Designing a Lesson Plan in the Internet Age

Recently, someone asked me how I design curriculum for my Family Inventors’ Lab – a STE(A)M Enrichment class for kids age 3 – 7.

My educational background is not in science education, not even in science or education. I have a master’s in social work. So, my method is not something anyone trained me to do, but something I’ve evolved over the years, and it’s informed by two key things

  • my personality / learning style where I like to gather all the data together, then quickly synthesize and winnow it away to the key points
  • the ease of accessing a huge amount of ideas quickly on the internet – I don’t need to go to a library and read full books for ideas – it’s easy to quickly dabble through a lot more and only dive deep when needed

First, I decide a general topic. I just completed a lesson plan on Weather and Climate. We chose this topic for a few reasons:

  • It’s a scientific phenomenon that kids have lots of experience with, so it’s easy to engage them in learning.
  • We needed a transitional topic between our units on Light, Shadow, and Rainbows and our units on Earth Science, Planets and Stars; Weather is a logical follow-up to Rainbows, and ties together with Climate and Biomes, which is an easy lead into Earth and Geology.
  • In our spring quarter, we’re adding in a unit on the Human Body, but that meant we needed to combine Habitats and Adaptations. Covering biomes earlier in the year can give the kids some foundational knowledge that we can tie back into when we get to that class.

Casting the Net – Collecting Ideas

Next, I start collecting ideas. I cast my net very wide at first.

I’m looking both for what concepts I want to convey and what activities I’ll use to teach those concepts.

Books – I search for kids’ books on my topic, and get 15 – 20 kids’ books from the library. (We’re blessed with a huge library system, where I can put hold requests on any book in the system, and it’s delivered to my local branch within a few days.) I get both books that are aimed at my age group, and ones that are for slightly older kids (mid to upper elementary.) I search for books in three ways – the library catalog, Amazon (when I find one book that looks possible, I also look at the Amazon lists of “customers who bought this also bought” and “sponsored items related to this item”), and I search online for lists like “recommended books for kids about weather.” I then skim through all these books, gathering the key concepts on that topic.

Videos – I search for kids’ videos on the topics – some of my frequent sources are Bill Nye the Science Guy, Sid the Science Kid, and Crash Course Science, but there are plenty of other great educational videos out there. Videos are often a great source of demos and of clear and engaging ways to teach key science concepts. (Podcasts can also be a good source of “explainers.”)

Lesson plans –  I search for things like “preschool weather theme” and “homeschool weather lesson plans” or “weather and climate curriculum elementary.” I never use anyone else’s curriculum in full – I’d much rather create my own tailored plan. But, I do read other people’s plans for ideas.

Activity ideas – I do an IMAGE search for things like “climate science for kids”, “biomes for kids”, and “weather experiments for kids”. I do this as an image search, because it’s much faster and easier to skim through a lot of visual images than through long articles. I can quickly glance at a picture and say “Oh, that looks like something my students could do” and THEN go to the related article. I sometimes do these searches on Pinterest, but more often just on Bing or Google, since they’ll pull up things on Pinterest OR anywhere else. Sometimes those searches will lead you to a page like this, which list “25 fun weather activities” that then leads you to lots more ideas.

This process is sort of a “brainstorm”, where I’m just trying to collect as many do-able ideas as possible, and not yet making decisions about whether or not we’ll actually use them.

Taking Notes

You may use Pinterest or another tool for gathering your ideas.

Personally, I just open a word doc, and start taking notes – sometimes just brief summaries of ideas, sometimes images I copy and paste in, sometimes text I copy and paste in. I try to keep track of the sources for all the info – copying and pasting links to where I found it. Often, I’ll find the same activity in lots of places. I keep a list of all the websites where I found quality directions on how to do it.

