Six Keys: Lesson 1 (free sample)
Structure and flow
Six Keys Lesson 1
In this lesson we look at the most significant and elemental foundation of winning classes: the way you structure and execute the flow of a session.
We will start with a discussion of structure because this is probably the most familiar idea for you. When teaching students about essay structure it pays to begin by drawing some quick bridges. The structure of most bridges is very simple in its conception but allows endless complexity and elaboration.
Then dash out a human skeleton in a handful of lines. That spine is a pole. On top we balance a heavy ball. Across the top we sling a collarbone from which we dangle arm bones. At the bottom of the pole, a thick triangle pelvis, from which we dangle leg bones. Attach some parallel lines down the middle (ribs) and you have the scaffolding onto which we can add layers of muscle, skins etc. Similarly, animal skeletons are variations on a simple master plan which just works.
The best lesson plans have a clear, simple structure. Surprisingly, all of the thousands of lessons we have taught across a lifetime, whether in Theatre or Drama, Media, English or Literature, can be condensed to a very small number of structures. Let’s try to map out these structures for you here.
More important than many teachers give credit to. Remember when you were a student? Walking into class first thing in the morning? Or into your second class or sixth class for the day? What do you see? Think of the school you’re in now. Is there a typical atmosphere? What do the students expect? What do the teachers accept?
Starts matter. They set a tone. Subtly, these first moments can establish the dynamic between the students and the teacher. You will find experienced teachers walk into a noisy classroom and start yelling. Some teachers stand impassively and wait as long as it takes for absolute silence before uttering a word. There are accounts of teachers who wait (unsuccessfully) an entire lesson for silence. It is unclear what they think they are proving.
We suggest that you test out three options for the way you start a lesson. Ideally, stick with one option for a while with one class group. Find what you feel suits your personal style.
OPTION 1: Calm and positive order
Imagine this: your students come to your classroom form various places around the school. Maybe it’s first lesson of the day, maybe they’ve just had PE or lunchtime. Some are tired, some are laughing, some are having a bad day. There are kids with swagger, others are timid or friendless. Are they to tumble into the next space carrying all of these different energies into your lesson?
Some teachers are experts at establishing a small number of clear rules and expectations from Day 1 and seeing these take root over the first days and weeks. It actually doesn’t matter what your particular rules are, so long as you are consistent in your expectations, but we want to suggest some strategies which consistently work very well.
Line up outside the classroom door and wait for me to enter. When you enter, do so quietly, set yourself up quickly and wait for me to address the class.
When I come into the classroom, please stand quietly beside your desk.
If you are late, please wait outside the door until I can take a minute to come outside and speak with you.
There is nothing wrong with these practices. At the very least, they give clarity about expectations, they provide certainty, order, perhaps a calm moment in what can be a chaotic and busy school day. Keep this in mind: there is nothing wrong with students taking a few moments to breathe, to settle, to be still and quiet.
OPTION 2: Novelty and shifting gears
Feel more adventurous? What if your classes started with a stretch and breathing exercise? Or a few moments that are meditative.
There are teachers who enter a room and ask the class to stand, then lead them through a series of stretches. The students never seemed to offer any resistance. Some drama teachers use a technique at the start of classes called “centring”. This involved working in pairs or alone, working with eyes closed to focus on balance, posture and stillness. So simple, and yet students love it, they feel grown-up, they are mastering their bodies. By the time they come out of their five-minute “trance” they are completely in the moment inside the space and ready for drama.
Think of your role at the beginning of a lesson as being responsible for shifting their head-space, changing gears, refocusing them. If they have come as a group from maths or PE, their heads will be in that space, their bodies in that gear. If they are coming from a variety of different classes, then they are definitely not going to snap into a unified, purposeful group in your space without some external force. And if you are entering their space, where they have just had a different teacher and subject, you are the visitor, they already have the atmosphere (or lack of it).
Do you have some knowledge or expertise? You could ask students to stand beside their desks, close their eyes and focus on their breathing. It could be a nice transitional moment of calm. And I bet it becomes a talking point. You could teach them a simple Tai-chi sequence. Perhaps build on this over a term. Teaching this generation to settle, to be in the moment, to enjoy stillness, to shed anxiety or restlessness, to transition, is as important as a love of language or numbers.
Would you begin every class in exactly the same way? Probably not. But think of this time as a transition – out of what has preceded, and into your space and time.
