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.