Best lesson I ever did

It’s been almost 20 years since I started teaching, in 1998. That is 2/3rds of a career for some people in education. Every once in a while when my mind drifts, or I can’t sleep at night, memories both good and bad come back to haunt me. Then I get my brain revving to try and figure out what I could have done differently or better. Today, while walking in amazingly beautiful upstate New York, I was pondering the best lesson I ever taught.

In this age of accountability and teacher evaluation, the idea of a “best lesson” is not discussed- rather its “Did this lesson meet the standards of ____________ teacher evaluation rubric?” Danielson, the NYSUT model, others that all discuss the impact of a lesson through measurement and evaluation. I am going to dwell on Danielson because that is what I taught through when at Sidney, and trained to evaluate while at Rochester as a Social Studies Director. The first Domain of Danielson’s rubric is Planning and preparation.  The domain is divided into two sub parts: Content & pedagogy and the second part of designing coherent strategy. The second domain is the classroom environment and it too, is divided into two parts: Creating an environment of respect and rapport, as well as the second part of managing student behavior. The third domain is instruction. Here, three sub parts are identified: Questioning/ discussion techniques, engaging students in learning, and using assessment to monitor progress. The fourth domain is professional growth and development. Let’s think about that for a minute.

Here is what you need to know:

  1. Do you know your stuff?
  2. Can you teach it well?
  3. Do students and you know how to get from September to June in an organized way?
  4. Is the classroom safe orderly, and helpful?
  5. Are the students working on-task and with each other?
  6. Can you and your students discuss and verbally interact with materials and each other?
  7. Do the students look bored?
  8. How do you and the student know they have learned something?

These really 8 basic questions sum up the framework. So let’s use the best lesson I ever taught as a case study: Foods in the Colombian exchange.

Background: In order to have earned professional certification in NYS back in the day (early 2000s) a teacher needed to film the class and themselves teaching. We then paid a boat load of money to some company to evaluate our tape and tell the state that we were good enough to teach. (Since that time, teachers now are never permanently certified. They must engage in Continuing Teacher and Leader Education (CTLE) based professional development and pay fees every time the certification comes up for renewal). I planned a lesson that I thought was amazing! My Global History and Geography class (sophomores) were in the Renaissance and Reformation unit that would ready them for the Global History and Geography exam. The GHG exam is an end of course exam which covers all of human history. The class actually covers two years (9+10 grade). students in the course sit for a 3 hour exam where they need to answer 50 multiple choice questions, write a thematic essay based off of a question from the 10 themes of social studies, answer 10-13 short answer document questions, and then write an essay based on documents and outside information. Usually in a large gym in New York in June (hot and humid- no A/C). The Renaissance and Reformation unit included some discussion on the Age of Exploration.  The Colombian Exchange is the massive diffusion of animals, plants, microbes, and technology between the Eastern and Western Hemisphere. Alfred Crosby wrote a great book about it. I also took my idea and made it into a Center for Teaching American History project at Binghamton University document essay/ plan.  (

So I planned the following lesson:

  1. gathering and introduction: What was the Colombian Exchange?- 5 minute mini lesson on the Exchange
  2. Description of the activity: Students are placed into teams of 4-5 each. They are then given a worksheet which contains three columns. The students are to identify different foods, the taste of the foods, and how those foods may be used in the culture of the home area and the new area.
    1. Rice- Corn- Wheat
    2. Mango-Oranges-strawberries
    3. Cinnamon- Chili powder-Horseradish
  3. Research using your textbook and documents provided some of the technologies and diseases exchanged.
    1. What was the impact on each hemisphere from technology exchanges?
    2. Using the chart from Guns, Germs and Steel, describe how the Europeans used technology to their advantage in Imperialism
    3. Discuss how native Americans used and adopted technology.

