No-Plan Plans & Resource Ruts

NYTimes Cooking recipes are so good, and they have these no-recipe recipes that both inspire you to experiment with what’s on hand, as well as remind you that yes, you can actually cook by combining ingredients you think would be good in a meal. You don’t actually need a recipe. Teaching isn’t really any different…

The result of cooking food is being able to eat. The result of teaching a second language is students being able to understand the language…at least. That is, even if there’s some other goal, understanding is required first, be it acquisition and eventual production of the language, to strict grammatical analysis in the abstract. Comprehension is step zero. So, if students MUST understand the target language during class, the plan can be just as no-plan as no-recipe meals when you need to eat. Make the target language more understandable!

I’ve written about no-prep to low-prep before, but today I was inspired to reframe those ideas after reading someone’s frantic request for an activity because they couldn’t access their plans. Just reading that request gave me anxiety. That’s a big wrench, for sure, but the teacher was caught completely off guard, more like an axe. Surely, we can teach without some kind of document, or resources, right? I think we’ve been sold snake oil, or at least convinced ourselves to be so tied to our plans that we cannot get through the day without them. DISCLAIMER: I’m not suggesting that you go into class, every day with a no-plan plan, unable to tell any administrator what you’re doing and why, or unable to draft an outline of the week, month, or year, and doing pointless stuff none of the kids respond to. What I *am* suggesting is that you start by getting rid of everything except what’s truly necessary. Then, think about what teaching and learning could look like so when those wrenches…and axes…are thrown, you don’t even have to move outta the way.

Marker/Chat Window
Imagine you have nothing except a marker and a whiteboard. That’s baseline. For remote learning, the equivalent is meeting software, like Zoom, Meet, Teams, or whatever. It’s just you, a bunch of boxes, and the chat window. In either context, these are powerful tools. You can tell students what target language words mean, and keep them in view the entire class for reference. That’s really all you need when your plan is to make the target language more understandable. Of course, the sine qua non activity is Write & Discuss (Type & Talk). For all the no-plan plans, you’ll need to know how to do this, but it’s basically:

  1. You type
  2. Students copy

During the process, ask students to recall what happened in class, and type it. Give students some time to copy. Involve them in the typing, too, if you can’t think of anything (e.g. “how could we say this in the target language?”). Point out grammar features they’ll forget anyway, if you like, but come back to the idea of making what you’re typing more comprehensible, processing the language with students, phrase-by-phrase if needed, and checking their understanding throughout.

Resource Rut
These no-plan plans also help you avoid falling into a resource rut of using the same texts and media over and over without giving much thought to what they contain, or without being culturally responsive to students in the room, this year! When you reduce everything right down to the marker/chat, you can evaluate whether other resources make sense. That is, just because you have something available, doesn’t mean you need to use it. You might even find that you have resources that in no way make language more understandable. Don’t use them! Go back to just you, and that marker (or chat window), and go from there. You might also find that the resources you have need a lot of updating when the plan is to start with comprehension, such as texts waaaaay above level. I’d recommend gathering (physically or digitally) all the resources you have that actually make sense for the students you have, this year, at this time, and maybe even update those quarterly (e.g. “can this year’s students read this now? Is this a possibility in winter, or spring?” etc.). Once you have those, no-plan plans are even easier to implement. I’d recommend doing that individually and as a department periodically anyway, regardless of any plans to try no-plan plans, but if you find yourself in the “but what do I DO?” camp, a short list of homerun resources will help you with the no-plan plans:

  1. Talk & Read
    Talk long enough (and ask questions, duh) to get something you can write about. Then, class becomes Type & Talk. The talk could even be in English! Consider anything that gets students talking about themselves, or their interests. When in doubt, simple votes work well (e.g. “what’s better, Burger King or McDonald’s?”). If you’re that desperate for ideas, look out a window and talk about what you see, or what’s in the room. Describe it, its colors, other features, anything. But don’t forget about the “who else?” questions, as well as “who likes?” because ain’t nobody gonna care what’s the teacher’s looking at if it doesn’t have anything to do with themselves. This applies to all no-plan plans. They’re not talking-at-students plans.
  2. Just Read
    Students read: books, notebooks, eBooks, whatever. Follow up with summaries and thoughts, then Type & Talk.
  3. Just Listen
    Students listen to you read something, tell a story, whatever. Follow up, then Type & Talk.
  4. Picture Talk
    Show *any* image, discuss it, then Type & Talk.

BuT wHaT aBoUt ThE cUlTuRe?!?!?!?
Go back and read the disclaimer, but also note that all of the no-plan plans can make use of any target culture resources. Of course, be prepared to discuss what students don’t find interesting about a grocery store flyer advertising different fruits—and then maybe put that resource in storage—but the point is a no-plan plan is about what you can do to improvise with what you’ve got. If you’ve got a pile of target culture stuff that you can make comprehensible, use ’em! Although, I will say that the more you ramp up target culture, the more you’ll need to check in with students and see how they’re connecting it to their own lives. That can get deep, so for most no-plan plans, you’ll probably be better off sticking with here-and-now obvious stuff.

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