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December 8, 2015

Stay Productive During December

By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    Does it feel as though your students’ brains have all vacated to the North Pole? Forget spring fever — it is more difficult keeping my students focused in December than even the last month of school. It would be easy to write off the weeks from Thanksgiving until New Years as a lost cause and give into a tra-la-la-lackadaisical month of paper snowflakes and dreidel spinning (both of which have their place, of course). But I can’t in good conscience let academics take a month-long backseat to the holiday pageant preparations. So how do I stave off candy cane stupor without becoming a Scrooge? Read on for five tips about how to productively power through December.

     

    Tip 1: Turn Up the Heat With Deadlines

    The December vacation is a great, natural excuse to put some pressure on our students to GET STUFF DONE! Some projects or units seem to linger on and on (and at times, meandering units of study are awesome!) But there’s nothing like a good old deadline to light a fire under everyone and infuse the classroom with a sense of urgency. I like to sit down with a calendar in front of the entire class and plan out, day by day, how they can squeeze in the assignment IF they give it their all. (Of course, I make sure that the goal is reasonably attainable with consistent effort.)

    Creating this heightened sense of urgency and establishing a common goal creates an infectious buzz of energy that effectively staves off sugarplum daydreams. As the deadline nears, students often beg for extra time to work on their projects. I love acting uncertain. I’ll protest, “Oh, I don’t know, two hours is really too long for third graders to work on their writing in one sitting.” Which, of course, makes my students beg to work even harder. Mwah ha ha!

     

    Tip 2: You Don’t Need to Finish Everything Before Vacation

    Wait, isn’t Tip 1 all about building urgency with a hard and fast deadline? New teachers, here’s a teaching secret: we don’t actually have to be consistent, as long as we are purposeful. You see, I used to think that I had to finish teaching every unit in every subject area before the vacation. But that’s not true! In fact, now I prefer to have some units carry over across the vacation to resume in January. This means that I can teach regular, mid-unit lessons up until the day vacation begins. It’s unrealistic to expect that every unit will reach a natural ending point at the same time. And it’s stressful giving so many assessments all at once. Not to mention, how terrifying is it to return to school in January needing launch new units in all subject areas?!

    I used to worry about whether the kids would forget a lot during the vacation, and whether it’d disrupt the unit. But honestly, we want our students to remember what they learn for far longer than just a week long vacation. If a week off is going to chip away at their enduring understandings, then it wasn’t very enduring was it? Now that I carry units over into the new year, I’m always pleasantly surprised at how well the students pick up where we left off with very little review needed. 

    Even if it's frosty outside, letting the kids burn off some energy in the fresh air really helps them focus when they come back inside. Don't be afraid to venture out during winter!

     

    Tip 3: Academic Marathons = Party + Learning

    As the vacation gets close, dedicating an entire day to one subject area is an exciting way to get festive but keep the focus academic. Plan a “Mathathon,” a “Science-Spree,” a “Read-a-palooza,” a “Grammar Gala” . . . you get the idea. As long as you bill it as a party and excitedly challenge the students to spend an ENTIRE <gasp> day working in one subject area, you’re going to have enormous buy-in. (As with anything in teaching, it’s all about how you sell it. I say something like, “This is a crazy challenge that I’m pretty sure you can all handle. Who thinks we can spend a day doing only math? Yes, even during lunch!”)

    Of course, I plan a special day of engaging activities in that subject area to make sure that the students are engaged and the marathon is attainable. A Mathathon, for example, doesn’t mean a full day of math worksheets. I often invite students to dress thematically for the occasion. I ask parents to donate snacks to fuel the marathoners. And I plan a full schedule of activities: mini-lessons, thematic read-alouds, math game time, math centers, a math art project, an outdoor math challenge, etc. It is shockingly easy to spend an entire day on one subject — it makes me question whether we should teach that way frequently. Immersion is exhilarating!

    Spending ALL day reading in PJs makes for a memorable Read-a-palooza! 

     

    Tip 4: Don’t Fight the Chatterboxes

    When the December energy gets to be too much to resist, I don’t bother swimming against the tide. Instead I plan a lot of group work projects that require the students to talk with each other as part of the learning. (Reader’s theater, book clubs, math games, science labs, and research projects all work well.) This sanctioned, academic chatter means that the students are still following my program — it just so happens that my program allows for what the students are naturally going to do. This is a great time to admit that if you can’t beat 'em, it’s best to join 'em!

