interpret this, using the content knowledge or skill students addressed in the lesson to demonstrate mastery of objective.  i don’t think we can get here every day – but the more we do – the more we can make the learning in our rooms purposeful.

Monitor and adjust:

This is a phrase used and heard quite often in education. This basically implies that as the teacher – we are responsible to make sure the instructional decisions we are making are having the desired effect.  This requires us to frequently “take the temperature” of the room.  We can do this internally by being aware of body language and student activity, or we can simply ask students how their learning is going.  The key here, and one of the most difficult elements of being a teacher, is to be able to adjust when things aren’t going as planned – or to adjust when things go better than planned.  And yes, sometimes it seems we need to adjust for both in the same lesson for different students – a daunting task.


Teacher Feature: Sara Ligon: Inscreasing student engagement with Academic Vocabulary

I recently found my way into Sara Ligon’s U.S History class where she was teaching a lesson about how African American’s were treated in the 1920s.

After spending some time reviewing previous content, watching a few short YouTube videos from that era, and a brief mini-lecture over the content, Sara designed a simple, but engaging, activity for her students to review the vocabulary associated with the unit.

The Lesson:

Before students arrived Sara has  selected about 10-15 academic vocab terms and typed 1 term on each paper.  She also had the matching definition on another sheet of paper. She did one set of terms and definitions on white paper and another set on orange paper.  Then she hung them up all over the room before the students arrived.   She organized the class into two teams (Orange and White) Then gave the teams direction.  The first team to collect all the papers and match them with the proper definition would win.

One of the terms matched with it's definition

One of the terms matched with it’s definition

When she said “Go!” there was not one student left standing.  They raced around the room collected the papers, discussed the content, and completed the task in less than 10 minutes (there were about 15 terms).  Some students

emerged as leaders, while others did more listening , but I didn’t observe any students who were completely disengaged. She closed with a short debriefing activity where students worked with a partner to answer a question based on the overall content.

Sara could have given the students a matching worksheet to review the terms or even do a whole class discussion of each term where they would basically be doing  the same task, but I doubt she would have gotten the same level of engagement. In those scenarios she would have to compete with ear buds, phones, and a multitude of other distractions.  Those were not a problem for her today.

Possible Variations:

After leaving Sara’s class I couldn’t help but think how easy it would be to use this strategy in any content area, or to modify the strategy to increase the complexity:

  • Instead of a matching activity, this could be made into a categorization activity where students fit details/terms underneath larger umbrella categories
  • In addition to terms and definitions, Sara could have added a third element – examples. The students would then have to find the term, it’s definition, and an example.
  • The terms or details could be events that occurred or steps in an equation and the students may have to put them in the proper order.


While it may not be appropriate to these activities everyday, it was a nice change of pace for her students. She was able to reach a lot of the kinesthetic/visual learners in the class by getting them out of their seats and actually manipulating the definitions and terms.   By using friendly competition and physical movement Sara engaged her students to review the content.

What should I write on the board?

I wrote about learning objectives earlier this week but wanted to zoom in on one element of learning objectives that I find very important and helpful for students and teachers.  Writing and posting learning objectives is great, but if we are just doing it to “jump through a hoop,” or to fulfill an evaluation requirement, we are not serving ourselves or the students.

When walking into the classroom in the morning, it may be easy to forget to write the daily objective down. Even if we do manage to get it on the board, is it meaningful or are we using it?

One way to make learning objectives meaningful is to make them specific. I quoted Marzano in my last post who basically said the more specific a learning goal the better.

Inspired by a lesson I observed this morning, here is an example of the role specific objectives can play.  Consider the following learning goals:

  1. Today we are going to learn about poetry!
  2. Today we are going to learn about Haiku and Limerick Poetry.
  3. Today we are going to identify the characteristics of Haiku and Limerick poetry and compare and contrast the effects of those characteristics and analyze how they impact the tone of each genre.

Consider these questions and I will speak to each of them briefly:

1.  How would developing a learning goal like #3  help you design the rest of your unit?

  • Specific learning goals give students and teachers common direction.

Everyone is on the same page and understands the end result expected. To take it a step further teachers can then elaborate using a scale to explain levels of criteria to meet the objective, but let’s save that for another post.

  • A specific learning goal will help teachers develop tasks,activities,and assessments more effectively.

Consider #2, a slightly more specific goal than #1. This goal does not help the teacher consider activities because it is too general.  Whereas with #3, students know that they will need knowledge of the characteristics in order to eventually describe what effects those characteristics have. So a teacher who knows students who have to compare these two styles may ask students to look closely at both types of poems and analyze the characteristics of each completing a Venn Diagram to record their learning. A teacher lacking a specific goal may result in a lesson where the teacher just reads the poem and discusses it with students without any specific focus.  How can we identify if a student is learning if the what the student is supposed to learn is not clear?

