Visualizing Success: Color-coding a Spreadsheet for Easy Teacher Prep

Indiana-Purdue University English Instructor, Louisa Danielson shares how to design a class calendar spreadsheet and pre-plan for the semester’s schedule.

Knowing the Basics 

Getting ready for the school year is always intensive work. Especially if you’re a little new to the college teaching process, you want to be well-prepared ahead of time. If you know what you’re going to do, this translates into success in your teaching strategies.

Looking at SpreadsheetNaturally, you’ll want to know which textbook or textbooks are assigned for the course, and what papers are required for the students to write. Check with your department for the latest regulations and rules – there should be a PDF or other pamphlet about how many papers, what kind, and what expectations are to be met for each general studies course.

But what might be most important for you as the instructor is scheduling yourself some open time or ‘down time.’ The reality is that, as an instructor, you’ll probably be frequently revamping assignments from one semester to the next. Lectures change, examples need to be refreshed, and grading papers, whether electronically or otherwise, remains a constant, life-consuming task

So what can you do?

Pace yourself. One way to do that is to set up a spreadsheet – like Excel – to work out your schedule. (If you have a different spreadsheet or calendar system that could handle a detailed day-by-day schedule, feel free to try that.) On the spreadsheet, you can color-code rows for important dates, or just pick out individual squares to highlight for certain assignments.

Here is one way to set up your teaching spreadsheet:

  1. Open a new spreadsheet
  2. Label vertical columns with the week number, specific date, topic, items due, readings, extra handouts, in-class activities, and any extra thoughts you want to capture
  3. Use color coding to delineate important events and deadlines

Basic Setup of Graph

Putting Together Your Plan

Grab your syllabus (or flip your screen to it) and start going through your assignments. When are papers due? Do you have any extra activities, like quizzes or information scavenger hunts that will be issued during the class? Enter the data, like days of the week, due dates, and pages to read (or chapters or articles – whatever you’re using) into your spreadsheet. Look it over. Then do the next step – color coding.

It’s helpful to use the “Fill Color” function on an Excel sheet, because it’s like checking the gas meter as you drive – you get an idea for how things are without having to take time to pick through the data. Glancing at the month or the week ahead, when it is color coded, gives you a heads up, like this: “Oh! I don’t have anything due until Thursday!” or, “Hm, I’d better not schedule that day trip on Saturday – there’s too much going on next week.”

Finding the 'fill color' function for your graph GS

The red, yellow and green colors of a traffic signal are fairly simple to remember. So think of it this way – when something is due, color the box red. If you have to print something off before class, color the specific box a warning ‘yellow’ so that you’ll know – when you see yellow, you’d better get the assignment ready to be sent out. In other words, finish tweaking due dates, page requirements, and source information ahead of time. Then you’re ready for green days. Green is the signal color for the day something is supposed to be handed out (or sent or posted) to the class.

I like to block out entire rows for events like Spring Break, Fall Break, or dates when we take a field trip to the library. That way, the colored rows pop out like stop signs: okay, the rewrite deadline can’t be this coming Tuesday, as we’ll be out of class for the Columbus Day break. Or maybe, you think, “Sure, since we’re on break this week, that’s plenty of time to get ready for conferences.”Coloring the individual boxes

Eyeing the Coming Storm

I like to give myself a heads-up when an assignment is approaching. For example, if I plan to discuss the instructions for a paper on October 24, then I’ll make a note on October 19 that I should be preparing the handout for Assignment 3. This box for October 19 is yellow. Color code the October 24 box green (because that’s when I’m handing it out) and then color the due date box red.

Gauge some down time for yourself. Exhaustion only leads to illness – or at best, fuzzy teaching.

Creating Class ScheduleIn addition to making your large-scale planning easier, when you look at your schedule like this, it makes it easier to figure out what the week is going to be like. If you can see that this is the week you’ll be covering narratives, then you can start thinking about “where did I put that magazine article… and which website had that neat video….”

And you can say – “hm, that’s four weekends in a row I’ll be grading. Can I shift something so that I get one weekend to rest? Maybe that worksheet could be due on Wednesday, so I’m not grading it on Friday.” Gauge some down time for yourself. Exhaustion only leads to illness – or at best, fuzzy teaching. So put a little wiggle room in the schedule.

An Extra Reason to Be Prepared

Having a schedule planned out helps, too, in the event of an emergency. For a variety of reasons, you or your students may be unable to get classwork done. Maybe it’s an internet failure, or perhaps you become ill. Maybe the school has a weather-related event. If something happens to delay your schedule, it is okay. You look at your color-coded planner and say, “It will work out. I’ll just use fewer examples on Monday, and we’ll still be able to cover the topic.” The key, though, is to know what you were planning to do, so you can seamlessly combine the lessons for the next class.

Setting up a schedule for teaching is always a challenge. But when you have a plan, it makes teaching a lot easier. You can prepare for what is to come, and you know why you’re doing what you’re doing. When you’re ready to go, you give the students their best opportunity to learn.

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Louisa Danielson
Louisa Danielson, B. A., M. A., teaches English composition at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne. Articles by Louisa have appeared in a variety of publications, including Dialogue: the Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, South Texas English Studies, The Musical Times and several popular publications. When she isn’t writing, teaching, or grading English, Louisa likes to explore classical music.

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