How to Scale Instructional Planning, Perspective from a History Classroom

By Benjamin Heckscher, History Department Head Lycée International de Saint-Germain-en-Laye American Section

For most of my career, I was content to take the general topics in my history curriculum that I was to teach and to just move through them in order, trying to get it all in before the end of the year. A few issues came up that made me reconsider my instructional planning. First: when simply running through the material, you tend to leave one subject unfinished and pick it up the next day or the next week. This makes it easier to spend more time on a unit than you have. It also makes it difficult for students to follow topics. Second: in my first four years teaching the current 10th-grade course, none of us ever actually got as far as we had intended, or if we did, it was only by truncating the history curriculum at the very end.

What’s wrong with carrying a topic over from one day or week to the next? It’s easy for us teachers because it’s all we’re doing. For the students, yours is one of six or so classes they will have that day and one of ten to twelve courses they will have that week, plus extra-curriculars. And don’t forget a deeply important, stressful and ever-evolving personal and social life.

Instructional Planning with the Student in Mind

Of course, they’re intellectually capable of keeping track of the topic, but concretely, they don’t always, and it can be frustrating and time-consuming to re-establish the continuity from the last class. If we want to present material in a way that’s likely to resonate and stick – if we take a truly student-centered approach – we need to be very simple and clear in presenting coherent chunks. It’s easier to remember one thing than two-thirds of a thing to be completed next week.

Ultimately, the best approach to instructional planning is to plan single “units,” or ideas, for each class, session, and year. Skills classes are interspersed in function of what content they’re connected to and making sure you have sufficient grades come last.

This can be difficult: what if the class goes long and you don’t fit it all in? The answer is to determine, very succinctly, what “it” is when planning instruction for history curriculum. Rather than working through the chapter on World War 2, decide which specific takeaway you want to cover in each class period, and make sure you state it clearly.

As the class progresses, with its asides and tangents, keeping it in mind makes it easier to decide what can go, what needs to stay, and where you need to elaborate, editorialize, or discuss. If you’re assembling most of your history curriculum material from scratch, it also helps keep the class material coherent.

Scaling History Curriculum

This principle applies at different scales. I wrote in my first article – Beyond the Textbook – Instructional Material for History Curriculum – about having a single idea that carries throughout the year and that everything hangs on. The other scale is what I call the “session,” or the period between vacations, such as the session between a Fall and Winter break. Again, for cognitive reasons, it’s hard to carry a large theme over a two-week break.

Ultimately, then, your instructional plans need a single idea for the whole year, a single idea for each session, and a single idea for each class period.

Some personal instructional planning examples from my 11th Grade history curriculum:

  • Yearlong idea: “Competing political system since absolutism”
  • Session idea: “The ‘long’ World War 2”
  • Class ideas: “Fascist expansionism,” “Consequences of war in Asia,” or “Cold War: starting positions”
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Step 1: Content Classes

What idea are you going to convey in each session? Based on your yearlong idea for your history curriculum, what single idea can you convey in that 1/5th of the year? Once you have that “session” idea, and the number of hours you’ll have per session, you can pencil in the kinds of things you want to get done at the individual class level. Below is my breakdown of single topics per session (“US 1” and “US 2” is a bit vague; they refer to pre- and post-1945).

instructional planning
Step 2: Skills Classes

Next is non-content classes. Projects are usually tied to specific content but also require some class time for logistics: research, field trips, etc. Skills classes are often tied to specific content as well, in which case they have to be placed at a certain time of year. You might also have an introductory period, some current-events classes, etc.

Finally, if you’re lucky, you’ll know all the field trips, assemblies, national holidays, etc. that will cost you class hours over the course of the year. Even knowing most of these eventualities planning history curriculum and instruction, I budget one hour per session of “bonus” material that I can drop when something unexpected comes up.

At this point, you can lay out a complete session, by the hour, that includes content, skills, projects, and missed classes. Because you have one “idea” item for each hour of class, you end up with a simple list of terms, and after a year, you have a lesson for each hour, as outlined in my last post – One Click Wonder: Digitizing Lesson Plans and Class Materials. In year two, it becomes very easy to move classes around if you need to.

Step 3: Grades

The third step is grades; this is where the trimester or grading period becomes relevant. Ultimately, grades are pedagogically arbitrary: you can grade anything, from in-class participation to a homework quiz to a cumulative test on content. Of course, we have to show acquisition of the course material… but in that sense, the grades are more for us than for them! I have a few grades built in to projects or reading quizzes; then I work backwards from the end of each grading period, adding just enough assignments to get a representative average.

The end result of this instructional planning for history curriculum can take any number of forms. I started with a huge paper scroll on the wall, with moveable Post-it notes for each class. When I work with colleagues as head of the history department, I hand out printed excel sheets to be able to pencil things in and jot notes and reminders as we’re working through what we want to get done. These days, after four years of this system for history curriculum, I have everything on a simple Google sheet.

instructional planning

Above is my “Session 1” from last year, for each of my three class levels. Each box in the excel sheet above is a shorthand description of the idea for that class and corresponds to one lesson plan as outlined in my last post. The grey or blue cells are times when I will not be teaching.  This year, I added an extra row each week for homework.

With a full-year instructional planner for history curriculum, you achieve several goals:

  • The material is packaged in the way that is most likely to stick with the students.
  • You have a single concept for each class, which lets you deal with in-class tangents without losing focus.
  • Your history curriculum is structured, but flexible and modular, which makes it easier to deal with an unexpected fire drill, your niece’s christening, or that conference you have to go to in Porto.

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Benjamin Heckscher
Contributing Author:

Ben Heckscher began teaching during his college years at NYU. After college, he spent five years at the primary level at the Calhoun School in New York, then got a Masters Degree in History and moved to Paris. For the past eight years, he has been teaching in the American Section of the Lycée International de Saint Germain-en-Laye, where he now heads the History Department. He is currently finishing a PhD in European Union history at the London School of Economics, and will soon be moving with his wife and children to Estonia!

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