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Teaching Strategies for When Things Don’t Work Out

Jordan Catapano

Ever since my days of student teaching, veteran teachers have told me, “Always have a Plan B.” They knew that Plan A – those pristine, what-could-go-wrong teaching strategies – could benefit from having backup teaching strategies. Just in case. As I’ve learned myself, “Just In Case” can happen more than you’d think. Sometimes the power goes out. Sometimes the technology just doesn’t feel like working today. Sometimes two-thirds of your class is gone on a field trip. What do you do when your teaching strategies aren’t going as expected?

If you want to plan ahead for “Just in case” moments, try prepping yourself with these handy backup plans.

Teaching Strategies: Keep a Movie Ready

When in doubt, films make fantastic backup plans. They are engaging, thought-provoking, and something that can take as much or as little time as you like.

Find a film that has a connection to what you’re focusing on in your class. For me, I’ve kept “Stand and Deliver” and “Freedom Writers” within arms reach. These are great films that have morals applicable at any point in the year. What would work in your classroom? Make sure to select a film that is age appropriate and approved for showing by your district.

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In addition to showing a film, I like to make it more engaging by give students a list of questions that help them key into important details. I also like to pause frequently and talk about what’s going on. Prepare your questions or activity for the film in advance. Even make a class set of copies to keep handy. If the need arises, you’re ready to go!

Have Brain-Building Games

We can still exercise students’ minds even if our original lesson isn’t in the cards for today. Have fun, challenging brain builders on hand to grab out for those moments when you need a Plan B.

A Rubik’s cube is a great example of this sort of brain-building game. Checkers or chess, the peg board game (made famous by Cracker Barrel), plexers, or logic-based puzzles are other great ways for engaging students’ minds when lessons don’t work out.

Many of these are great because you can engage whole classes at once or individual students. They also don’t have to take a long time, so even if you have a few spare minutes, then let students break out these fun learning challenges!

The Communication Challenge

If you want to engage students with an easy-to-make back up plan, try this game:

  1. Draw three somewhat random, silly images on a spot where students cannot see.
  2. Ask students to get into pairs.
  3. Tell students that one member of each pair will be the “Describer,” who will look at the image you drew and describe it in detail to their partner, but they cannot touch their partner’s paper or point to it The other student will be the “Drawer” and must draw the image based on their partner’s descriptions, but cannot look.
  4. Give students about three minutes to complete the task. Afterwards, see which group drew the most accurate image! Have them switch roles and try again.

The images you draw can be as simple or as complex as you like. The more detailed you make your drawing, the more time you may want to give teams to complete the task. I used to do this on an overhead projector, but now I draw my images on an iPad and project that on to our screen.

This doesn’t just have to be a silly game. It gets students involved and competitive, and encourages enriching discussions about communication. Try some of these questions afterwards:

  • What were the winning teams’ strategies?
  • Was it more difficult to draw or describe?
  • What grew frustrating in this task?
  • Would it have been easier if the drawer could look at the image?
  • How important were word choice and description details?
  • How is this similar to how we communicate, or miscommunicate, our ideas?

A Great Short Story

Our minds are always hungry for stories. Do you have a great short story on hand that you know your students will love? Keep that handy, and when you need the perfect back up plan, share this story with students.

The story will depend on your age level and subject matter, but it should be something that gets the students talking. With your story, have a set of discussion questions or journal topics handy to engage students with when the story is done! We learn so much through stories, it’s never a bad back-up plan to spend quality time reading with students.

Make copies of your story in advance, as well as any activities or questions you want students to use afterwards.

Once Upon a Time

Since stories can be so effective, I recommend you buy this game. It’s called Once Upon a Time, and it is a simple, laugh-inducing storytelling game. There are many ways to play depending on the size of your group, but the basic purpose of the game is to tell a story as a group.

Individuals are given various cards that have common storytelling ingredients on them, including locations (a cave, a castle, a dungeon), characters (a wizard, a dragon, a wise innkeeper), and objects (magic rings, candles, wedding bells). Other cards indicate events or Happily Ever After endings. Students tell a story as a group, and the purpose is to try and include each of the cards they’re holding in their story.

This encourages creativity, collaboration, storytelling elements, and loads of fun! When things aren’t able to go according to plan, why not craft a thrilling story together as a class?

Backup plans come in all shapes and sizes. This list is perfect for when you need to save your original lesson for a different day. At other times you may need to modify your original lesson to help students “Get it” in a way they didn’t with your Plan A. At other times, you may need to simply find another way to communicate and share (such as when the technology lets you down). Be creative and always ready to make your classroom a place of learning and creativity.

What would you add to this list? Share your “Just in case” back ups with our community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website