Anti-Burnout For English Teachers
Anti-Burnout For English Teachers
4. Streamlining Lesson Plans: Why I Abandoned Teaching Basic Context
Streamlining Lesson Plans Podcast Episode Banner

Episode Summary

On this episode of Anti-Burnout for English Teachers, I reflect on the idea of fake work and the importance of streamlining lesson plans. I share advice for teachers to streamline their lesson plans and avoid burnout. The key takeaway is to be thoughtful about what work can be delegated or made more effective. Partnering with other teachers and departments can lighten the load and focus on skills and conceptual ideas that improve student outcomes. By streamlining lesson plans, teachers can unlock the full potential of their literature-focused classes.

One key aspect is the power of collaboration across departments. Partnering with other subjects, such as Social Studies, can alleviate some of the workload on literature teachers. By sharing responsibilities, educators can redirect their focus towards the more intriguing and intricate elements of literary works.

Strategic layering of skills and thoughtful consideration of research and content conversations are also key components discussed in the episode. A key strategy to streamlining lesson plans is providing contextual information throughout the unit, rather than overwhelming students with it at the beginning. This approach not only enhances student comprehension but also enables teachers to create space for more captivating discussions and explorations.

Furthermore, the episode offers valuable tips on improving student understanding of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Jay Gatsby. I suggest a unique approach by introducing students to the world of bootlegging through the television series Boardwalk Empire. By providing this context, students can gain a deeper understanding of Gatsby in a different light, allowing them to delve into the subtleties of the text and better grasp character motivations, unburdened by the distractions of popularized images of Gatsby’s extravagant parties.

We hope that this episode has provided you with valuable insights and strategies to streamlining lesson plans, enhancing teaching effectiveness, and fostering greater student engagement.

Topics Covered in this Episode About Streamlining Lesson Plans

  1. Delegating and Streamlining Work
    • Fake work vs necessary work
    • Responsibilities of an English Teacher
    • Importance of being mindful about what work can be delegated
  2. Building Background for Content Creation
    • Benefits of partnering with other departments
    • Opportunities for collaboration
    • The importance of historical context for lesson planning
  3. Analyzing The Great Gatsby
    • Strategies for effective content creation
    • Hindsight in analyzing character actions and relationships
    • Understanding of the text through a lens that will lead to summative

Key Points

  • Librarians can be a valuable resource for teachers to take some context off their plate
  • Collaboration among colleagues is crucial to improve learning outcomes
  • Historical context is important for effective lesson planning
  • Teachers need to be mindful about delegating work and finding space to make the content interesting

Key Facts

  • English teachers must think about the research and content conversations they want students to have
  • Using presentations to research historical context may not add value to the study of a novel
  • Collaboration with colleagues is crucial to improve learning outcomes
Streamlining Lesson Plans Discussion Questions

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In the episode I discuss gangsters of the 1920s to supplement reading of The Great Gatsby. You can get this ready-made unit here.

 Are you an English teacher feeling overwhelmed by all your responsibilities under your umbrella? Streamlining lesson plans can create an enriching educational experience that captivates students and cultivates their love for literature. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Send me a message on Instagram @englishclassroomarchitect and let me know what you think about the strategies I outlined in this episode.

Time-Stamped Overview

[00:02:59] American lit and history teachers teaming up.
[00:06:25] Unit planning needs thoughtful historical context framing.
[00:10:06] Presentations not necessary, give info as needed.
[00:12:18] War affects Gatsby, Nick, and gender norms.
[00:15:18] Violent bootlegging connects to Gatsby’s character.
[00:19:51] Layer skills, hit multiple standards, contextual information crucial.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about fake work – about work that we don’t need to be doing. And I think that this is a pretty hard thing for us as English teachers to wrap our brains around. Because we are responsible for so much. We’re responsible for reading and writing and research, communication, drama. There are so many things that are under our umbrella. And I think it’s easy for us to think that we need to take on everything that relates to all those pieces. It makes sense because that’s the way our discipline is set up. But as I’m thinking about how we avoid burnout, and how we get to a place where we are able to streamline our lesson plans and our units, I think we need to really be thoughtful about what work we can delegate or if it’s more effective.

I think there are a couple ways that we can do this. One of them is definitely with the way that we are building background so I think for a lot of us, when we’re building content we are doing it in an ineffectual way. That’s on what’s really important so I think you’re kind of taking a step back. One of the things that I challenge us to think about is whether or not we even need to be teaching context. Let me explain. So what I’m thinking about is in our school that actually went to school to learn about historical content, the Social Studies department. So what I’m thinking is that if we can be better partners with the Social Studies teachers, it’s possible that we can take that off of our plate. It makes sense to me, especially in an American literature course.

Because for many of us, when students are taking American literature, they’re also taking American history. So it makes sense to me that we are able to work together so that the history teachers take on the history and we are focused on the literature.

