How do I keep my students busy?
September 13, 2010 8:39 PM   Subscribe

Calling all teachers! (or people with great ideas!) Any suggestions for activities I can have students do who finish their work early?

I teach grade two and I teach at a school with a strong inquiry learning/teaching focus. I find myself struggling to come up with meaningful activities for the students to do that finish early. I'm looking for activities that are meaningful and not just busy work. Students get plenty for reading time so I have guilt telling them to read when they are done. I'm not allowed to use worksheets at this school (and my online search always leads me to busy work with worksheets) and I'm a fairly new teacher and I don't have the budget to but a lot of new things for my classroom sadly (like games, manipulatives, etc) So anything easy/handmade/inexpensive would be appreciated!
posted by bluehermit to Education (34 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm looking for activities that are meaningful and not just busy work. Students get plenty for reading time so I have guilt telling them to read when they are done.

Don't. A child can never have too much reading time, particularly books of their own choosing.

If I were in your position, I'd let students choose between, say, four or five activities. I'd make a list of something like:

-Free reading, of a book of the child's choice, either brought from home or supplied from a classroom library
-Drawing/doing other art projects
-Educational games

Most of the supplies for the above (including books, puzzles, games) can be purchased from thrift stores for dirt cheap. For art supplies, a big bin of colored pencils or crayons usually does the trick. I'd survey your friends to see if they'd be willing to donate anything. I know if I had a friend who taught second graders, I'd be willing to donate a big pad or two of construction paper, paper scraps, and art supplies.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:51 PM on September 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

I would have loved extra reading time. I started kindergarten already knowing how to read, and some of my fondest memories of school involved being able to read by myself during those lessons.
posted by Ruki at 8:55 PM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm sure you will get some great ideas for activities, but I would like to suggest that you not allow the students to turn in their work for 20 mins (or another appropriate length of time.) My son had a teacher who would not let them turn in work for a certain time so he learned to slow down and use some of the time to review his answers. It helped a lot, especially on tests, when his main goal was to get it over with!
posted by Ochre,Hugh at 9:05 PM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sounds like a great opportunity for mastery learning. Start a project with the class. Clearly identify what needs to be done. Structure it so that it involves a lot of exploration and discovery and creativity. Then, when you have free time like this, send the student off to do it. Make sure there are rewards, too, such as stickers.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:13 PM on September 13, 2010

Yeah, easy answer, the kids who are finishing early probably won't mind reading.

My first grade class had this amazing set of reading workbooks that were all different colors and there were seemingly dozens of them, with increasing levels of reading complexity as you finished more and more of them. We were allowed to move through them at our own pace in our spare time, and among the ubernerds of first grade there was a ton of competition as to who was on the hardest color at any particular time. Maybe you could set up something like that, where the kids who wanted to would have some way to compete academically to keep them working and entertained while everyone else finished their assigned work? This was a really great thing because most of the kids in my class didn't care what color they were on and weeks would go by when they didn't get through any colors at all, but there was a hard core of five or six of us who were dead set on allllways being at the top color in the class, and we also happened to be the kids who needed more stuff to do.

I'll tell you one thing you *shouldn't* do...don't make them help the slower kids. If they volunteer to, that's great, but I absolutely hated being made to tutor my classmates.
posted by little light-giver at 9:16 PM on September 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

Some of my fondest memories of 2nd grade were getting to grade papers when all my Catholic classmates were practicing for First Communion. My two other non-Catholic classmates and I were convinced we were getting the better end of the deal!
posted by cecic at 9:16 PM on September 13, 2010

I loved free reading time and, like cecic, had a teacher that let me grade papers for her. I still love a good red pen for marking things up.
posted by chiababe at 9:31 PM on September 13, 2010

I always liked reading time when I finished early (up until high school when I was already so sick of reading for school that I stopped reading for fun). The best were old (not valuable old, just like old old) National Geographic magazines that my science teacher in 6th grade had for us to read. Those are cheap and easy to get.
posted by elpea at 9:38 PM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, easy answer, the kids who are finishing early probably won't mind reading.