    Intensive group work means that there is a lot of chatter, but it's sanctioned, academic chatter.

     

    Tip 5: Holiday Time IS Learning Time

    While “holidays and multicultural celebrations” are only in the second grade curriculum at my school, we inevitably spend some time talking and learning about holidays on every grade level. I try to make sure it’s a worthwhile academic pursuit that goes beyond the commercial representations of holidays. Here are some ideas (many from my blogger colleagues) to add an academic punch to your holiday lessons:

    Give some “old school” carols a try. "Good King Wenceslas," "Ding Dong Merrily on High," and "Hear We Come A-wassailing" are three of my favorites. There is a lot of vocabulary for the kids to wrangle in those songs — perfect for close reading! Genia Connell gives tips in her blog post about how to "Use Music to Improve Reading and Inspire Writing."

    Make it all about books! There are so many quality holiday-themed picture books for read-alouds. Or get cozy and invite the students to spend an entire day reading while wearing pajamas that’s always a highlight of the year in my classroom. I love Lindsey Petlak’s Cozy Book Challenge, and there are even more ideas for "Holiday Celebrations With a Bookish Twist. Meghan Everette models her love of reading with her "25 Days of Christmas Book-Inspired Ornaments, and Kriscia Kabral had her students take adorable "Shelfies: A Holiday Gift That Will Last a Lifetime." In my classroom, even our holiday party is bookish, with a "White Elephant Book Exchange" at the center of our festivities.

    Try some holiday themed math. Shari Edwards blogged about some highly engaging primary math games in her post "Holiday Math Makes Practice Merry! Meghan includes an economics lesson in her math project "The Snowman Construction Company: Money and Math Merriment" and I’ve created Latke Math and Menorah Math to go along with my blog post, "Eight Tips for Eight Nights — Fun Activities for Teaching Hanukkah."

    And when the time comes to let loose and celebrate, here are some ideas to plan fun and manageable class parties:

    How do you keep the focus on learning during December? Please share your ideas in the comments section below — I'd love to hear from you! Wishing you all a wonderfully productive and joyous December! 

    Keeping with the spirit of sharing, I'd like to invite family, friends, and readers to enjoy 25 percent off at The Teacher Store.

    For updates on my upcoming blog posts, please follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

    Does it feel as though your students’ brains have all vacated to the North Pole? Forget spring fever — it is more difficult keeping my students focused in December than even the last month of school. It would be easy to write off the weeks from Thanksgiving until New Years as a lost cause and give into a tra-la-la-lackadaisical month of paper snowflakes and dreidel spinning (both of which have their place, of course). But I can’t in good conscience let academics take a month-long backseat to the holiday pageant preparations. So how do I stave off candy cane stupor without becoming a Scrooge? Read on for five tips about how to productively power through December.

     

    Tip 1: Turn Up the Heat With Deadlines

    The December vacation is a great, natural excuse to put some pressure on our students to GET STUFF DONE! Some projects or units seem to linger on and on (and at times, meandering units of study are awesome!) But there’s nothing like a good old deadline to light a fire under everyone and infuse the classroom with a sense of urgency. I like to sit down with a calendar in front of the entire class and plan out, day by day, how they can squeeze in the assignment IF they give it their all. (Of course, I make sure that the goal is reasonably attainable with consistent effort.)

    Creating this heightened sense of urgency and establishing a common goal creates an infectious buzz of energy that effectively staves off sugarplum daydreams. As the deadline nears, students often beg for extra time to work on their projects. I love acting uncertain. I’ll protest, “Oh, I don’t know, two hours is really too long for third graders to work on their writing in one sitting.” Which, of course, makes my students beg to work even harder. Mwah ha ha!

     

    Tip 2: You Don’t Need to Finish Everything Before Vacation

    Wait, isn’t Tip 1 all about building urgency with a hard and fast deadline? New teachers, here’s a teaching secret: we don’t actually have to be consistent, as long as we are purposeful. You see, I used to think that I had to finish teaching every unit in every subject area before the vacation. But that’s not true! In fact, now I prefer to have some units carry over across the vacation to resume in January. This means that I can teach regular, mid-unit lessons up until the day vacation begins. It’s unrealistic to expect that every unit will reach a natural ending point at the same time. And it’s stressful giving so many assessments all at once. Not to mention, how terrifying is it to return to school in January needing launch new units in all subject areas?!