And we can build on what the art history teachers have set up for students, which means actually, something pretty fun because that means if the history teachers are responsible for the overall content are there, they’re able to give us broad strokes of the context that students need. That means that we can get into the really interesting details. That means that we can get into those juicy details that is that our students are going to love that are going to hook them to our content. And we have more time for that because we don’t have those broad strokes. So that’s one thing that

I’m thinking maybe we don’t even need to be teaching context, at least not in the way that a lot of us are thinking about it. There are also opportunities for partnering with our other colleagues, which might be looking at marketing or financial literacy, or maybe it’s I don’t know economics. So there are ways that we can figure out ways that we can partner and I understand, I understand that this takes more work upfront. It might take more work upfront, but that does mean that once you have something in place, you’re able to do that for years to come. And the planning that you put up the front end of your unit will pay off when you’re actually in the thick of it. So stop teaching context.

Also, another great resource is your librarian and I recognize that in my school we have a fantastic librarian, and I would not hesitate to partner with her. I know that not all schools are so lucky not all teachers have a fantastic librarian but if you do, use them as a resource, help them to help you get some of that context. So that I get that off your off their plate off your plate. Okay, so let’s say the ideas that I have for partnering with other teachers in your school aren’t going to work or aren’t going to work for every text.

So then, what I think we shouldn’t we should talk about is how do we get that context to serve multiple duties for us at least double duty. So how we do that we think about our summative assessment, or end of unit assessment, and what skills and conceptual ideas we want our students to explore, and then we back up from there. So if we have something in mind for what we want them to do, we actually build that into the context. So every piece is moving them towards that end of unit assessment even that context so I think for a lot of teachers…actually I’ll just speak for myself.

As a young teacher, what I would do is I would have a lot of those things in place like I would be thinking about, okay, how does this piece fit with this piece? How does this fit that how does this fit with the next piece, but what I would really, for some reason I didn’t include the historical context, I didn’t include that intro as part that actually should fit with and so I was spending a class period or maybe two on something that didn’t really have a lot of bang for the buck. I felt like it was important. And it is it’s important to give students a frame for the reading. But it needs to be thoughtful in the same way that the other pieces of your unit planning are thoughtful.

So continuing one of the things that we do, I think, especially when we’re getting started with our units, is we have these assignments that are one off, though we can do it throughout our unit. It could be really at any point where it’s it’s a little bit related, and we kind of shoehorn it in to make it make sense because it’s something that we want to do. We think it’s going to be fun we think it’s going to be engaging for students in it is students love it. But when we really step back, we realize that it doesn’t teach them what we need them to learn during the unit. Jennifer Gonzalez calls these Grecian urn assignments.

In Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s seminal work they talk about how these are assignments that don’t really lead to real. So, again, these are fun, students like them. And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have activities that build community, you totally should. If you have a day where you’re just gonna sit back and play games, you’re gonna make friendship bracelets, you’re going to do some cute activity. And the purpose is just to build activity or build community. That’s totally fine. But the problem is when we dress it up as some kind of content knowledge.

I’ll give you an example. And I don’t know why I’m on such a Great Gatsby kick lately, but here’s my example with a Great Gatsby. So there are if you look around, you’ll see that when people start The Great Gatsby, a lot of people do a spring 20s intro make sense on the surface. That’s the time period that this took place. So we think about like the flappers, the jazz music, the hedonism that the US is all part of the roaring 20s coming out of World War One. Everyone is optimistic.

Gatsby’s parties are an example of that. It shows that over the top hedonism of the roaring 20s. We have those shorter skirts and the women pushing gender norms. We have all that okay. So what people like to do is have maybe a PowerPoint presentation or google slides presentation. Maybe they have students do some looking at the history of these different topics. I’ll look into that a little bit more. Maybe you make the students make a presentation. And I don’t know that that really adds a lot of value to the study of The Great Gatsby, just giving them a one or two minute spiel may be the same as having them go into depth on those topics.

If there is something specific that you want students to understand about the roaring 20s are related to the text I think in a lot of cases, it works well to just give it to them as they go. So if when we meet Jordan, we want to talk about how she is actually a example of one of those flappers that is pushing those gender norms. And then we can kind of get into that. I’m for that. That makes sense to me. It also makes sense to me to talk about just at the party say okay, a party scene. We could speak to this was something that to the hedonism of the time.

But what I think actually could be more valuable is doing something more like thinking about coming out of World War One and F Scott Fitzgerald critiquing this society that is so optimistic because as someone that went to war, he’s feeling not as connected to society and we look at our two male characters of Jay Gatsby and Nick Caraway, we can really see how the war has affected them. And with Jay Gatsby, we can see that in a very I don’t know, deliberate way we see that he has lost Daisy because of his time away, and Daisy doesn’t understand even that he didn’t have any choice that he was at war and that’s why he wasn’t around.