Not necessarily. Mrs. mmascolino is a teacher and some of her students who finish early do so because they didn't feel like taking the task at hand seriously or they wanted to try and be sneaky and goof around. They aren't necessarily going fast so that they could read.
posted by mmascolino at 9:42 PM on September 13, 2010

If I was you, I'd setup some long term projects:

Weather tracking- record the high and low temps, make graphs, record observations about the days' weather. Maybe do this for your local location and a few other interesting places around the country/world. Kids who finish early could be instructed to record the days' information

Pets/Plants- Care for the class pets/plants. You could even do simple experiments (on the plants) by varying the food/nutrients. Kids who finish early could plot plant height, record colors, etc...

Get some cheap-o digital cameras and setup a simple stop motion animation studio. Get some legos let the kids go crazy making little movies.
posted by jz at 9:54 PM on September 13, 2010

I was just in my daughter's 4th grade class and the teacher had a list of four or five things that they were allowed to do if they finished early. I remember that reading their book (every kid had a book of their choice already at their desk) and coloring on scratch paper were both options. I think writing in their journal and possibly working on homework were the others.

The list was posted on one of the walls and she just had to remind the kids to check the list as they finished up their work. I thought it was pretty cool that they got the choice of what they wanted to do.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:12 PM on September 13, 2010

I would like to suggest that you not allow the students to turn in their work for 20 mins
I understand why one might think this would be helpful, but rules like this made elementary school a living hell for me. Ensuring that students don't blow off the assignment to get more free time should not involve the punishment of forced idleness.

don't make them help the slower kids
I cannot agree with this more. This was SOP for my second grade class, and I'm having significant trouble even describing the reason it affected me so strongly. Basically I was so far ahead of my classmates and so not aware of what that meant that I concluded that they were all mentally deficient. I came to similarly cynical conclusions about my teacher and the institution of K-12 schooling (which was just reinforced by the "sit quietly and wait for everyone else to finish" policy I ran across in third grade).

I think PhoBWanKenobi's answer is great. If I had a teacher that did that I would have cried much less during class.
posted by clorox at 10:13 PM on September 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

What PhoB said. Don't feel guilty; if you're allowing those kids -- who are obviously smart and focused and attentive, or their work wouldn't be done early -- to read and do puzzles and anything else that occupies their minds, you're the best teacher ever. I say this from personal experience as one of those kids.

However, there is one thing you can do: if you have more than one kid finishing early, grade their papers right then and there (while the other kids are still working), then hand them back to different early-finishing kids and ask them to verify that you've graded the papers correctly. They'll feel important and appreciated and unique. Don't make them grade the whole class, mind you; just look at one other early-finishing student's graded paper to confirm you didn't miss anything.

Obviously they'll rarely if ever find anything, but sometimes they'll think they found something -- likely the think they got wrong on their own paper, but is right on this one, or vice versa -- and then you'll have a teachable moment.
posted by davejay at 10:24 PM on September 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Not necessarily. Mrs. mmascolino is a teacher and some of her students who finish early do so because they didn't feel like taking the task at hand seriously or they wanted to try and be sneaky and goof around. They aren't necessarily going fast so that they could read.

Oh yeah, that. That's easy -- if you grade the fast finishers right then and there, you'll immediately catch the ones that finished early from slacking off or not caring, and so you can give the paper back and ask them to do it over again from scratch, even the right answers.
posted by davejay at 10:26 PM on September 13, 2010

Here's a cool long-term reading project I heard about at some literacy workshop somewhere...I think it was called "reading around the subject." Kids self-identified a topic that interested them (birds, families, art, etc.) and then had to read as many different reading-level-appropriate genres about that topic as possible. For example, if I picked "planets", I might read the following:

1) Story/narrative about planets/astronomy
2) Factual article about planets
3) Poem about planets
4) Play about planets
5) Song about planets (you get the idea)