OPTION 3: Energy and happening (also known as FOMO)
A third option is for your students to feel, as they arrive, that there is something important, something special underway. Here are two of our favorites from our 30 years’ playbook:
1. We have started.
This may not suit all subjects, but try the trick where you walk into a class and start the lesson without any fanfare or introductory speech. This works especially well with a visual stimulus. When you can, get into the classroom early, so that when students enter, there is already something on the screen. A large photo or a quote as a prompt or provocation. Some students say, “What’s this?” and you can say “What do you make of it?” or “We’ll see”.
For an English class, there might be a list of unrelated words and phrases on the board. Below them, an instruction like: A short horror story. Maximum 150 words. Must include these 5 words in any order.
As students arrive, you simply say, “Get started. You have 10 minutes, then we’re reading them out.”
What happens is that as students trickle in, they see something is already going on. There is an energy. They ask What’s going on? They hear you say Okay, you have eight minutes left, and there’s panic. What are we doing? They ask a friend, or you. Shhh! You go over to them with a hushed urgency.
Of course, you don’t have to be strict about the 10 minutes. Judge how the majority are managing. Pressure them like a reality cooking show. They have to serve up their dish in five minutes. Then, “One minute to go!” you call out.
The same technique works brilliantly for media classes. As students arrive, you are handing out cameras to pairs. You’re doing the pairing. On the screen is an image you plan to talk to when most have arrived. You hand cameras to a couple of singles when you are expecting a few late arrivals. If late-comers miss the instruction, they will have to find out from a partner who was present and on time.
It’s the same principle: the lesson has started. It looks like fun. It feels to late-comers like they’re missing out. Most students hate this feeling and if you make a regular habit of it, you will see students rush to get to your classes on time. There will be times in schools where other teachers tell you students won’t tolerate them going over time because the students say they can’t be late for your class. It is a great feeling.
Could you do this for maths or history? Sure. Start with a quick quiz. Lolly prizes. Late-comers see something fun underway. Feel the energy. Watch them get into their seats in a hurry and try to find out what they’re missing. This is a million miles from the teacher taking the role for the first boring five minutes of the class, followed by a dull explanation of what we’ll be doing today.
2. This is our sacred space. (building a special culture)
One powerful trick which works wonders on many groups is the crap box. Adolescents and young adults love it. Great to use early in a year but a bit wasted too early. Wait until some bad habits start to appear or students start to slacken off about the mood and behavior they bring into the classroom as they arrive.
Get them quiet, and say this:
You may have missed this on your way in today, but we have a special box that sits outside this classroom. It’s called a crap-box. (pause for effect) That’s right, a crap-box. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever used one before but they’re very simple. What you do is, before you come into this room, you leave all of your own crap in the box. And when you leave after the class, you can collect your crap and take it on into your day. And you’ll be interested to notice that the crap-box has no lid! That’s right. Strangely, in all of my years, I’ve never seen anybody’s crap go missing! Yes, amazingly, nobody else wants your crap. You will find it just where you left it.
In this way, this space inside here is sacred. For the time we are together in here, all the other stuff we’re dealing with can’t interfere. I’m asking you today to help me to keep this time and space we share special. I promise to do the same. Even a really bad day can have a good hour. It is up to you.
There are theatre directors and music ensemble teachers who have used this many times when deeply into a rehearsal period. People are getting tired, stressed, the initial elation of being a part of a big show has been replaced by the realities of having to find the time and energy within the rest of their lives. Many times the crap-box talk has proved a transformative moment for the group. And it becomes from then on a reference point, a shared in-joke, a culture.
The lesson here is important: if your students believe that you value your time with them, and the space you share, they will buy into it and become protective of it too. Great teachers learn with time the value of putting student work on display around the walls of their classroom, alongside inspiration, whether in quotes, images or people connected with my subject. It’s the same message – this is our space and it matters.
STARTS - SUMMARY
Experiment, find your style. But know that starts matter. Beginner teachers often underestimate this. And long-serving teachers are too often tired, burnt out, or stuck with old routines. You can be sure, a class which begins with low energy and no atmosphere will not pick up much as the session progresses.
middles and the magic word, flow
There’s a lot being said at the moment in education about FLOW. The idea here is that there’s a glorious point you can reach where your students are so fully immersed in what they are doing that they are no longer thinking about it as “school work.” It’s rather a nice idea and in a moment we’ll give you two simple set-ups which seem to create this kind of flow every time.
Here’s one photography lesson set-up – this takes all of 5 minutes. It works for kids from as young as Grade 5, right up to senior students. Show them a string of photos like these….
You will easily find your own or perhaps take some example shots.
And say, One of the ways photographers make their images more interesting, more pleasing to the eye, is by using what we call negative space. Send them out in pairs. Time to try to take their own negative space shots. Pressure. Maybe 10 minutes each in the pair. They have to hurry back to have time to upload them so they can share as a class. Here are the kinds of shots they come back with.
