Lesson Planning: Build in Time for Productive Struggle - Room 213

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Lesson Planning: Build in Time for Productive Struggle

Lesson planning for high school English
Lesson planning is a complex task that looks so simple from the outside. Those of us who have seen lessons flop and fly know too well that a good lesson takes a great deal of time and thought.

I'm in that thinking stage. In my last post I wrote that I was going to get more specific in this one, but I'm not there yet. That's because I'm still thinking a lot about my incoming Pre-IB students and where I need to take them. Bear with me as I explain:

My grade eleven IB class is about to write a midterm, and there's a lot of stress, because they realize there so many things they still need to learn. It's the same every year. And every year I reflect on what I could have done differently when I had these students in tenth grade.

One of the biggest issues with this bunch of over-achievers is that, until they entered the International Baccalaureate program, they haven't had to struggle much in school. It all came so easily to them, as did the high marks that made them and their parents so proud. The IB program is the first time in their lives that most of them have slammed up against an academic challenge, and so they don't always have the skills to deal with having to struggle to find an answer. So, one of my biggest challenges with the Pre-IB's is to help them build those skills.

One of the first things we will do is discuss the importance of failure in the learning process. We will begin with writing prompt that asks them to reflect on their own attitudes on failure, followed by small group discussions on the concept. Then, I'll provide them with several articles to read that focus on failure and growth mindset. (click for the lesson) We will continue the discussion after they've read the articles, to see how their reading may have changed their thinking. I've done this before, and we always have great discussions -- but what these kids know intellectually doesn't always help them when things get challenging. Therefore, I need to plan to give them many opportunities to experience productive struggle, opportunities to try things that are just beyond their reach, so they can apply what they learn about growth mindset and, more importantly, so they can grow.

Now I know that all of you don't have an advanced group of learners like I do with this class -- in fact most classes have a mix of attitudes and abilities. That doesn't mean that you can't teach them to embrace productive struggles well.  You may need to differentiate and provide different challenges to different students; just be sure that you always provide one that will present a bit of a struggle, but not one that's too difficult. Start with some relatively easy tasks and then turn up the difficulty level when you think they are ready.

Here are five ways you can provide some challenging opportunities for all types of learners:

1. Ask challenging questions and coach students through the process of finding an answer. Start with a turn and talk or a quick-write to give students a chance to start the thinking process; then, have a class discussion. When you get an "I don't know" response, don't move on to another student. Ask: how could we figure it out? What strategies could we use? Then, model strategies that the student could use to get to an answer. When you get an incorrect or incomplete answer, don't say no, that's not it; instead, say something like, you're not quite there yet. Then probe further or give a clue that could help them get closer. Always be aware of your voice and body language -- celebrate great attempts, so student know that trying is an important part of the learning process. Praise students for attempts and hard work, rather than for the 'right answer.' This works best when the question posed doesn't have "an answer" and during the activity you are just exploring theories. Essentially, you want to set an environment where it's a fun challenge to figure something out, rather than a "test" of whether one is right or wrong. A great way to model this is to have students try to stump you with something challenging. You can model your process, as well as your attitude toward the productive struggle.

I should add, that if you want them to learn that failure is part of the learning process, then you need to give them a safe place to take risks and "fail". Formative assessment is the tool for that, and you can read about my journey with that here.

2. Give students a writing prompt that challenges their thinking or forces them to think outside their comfort zone. You can get into some really controversial topics like gun control, or you can try to challenge the teenage psyche. I thought of an idea for this when walking through the halls of our school this morning, and noted that every second teen was wearing Bludstone boots with rolled up jeans or tights. They look nice, but they all look the same. I was struck by how crazy it is that they all feel they need to wear the same "uniform." I also know that they feel the need to fit in. So, a writing prompt like this will make them struggle -- they either have to find a good reason to back up their belief in dressing like everyone else, or to think about whether it does make sense or not. There's a challenge there, either way.

A writing prompt that challenges teens' thinking

2. Use mentor sentences and texts to teach important concepts and skills. Decide on what it is you want your students to learn and then provide them with a text that illustrates that skill in use. Ask them what the writer's purpose is and how s/he achieves that purpose -- don't tell them what you want; leave it open-ended to see what they come up with. For example, one thing I will be working on with my tenth grade class is the various ways that writer's develop ideas. One way is by using analogies. I will give them several passages from mentor texts that illustrate this, and ask them: what did the writer do? Why? I'll give them time to read and reflect; then, we'll discuss their theories as a class. The struggle occurs because unlike a focused question (find the analogy) they don't know what they are looking for when they see the text, and have to draw on their skills as an English student to figure it out. I always tart with some easy texts and then build to more complex ones as they get more skilled. I will also emphasize the importance of this as a process: when we read for the first time, we don't always know what the author is doing. However, if we learn to make educated guesses, then we will be much more able to analyze literature with confidence. This is another place where you can model your own process. Ask students to randomly select a passage from a text, and you can show them the strategies you use to analyze text.

*You can easily differentiate this process by providing students with different texts.

3. Use group challenges and activities that are challenging and will force the students to do some critical thinking. You can do these as bell ringers at the first of every class, or as a once a week activity that requires students to work together to solve a challenging task. The competition factor with these makes the challenge much more fun.

4. After you have taught and scaffolded certain skills, have students apply these to something new. For example, after you have taught methods of characterization using a series of short stories, give them a story that was not discussed in class and have them discover the author's methods without any guidance from you. Pick a story that's a little bit harder than the ones you've done in class. I've written about this gradual release model in a previous post that you can read here

5.  Whenever you can, make the learning student-directed. I rarely give students questions about a text, because I feel that tells them what to think, and points them directly toward what I think is important. I will use some guiding questions at the beginning of the year, but after that we dive into activities that get them working and thinking independently about the texts. It's not always easy for them, but then there's that productive struggle again. The beauty of this process is seeing the looks on their faces when they actually "crack" a difficult problem.  I wrote about a wonderful "eureka" moment that my students experienced last year, in this post. 

Lesson planning for high school English
If you'd like some activities that will provide your students with some moments of productive struggle, I've got a whole pile of them in my Activities for Critical Thinking Bundle.

How do you find opportunities for productive struggle in your classroom? I'd love to hear your successes and failures -- because we know that failure is a part of the learning process! Please share below.


  1. These are spot on and terrific ideas to help students own their learning. Thanks for sharing!

  2. We are a newly authorized IB school, and our DP program will officially begin in September. However, we are concerned about exactly what you named above: what happens when our DP candidates, who have always "done school" well, begin to struggle? I can see the value of directly teaching into this early in the year, most likely in our ToK course. Thanks for the great ideas.


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