The child keeps a record of what they've read and produces some kind of synthesizing final product, again, age & skill appropriate. Could be a science display board, poster, paragraph, I-search paper (okay, yeah, not with 2nd graders) etc. Should fit in nicely with an inquiry-based school (lucky, lucky you to be teaching at such an enlightened place)!
posted by smirkette at 11:21 PM on September 13, 2010

I was also going to see if plants or pets were options.
posted by salvia at 11:53 PM on September 13, 2010

I teach senior students (highschool) so take this with a grain of salt but I would try instead to design tasks that more often involve scope for a challenging option, rather than a new activity. Problems with games instead of books- the students who don't like reading are commonly the students who prefer to avoid taking their time appropriately (reading being an activity that requires just this) so giving a task that facillitates their avoiding that is counter-productive. These time-fillers are not the focus of the lesson, after all. Using gamesight be valuable but if so allocate time to it. This is why offering differentiated tasks whenever possible (thus not having them do more work but different work) and as a distant second, reading (valuable, independent, unlikely to attract students who are averse to prolonged concentration) gets my vote. Re: marking work immediately- this requires too much sacrificing of other important duties in the classroom to be a likely long term solution, IMO.
posted by jojobobo at 12:47 AM on September 14, 2010

Also- asking students to grade papers is usually very unprofessional IMO- for privacy reasons and because assessment is about a LOT more than correcting a student's answer!
posted by jojobobo at 12:49 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I was in second grade, PhoBWan's suggestion was exactly what our teacher did. It worked well because there was a variety of activities, so you could read if you wanted to read or work on a puzzle if you wanted to work on a puzzle, etc.
posted by bettafish at 1:58 AM on September 14, 2010

Teacher seem to LOVE making collages, as well. That's what my kids do after the Bane-Of-My-Existence-State-Assessments, when they're all sitting there for up to an hour.

Nthing puzzles, word searches, crosswords, Sodoku, etc. Especially puzzles that can reinforce and/or preview vocabulary from other content.

Kids sometimes LOVE to read the newspaper, too.

Something to consider though; you can't make the finished early reward too awesome because then sometimes, you'll get the "I'm done!" No, I really am!" kids who just want to do the fun thing (speaking as one of those kids).

In order to solve this, I try really hard to create in-class work that's open-ended enough so that the typical "I'm done!" kids can extend the activity and hand in a higher level of work than more typical kids. Then they're all handing in their work at the same time. And kids do keep score about who finishes first, so I try to ensure that no kid feels extra dopey because they're ALWAYS last, etc. by mixing up extended activities.
posted by dzaz at 2:44 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

If we were doing tests or worksheets, if we were done early we were allowed to draw on the back. Drawing and reading are both pretty quiet and won't disrupt the other kids who are still working.

In first grade, we had journals that the teacher made, which had construction paper covers and pages that were blank on the top and lined on the bottom, so you could both write and illustrate what you'd written. If you filled one up, you'd get another. I think our class did journaling as a separate activity, but it would probably be okay for spare time.

Be very careful about giving them anything that seems like more work. I was constantly finishing early in the earlier grades, and one of my teachers gave me extra stuff to read. It felt like I was being punished for being smart.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:41 AM on September 14, 2010

My Sunday School kids got a big kick out of thematic crossword puzzles - don't know if that would break your worksheet rule. At that age I liked reading and worksheets when I finished early. We also had a couple of GeoSafari things that the cooler kids used. Few kids minded the free reading time, but by second grade I was in an all-nerd class.

Which reminds me, please pay attention to the ones that are always finished early (and do well.) I was bumped up a grade for math and reading for most of two years, and then put in a gifted program (even then, for some things I had to go to upper-grade rooms for reading, but that wasn't so bad.) A hearty chunk of first grade and kindergarten was incredibly boring and the rest was full of towering giants who treated me like a mascot. This excludes the three-ish hours a day I spent in the nurse's office with a "headache" or "stomach ache" (truthfully, I was in pain.)

