Tending a Garden, Completing a Puzzle, and Playing Tetris: Three Analogies for Planning

Like most teachers I spend big swaths of time thinking about lesson planning.  This post describes the three main analogies my mind has come up with to conceptualize the planning process. Each analogy, a garden, a puzzle, and Tetris, arose organically as my mind grappled with what it means to plan a lesson or map out a unit of study.

Planning as Gardening

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I like to think of developing my pedagogy as tending to a garden. This garden has two primary components: soil and seeds. Although other variables certainly exist, for instance weather, insect population, and watering schedules, what I’m growing and what it’s growing in are my main concerns. In this analogy the soil is the educational theory underpinning everything I do in the classroom. The theory deals with big questions like what is the ultimate purpose of education?  What does it mean to learn? What does it mean to teach? The answers to these questions form the bedrock for the soil profile in my analogical garden. Once settled, this layer shouldn’t shift around too much.

Once I’ve developed suitable answers to these questions I can move up into the subsoil. The middle level of my garden deals with value systems and relations. How do I position myself within and against 21st century American education? Where do my allegiances lie (my conscience? my administration? my district superintendent? my national rhetoric?)?

The top soil, the nutrient-dense loam nourishing the seeds, deals with the day to day and week to week stuff. Student outcomes, weekly instructional goals, and curriculum make their home here on the top layer.

That leaves the seeds. My seeds are the methods, strategies, and activities I use every day in the classroom. Finding seeds is easy. My personal library, my colleagues, my PLN, the internet, all of these places are bursting with them. The problem isn’t finding engaging activities, it’s building a PH-balanced soil profile from the ground up. I’ve been working on my bedrock for over a year now, and while I’ve made progress I have yet to find the right mixture. Unlike the situation-dependent status of the following analogies, my mind is always gardening.

 

Planning as Puzzle Making

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Lesson planning as puzzle completion is another analogy I find relevant, albeit not as useful as the aforementioned garden when it comes to conceptualizing personal pedagogical growth. In many ways constructing a lesson or a unit resembles putting together a puzzle. Beginning with a mountain of pieces of similar shape and size, I try and come up with a pleasing picture.

Often times I don’t know exactly what it is I’m striving for when I plan lessons. I know this isn’t considered ‘best practices.’ My teacher training focused on the methodology of Understanding by Design as promulgated by Wiggins and enshrined by publishing companies. Although I see value in a few of UbD’s components (Essential Questions, for instance), I struggle to fully embrace any system that purports to know in advance a unit’s specific learning outcomes. I agree with Gert Biesta when he says

“To suggest that education can be and should be risk free, that learners don’t run any risk by engaging in education, or that ‘learning outcomes’ can be known and specified in advance, is a gross misrepresentation of what education is about.”

If I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to bring into presence, I’ll constantly switch in and out various pieces, turning them this way and that, seeing where the jigsaws fit best. This wouldn’t be too vexing with only a few dozen pieces. Except every time I read an education book or annotate a professional article I find myself adding a few more puzzle pieces to the mix.

I appreciate the puzzle analogy because it helps me visualize the many components comprising a lesson. A seemingly mundane and singular assignment can quickly metastasize into a thousand tiny fragments. Take for instance a simple compare and contrast essay:

Paragraph Puzzle Pieces
-Writing a topic sentence
-Identifying, analyzing, and relating appropriate textual evidence
-Citing correctly
-Expressing a complete thought
-Writing a concluding sentence

Organization Puzzle Pieces
-Thing 1, Thing 2, Similarities, Differences
The alternating method
The block method
-The use of signal/transition words

Grammar and Syntax Puzzle Pieces
-Subject/verb agreement
-Punctuation
-Capitalization
Use of academic vocabulary

Writing Process Puzzle Pieces
-Use of graphic organizers
-Brainstorming, drafting, editing, and revising strategies
-Peer review and writing groups

Assessment Puzzle Pieces
-Rubric (holistic, analytic, single-point)
-Portfolio
-Personal reflections

Final Product Puzzle Pieces
-Paper only / online / hybrid
-School newspaper / letter
-Public / private blog
-Text only / images

These are the pieces that popped into my head as I wrote the list; I’m sure you could easily add to it. The point I’m trying to make is that no assignment is simple and every project contains within it seemingly endless steps and variations. Unlike in the gardening analogy, however, the puzzle knows no hierarchy. Its flat surface spreads rhizomatically without the need of a structural center, main idea, or guiding purpose. Every piece works in concert together to achieve a unified whole.

Planning as Tetris

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Tetris is a stressful game. My father loves it; I can understand why. There’s something about the rotate/ slide / lock cycle that dings the pleasure centers of the reptilian brain. Personally I find it too stressful to enjoy. While navigating the early levels can be fun, my mind balks at the increasingly hectic pace required by the mid-game. I lock up. Planning a lesson under a time crunch is analogous to a game of Tetris because both require the operator to manage imperfectly selected shapes against a merciless clock.

Most of my planning is done in the interstitial spaces between the beginnings and endings of lessons and units. I focus so much on the minutiae of everything that I rarely leave myself adequate time to let a new idea breathe and stretch its legs (The astonishing labor required of teaching doesn’t exactly help, either). If completing a puzzle is a contemplative act done at the operator’s leisure, then Tetris is a manic dash to make something work before the inevitable end.

Because the kids are coming. The quarter is ending. The administration is observing. And the high stakes test is just around the corner and when those scores go live you better believe they’ll be talking about you. Regardless of what goes on in the classroom or outside of the school your name is attached. So you build what you can, never looking back because the second you stop is the second it will all collapse. This type of lesson lives in the perpetual forward where meaningful reflection and deliberate planning cannot exist.

Maybe the answer is to think about each of these going on concurrently. Since each is in some ways a response to the demands and political circumstances of a typical teacher, ignoring one of the styles might be unwise. Or maybe the analogies exist interdependently, drawing inspiration and direction from each other. In either case, constructing analogies has been a helpful and generative way for me to think about planning.

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: Pulling an Iceberg up a Mountain: A Portfolio Analogy | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes
  2. Pingback: My Mind is a Farm: On Reading and the Cultivation of a Mind | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

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