As I’m doing this, I’m sorting the info in my document into categories, just to make the big pile more manageable:

  • Hands-on Experiments; Art projects; Songs and Games; Books; Ideas for Challenge Activity; Key Concepts for Circle Time; Big Motor; Snack

Sorting My Catch

Next, I want to winnow it down to the top 15 or so activities (we’ll only do 10 or so in class, but I need to have a few extras in case any of them fail the play-testing round), and the top 10 – 15 books, and the most important ideas to convey.

So, I open another document, and list the main types of activities I want: Each week I want to fill the following slots:

  • Art: 2 – 3 activities. Usually one of these is a nicer “take home” product, and the others are more process oriented or group collages or such.
  • Tool of the Week: What new tool will they use? (As a STEM class, I think of the Technology part for this age group as learning to use a very wide variety of tools – this builds fine motor skills, but also builds a knowledge repertoire, so when they’re faced with future problem-solving projects, they have ideas for what tools they could employ. We’ve used everything from potato mashers to screwdrivers, egg beaters to magnets, wiring circuits to button spinners.)
  • Science Learning: 3 or more stations that teach the science concept in a hands-on way.
  • Sensory & Water Play: These are there partially as learning experiences, but also to provide a little free play down time for our younger students.
  • Large motor activity: Something to burn off some activity. I also sometimes think of this as the “busy boy” station – not that only boys use it, but in every class, I’ve got a few kids who just need to be able to MOVE sometimes in order to concentrate on the other projects at other times.
  • Social play: How will kids interact? Sometimes this is a tinkering activity they can do together, like a marble maze, or ramp play. Sometimes it’s an imaginary play activity, like astronaut play, camping, or beach reading.
  • Building Toys, Games, Puzzles: We almost always have a building toy out: Legos, Lincoln Logs, K’nex, Zoob, binder clips and popsicle sticks, or whatever. I try to find a way to tie those to the theme. We may also have a board game or a puzzle or two that relate.
  • Songs: We teach 1 – 3 theme related songs or rhythm activities each week. (Learn here about the benefits of incorporating music in STEM)
  • Books: I bring 10 – 12 books to class each week. We read two aloud in circle time. Typically one non-fiction overview and one fictional story that ties into the theme and inspires wonder and imagination.
  • Ideas for the challenge activity: Each week, there is a “challenge” – something that will be difficult for our 5 – 7 year olds to build, and that adults will need to assist our littlest ones with. Sometimes this is a “craft” with a specific set of instructions you have to follow correctly to get it to work (like our anemometer, our retractable badge car, or sundials). Sometimes, they are more process based, where kids are given lots of different materials, and some suggested ideas, and perhaps a goal, and can create anything they want. (index card bridges, the launch zone, the egg drop or engineering a boat that floats.)
  • Question of the Week / Big Ideas: These are similar to learning objectives. For each week, I write one question that I want every 4 year old (and most of the 3 year olds) to be able to answer when they leave class that day, which addresses the most important idea about that day’s theme. I also have 3 or 4 sub-points to make, that I’m hoping all the 5 – 7 year olds will be able to absorb.

In the midst of all these categories, I also have to keep an eye on balance. Do we have some activities that will really appeal to our youngest kids (3 and 4) and some that really appeal to the oldest? (And are they all do-able in some way by all kids?) Do we have several quiet activities and some loud and boisterous ones? When I look at all the projects together, do I think the prep time will be reasonable that week? The total cost? The clean-up time? How about supervision needs – it’s OK to have a few projects that require lots of adult supervision and assistance, but we can’t have LOTS of projects that do, since there’s only so many adults to go around.

Once I’ve filled these slots, I’ve got the rough draft of my lesson plan.

Play Testing

Most ideas for activities I can just glance at, and know whether they’ll work for us or not. It helps that I have a seven year old, so I’ve recently lived through all the ages that are represented in my class, and also observed him and all his classmates. It helps that it’s my fourth year teaching this class. Our first year or two, we had more “fails” – these days we have almost no fails. I generally have a really good sense of what will work well in my setting.

