C.H.A.C.E.R: The Themantic Lesson Plan

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Curriculum, General Interest, Themantics

One key to effective teaching is combining routine with variation in lessons.

Our goal at TE is to make teachers lives better by making them simpler. Do less and do it better, getting back to basics, yadda, yadda.

If we can help you reduce stress, it will have positive impacts on your kids (see this article about the correlation between teacher burnout and cortisol in students).

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While at first the idea of having a rigid and fixed framework for a lesson seems like it’d quell creativity and make for stale teaching, I hope you can see from the rationales below why this daily framework just kinda makes sense. And you’re sure to be using it anyway, but perhaps not aware of it.

I’ll explain the acronym shortly, but first let me show you the basic teaching principles that it’s based on, which include the fact that I want…

  • …students to learn something new every lesson
  • …students to connect new learning to previous learning
  • …to check students’ new learning and their retention of prior learning
  • …to give students chances to extend themselves if they’re ready
  • …to plan activities that encourage development of skills, as well as knowledge & understanding

How does it work?


C = consolidate

H = hook

A = activity, acquire, access (choose the one that you like best 🙂

C = check-in

E = extend

R = reflect


If students are learning something new every lesson we run the risk of burning through the material too fast if we don’t give them enough opportunities to rehearse learning. Also, sometimes it’s been a whole day, couple of days or even after a weekend that I see my students again. Every lesson of mine opens with about 10 minutes of a consolidation activity that aims to get students to recap learning from previous lessons. This gives me a chance to do a bit of informal formative assessment, too.


There are lots of different activities that make great consolidators, including pub quizzes, kahoots, crosswords, jeopardy, brain dumps, verbal tennis, group tennis, traffic lights, one sentence essays, connect the dots….etc…etc…I try to recap key building blocks, as well as highlight the important relationship chains that we’ve been through.

We know memory works through rehearsal, so giving consolidation (recapping) time at the beginning of a lesson is pretty fundamental, I think.


We want students to be engaged in a lesson and we want them to get excited about what they’re going to learn, so we need to somehow try to hook them into our lesson; not a new idea, by any means.

But sometimes I like to hook kids into a lesson by just throwing a problem at them or getting them straight into the next stage: activity. Kids naturally love to solve problems and puzzles, so sometimes if you do something like a murder mystery activity, it doesn’t need much of a hook as the activity is the hook.

Or even posing the guiding question to students could be enough of a hook, if you wanted it to be. Some students will want to learn regardless of how personally engaging it is because they just want to do everything you ask and pass the test. While you’ve got other kids who couldn’t care less about Social Identity Theory and so you might need to throw a real life example at them that might strike a chord so they sit up and listen.

It’s a pretty basic idea of teaching: that learning should be meaningful, purposeful and relevant for our kids, so why not try to show them how it is early in a new lesson?


If we want students to learn something new every lesson, we need to provide them time to access new information, practice new skills, acquire new terminology, etc.

At TE we believe that teaching is an art and a science. The science is in the careful curriculum planning and design; the art is in the planning of engaging and interesting lessons that engage your kids. And there’s an art to being able to do all those things great teachers do, like developing rapport and relationships with kids, designing interesting activities, integrating technology, etc.

So at TE our motto is: “We take care of the science, you take care of the art.” We’d never claim to know the best way to teach. There are so many variables that can’t be controlled for; we do feel we have the best framework for curriculum design, but the delivery of the curriculum has to be left to individual teachers.

Some teachers love to stand and talk and can tell heaps of interesting stories that engage and interest kids; others love to use technology and social media; others a combination, and every other possible variation. Regardless of what method we use, it all has the same purpose: causing learning to happen. So at some point in a lesson we need to plan how we’re going to cause learning. And this is what this step in CHACER is all about, quite simply.

Common sense up until now, right? So you might be wondering: Travis, why the hell are you talking at me like I’m on day one of teacher’s college? Good point. I like using the acronym CHACER because now that I have my curriculum planned and all the readings for students (in the form of the textbook), I find it really easy to sit down and go through these steps to plan my lessons. It’s just a small way of reducing the stress of planning and it’s making sure I do all the things I need to be doing.

Speaking of things we should be doing…formative assessment…


If I’ve tried to teach students something new, at some point in the lesson I want to see if they’ve learned it. Ideally, my activity should have resulted in some form of product that students can share with me so I can see that they’ve meet the objectives for the lesson: they can demonstrate understanding of a significant relationship in response to the lesson’s guiding question. This could be from a worksheet, a presentation, a diagram, a written answer, spoken answer, visual answer…etc. At some point, I want to check learning.

