Lesson Intros: An Indispensable Formula

In my 20+ years as an educator, I have planned and implemented well over 1,000 lesson intros, taught more than 200 prospective secondary teachers how to plan and implement lesson intros of their own, and formally evaluated intros included in hundreds–literally hundreds–of middle and high school lessons.

In short, I have a long and storied relationship with lesson intros.

To support prospective teachers in acquiring the skills needed to plan and implement lesson intros, I have used a wide array of supports including digital texts (e.g., videos, blog posts), templates, exemplars (i.e. high-quality examples), modeling, and hands-on, performance-based tasks followed by copious amounts of feedback.

Yet, despite these seemingly hyperbolic efforts, there are always a few who remain befuddled by the art of planning and implementing effective and engaging intros.

While this has been quite frustrating at times, it has prompted me to reflect deeply on my own teaching practices, the expectations I hold for prospective teachers, and the complexities of planning and implementing lessons that have the power to engage and inspire students at all levels.

In particular, I have realized that a truly well-crafted lesson intro requires:

  • Patience, creativity, and a commitment to excellence;
  • Knowledge of the content and students’ lived experiences;
  • An understanding of learning theories; and
  • A high level of cognitive and conceptual development.

Given this “perfect storm” of knowledge and skills, I suspect that countless educators (e.g., professors, teacher trainers, university supervisors, mentors, K-12 teachers) are frustrated by lesson intros in one way or another (e.g., developing their own skills, organizing their thoughts, helping prospective teachers build capacity).

In this post, I describe the formula that I use to create effective and engaging intros. I developed this formula by synthesizing ideas acquired through personal experience and from a wide array of professional resources. The formula is comprised of five concrete steps, each of which is accompanied by reflection prompts, recommended time frames, and numerous tips for success.

As written, the formula is most appropriate for use with students in grades 4-12, but with simple tweaks such as the omission of bell work or the integration of personal devices (e.g., tablets, laptops), it can be made appropriate for students in all grades, at all levels, and in myriad educational contexts.

You may also find it helpful to refer to another recent post, Lesson Intros: Exemplar #1

Step 1: Begin with Bell Work (2-3 min)

What will you have students do as soon as they enter the room? Specify the prompt or questions to be provided. How will this task be displayed and/or communicated? How much time will be allotted for the completion of this task? How will you hold students accountable for completing it? How will you have students share/discuss their answers?

(Tips & Reminders: Develop and teach a procedure that students can follow each day. Make sure your prompts/questions are highly visible before students enter. As soon as the bell rings, set a timer for the bell work activity; this will keep you and your students on track. While students are completing the bell work, your can take attendance, hand out materials, or complete other simple “housekeeping” tasks.)

Step 2: Get Students’ Attention (1 min)

What will you show or tell students to pique their interest in the lesson? How will that “show” or “tell” be displayed and/or communicated to students? What intriguing, open-ended  questions will you ask?

(Tips & Reminders: This is a very important opportunity to capture students’ interest so make it good (without sacrificing alignment, of course). Make sure what you show and/or tell students as well as the corresponding questions are related to, but not the same as, your lesson topic–remember that students cannot answer questions about content they have not yet learned. Last, make sure the questions are not only clearly worded, but also specific enough to elicit responses that you can connect to the topic, purpose, and objectives of the lesson.)

Step 3: Activate Prior Knowledge (2-3 min)

How will you have students respond to the question(s) that you have posed (see above)? How much time will students be given to answer the question(s)? How will you hold them accountable for doing so? When time is up, how will you have students share or discuss their answers?

(Tips & Reminders: Set a timer for the amount of time allotted for independent thinking and/or writing. Have a concrete plan for monitoring students as they think/write, and for calling on students to share/discuss their answers. As students share/discuss their answers, pay very close attention to what they say. Remember, you’ll have to be able to reiterate, paraphrase, or summarize the parts that are most relevant to the topic of the lesson and explain how those parts are related to the topic of the lesson.)

Step 4: Connect Prior Knowledge to the Lesson Topic (1 min)

Which elements within students’ anticipated responses must you reiterate, summarize, or paraphrase or order to make a direct connection between what they already know and the topic of the lesson? What, exactly, is the relationship between those elements and the topic of the lesson? How will you explain this relationship to students?

(Tips & Reminders: Reiterate, paraphrase, or summarize only the parts of students’ responses that are most relevant to the topic of the lesson. Then, explain–as clearly as humanly possible–how those elements are related to the topic of the lesson. Though this relationship may be obvious to you, it will not be obvious to your students no matter how mature or intelligent they may be. This responsibility is yours.) 

Step 5: Purpose, Activities, & Objectives (1 min)

What is the general purpose of today’s lesson (i.e. the content or skills to be addressed)? What activities will you have students do to learn about the content/skills featured in the lesson? What are the behavioral objectives for the lesson–that is, the observable actions that students will perform as a way of demonstrating that they have learned the content/ skills covered in the lesson?

(Tips & Reminders: Be clear and direct when stating purpose of the lesson–i.e. “the purpose of this lesson is….” Again, regardless of students’ maturity or intelligence, this probably won’t be clear to students unless you state it explicitly. State the objectives in a clear, concise, and measurable way. Remember, activities and objectives are not the same. For example, notice the difference between “Today, we’re going to write an essay” (i.e. activity) and “By the end of this less, you’ll be able to formulate a clear and concise thesis statement” (i.e. objective). Many teachers, even those with loads of experience, are still unclear about this important distinction.)


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