Best Practices for Lesson Planning in High School Science - It's Not Rocket Science

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Best Practices for Lesson Planning in High School Science

When it comes to lesson planning, you may be coming to the table with zero training in this, or you may be entirely sick of hearing about it. Particularly for high school science teachers, I have met so many who have come to the classroom as a 2nd career, and thus they are experts in their field but may not have received much practical training in their alternative teacher certification programs.

I went a more traditional route and got an undergraduate degree in Secondary Ed: Science Teaching before starting my teaching career. I was shown tons of different templates for how to lesson plan, but it wasn’t necessarily helpful when I actually sat down to make real plans for my real students. What’s the goal?? What’s the STRATEGY I should be using? How do I use our time well?

I’ve learned a LOT over the years about lesson planning – both from my own experiences in the classroom (teaching both in 90-minute block and 50-minute traditional pacing schedules) as well as from my master’s program in curriculum and instruction. Of ALL the various aspects of being a teacher, lesson planning is really my greatest strength. I want it to be YOURS, too! To do that, I am going to share with you my best practices for lesson planning for any high school science course.

Plan an entire unit at once – NOT day by day.

Don’t just go into your calendar and start working day by day in sequential order. ALWAYS begin by looking at the unit as a WHOLE – then start piecing together each day and what you hope to accomplish each day.

For example, I take every unit in my scope and sequence and subdivide that unit into concepts. For each concept, I want to make sure there is some lecture, some sort of hands-on experience, and some sort of reinforcement – at a MINIMUM (again, just start with simple goals like this. Over time you can get much more creative and switch it up!)

From there start penciling in a general timeline, and consider how the unit ebbs and flows as a whole. It would be really tiring for you to put 3 labs back to back. Prepping and cleaning up all of that is a LOT. It would also be really tiring for your students if you do 3 research-based activities in a row. Look at the whole unit as you come up with different ideas to teach each concept so that there is variety throughout and you are using a ton of different strategies to reach all of the diverse learners you have.

Likewise, go ahead and set dates for your end-of-unit tests and/or big projects. One of the most common pieces of positive feedback I get from my students each year is how they love how organized I am and how I respect their time and lives outside of school. By giving them a heads-up on day 1 of a unit when the test will be or the final project will be due, they can plan accordingly. If I end up having to give an extension, no one is frustrated! Students love having clear expectations, which brings me to my next best practice:

Create routines and rhythms for consistency.

Students thrive on routines. They have enough anxieties from the state of our current world – let’s ease some of their worries by creating routines and rhythms in our classroom that give them the stability they crave that is so lacking everywhere else in their lives.

What do I mean by this? Here are a few routines and rhythms I maintain throughout all my lesson plans:

  1. We always start with a bell ringer. Every. single. day. I’ve established a routine that my students know. I will always greet them at the door, and then as they walk in, they will turn in any assignments into the turn-in bin on my wall, and then they will sit and work on their bell ringer.
  2. They can expect me to collect the bell ringer after 5 minutes and go over it. They know this is a great time to ask any questions about what was confusing the day before.
  3. After the bell ringer, we will always go over any homework that is due. Then we will dive into the day’s agenda.
  4. Our daily agenda is always written in the same place on my whiteboard, so they can look and see what to expect.
  5. At the end of class, they will always sit and wait for the bell to ring. I will review any upcoming due dates before they are released.

These routines help them AND me. I start them from day 1, so after a few weeks in my class, everyone knows the drill. I love it because I know at the end of the day, even if the lab was a bust or the lecture got incredibly off track, the lesson was at least grounded with this consistency. Students can leave peacefully ALWAYS knowing what they can expect from me and what I expect from them.

You are in charge, thus you set the pacing.

It’s so easy to send students off to work in lab groups, get caught up in grading something or answering questions, and before you know it the bell is ringing and data hasn’t been recorded and supplies haven’t been cleaned up. YIKES!