Now we live in the real world at TE and we know that it’s impossible to check everyone’s learning every lesson. It’s an ambitious goal, but the practicalities of daily classroom life mean that it won’t happen, especially if you’ve got more than about 15 students in your class.

We try to develop curricula that will have about 25% of students finished the guiding question in a one hour lesson and they’ll have time to be extended. This caters for the fast finishers. It’s hoped that about 50% of students will be able to be just finishing answering the guiding question, but you won’t quite have time to check their work because one hour isn’t much time. Again, this is frankly a reality of teaching.

And we know that all classes are mixed ability classes and there’ll be about 25% of kids (these are very general estimates!) in a class that may not be able to understand the relationship chain in the guiding question; they may be acquiring the language, have processing or other cognitive difficulties or perhaps they’re just having a sh#tty day because of what’s happening in their personal lives. Again, this is the real world we live in: but it’s hoped that they’ve at least got something out of the lesson, whether it be a new building block, a chance to connect with other kids in class, some reading practice and some thinking practice. If they’re practicing reading, writing, speaking, listening and thinking in a lesson, this will be having effects that aren’t immediately visible. We can also offer premedial strategies to help these students.

So we’re maximising opportunities for learning to happen and trying our best to formatively assess.


Not all students will process and acquire new learning at the same rate: fact. This is one way our differentiation comes in: we need to provide fast finishers a chance to extend themselves. As students demonstrate an ability to answer the lesson’s guiding question, they then have a few options of how to extend themselves.

One way could be to move on to the abstract thinking level. If they can answer the guiding question it means they can understanding a significant relationship, so now they’re ready to think abstractly about that relationship. Can it be applied to a new context? Does the relationship really exist? How do we know that relationship exists? Is the evidence credible? etc.

Or the classic paradigm, which still has merit: they can help other kids. Why not? We want learning to be collaborative and it’ll be the same kids finishing fast every lesson, you can almost guarantee it. Which means you’ll probably have the same couple of kids struggling every lesson – hopefully we can develop empathy and cooperation by having students help one another.

Or offer them an inquiry opportunity. Get them to pose their own question they want to investigate (this is under the notion that the unit you’re teaching is a topic based unit; if it’s a research unit, this changes things slightly). Now you’re differentiation and offering inquiry at the right moment.


A few minutes before the end of the lesson you’ll want students to take stock of their learning. High school students, especially in upper levels, should be able identify where they go to in the lesson in regards to the guiding question (the lesson outcome) and plan their own homework accordingly. Or you could assign homework, such as reading the next lesson’s section of the textbook.

You might want to use an exit ticket, traffic lights or some other brief reflection activity to get a general gauge of the overall effectiveness of the lesson.


And that’s CHACER. Pretty common sense and based on basic principles of teaching and learning. But it does provide a tangible framework for teachers to base their planning on. If done well it can strike a balance between structure/routines and variation/engagement.

Let’s face it: the IB is common a source of stress. But perhaps no more so than the demands placed on modern teachers by any group of administrators with best intentions. We’re constantly getting demands from admins that we must differentiate, offer inquiry opportunities, teach for conceptual understanding, formatively assess, align our  teaching with our summative assessment, make our objectives visible for students, teach skills not just content, engage students, motivate students…..

All this while we’re getting bigger class sizes and less planning time. The net result of the wonderful advancements in pedagogical theory since the lectures to rows and columns of kids memorizing maps in the 1950s is that we now know better than ever what we should be doing; but we simply don’t have the time to do it!

I’m not a fan of pedagogical theory; let me just make that clear. In fact, I’ve never read a single book about teaching philosophy. I’ve learnt about concepts like understanding by design, visible thinking, visible learning, formative assessment, backwards planning, etc… by having an administrator who spends their time in the books and the theory tell me these terms. The typical conversation goes:

Admin: We need to adopt backwards planning in our school. Are your units backwards planned?

Me (5 Years Ago): What does that mean?

A: It means you figure out what you want your kids to learn first and design the assessments and then align your teaching to those objectives. 

Me: Is there a different way to do it?

And so I learn a term that I never knew existed (backwards planning) because I just thought it was common sense. And that’s what we base our model on: common sense. Our lesson plan template of C.H.A.C.E.R is no different.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to leave a comment.