The “Back Pocket” Lesson Plan

Although some people have a natural bent for teaching, almost anyone can become an effective teacher over time, given enough practice and effort. One thing that makes teaching easier whether you are a natural-born teacher or have worked hard at the craft, whether you’ve been teaching for a decade or you’re struggling through your first appointment, is what I’ll term the “back-pocket lesson plan.” This is a teaching method that you’ve found to be especially effective, and which you have used enough times that you feel very comfortable with it. I call it the “back pocket” lesson plan because it’s a technique or activity that you can literally pull out and use in the classroom with little to no advance preparation–it’s as available to you for use as an object in your back pocket might be.

“Back pocket” lesson plans are perfect for days when you’re too swamped to prepare carefully for a class session; when you’ve forgotten or are unable to access some element of a prepared lesson without which you cannot proceed as planned, like a handout or reading or audio-visual component, or when the Internet is unexpectedly down in the classroom; when you simply cannot think of something interesting or meaningful to do in class; for days when the planned lesson seems to be going flat; for days when you finish early and have ten or more minutes left in the session; or really, for any occasion when you want to turn the class over a little more to the students.

Graduate students should try to cultivate a few “back pocket” lesson plans relatively early on in their teaching careers, since they can substantially lessen the stress of learning how to teach in a college-level classroom. Ideally, you’ll have a handful of these kinds of activities at your beck and call when you need them, but for now–especially if you are new to teaching–just one or two will do. Here are a few of the “back pocket” lesson plans I’ve developed over the years. See if any of them would work for you, and give it a try the next time you’re struggling to get through a class session. And don’t forget to report back and let me know if something worked well for you!

  1. “What did you notice?” Ask the students to take 2-3 minutes to write down one thing they noticed about a reading–either that surprised, delighted, shocked, confused, upset, or enlightened them. Then, have them meet in small groups (3-4 students to a group) for about 8-10 minutes to share their writings with one another. Within the group, have them compile their top three. Each group presents their top three questions/observations, which serve as the backbone for the rest of the class session. (If it is clear that students have not done the reading, give them a little more time at the beginning and tell them it’s fine to page through the text/essay/handout to refresh their memories. If they don’t have their reading with them, tell them to share with someone else in the class and to remember that next time, they need to be prepared to participate. Don’t ever let them off the hook for the reading. If you dismiss a class for not having read, you’ll lose that class because you’ve conveyed to them that you don’t actually care if they do the reading. You can pull this activity out of your back pocket any time there is a reading involved in student preparation for class.)
  2. “Find one quote that…” Pick something you’ve been working on–characterization, narrative structure, a poetic element, genre, theme, critical approach–and ask students to take five minutes to skim the text and locate one quote that illustrates that concept. Then have them share these in small groups. Ask one group to share aloud the quotes they chose, and then ask the rest of the class if anyone else chose those quotes. If so, ask them why they chose it. If not, ask what other quotes they chose and why. This both checks that your students understand whatever concept you are looking for, and opens space for a dynamic discussion of the different ways a single concept can be illustrated throughout a text. (While they are looking for a quote, you should also locate one or two, yourself, in case it falls flat and no one seems to understand quite what you are asking from them; that way, you have an example handy for them. This activity is best used when you have been studying a particular concept or set of concepts for a while and the students have some familiarity for what you are asking them to locate; alternately, it can serve as a diagnostic activity near the beginning of an introductory literature class. Beyond “back pocket” status, with a little more preparation, you can turn it into an effective multi-layered diagnostic by asking the groups to each look for a quote illustrating a different concept.)
  3. “If I were teaching this text, I would focus on…” Ask the students to take five minutes to write down the two things they would focus on if they were teaching this text to the class, and why. Then ask for 4-5 volunteers to share their answers (if no one volunteers, call on a few folks). Write their answers on the board, and use this as the basis for the day’s lesson. The benefit here is that you are targeting your lesson to precisely what the students are telling you they want/are interested in. You can always work what you think is especially important into the discussion as well. (You can of course alter this so it is not a text-based question, such as “if I were teaching this scientific concept, I would focus on…..”)
  4. “Think-pair-share.” Ask a substantial question, have the students divide into pairs to locate an answer, have them discuss their answers with another group and come to a consensus, and then have them take turns reporting these answers to the overall class to begin discussion. This works for any problem you want the students thinking about, and doesn’t have to be focused on a reading or other text; it can also be centered on a scientific or mathematical concept, or some technological question or issue, or a business scenario, or an ethical dilemma–anything that requires them to think substantially through a question to find an answer.
  5. “One-minute papers.” These are great either at the very beginning of a class session to get students thinking about the material if they’ve had homework or a reading to prepare, or to sum up the class at the end so you can read through them and check for understanding or for concepts or questions your students have that you have not addressed in class but might want to. This is literally a one-minute paper–tell them to write for one minute about the reading, about the class discussion that day, about what they learned, about questions they still have–whatever you choose–and then collect these. If it’s the beginning of the class, rifle through them and look for one that seems likely to begin a good discussion or can help introduce what you want to do with them that day. If it’s the end of class, take them with you and read through them to get a sense of where the students are at.

These are just a few of the activities that I can pull out, dust off, and use in essentially any class I’m teaching. They’ve proven over the years to be effective ways to construct a student-oriented classroom, as well as ensuring that I am teaching not only what I think is important, but also what my students need to know in order to access the material, and what they are interested in learning or knowing more about. “Back pocket” lesson plans are not about relinquishing control of your class, or not having to prepare for teaching. You still have to do the preparatory work of reading the materials you are assigning and making sure you are comfortable enough with them to meet your students wherever they want to go in terms of discussing them. But, when they are used appropriately, these kinds of lessons can serve as the foundation for a collaborative classroom setting in which you are working together with your students, rather than simply on their behalf, creating a space of inquiry that belongs to everyone in the room.

If you’ve been teaching for a while, what are some of your “back pocket” lesson pans? Share below!


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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