Here’s another set-up. Show these photos. 5 minutes at the start of the lesson. If anyone’s late they’ll miss out. Say, One of the tricks photographers use is to find natural frames in their surroundings. Each of these photos has the subject framed inside the picture.
And then send them off in pairs to see how many shots they can take using natural frames. Give them 30 minutes, say – so 15 minutes each with the camera. Then they have to rush back and load their best shots onto computers, and email them to you. The following lesson, as a class, you can put them up on a screen and talk about them. Here’s the sort of stuff they come back with.
And the key here is: this is where their learning begins! Now they’re engaged! Now you’ll have their undivided attention when you say – want to know how to crop that? Change colours… go black and white… What are you teaching them? Well first of all – to SEE. To compose through the lens. It turns out that’s a great place to start them thinking about photography. You are giving them the tools & the vocabulary to look critically at not only their own photos, but every photo you put up on the screen. Translate this idea into any of your subject areas. It will always work.
So you’re opening their eyes, really. Giving them a new way to see – ways to compose consciously. You can ask them to compare these to the snapshots their parents take, or their friends post on Facebook.
They will spend more time than you can possibly imagine surfing the internet looking at photos. What you are doing is providing them with a new language with which to process what they find.
You can do this just as well in the English or Drama classroom – and I dare say, in a Science or History class too. You will feel more like a Footy Coach than a teacher sometimes – trying to get the set-up right. You will sometimes get asked things like: what if kids trash the cameras? What if they run off and disappear – you can’t possibly supervise them all. What if kids come back with completely inappropriate pictures? The simple answer is – when you can create FLOW, the activity is enough. They really don’t bother to deviate. If you want more examples of these kinds of lesson set-ups, look at the extended material.
In a drama class, you should start with several games and activities to focus the group, energise them, build an atmosphere of trust and cooperation. Then you need a set-up which sends them away quickly into small groups with a strong sense of purpose and enthusiasm. One great trick is to hand out short scripts of eight to ten lines for groups of three or four. All you say is, Find the people with the same script as you. You have about ten minutes to stage this, learn your lines. Rehearse. No scripts on stage. We’ll perform them for each other in ten minutes. Go!
This achieves many things. They rush off, energised. And you are free. To take the roll. To wander and watch progress, to offer advice, to clarify expectations. To field their questions. If they seem to be working quickly and superficially (sometimes a group will tell you they’re ready after two minutes), you simply stop them all, call them back together as a group and say something like, I’m noticing that groups are very focused on their lines. Now that’s okay, but if you just spout these lines in a great hurry, the scene will not be very dramatic. So as you rehearse, I want you to explore silences, pauses… what’s happening in between these lines? What are you doing, physically, when you’re not speaking?
In this way, you are controlling the tempo and tweaking the outcome. Trying your hardest to ensure that each group feels successful. Of course you have to factor in time for all groups to present. And time for closure (see next section). In this way, the lesson just flies and students leave buzzing.
MIDDLES - SUMMARY
Does it all sound too good to be true? We will supply many more examples of engaging set-ups elsewhere in the material. For now, take away the idea that you want to quickly set up a fairly straightforward task. If you have complicated plans, you need to break them into smaller parts. Your aim should be to get your students active and purposeful within five minutes. When and how you gather them back together for further instruction or clarification will depend on your lesson and the group. If you have planned a lesson which entails you standing up the front for the first fifteen minutes, you need to rethink your structure. You may very well have fifteen minutes of teaching talk you need to deliver. But they are never going to hear it unless you are smart about when and how you deliver it.
Like dull lesson starts, sad to say that there are a lot of poor teaching practices when it comes to ending lessons. Once again, the worst offenders are usually beginner teachers and those who have taught for so many years that they are running in self-preservation mode. But the way you use your last 3 minutes of class can have an enormous positive impact on your students and on the culture you are trying to build.
Firstly, here are some endings you don’t want:
You are mid-sentence when the bell rings. Students immediately slam books closed, stand and start leaving. You shout after them, “Don’t forget your homework!”
Students are in progress around the room, working on your lesson, when a wave of packing up begins as students signal each other that the bell is about to sound. By the time the bell rings, most are politely sitting holding their gear like the starting line of a race.
The bell rings and you announce, “Okay, nobody move. I have a few things I want to remind you before you leave.” There are groans. One student stands, saying, “Well I have a test now so I have to go,” and you’re not going to challenge them or ask why they are the only student with the test. As you talk determinedly through your important list of reminders and take-aways, you start to notice the resentful and bored faces - nobody is listening to you.