2. Let’s say you are teaching this and you are going to use the Venn Diagram Task I explained above, but you posted learning goal #2 and barely talked about it.  How much difference would it make to specify that objective and refer to it throughout the lesson and what are some strategies to help do that?

  • By writing the specific learning goal and discussing with students, teachers will have a reference point throughout the lesson to help students remain focused on the task at hand. We can more easily chunk their learning.  Teachers could say things during class like

“All we are doing now Is identifying characteristics of a haiku, later we will move on and talk about their effects and even use them in our writing, but first we need to find out what they are.”

  • When students demonstrate success with learning goal by identifying a few characteristics of each poem we can point to the board and give them some positive reinforcement by letting them know they have completed the first part of that learning goal and then probe them toward the more complex part. That is difficult or impossible to do with vague learning goals. This may sound like:

“Yes, that’s right (insert name here) Haiku Poems are very short and follow a specific pattern, How does that effect the tone?”

  • Using those objectives to help clarify where the lesson is going and using them as a reference point to show them where they are in relationship to the goal is one way to help students track their progress.
  • So, when we walk in the room in the morning, I encourage to think deliberately about your learning goals and rather than wasting your time and energy by writing down a goal that won’t help you or the students, spend time developing a specific goal and use it during the lesson to help keep you and students focused on the end result during the lesson.

If you have ideas or reflections about how you use learning goals in your classroom, please share them in the comments below.

Further Reading:

Learning Goals are the foundation for success

In this post, I would like to address how a simple tweak in classroom practices could have powerful results.  I plan to follow up with a series of short posts that address how to use learning goals effectively.

Best practices for all content areas require that we teach with the end in mind, in other words, we have already established what we want students to know or do as a result of our teaching.  Sometimes we assume that because WE know where we are going that our students do too.  Many teachers will agree that making these types of assumptions about students can often lead to stress and frustration on both ends. Writing and using clear goals help students and teachers by giving them a specific target to aim for and the means to measure the progress towards that target during instruction.

“The research strongly implies that the more specific the goals are, the better they are”(Marzano 2009).


Learning Goal in US History

Common mistakes using learning goals:

  • Goals are not stated or posted at all.
  • Goals are posted but teacher does not refer to them explicitly.
  • Goals are too general (Understand Photosynthesis –> Students will be able to describe how photosynthesis functions in terms of respiration, nutrition, and growth).
  • Teacher does not explain relevancy of goals to students.
  • Teacher does not establish criteria for learning goals.
  • Activities are posted in place of learning targets.


  • Begin with the standard then clarify specific daily learning targets (knowledge and skills) required to meet standard.
  • Ask yourself before each lesson what do I want students to understand after this lesson or what will I want students to be able to do? The answers are your learning goals. Write them on the board.
  • Take the first bit of class after bell work to review previous learning goals from day before.
photo 2

Learning Goal for an ELA class. More specific daily targets were provided for students in handouts and lecture.

After explicitly explaining current learning goal, ask students to summarize what they are supposed to learn today? “What are you going to be able to do before you leave today?”

  • Take some time to explain why the goal is important for them. We need to do better than “because it is on the test” if we want students to really buy in. Try explaining how skills or knowledge you are teaching can impact their academic lives, social lives, or their future career if possible.
  • Writing the goals down on the board and referring to them constantly when lecturing or answering questions.
  • Provide positive reinforcement when students answer questions or provide evidence of progressing on that goal.

Learning Target for reading class.

I’d like to end with a sports metaphor.  A coach would not simply go tell his team to score a touchdown, or hit a home run and expect players to do that.  A good coach would identify specific skills or knowledge along the way  that would result in the ultimate goal.

Then the coach would focus on those in practice and say things like “Today we are going to work on (running routes, blocking schemes…)” Then, more than likely, the coach would  explain how working on those will help result in a touchdown to insure players have some degree of buy-in. Once a coach has a little buy-in from players, he may demonstrate that skill to show what his expectations are in a game. This will help players know what success looks like and give them a picture of where they are in relationship to what is expected.

Now during half-time of the next game, the coach will have a better reference point to speak to players about HOW to score more touchdowns rather than providing an overly general goal: “Just get out there and score more points then them!”

So moving forward, here are some questions to reflect on.

  • Am I communicating to students what I want them to know and do?
  • Do students know what success looks like in relationship to the learning goal?
  • Are my learning goals specific enough?
  • What can I do to improve my own use of learning goals and learning targets

Please share any Questions/comments/insights that you have concerning this topic.