If I’m uncertain about whether something will work well, I search online for other sets of directions for similar projects. If I find several people who all had success with a fairly similar project, it increases my confidence that it will work. I also have particular favorite blogs, and if I find the project there, I know I can usually trust the author of that blog. (Check my resource page for a list of my favorites.)

But, for particularly complex projects, or any projects where I have to substitute alternate materials from what the original instructions called for, I need to play-test them: try them out at home. (And sometimes I need my child to test them to be sure I’m accurately gauging kid abilities.)

So, for example, I found these great instructions on Science Kiddo for rainbow paper where you float a few drops of clear nail polish on a bowl of water and dip your paper into it to create a rainbow sheen. This was unlike anything I’d done before so I felt I needed to test it. Also, I’d bought two different kinds of clear nail polish and I wanted to test which one would give better results. It turned out they were very different! The glossy paper on the left used Sally Hansen Big Kwik Dry Top Coat, and the matte paper on the right used Sally Hansen Hard As Nails Xtreme Wear.

I also did extensive testing for these projects, and wrote full blog posts on the design process: anemometer, retractable badge car, scribble bots, a cardboard finger, a constellation viewer, sailboats, and Cartesian diver bottles. Each one of these is inspired by MANY different sources, combined into one final synthesis of lots of ideas.

Adjusting Mid-Stream

OK, I said above we have hardly any fails this year. But, trying to do the rainbow button spinners failed completely… we’d had decent luck with plain button spinners (just threading string through a button – watch a video here), although the winding motion is definitely a big learning curve for little kids. But with the rainbow spinners, the paper circles were not heavy enough to wind up well. At one point, when I checked in with my co-teacher, they’d tried adding gems to the outer edge of the circle to add a little weight, and that helped. The next time I came by, she and some parents had hit on a clever solution: Mounting the rainbow disks onto some wooden tops that we had left over from a previous class – LOVE this solution:

Sometimes, like in this case, we discover a problem during class, and we need flexible thinking to make it work. The first time we tried ramp play on a table (where you roll dowels down an inclined plane), we were chasing dowels across the floor of the classroom continuously! One of the dads was clever enough to create bumpers with toilet paper rolls, and we’ve used this method for countless other activities since.

Sometimes the kids use materials in unexpected ways. Last week, we made Clean Mud in the morning class (a play-dough like substance made of shredded toilet paper, water, and soap). It was in the sensory bin, which happened to be next to a big mural we were painting of a rainbow. In the afternoon class, one of the kids was inspired – she thought the clean mud looked like clouds, so she started slapping globs of it up on our mural, and painting rain drops coming out of the clouds.

When I noticed, I had to decide how to respond. One of the only rules of our class is “It’s OK to be Creative, It’s Not OK to be Destructive” (translated for the younger kids to “Make don’t Break.” So, I told her I had to think about this unexpected use of materials, and how it related to that rule. We decided that the clean mud really did look like clouds, and it added a fun three dimensionality to our painting, so definitely creative. If there were great big globs on the wall mural, I was afraid they would fall off into great big globs on the floor and make a big mess. So, we decided you could make thin, spread-out clouds with the clean mud.

Revising and Re-Visiting a Lesson Plan

At the end of each class, as we put things away, I try to make a few notes on what went well, and what didn’t go well. Throughout the year between that session and the next time we’ll teach that topic, if I run across ideas for fun activities to consider adding to the class, I add these to the top of the lesson plan document off and on throughout the intervening months.

The week before a class, I open up last year’s lesson plan, with those new ideas added at the top, and I pull up any photos I have and any blog posts I have on the theme, and I think about what revisions we can try to improve the class, then we test it all out all over again.

For me, at least, curriculum design is always in process. It’s never “done.”

I talk with students sometimes about my design process, and about all the tinkering I do before, during, and after class. I want them to know that adults are also still trying to figure things out. We challenge ourselves to try something new – we come up with an idea, we prototype it, we test it, we adjust it, we test and adjust again. We’re always working to make it better.

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