Even a good class can end badly. You don’t want that to be the atmosphere they take away with them. So you need to make a conscious decision that endings matter.
Here’s a script to try until your own patter becomes instinctive:
It’s late in the lesson. Your class is busy or perhaps you are talking to them or demonstrating something. But you are keeping an eye on the time because endings matter. Perhaps you have set an alarm on your phone or watch to alert you when there are three minutes remaining. For this example, imagine an English lesson.
All right everybody, I’m sorry to say that’s time for today, please stop what you’re doing and heads up. [wait a few moments for silence and for effect]. I want to thank you for today. That was a challenge, managing your time under that pressure. I was really impressed to see so many of you heads down and just going for it. Can we take a moment to acknowledge and appreciate what Kate achieved today? Sharing on the screen and reading her conclusion to the class. That’s probably the first time this year I’ve really seen her risk being that vulnerable. So I thank you, Kate and hope others will take away something from that.
Now I don’t know if you noticed it or not, but today we plugged into two things. All that work last term on structuring an essay. You know, introduction, body paragraphs, topic sentences. Did you realise today that we hardly mentioned them? Why? Because you now get that stuff and you’re doing it automatically. So we get to build on it. Like driving a car or learning to ski or mastering an instrument. Once the basics are automatic, we get to use our brain-power for the more sophisticated stuff. And I promise you, what felt difficult today will eventually become automatic too. And the second thing we plugged into was quotes, and how powerful they are in demonstrating your command of the text. You’re saying, look at me, I know this text so well, I can reach my mind into the book and hand-pick illustrative examples. We have played games with memorising quotes, but this is serious stuff and you can see, it’s pretty easy to do.
Tomorrow, we’re taking a short break from the text study. Give you a bit more time if you’re still reading, to finish the book before we get stuck into the really meaty analysis. We’re going to flip it tomorrow and you become the writer. Yep, I’m going to probe you for some of the adventures and trouble you got up to as a kid. See who’s got a story to tell. I know a couple of you have some doozies! If your memories are only of an angelic childhood, you have a chance tonight to ask your parents or siblings if they remember any dirt on you. Okay? I can’t wait! Thank you and please leave the room tidy.
You can time these. Unrushed, pauses for effect, isn’t it amazing how much can be said in three minutes? Let’s break it down, using the bold type as the key template.
Bring them together. Show that you appreciate their effort and enjoy their company. A core idea here is, we are a group. Take a moment to single out one student for celebration. Obviously, elect those who less often receive recognition first. Each lesson, as much as possible, find positives in different students until you’ve exhausted the class. Sometimes this is made easier by acknowledging a pair or small group.
Illuminate why we did what we did. Try to say to yourself, plug backwards and forwards. Show them how this fits what’s come before and what’s coming. This has enormous value and often makes students feel palpably that they are growing in sophistication, in experience and maturity and skill. Notice the habit of throwing in some simple philosophy or how learning works. It doesn’t hurt for them to see that they are learning.
Tell them what’s coming up. In terms of what you will be setting up and what they will be doing. There is planning, there is sequence. Hint at preparation they can do if they wish. Give them a sense of anticipation and the idea that you are looking forward to it. Here is a chance to remind them to check whatever communications channels you have, remind them to speak to you or contact you if they have any issues, etc. All of this is done in the spirit of a classroom culture. Only you can articulate what that culture is for you. For dynamic teachers, it is a sense that we are in this together, having serious, purposeful fun. Thank them and dismiss them.
A FINAL WORD ABOUT FLOW
We write elsewhere in more detail about the flow of a lesson. It is an art in itself. As a teacher, you will know when you have it because you are suddenly free to float around your class, observing, commenting, assisting students who seem engrossed in what they are doing and thoroughly enjoying themselves. It is, of course, learning gold. The good news is, you will not need to find this state in every lesson, but if you can generate that energy often enough, your student will love your classes and many positives will follow from that.
For now, we want to suggest just three factors, and as promised, in another place we will go into more details and more examples.
Factor 1 – smooth, intuitive sequencing
You will learn, whether teaching six-year-olds or eighteen-year-olds, that a lesson with too many parts is as unsuccessful as a lesson with just one endless part. Whatever your subject, you will know intuitively that a class requires those book-ends of introduction and closure. But even if you are running a class where there is a single primary focus, we urge you to be creative about breaking up the session into two or three parts.