The point being, if it's so easy that a kid is consistently finishing way ahead, maybe things need to be adjusted on a grander scale than "here, have a book." The school gave my mother the impression that things would never be different if I stayed put, hence the new school (and school district, and revised custody arrangement - she actually turned me over to my dad to fix the problem, and they weren't speaking to each other at the time.) A more thoughtful approach at the school would have changed everything.

To this day, incidentally, I finish in-class assignments, online quizzes, and paper tests very quickly. I spent most of the ACT, SAT and LSAT sitting in my chair, perfecting my filled-in ovals. I'd kill for a book at these times.
posted by SMPA at 5:54 AM on September 14, 2010

Just chiming in to say that I loved having extra reading time in elementary school, and I hated being forced to help my classmates. In fact, a few of the classmates I was forced to help made my life in high school kinda miserable.
posted by Cygnet at 6:41 AM on September 14, 2010

Another idea for puzzles, if you have access to a computer in the classroom:

Have the kids pick a topic, create lists of words/ideas for that topic, then type them into to create a puzzle for their classmates to solve. You can let the finished puzzles stack up and have them available for any other students to solve or you can use them as an activity for the whole class. You may need to put restrictions on who/how often a student gets to make a puzzle vs solve other puzzles.

Some thoughts about other suggestions (these are just thoughts, I'm not an expert)
If you make the fun classroom chores part of the finished-work duties, then only the smart, fast kids will get to feed the pets or measure the plants. The other kids catch on to that and may feel left out.

I like the idea of a list of choices, and really all of these ideas can go on that list, including the tutoring/help for other students. Because for everyone that said they hated to help the other kids there will be another kid who loves it, and if it's a choice then everyone wins.

For your budget, you can try, or just ask around. Especially if they are small things. Ask at your church, or ask your friends if they would ask for donations at their work, or put up a note in the laundry room of your apartment, or ask the PTA folks.
posted by CathyG at 6:54 AM on September 14, 2010

My son was always an early finisher. And he complained frequently that everything was too easy. I used to have him make up new questions that he thought would be more challenging, but they had to be from the same material and he had to know the answer. Sometimes I would take his tests, which thrilled him, especially, if on occasion, he could stump me.
Perhaps you could do something similar for bonus points.
posted by southeastyetagain at 6:55 AM on September 14, 2010

In second grade my teachers had a wonderful setup where you could choose a center to go to after finishing your work. We had a book corner, a science table with rocks/magnifying glasses/books about whales, etc., an art table with lots of random supplies like paper bags and yarn, and a math table that had things like scales and measuring tapes and calculators and math puzzles.

It would really depend on how much space you've got to work with, though.
posted by corey flood at 7:36 AM on September 14, 2010

Simple Origami Patterns -- balloon, hat, cup, etc -- and square paper on hand would be good for early finishers who are more kinestetic and need to move a bit to stay focused. It would be quiet, somewhat active, and reinforce spatial and motor skills.
posted by cross_impact at 8:15 AM on September 14, 2010

One of the things I'm very grateful for - in hindsight - are my 4th, 5th, and 6th grade teachers (team taught, so they had us all three years) who, when I finished the stuff that was easy for me, encouraged me to work on the stuff that was harder for me.

In my case, reading assignments were easy, and I finished them fast, but my handwriting was lousy, so about half the time when I finished early, they'd have me practice my handwriting (usually by either rewriting something that had to be written out neatly anyway - that way, I didn't have to do it later - or by copying a story I was interested in.) The rest of the time, they'd let me read or work on another more interesting project. (Which was good, because if it had been all handwriting all the time, I would have been very annoyed.)

Hard to do for a classroom, but I think it's one of those things that made those three teachers amazing, rather than just really competent.
posted by modernhypatia at 8:24 AM on September 14, 2010

I like a lot of suggestions above (and I loved reading when I finished early), but one specific thing my second-grade teachers had us speedy finishers do was "found alphabet" where we went through magazines and tried to find all the letters in pictures -- like the frame of a swingset might be our A. (There had recently been a big coffee table art book out that made something of a stir and "natural alphabets for adults" were briefly a thing -- sort of like the "Sticks and Stones" pictures now.)

