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April 11, 2013 Critical Thinking Activities for Fast Finishers and Beyond By Genia Connell
Grades 1–2, 3–5

    As a teacher who feels as though I have more content to teach than I have minutes in the day, nothing makes me crazier than looking around the room and seeing students who have finished their work, contentedly sitting at their desks, doing absolutely nothing. Fortunately, however, all it takes is that raised eyebrow teacher look I’ve perfected over the years and they quickly put their brains to work with one of the several thinking activities available in our room to students who have a few extra minutes to fill.

    When the school year begins and daily routines are introduced, I let my students know exactly what to do when they’re finished with their work. It’s my classroom mantra that no one is ever done: there is always something that is just waiting to be practiced, discovered, or learned. In order for students to embrace my philosophy, I provide several different opportunities for engaging enrichment activities that students can work on independently.


    Think Math

    Every three or four days I put a new “answer” on our class Think Math board.  As soon as a new question goes up, students are eager to write a question that matches the answer on a sticky note and place it on their class number. The boys and girls in my class love the open-endedness of this activity, perhaps because they know there are as many different correct answers as there are students. While this might seem like a relatively easy task for students, it takes several weeks of modeling and going over correct answers before the majority of students are able to correctly write number stories that match the answers.


    Daily Reflections

    For these, students write down something that they are taking away with them from the day. It might be a concept they have learned, something that finally makes sense to them, or a question they are still pondering. Some students add their daily reflection to the board during the school day when they are finished with their work; however, time is always given at the end of the day before clean-up time for all students to add their reflection.


    Where Am I Geography Challenge

    This board may be small and simple, but my students will definitely let me hear about it if I’ve forgotten to change the question at the beginning of each week. The concept behind this is simple — I give the students a hint as to where I am and they need to strategically use technology or a reference book to find the correct answer. Students write their answer and place it in the geography challenge pocket. When we are studying latitude and longitude in social studies, my students come up with daily challenges, giving the latitude and longitude of a well-known landmark for their classmates to find.


    Daily Starters for Early Finishers

    Scholastic has a wonderful resource on their homepage called Daily Starters. Of course, I decided to take the name lightly and integrate Daily Starters into the middle of my day! Students enjoy using the iPads to answer the daily questions. To keep it simple, they write their answers on their dry erase board then self-check using the key.  As an extension, students like to write their own daily starters based on something that they have recently read or learned. The student-written starters become part of our weekly centers.

    2 students working on daily starter activity


    Conduct Short Research Reports

    Young children seem to have an unrelenting curiosity, and allowing your students to conduct short independent research projects is the perfect way to allow your students to quench their thirst for knowledge (and meet a Common Core requirement!). For these projects, students select and investigate any topic they wish to learn more about. Using a graphic organizer to help them, they pose three questions, then set out to find the answers. Some students are able to narrow a topic (taught through a mini-lesson) and formulate important questions very easily while others need extra support in this higher-level thinking skill. 

    Once the students have collected their information, they are given the choice to share their information through a written or oral report, poster, on a web page, an iPad app such as Prezi, or any other way that they feel is best to get their newfound knowledge across to their classmates. 

    research project graphic organizer


    Great American Novel

    The back of our writer’s notebook has space reserved for students to take part in free writing. While some students use this space to jot down random thoughts, many are working on a “chapter book.” Early in the year, when I presented my students with the idea that they were all authors capable of writing their own chapter books, several embraced the notion and began planning, then writing their very own books. Frequently, students share their latest chapter with me, which leads to some of the most authentic and worthwhile conversations we have about their writing. 


    Monthly Packet of Enrichment Activities

    This is the easiest go-to activity in our room. At the beginning of each month, each student gets a packet filled with activities to complement our curriculum that can be worked on when they have a few spare minutes. This is also the perfect place to put practice pages that you may not get to as much as you would like, which for me includes handwriting practice. Each month I try to incorporate enrichment material from the following areas:

    • Themed cover for open-ended writing or drawing
    • Logic and reasoning problems
    • Reading comprehension
    • Language application and foundational skills
    • Writing prompts for poetry, narrative, opinion, and expressive pieces
    • Map work
    • Science activities
    • Internet scavenger hunts
    • Vocabulary work   

    Once you create this packet, it can easily be copied and saved for subsequent years. It is also a great resource for guest teachers to have in case they discover extra time on their hands. Below is a small sample of pages from Scholastic Printables that I have included in my monthly packets. The annual price for Printables has definitely been worth it for me to be able to find material that matches exactly what I’m teaching during that month.

    Click on the images above to download pages from Scholastic Printables to start your own enrichment pack.


    Finish Folder

    The Finish Folder is exactly that: a folder where students keep work that is in progress. The monthly packet described above goes in here, as does any other work that needs to be finished. It’s important to check up on these folders so that they don’t become the place where old worksheets go to die. Every Thursday we do a check of Finish Folders and any incomplete work, except the monthly enrichment pack, is stapled together as homework that is due the following Monday.


    Having a wide variety of different independent work available helps to ensure that my students are optimizing their learning opportunities through the day. Because not all students are fast finishers, I will periodically schedule time in my plans for all students to work on their independent research projects, think math, or their monthly packets. While my students enjoy these activities, they know that I expect regular work to be completed with quality, so rushing through other assignments to get to these has never been an issue in our room.

    How do you keep your students challenged when they all work at different paces? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below. 

    More Great Resources for Your Fast Finishers


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Susan Cheyney