Saturday, December 12, 2015

When Lessons Bomb, What We Can Learn

Last week I chose a book for one of my first grade groups.  Because I needed a bit of time after our lesson to check in with a few readers, I chose a book I thought would be on the easier side.  The text had a repetitive language pattern with only two lines of print per page.  It had a core of known words students would be able to use.  The pictures supported the print.

This group of readers was having a hard time building reading strategies.  When things were tricky they would just stop, unsure of what to do.  I was trying to help them to learn to reread when they weren't sure.  Rereading gives readers an opportunity to think about what makes sense and take a closer look at print.  It seems to give the powerless power, and give just enough time for extra thought to solve the problem.

They started off doing quite well.  The pictures helped them to figure out the pattern of the text.  In the story, a witch sneezes and blows everything away.  Page after page she blows something away.  They struggled a bit when the picture began to show more than just the one thing she was blowing away, but most worked through that.  When the story took a turn, they fell apart.  In the pictures at the beginning of the story each page shows something getting blown away and everything is a mess.  In the end, she sneezes one last time, but blows everything back into place.  The picture shows the chaotic scene has now become a beautiful house with flowers and calm.

A book that should have taken three minutes felt like it took at least fifteen.  I was caught off guard to say the least.  When lessons bomb, we have to ask ourselves why.  Why did they have such a hard time with that book?

Here are the questions I asked myself:

  • Was today's lesson just a poor book selection or should I be asking bigger questions?
  • Was today's introduction appropriate for the book or have I been giving too much support in book introductions?
  • Have I been using too many books that are structured in a particular way (this book had more of a problem/solution structure and most books we have read have been quite story-like in form)?  Do students have a sense of possible text structures?
  • Are students using their picture walk to begin to focus on the meaning of the text?
  • Do students have a true sense of story?  
  • Are students reading for meaning or just trying to get words right?  

Had that lesson gone well, I would have packed up our supplies and gone about my day.  However, the lesson taking such a turn made me slow down and wonder what I might need to be doing differently.  It made me ask myself new questions about what I might need to do to better support these readers.  It made me realize I need to take a closer look at their strengths and needs as readers.  Do I really know everything I need to know about them?  

We've all had lessons that haven't gone as planned.  I might be as bold as to say that most of our lessons don't go exactly as planned --- sometimes they go better and sometimes they flop.  It's not the fact that lessons don't go well that matters nearly as much as what we do about it.  When lessons bomb, we have to ask ourselves some questions to help us get back on track:

  • Where did the lesson take a turn?
  • What did students know that might have helped them?
  • Where did they get confused?
  • How could I have changed my language to better support students?
  • How could I have made my lesson more visible (modeling, visual charts, etc.)?
  • What would I do differently next time? 

This lesson was a reminder that I can't become complacent in the daily structures of our lesson.  I need to continue to watch, listen, take careful notes, and be thoughtful in my decision-making.  For these students, every day matters.  


  1. First of all, AMEN.

    Secondly, you should perhaps cut yourself some slack and make a list of all of the unintended learning that happened. Obviously, it was a learning experience for YOU. But what did THEY learn, even though the lesson flopped?

  2. I agree with Mary Lee. I was also thinking that what you learned about them as readers and yourself as a teacher was equally as important as what they learned. We need these moments to inform our instruction. We're all in the business of learning, not knowing.