It was actually a very intriguing project, and exercised mental muscles I didn't use as much since I wasn't a very visual arts person; I was much more reading focused. So this was challenging and fun for me and made me look at the world in a different way, and was easy to do in small increments of time (or spread out longer). I think we pasted the "letters" to construction paper which we hole punched and put in a slim 3-ring binder, with tracing paper over each page so we could "trace" the letter to help others see it. (So you'd see the letter on tracing paper, then turn the tracing paper and see the picture itself.) That way we could change out letters when we found better ones, etc. But obviously you don't need to go to all that trouble, the tracing paper is clearly unnecessary.

Obviously I enjoyed it enough to remember it 20+ years later. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:28 AM on September 14, 2010

I was always told to "sit quietly" when I finished early, which led to trouble making and distracting my friends. Why my teachers thought this was a good idea, I'll never know. All I wanted to do in elementary and middle school was read. Actually, that's still all I want.

But, not everyone wants to read. But some kids do. Don't make the readers do something else.
posted by duckierose at 9:32 AM on September 14, 2010

Also- asking students to grade papers is usually very unprofessional IMO- for privacy reasons and because assessment is about a LOT more than correcting a student's answer!Also- asking students to grade papers is usually very unprofessional IMO- for privacy reasons and because assessment is about a LOT more than correcting a student's answer!

Not grade. Just go over someone else's already-graded answers to see if the grading is correct. It's really a sneaky method of getting them to go over the problems again in their head.
posted by davejay at 9:42 AM on September 14, 2010

I was always told to "sit quietly" when I finished early, which led to trouble making and distracting my friends. Why my teachers thought this was a good idea, I'll never know. All I wanted to do in elementary and middle school was read. Actually, that's still all I want.

Yeah, I had a teacher like that in 5th grade, and I started causing trouble (something I'd never done before), so my mother convinced her to let me read, and wouldn't you know it, I was much happier and I stopped causing trouble.
posted by davejay at 9:43 AM on September 14, 2010

When I was in third grade, I always finished my math work in class before everyone else because early math was really easy for me. I didn't do it so I could screw around or for any other reason - I just finished because that's all the time it took for me to finish it and check my answers. And one time my teacher got so angry at me and actually yelled at me for finishing before everyone else, and she made me take the paper back to my desk and keep checking my answers as long as everyone else was still working. It made me really shocked and upset, not understanding why I would get yelled at for being good at math, and I went back to my desk and fumed while blankly staring at my finished work. It's one of the few things I remember about my third grade teacher.

So, I would suggest not following Ochre,Hugh's advice. Kids that finish early simply because the work is easy for them will be driven crazy if you make them keep staring at it while everyone else is working. If you notice kids rushing through it and their work is sloppy, that's a different issue.

PhoBWanKenobi's advice sounds good to me, and I think I would've been happy to be able to choose from a list of things to do when I finished.
posted by wondermouse at 11:10 AM on September 14, 2010

I remember this from my elementary days. It was always tough because it seemed to be the same few kids over and over. And conversely, there was a group of kids who always seemed to finish just in time, and they'd never get to do the extra stuff.

I had this poster hanging in my room, which is a good jumping off point. There's also this version to create your own.

I'd also try to set aside little projects I had to do that the kids could handle:
-Tracing and cutting out letters for a bulletin board
-Pulling pages out of workbooks
-Organizing the classroom library
-Cleaning my rubber stamp collection (they loved doing this)
-Creating posters with the overhead machine (tracing the pattern on a clear transparency from the book and then shining it on the wall to make it huge)

I had a teacher in fifth grade who let me plan my own bulletin board for the class with another student. I still have a picture he took of it, "Compound Words". We made worksheets and a seek and find. He must have known by then I had been bitten by the teaching bug.

Have to be careful with them grading papers though, especially if they're chatty and tell others how poorly a student may have done. Not usually a good idea.
posted by NoraCharles at 1:23 PM on September 14, 2010

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