15 ways to bring lucky chances into your classroom and lesson planning

According to most books and teacher training courses, making your classes more professional consists mainly of making them more systematic. Most teacher (like many artists or sportsmen) would be happy to admit, however, that many of their best ideas came through some kind of lucky chance or spontaneous interaction, be it a worksheet found in the recycled paper tray, a grammatical explanation that was improvised when the planned one didn’t work, or students changing the rules of the game and actually making them better. This article is an attempt to combine the strengths of both ways of looking at improving your lessons by thinking systematically about how we can make those random flashes of unplanned inspiration happen more often.

1. Minimal rules to games
For example, tell students to throw a ball back and forth while asking and answering questions, but don’t tell them what happens if the ball drops or if someone gets the sentences wrong. The two possibilities for what they will do are: asking you what to do (good as they practice classroom language and take the initiative a little) or make the rules up themselves (even better for taking initiative, and good language practice if they decide on the rules together using English). If they make the rules up themselves, there is the slight chance that they will come up with a variation on the game that you never thought of and that you can then use this version or variations on it in future classes. Alternatively, if they come up with a version that doesn’t work in some way (e.g. giving one student an unfair advantage), thinking about why could help you come up with variations that do work.

2. Let them completely make up their own rules
For example, give them the board, playing pieces and/ or the playing cards and let them discuss what they think the rules might be. Although it might be difficult to work out if any of their versions will work right there and then and it is usually therefore just a stage of elicitation before you introduce them to your version of the rules, hearing their ideas could give you ideas for how you can vary it next time you use it with that or another class.

3. Flexible resources
Resources that can be used in all kinds of ways depending on your sudden flashes of inspiration or needs of the students you couldn’t have predicted include: cut up pieces of blank paper that you can change into playing cards or get the students to write on; a “vocabulary box” of similar pieces of paper with language that the students want to learn written on them; board games with all the squares still blank; blank pieces of A4 paper for chain stories (= consequences) etc; equipment and toys for games such as dice and counters, a sticky ball (= sucker ball) or a beach ball; and reference materials such as grammar books, dictionaries, encyclopaedias, sets of graded readers and the internet.

4. A recent discoveries file
One way of taking advantage of your lucky finds in the teachers’ room is to have your own file especially for things you have found recently and that look great but you haven’t found a use for yet. You should then always turn to this file first before looking at the level files, familiar resource books etc in the teachers’ room to see if there is a lucky chance lurking in there for exactly this topic.

5. A recent discoveries notice board
You can share your lucky finds with the other teachers and take advantage of this by having a notice board that you put new materials and ideas you have found or developed up on. These can then be transferred to a similar file after a couple of weeks, and eventually become part of the system by being filed under particular grammar points etc in the usual files.

6. Explain language that isn’t on the lesson plan
Going completely off the lesson plan to discuss or explain something that comes up and then following that idea or topic to see how it goes is sometimes the sign of an inspired teacher but more often the sign of an incompetent one… Ways of making sure it is useful for that class include getting them back on track but making a note to return to it later once you have worked out how to make it useful, setting a mental limit for how long and how far you will let it get off topic, having a general idea of which classes benefit from and appreciate going with the flow and which don’t, and looking back on such classes to see how it could have been improved and what you can do in future classes to make up for any lack in that one.

7. Flexible stages
For example, plan all the stages of the lesson but rearrange their order depending on what comes up in the chat at the beginning of the class. Alternatively, design a lesson plan like a tree, with different options depending on your instinct of what the class would gain from and appreciate doing next.

8. Students decide the content
Let students bring their own songs in, give presentations, recommend books and study techniques to each other, ask for lessons on particular points, bring in discussion topics etc.

9. Have a text-based approach
Basing your lessons around one or more reading or listening texts (e.g. explaining vocabulary from it, discussing it, restating what it says and answering comprehension questions with quite free answers) is bound to throw out vocabulary, grammatical forms, interactions, viewpoints, cultural questions etc that you had never considered bringing into your classes and you can then decide whether to spend time on in that and/ or other classes.

10. Other input from outside the classroom
Another way of bringing in a source of language that could turn out to be better than anything you could have planned is to take a walk around the neighbourhood and use the things you see as a prompt for reading, listening and speaking. If this is not allowed or not possible in your school, you can at least take a look out of the window or at a video or picture of a street scene.

11. Have a conversation/ task-based approach
In a similar way to using a text, giving students a speaking task and working on the vocabulary, grammatical forms, functional language, communication tactics, pronunciation etc that is needed in order to do it better next time is bound to bring up points that you couldn’t predict.

12. Have a free speaking stage and do something with it
If time constraints or pressures to use the textbook etc mean you cannot base the whole lesson around a conversation task, make sure that you have at least have a conversation stage. You will then need to exploit whatever language, discovery of student needs, misunderstandings etc come out of that with a further stage in which you do improvised controlled practice, do error correction and/ or give them new language before doing it again.

13. Brainstorm
Both in your classes and in your lesson preparation, having a free brainstorm stage where you let ideas flow could bring up something that you had no idea of before you started the process. This could include a lucky chance if, for example, a game you brainstorm turns out to be more useful for an entirely different class or if a piece of vocabulary the students give you in the category you are working on turns out to be a false friend you didn’t know about that they often have problems with.

14. Combine
For example, put two grammar points together in one class or combine tossing coins and moving around a board game. The resulting hybrid can often turn out to be better and more original than the two original parts and so be something that you can use in entirely different classes.

15. Improvised variations
This is a good starting point for teachers like me who naturally feel cautious or even suspicious of doing something that hasn’t been carefully planned in advance. Whenever you notice that students could benefit from doing the same thing one more time, teach them the language and strategies they need in order to do it better and then improvise a slight variation to make it interesting. Once you have got used to doing this in class, you should find that your instinct for what is going on in the classroom at that point will mean that you can come up with something on the spot that is more suitable than even hours of planning before the class could have given you. In my personal experience, around 5 to 20% of my improvised variations are things I had never thought of or heard of before (if mainly small changes and often things that turn out, disappointingly, to be something that everyone else knows rather than proof of any original genius on my part!)

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net October 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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