Remember that YOU are in charge and YOU run the show. You should walk into every lesson plan with a general idea or goal for how much is accomplished, and it is up to you to maintain that pace for your students. If students are independently working, you MUST be monitoring to make sure they are on task. If they don’t think you are paying attention they will always get off track. A teenager’s default state of being isn’t productivity and efficiency. It’s up to us to help them use their time in our classroom as wisely as possible.

I set timers constantly. If they are working on practice problems, I set a timer for how long I think they need, and I give them warnings as the time narrows down. I use a bell at the front of the classroom to notify students during lab that they should be moving on to the next part of the procedures. Again, this isn’t to stress them out. It’s just to keep them on track.

Here is the thing – this will get easier over time. The more you do a lab or an activity, or a lecture, the better you are able to determine an appropriate expectation for the pace. Give yourself LOTS of grace with this. I was really lucky my first year teaching. I had 3 sections of biology every day for 90 minutes, and then midyear started all over again with 3 new sections of biology. So by the end of my first year, I had done every lesson plan I had created 6 times. It helped so much with my ability to estimate timing.

Will you have certain students that can’t work at the average pace of the rest of the class? OF COURSE! But you will also know who these students are and can set appropriate expectations for them (Ex. If the whole class is given 20 minutes to work through 10 practice problems, tell them to just try to get through 5.)

Want to see a diagram that breaks down how I aim to structure and break up a 50-minute class period vs. a 90-minute class period? Click here to download my Anatomy of a Class Period cheatsheet!

If you are teaching a course for the first time, timing will be one of the hardest parts. That is okay!!! When in doubt – PLAN EXTRA!

When in doubt – PLAN EXTRA.

ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS plan for more than you think you can cover. Especially if you are teaching a new subject, you really have no idea how long anything will take. Some things will take significantly longer than you think, but others will be significantly shorter. It is WAY easier to bump due dates back if you need more time than to be standing in front of thirty 16-year-olds with 10 minutes of class left trying to whip something relevant out of your back pocket (not that I’ve experienced that or anything…)

This is why it is so helpful when lesson planning to do the whole unit at once rather than just one day at a time. You have a clear direction of where you are going and can be prepared for the next thing if you finish earlier than anticipated. You can also tell students the date of your end-of-unit test from the day the unit starts. Because you will be planning extra, that date will NEVER move forward but MAY move backward if things take longer than you expect. That’s okay!!!

Likewise, ALWAYS have SOMETHING that is your default for them to do if even your extra planning isn’t enough. My default is to work on their study guides. At the beginning of each unit, I give students a list of objectives and vocabulary that we will cover and that they will be assessed (read more about how I come up with these here). The key is that they use this list to make a study guide in whatever format they will actually study from and use.

For some classes, I will collect different concept study guides throughout the unit and return them with feedback. For others, I check them all at the end of the unit and we go over the study guides on the review day. Either way, it’s something they can always be working on if we finish early, and most appreciate the class time they end up getting to get them finished. You can read more about how I do study guides here.

Immediate reflection and revision is key to future success.

This is critical. Every time I finish grading a stack of tests or a pile of projects, I then go back to my lesson plans and write notes. What worked? What didn’t? What needs way more time next year? What do I need to cut and never do again? It is CRITICAL that this reflection happens immediately. Do you have to figure every single thing out? NO. But write the notes NOW so that next year when you get to this lesson again, you know that you need to change this or that.

I like to keep a paper planner and write everything in pencil. Then if we don’t finish something, I can easily change my written plans. At the end of the unit I can go back and add notes in pen for future revisions. The next year, I pull out the previous year’s paper planner to reference while making my new plans.

New teachers – take a deep breath. I promise you that lesson planning is one of those things that truly gets easier with time. Do your best starting out, but hold your plans loosely. Give yourself some default structure to fall back on when things go awry, but go into each day with the expectation that something WILL go wrong in one of your periods and it will be a learning experience. You really will live and learn!

Looking for more support for lesson planning? My course, Secondary Science Simplified™️, might be a good fit for you! You can learn more about it here.

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Not sure how to structure your class period? Grab this cheatsheet to guide you - because teaching doesn't have to be rocket science!

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