In Drama this is easy because you can always start classes with some physical games, exercises, pair or small-group work, then the main event. And you grow more experienced with planning, you will learn to make sure that each task flows into the next. If chairs are used in the first game, then the second exercise requires chairs also. If you play a mixing game, make sure that the last mix finds them in random groups of four (say), and then you can say, now, in the groups you are currently in, I want you to go off and prepare… So you have naturally and effortlessly flowed into the next task. Never ask students to place themselves into groups. Hopefully the reasons are obvious.
Great English teachers learn to create at least some small stepping-stone up to the main task. The result is much less resistance to the task. Imagine your students wandering into your class after electives or PE. Do you really want to announce, “Pens out, we’re writing a story”?
But if you say, When I was six, I stole a packet of gum from the supermarket. And when my mother caught me, she made me walk back into the store and hand it in and apologise. I want you to think of a time when you were little and you got into trouble. Or maybe you did something naughty and you were never caught! Now turn to the person next to you, and I’ll give you one minute to quickly tell each other your childhood wickedness.
From there, you ask for just one or two to share with the class. Then challenge them to bring to life their tale, or pick another one, in a short piece of writing. You have five minutes. Go!
At this point, you do two things. Firstly, start working on your own story, on the board or projected from your laptop. Secondly, start to call out time cues, as well as reminders like, You have three minutes. Remember to be descriptive. Your reader wasn’t there. You have to be their eyes, their ears. What do they need to feel? Smell? So they are there?
Of course it is never a strict five minutes. Gauge the room. If most are engaged and still writing, you can stretch it to ten. This is not the main event yet, but the energy, the flow, is palpable. Depending on the length of your lesson, you might stop them, and ask them to share with a person in front or behind them. Ask them to identify a favorite sentence in the piece they read.
It is now, at this point, that you can set up the main task and give them the remainder of the lesson. In English personal/creative writing classes, you will find endless success from encouraging students to explore childhood memories, both good and bad. The stories are already there, and endlessly relatable and entertaining to others. It allows you to guide them towards the craft of writing – to the art of telling it better.
There you have one favorite English lesson template time tested – and the sense of flow is effortless. Try your own.
Factor 2 – ownership
Ever watch a party magician work a crowd of kids into a frenzy? These entertainers have mastered the art of holding the attention of a group of children, and getting them to own the tricks.
You could be the all-powerful magician, and your audience is supposed to sit in awe at your skills and brilliance. Burst into applause after each trick! But there is a much more powerful formula. And the best magicians learn it early. They bring children up to stand beside them, to hold the magic wand, to assist, to invent magic words, to blow on a closed fist. For some tricks, they have the whole group shouting the magic words. Not loud enough! Try again. They scream their faces blue. And when the empty cooking pan is suddenly full of popcorn, well they deserved to give themselves a big round of applause, and line up to enjoy the spoils of their brilliance.
Engagement – ownership – energy – immersion – reward.
The lesson is clear – the more that the kids feel that they own the magic, and the results, the stronger their belief and their input and their energy. These ideas translate beautifully into the classroom.
So, keep asking yourself questions about ownership. Is this your classroom? Are you the giver of knowledge? Should they applaud your brilliance? Or can you flip it? So they feel that you are there for them, you need them, they produce the magic. They celebrate each other. Manage this and I promise you, you’ll have parents telling school principals they want their child in your class.
Factor 3 – positive pressure
There is so much talk these days about pressure. Record numbers of young people experiencing anxiety. Concerns from many different quarters that children are under too much pressure. And vocal opposition which claim that we actually don’t expect or ask for enough from young people. So as a teacher, it can be very hard to strike the right balance.
There are tough teachers who are demanding and students seem to be afraid to miss their deadlines; while other teachers are so focused on a positive relationship, students learn that deadlines are not real and there are no consequences for handing in work late or not completing tasks.
Elsewhere, we will work through these issues in detail. But as a take-away for now, let’s plant the seed of an idea about pressure. That idea is that there are many ways to make pressure a positive energy not a negative one. Once you get your head around this, and adjust your practices, you will find the results transformative.
Since this section is focusing on lesson structure, let’s say this much for now: class time is precious. You want your students to believe that. You’re not filling time, but rather, setting them up quickly for fun, success, growth. Many activities during class-time can be set up in the spirit of a game show. You’re the host. The fun is theirs. The prizes are for them. You have to explain the rules and count the time. Do this and you will often have the pleasure of students complaining that they needed more time. Or wish they could have had longer. Guess what? That’s what all that down time at home and outside of lessons can be used for!
So the advice is, create pressure and expectations – just make them positive so that they are in a spirit of fun and playfulness and sharing and celebration and risk-taking. Just like the cooking competitions.