    I used to worry about whether the kids would forget a lot during the vacation, and whether it’d disrupt the unit. But honestly, we want our students to remember what they learn for far longer than just a week long vacation. If a week off is going to chip away at their enduring understandings, then it wasn’t very enduring was it? Now that I carry units over into the new year, I’m always pleasantly surprised at how well the students pick up where we left off with very little review needed. 

    Even if it's frosty outside, letting the kids burn off some energy in the fresh air really helps them focus when they come back inside. Don't be afraid to venture out during winter!

     

    Tip 3: Academic Marathons = Party + Learning

    As the vacation gets close, dedicating an entire day to one subject area is an exciting way to get festive but keep the focus academic. Plan a “Mathathon,” a “Science-Spree,” a “Read-a-palooza,” a “Grammar Gala” . . . you get the idea. As long as you bill it as a party and excitedly challenge the students to spend an ENTIRE <gasp> day working in one subject area, you’re going to have enormous buy-in. (As with anything in teaching, it’s all about how you sell it. I say something like, “This is a crazy challenge that I’m pretty sure you can all handle. Who thinks we can spend a day doing only math? Yes, even during lunch!”)

    Of course, I plan a special day of engaging activities in that subject area to make sure that the students are engaged and the marathon is attainable. A Mathathon, for example, doesn’t mean a full day of math worksheets. I often invite students to dress thematically for the occasion. I ask parents to donate snacks to fuel the marathoners. And I plan a full schedule of activities: mini-lessons, thematic read-alouds, math game time, math centers, a math art project, an outdoor math challenge, etc. It is shockingly easy to spend an entire day on one subject — it makes me question whether we should teach that way frequently. Immersion is exhilarating!

    Spending ALL day reading in PJs makes for a memorable Read-a-palooza! 

     

    Tip 4: Don’t Fight the Chatterboxes

    When the December energy gets to be too much to resist, I don’t bother swimming against the tide. Instead I plan a lot of group work projects that require the students to talk with each other as part of the learning. (Reader’s theater, book clubs, math games, science labs, and research projects all work well.) This sanctioned, academic chatter means that the students are still following my program — it just so happens that my program allows for what the students are naturally going to do. This is a great time to admit that if you can’t beat 'em, it’s best to join 'em!

    Intensive group work means that there is a lot of chatter, but it's sanctioned, academic chatter.

     

    Tip 5: Holiday Time IS Learning Time

    While “holidays and multicultural celebrations” are only in the second grade curriculum at my school, we inevitably spend some time talking and learning about holidays on every grade level. I try to make sure it’s a worthwhile academic pursuit that goes beyond the commercial representations of holidays. Here are some ideas (many from my blogger colleagues) to add an academic punch to your holiday lessons:

    Give some “old school” carols a try. "Good King Wenceslas," "Ding Dong Merrily on High," and "Hear We Come A-wassailing" are three of my favorites. There is a lot of vocabulary for the kids to wrangle in those songs — perfect for close reading! Genia Connell gives tips in her blog post about how to "Use Music to Improve Reading and Inspire Writing."

    Make it all about books! There are so many quality holiday-themed picture books for read-alouds. Or get cozy and invite the students to spend an entire day reading while wearing pajamas that’s always a highlight of the year in my classroom. I love Lindsey Petlak’s Cozy Book Challenge, and there are even more ideas for "Holiday Celebrations With a Bookish Twist. Meghan Everette models her love of reading with her "25 Days of Christmas Book-Inspired Ornaments, and Kriscia Kabral had her students take adorable "Shelfies: A Holiday Gift That Will Last a Lifetime." In my classroom, even our holiday party is bookish, with a "White Elephant Book Exchange" at the center of our festivities.

    Try some holiday themed math. Shari Edwards blogged about some highly engaging primary math games in her post "Holiday Math Makes Practice Merry! Meghan includes an economics lesson in her math project "The Snowman Construction Company: Money and Math Merriment" and I’ve created Latke Math and Menorah Math to go along with my blog post, "Eight Tips for Eight Nights — Fun Activities for Teaching Hanukkah."

    And when the time comes to let loose and celebrate, here are some ideas to plan fun and manageable class parties:

    How do you keep the focus on learning during December? Please share your ideas in the comments section below — I'd love to hear from you! Wishing you all a wonderfully productive and joyous December! 

    Keeping with the spirit of sharing, I'd like to invite family, friends, and readers to enjoy 25 percent off at The Teacher Store.

    For updates on my upcoming blog posts, please follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

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