by Letty Rising
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If you’ve been teaching in a classroom for any length of time, you will know that even the best laid plans sometimes yield cringeworthy results. In Montessori training, we see our teacher trainers modeling how to present these interesting and fascinating lessons that are chock full of new information that theoretically should ignite a flame of interest that inspires repetition.
Unlike the repetition in the first plane of development, this doesn’t look like doing the exact same thing over and over again, as the young ones take pleasure in doing.
Repetition happens through using a variety of materials that demonstrate the same concept (think about the large bead frame, the checkerboard, the bank game, the flat bead frame…all of these different materials lead back to mastery of long multiplication!). Variety also looks like students creating lots and lots of different kinds of projects as follow up work…posters, booklets, timelines, dioramas…the opportunities are endless!
However, you’ll come to a time early in your teaching career (and even later on in your teaching career!) where your lesson falls flat. What does it look like, when a lesson falls flat?
- The students are inattentive, looking around, not paying attention.
- The children are sitting still, but their eyes are glazed over, and no one is responding to your questions or prompts.
- The students are verbally expressing boredom or displeasure from the lesson.
- The students don’t know what to do after the lesson.
- You conduct a brief formative assessment during or after the lesson, and it is clear that they do not understand.
There are probably various other ways that a lesson can fall flat, but the above list is a decent start. In fact, this list can help you anticipate potential pitfalls and challenges.
When reflecting on a presentation and how it went, you can refer to this list and think about if you experienced any of these things. It will likely be the case that on occasion, a presentation will fall flat no matter what pitfalls you have anticipated or strategies you’ve tried.
However, if you find that it is happening more often than not, there are things you might want to try in order to experience success. When your lesson falls flat, ask yourself the following:
Did I activate prior knowledge at the outset of the presentation?
When teachers jump right into a lesson without giving context and orienting the students, what often happens is that the students start right off the bat feeling confused, and disengaged.
When starting a lesson, always try to start with “remember when?” For example, “Remember last time when we talked about the timeline of humans, and we learned about humans from long ago…what they ate, how they kept themselves warm, and the tools they used to hunt for animals? Well today, we are going to talk about all of the ways that humans satisfy their needs.”
With young students in particular, it might be that you don’t have previous lessons or prior knowledge to draw upon. In those instances, you will want to pull in their general knowledge.
“Today we are going to talk about the characteristics of mammals. Mammals have fur and give birth to live young. Do any of you have mammals at home for pets? Sam, you have a dog, and Juan, you have a cat? Yes, those are mammals!”
And you might want to hear them talk about the mammals they have seen in their neighborhoods, at zoos, on television, and etc. Getting their minds primed to think about mammals gets them tuned in and primed for the presentation you are about to give!
Did I entice them with an inspirational opening that drew them into the presentation?
You will want to start out with something that draws the students in! This is often referred to as a “hook.” Maybe that will be a beautiful display of some artifacts or fossils for a history presentation. Maybe it will be an evocative question. For example, if you are giving a lesson on seed dispersal, you can start with “Who here knows that seeds wander and travel throughout the world just like many people do?”
Did I explain myself clearly and in such a way that made sense to the students?
Many times when we give a presentation, we are not aware of the fact that our explanation is vague, unclear, or lacks enough description or detail for the student to understand the information received, what they can do with the information, or what are the next steps in terms of what THEY should do.
Presenting lessons clearly through detailed storytelling cements images in their minds. When giving a lesson that involves a demonstration, commenting on the process as you execute the steps, and checking in to make sure that they understand along the way, is important in delivering a successful lesson. If the students are confused, you can always backtrack and start over from the beginning. If they continue to be confused, you can end the lesson and present it on another day.
Was there a visual or kinesthetic component to the lesson?
It goes without saying that in Montessori classrooms, we often have physical materials for students to manipulate and explore with their hands. However, many of our lessons are told in the form of a story. When this is the case, you will want to have visuals, such as charts or books with pictures, or printed images, or object for them to observe or hold. Activating as many of the senses as you are able will lead to greater chances for engagement.
Did I lecture the students, or tell them a story, or engage in dialogue?
In a previous blog post, I wrote about the difference between a lecture and a story. It goes without saying that students are more attentive with stories than with lectures, as stories contain lots of descriptive words that create images in the child’s mind.
Was the lesson too easy or too hard?
Sometimes a lesson falls flat because it didn’t hit the sweet spot of being a “just right” lesson. If it is too easy, the children will be bored or inattentive, and it is too hard, they will also be bored, but because they aren’t grasping the content.
Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to ask at the beginning if any of the children in the group can share any information they know about the lesson you are about to present. If you have a child or two who clearly has acquired the knowledge or mastered the content, then you’ll want to send them off and bring them back another time for a “just right” lesson.
Was the presentation too long?
Remember, the Montessori approach tells us that children construct themselves. This means that the lessons we give are the initial keys that unlock the knowledge base for them. We are sowing seeds with our lessons, and then they are engaging in further practice and follow up work, which is where a bulk of the learning occurs.
If your presentation is long, or if they know to expect that every presentation you give is long, then they will become disengaged. Be sure to keep those lessons on the shorter side, 15 minutes or so. There will be the occasion when your presentations will be longer, but those should be the exceptions rather than the norm.
Did I group the students properly?
Sometimes lessons can fall flat because the combination of students lends itself to the lesson devolving due to difficult behavior. Being strategic about which children are in presentations together will help ensure that the lesson stays on track without going off the rails due to silliness or strong personalities trying to talk over one another.
When you’re in the thick of it, and the lesson isn’t going well
You can try to capture their attention with some of the strategies mentioned above. However, if after some valiant attempts you haven’t made progress…stop the lesson! You don’t have to keep trying to push forward when students are inattentive, disengaged, or disruptive. You can simply say “Okay, I think we are going to stop here, and continue this lesson on another day. You are welcome to return to your other work.”
When Your Lesson Falls Flat, Don’t Despair!
When our lessons go without a hitch, there’s no better feeling. However, there will be those times when we stumble on our end, or there’s something going on with the students that contributes to the major flop. It’s going to happen on occasion, even in the most normalized of classrooms, with the most experienced of teachers.
By reflecting on your presentations and asking yourself the questions above, you will be able to minimize the occurrence of “dud” lessons in the future, while elevating your teaching practice at the same time.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.