I think it went great- the students tried a wide variety of fruits and grains and spices! Some remembered this experience and wrote about it on the Regents exam. My colleagues were not impressed, and thought I spent way too much money on the stuff for class. (it was like 75 dollars- 3 sections and 25 kids in each section). But was it a great lesson? Did I meet the domains from Mrs. Charlotte’s rubric?

Domain 1:

Content & Pedagogy: So I knew my stuff- After all, I was a Fredonia State Outstanding history major! I read Guns, Germs and Steel, and Crosby’s book on the Colombian Exchange!  Pedagogy: I wanted to create a station based learning activity which required students to investigate foods and documents that were part of the exchange. they then had to do some research and fill out a document which captured their findings. OK, not bad. Could have gone deeper- made them present and question each other, or write a letter or essay about the topic. Now a days I could ask the students to use Web 2.0 and do some really technologically advanced things, like podcasts.

Coherent instruction: Yeah, well- there in lies the issue. Not too coherence. Students are great- they will tell you if you missed something. “I don’t understand” only begins to describe my afternoon classes. My morning classes were great- totally knew what to do, and totally the A performers in the school. The video evidence shows them throwing food at each other. Yikes. Apparently my written directions and my verbal directions were, kindly, succinct, and global in nature. No concrete examples, no miles stones of what to expect next, no time checks. i did walk around the room, but that didn’t really help- until they saw how each other completed the activity. Thank goodness for peer-driven learning.

Domain 2:

Creating an environment of respect and rapport. In teenagers? Are you f***ing kidding me? Oh- I’m the adult- sorry. I showed the students respect, they however were not quite into helping me out. For many- teenager rebellion had struck, and the idea of listening to a 20 something year old overweight kid who was scholarly and from outside the area wasn’t high on their radar. I tried- we had rules, oh well.

Managing student behavior: Mostly good, except for the thrown fruit. By the way, if you ever learn how to see with eyes in the back of your head, please let me know. The camera caught many examples of positive and not so positive behavior.

Domain 3:

Questioning/ discussion techniques: I thought they were okay questions: describe, evaluate, rank, discuss. Not bad, could have gone deeper: what parallels can you draw with other exchanges, such as technology? How did  European Imperialism effect Africa? To what extent did China adapt to European Imperialism?

Engaging students in learning: many were engaged- they liked the foods. Researching not so much. Many of the groups were still confused about the overall lesson objective. Now, C3 Social Studies calls it the “Enduring question.” I wished I would have made that part more explicit (write it on the board and the hand out- goes to pedagogy and planning coherent instruction).

Using assessment to monitor progress: I monitored and observed. I collected the document research sheet. I put the exact drawing used in the activity from Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel on the unit test. But I forgot the damn entrance and exit ticket.  Entrance tickets: What do the students already know about the day. Exit ticket: What did they learn and what do they still want to learn about. The KWL Chart is one of the greatest inventions in Education- and we really don’t in my experience use it enough. It really gives students the ability to self assess where they are, map out experiences for the unit, and evaluate what was learned and what gaps they still have.

I taught this lesson in 2002 or 2003. I cant quite remember. After almost 15 additional years of reflection I really would have given myself a “Developing” rating. When I was my 2002-3 self, I thought I was “Proficient.” Along the scale of  the rubric, the worst is “ineffective.” This is reserved for disasters in the classroom. The next step “developing” means there is a spark, a good thought- not quite there yet. The next up on the scale is “effective” or good job- you did it well. Some areas need improvement but no central critical parts. The top, or “Proficient” is reserved for superstars who blow people’s minds away. The proficient teachers are amazing. Without a doubt, I am so glad I did well enough with First Period to earn a passing score and permanent certification. My best wasn’t good enough then, so now, as I teach college, I really think through my lessons, consult with others, and ask for help. Back then I was too scared that people would have seen me as incompetent. In reality, the most competent know what they don’t know and ask for help from more experienced or knowledgeable sources. So this is a bit of an apology to my 10th graders, for a “C” level lesson back then. Hopefully the teaching deities can forgive me too.


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