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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

making the most of your lesson planner

Finding a lesson planner that works for you can be challenging, particularly if you are a music teacher. The fact of the matter is, not only are our jobs vastly different from elementary homeroom or secondary LA/math/science/social studies teachers, but each of our jobs are vastly different from each other (and can change dramatically from year to year)! Being a planner junkie-turned-designer myself, I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out the best solution to this dilemma, and I thought this would be a good time to share my thoughts with you!

First of all, effective lesson planning is very much dependent on individual taste and style. So please take these these thoughts for what they are: my own opinion. This also leads me to my first tip:

Find the system that works best for you

As much as many of you may cringe at the thought, if you want to have a lesson planning system that works to make your life easier and not more cumbersome, you're going to have to do some comparison shopping. There are 3 aspects to consider when choosing a planning system: format, visual organization, and stylistic appeal. 

For format, you have 3 basic options: digital, online, or paper. For many teachers, digital planning is a great option because they can save their lesson plans and copy and paste them from year to year, class to class. Depending on your level of tech savvy, you can also organize your lesson plans so that you can quickly find lessons for various concepts, skills, or resources. Many people use word processors, spreadsheet software, or other basic free software that comes with most computers to write and save their lesson plans. I also have a free lesson plan template that you can download and use digitally (or print and use a paper copy). If you like the idea of copying and pasting, saving, and organizing your lessons this way, don't mind having everything on a computer screen rather than a physical copy, and have unreliable internet, then this may be the best solution for you.

Several options have become available recently for online planning. The great thing about online planning is that you can use it from any device with internet access. With cloud storage, you don't have to worry about a computer crashing and losing all of your data either! Planbook is an example of an online planning option that many music teachers have found useful. If you like the idea of planning, storing, and organizing lessons digitally and have reliable internet access, this may be a great option for you.

Paper planning may seem like an out of date solution, but for me it is the most effective way to do my weekly planning. As a student, I always found that I learned material best when I wrote it out. I would write study notes for myself before tests not so I could study them but so that I could learn it through the process of writing them. I also spend a lot of time on a computer or smartphone for other things, and don't really like the idea of having yet another reason to spend time staring at a screen. And my internet is not the best. If you like having a hard copy of your lessons to look at without relying on technology, or find the process of actually writing things out helpful for your thought process, then paper planning may be best for you.

I actually use a combination of digital and paper planning myself- I keep all of my long-range plans (and monthly lesson banks) digitally so I can easily save my plans from year to year, but I do my weekly planning on paper so that I make sure my brain has a better chance of processing everything by writing it down ;) If you want to know more about my complete lesson planning system, from curriculum down to daily lesson plans, you can sign up for my free email series here.

For visual organization, you need to think about how you organize your lessons in your head, and how you want to be able to see and write them to most effectively plan. A lot of this will depend on your teaching schedule: whether you are on a rotational schedule or not, how often you see each class, how many different classes you teach (and how many sections of the same class), etc. It can also depend on how you go about deciding what to teach too. Do you want to be able to see all the lessons for one class/grade in a row, see all of the lessons in the order you are going to be teaching them each day, or the material you are going to be covering with each class/grade for the entire week or rotation? Some of this may require some trial and error. Digital and online systems sometimes have different options for how you view your lessons, and paper planners come in a huge range of formats- I have 7 different format options myself, which you can see at the bottom of this post. If you try a few different formats, you will probably start to get a clearer sense of what makes the most sense for you so you can plan most effectively (hint- my lesson planning email series includes free samples of all of my planner formats so you can try them out).

Stylistic appeal may seem like a silly thing to include on a list of factors for effective planning, but I honestly believe that it can make a difference in how well you lesson plan. For many teachers, color coding is very helpful in quickly finding the lesson you are looking for. For others, colors just make things too cluttered. And having a planner that fits your style will make you more likely to actually use it. If you are a crafty, color-loving, style-conscious person, a cut-and-dry, black and white page with plain boxes is not going to be appealing for you to pull out and use. If you are a practical person who likes to keep things simple and professional, that same cut-and-dry look may be calming and satisfying. It's important that your planner doesn't make you less motivated to plan lessons. We all know how much of a chore it often is to begin with.

Once you've found the best system for you, it's important to make sure you are getting the most out of that system to make your planning as effective and pleasant as possible!

Get the most out of your lesson planning system

It happens all the time: you find the perfect planning system and get it all set up. You're super excited about it and use it all the time for about 3 months. Then you stop, or the planner loses its appeal, and you can't figure out what went wrong! And then the cycle repeats. Sometimes it's because you haven't found the best system for you, but often it's because you're not using the system you have as effectively as you could be. Many times there are features available that you simply aren't using, or things that you could use differently to better fit your planning needs. If you find yourself in this situation, take another look at your planning system and see if there are ways you could use it differently to make it more effective before throwing it all out.

Because I know my own planners like dear friends, and because if I tried to go through every planner option out there in the universe this long post would just become unbearably long, I'm going to give you some examples of different ways you can use various sections of my lesson planning pages below. But these tips can be applied to many other types of planners as well, including paper, digital, or online options. The main idea is to figure out what you should track where and how, no matter how you think the planner says you "should" track something.

I have designed 7 different lesson planning formats specifically with music teachers in mind. You can click on the picture to enlarge it and see the suggestions I have for different ways you can use some of the different parts of each planning format, and click on the name of the format to get a closer look at the other parts of the planner or download it for yourself.

I hope you found these tips helpful, whether you end up using one of my planners or something else entirely! If you have any questions or tips of your own, I would love to hear them- there's not much I love talking about more than planners! Leave a comment or send me an email. 

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  1. Thanks for an insightful post! I need help being more organized!

    1. It can be discouraging to try to use the "standard" lesson planning solutions out there and feel like they just aren't built for us as music teachers, but there are actually a ton of great options out there that can help us get organized without having to basically re-create the whole thing ourselves! :)