Teaching Without a Plan

Developmental Writing Tip: Teaching Without a Plan

Teaching without a plan makes the classroom exciting and a little dangerous. In a good way.

Dangerous because it’s a bit of a gamble. You never quite know for sure what will happen. Sometimes the house wins and you go back to your office and close the door, wondering what the hell just happened.

These are the times that teaching without a plan leaves you flat on your face. Students don’t engage or you don’t ask the right questions. You get blank stares and throat clears.

But when teaching without a plan works, it’s amazing. You beat the odds and your classroom ignites with energy and passion. These are the times that you go back to your office and close the door, wondering what the hell just happened. Wait, is there an echo in here? No, you read that right. Teaching without a plan usually lands you in the same position at the end of the day, regardless of the outcome.

This “go big or go home” mentality isn’t for everyone, but it works for me. I’ve always been something of a gambler. I thrive in “make or break” scenarios–that’s when I feel most alive. I’m willing to risk a few faceplants on the path to lift-off. For me, that’s what makes life fun. And, for teachers willing to create this “dangerous” classroom culture, teaching without a plan can make education fun, too.

Let me give you an example.

In my freshman composition classes, I require three major assignments. The first two are papers–pretty traditional and straightforward literary analyses. In the past, I’ve tried a few different things out for that third major assignment. Everything from another paper to my Film as Composition assignment, where students work in groups to produce a multimodal composition piece.

This semester, though, I decided to mix things up a little. To teach without a plan.

Teaching Without a Plan: Designing Assignments

I started telling my students a couple weeks ago that I wanted some input from them about this third project. I told them we were going to spend some class time discussing the assignment and trying to reach some kind of consensus as to what we might do. Well, yesterday that time came.

I’m being completely honest when I say that I walked into class with no idea what was going to happen and no structure for our discussion. I was unequivocally teaching without a plan.

I know this isn’t for everyone, but I got a real thrill from it and I could sense the class felt the same way when I admitted, “Look–full disclosure here–I’ve never done this before and I’m not quite sure what will happen.” I was genuinely nervous about what might transpire.

The only ground rule I laid was that whatever we decided had to have some connection to the process of composition and had to be tied somehow to the general rubric we use for grading in the composition department at the University of Georgia.

At first, everyone was a little quiet. I asked how many people would rather just do a traditional paper, because it was less anxiety-inducing and more clear cut. A few hands raised. I expected that.

Next, I asked if any of them had ever made films. We spent a few weeks discussing short film earlier in the semester, so this was a fairly reasonable question. More hands. Some general buzzing beginning to pass through the rows.

Then the questions started. “If we did films, what would they be about? How long would they be? What kind of equipment would we need? How would they be turned in?” Whenever possible, I tried to direct the questions back to them and let the students set these parameters.

Some students had other ideas. “Do we have to work in groups? What if we want to do something on our own? Can we do a piece of creative writing? Can we instead just write a paper about a film?”

I was feeling the energy and the class was fully engaged in the discussion now. Some questions I answered, some I redirected, some I just left alone for the time being.

We ended up deciding on three possible options:

  1. Conduct a traditional literary analysis of a film
  2. Make a film using what is essentially my previous prompt for the multimodal composition project
  3. Create a “Choose Your Own Adventure” project (one of my students named that one and I like it)

All three options will require a detailed project proposal which will be due next week. In the proposal, individual students or groups will propose a plan to me, tell me exactly what they will do, how they will do it, what each person’s role will be, and how it relates to the composition classroom. This proposal will function like a pre-write or a rough draft, and I will either approve it or give further advice and ask for a re-submission.

This time around, teaching without a plan was a win (so far). Can’t wait to see the proposals they come up with and especially to see the final products. At the end of class, I asked if anyone was really uncomfortable with the fast and loose structure of this assignment. Only one hand raised: mine.