We also have Nick Caraway who is more subtly affected by the war but we can investigate his relationship, his connection and affinity to Gatsby and really wonder and ponder and analyze whether those actions that he does with his inability to get close to people with his really judgmental nature and his quickness to like how those might be related to his not being able to really get over his experience of the war. Now with our hindsight, we can really think about does have PTSD.

So put us in that context to help us with character analysis, because character analysis is going to be something that’s important to our unit, we have a focus, and maybe we aren’t really going to be looking as much at jazz music because we don’t really see how jazz music has as much of a path to what we want students to think about. But maybe we do want to look at gender norms of the 1920s because of the way that we want to talk about Jordan and we want to talk about Daisy and Myrtle. So it’s really thinking about where you’re going as you’re building that assignment.

I’ll also give you another example. Those like focusing on that like bright, optimistic nature of the time, set students up in such a way that they are confused because they see that party and for some reason teenager brain, I guess like that sticks with them. And they have a hard time understanding the subtleties that F Scott Fitzgerald is portraying to us.

Another a different way to perhaps address this would be helping them to understand Gatsby in a way that is not associated to his party’s because of popular culture. They’re already going to get that they’re already going to see that. If they’ve watched the film, even if you don’t show it to them. A lot of them will watch it and they’ll make that connection with Gatsby and those parties and they look fun, right? It looks a little bit like a circus but a fun circus. Right.

So what is a different way to get them in the right mind frame about Jay Gatsby might be to show the introduction to Boardwalk Empire. And this is not something that you could show an episode. It’s very violent. But what you could see when you look at that trailer of the first season of Boardwalk Empire is the association that bootlegging has to organize crime. It’s very clear. And you also see the very violent nature of bootlegging and everything that’s associated with it. So and Gatsby two is associated with bootlegging. They have that connection that will help them deepen their understanding of Gatsby as a character.

Another thing that I think would be like, really good actually, to fix their understanding would be to further investigate the organized crime aspect. And I think, as I said, spending a couple of days on the roaring 20s in itself would not be as effective in helping students to understand the text but really looking at organized crime I think does because once you get into it, I have two examples.

So when that the probably a lot of students will recognize will be Al Capone, so Al Capone had at first something of a Robin Hood persona he was the government had taken away alcohol which he was giving it to people. So he was kind of taking from the rich and giving to the poor in a sense, and people liked him. He was a little bit of a local celebrity. Actually not even local. He was in the news quite a bit. He had a pretty pompous attitude. And a lot of people liked him at first. That was until they started really starting really understanding the violence that surrounded him and his nonchalance, about violence. But Al Capone was also charitable. He was he gave a lot of his money to his community.

And I think once we get into this kind of idea, students can understand that people can be multifaceted. And when we think about Gatsby, we can think about the way that he is so devoted to Daisy. He is a good friend to Nick perhaps but we also can see those things about him that we shouldn’t admire.

And that just giving us that frame with the gangsters helps us to understand that it also gives us an opportunity. If we’re looking at the organized crime community in New York, we can start looking back at Harlem, in Harlem at this time, there were two figures that were very perhaps we can think about it the same way that we think about Al Capone, they were leaders in their community.

Great Gatsby Prohibition Era Research Project Ad

They were really wanting to uplift their community, but they’re also engaged in racketeering. So we have Stephanie St. Clair. Stephanie St. Clair and also Bumpy Johnson. Those two we’re running the numbers game of Harlem. We can talk about like a strong woman who she didn’t take a lot from anybody. And they can see that but also was engaged in a large scale in numbers ring. So that helps us to again, think about the complexity. of real people, which we can we can talk about the complexity of characters that we see and also their shallowness.

So it’s a way for us to look at those, you know, dichotomy of characteristics in The Great Gatsby. So okay, so I talked a lot about The Great Gatsby. Those were examples to really say that there are ways that we can layer our skills so that we’re hitting on multiple standards at once we can think about the research and the content conversations that we want students to continue to loop as they go through our unit and that starts with that contextual information that we’re giving them whether it’s at the beginning of the unit, or as the unit progresses, and that’s something that we need to be really thoughtful of the way that we partner with our colleagues and we focus our role, way that we can find space for what is really interesting and also save our own space, so that we don’t have to cover it all. So I hope that that’s helpful. And I really, actually welcome pushback on this.

If you think that I’m totally wrong, I would love to hear it. I would love to hear from you. You can send me a DM at English classroom architect at Instagram. Or you can send me a message if you’re on Spotify, you can send me a voice message here. I’d love to talk to you more about it. But until next time, thanks for hanging out with me and talk to you later.

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4. Streamlining Lesson Plans: Why I Abandoned Teaching Basic Context
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