Monday, May 7, 2018

What To Do With "Fast Finishers"

There is absolutely nothing worse than running out of lesson before you run out of time.  And it's completely impossible to design lessons that every student will complete at the exact moment class ends. There will always be "ragged time" with some students having finished early. So how can you plan for fast finishers and keep them engaged?  Here are some ideas.

Some students finish quickly because they equate finishing first with being smartest. Some finish quickly because they put little effort into accuracy or completeness.  And of course, some finish quickly because the work didn't challenge them.

So the first thing to do is to establish an "evidence of excellence" rule.  Ask the fast finishers to show you in their work some "evidence of excellence".  If they can't show you where they have done excellent work, send them back to work until they can. But if they are really finished and can show you excellence, then it's up to you to give them work that is worth doing and that respects their abilities.

Secondly, establish the motto that "Learning isn't a race.  There's no finish line."  But once you establish that nobody can be "finished" learning, it's your responsibility to give them something worth learning.  It's important that your truly gifted students don't get "punished" with more of the same work other students are doing or they'll just make sure they don't finish early.  What a waste of valuable learning time!

The ideas I'm suggesting below work for all kids because they have an element of fun that makes them engaging and attractive to students who finish early.

Anchor Activities

In my classroom, I used what I called Anchor Activities. They are independent activities that were always available and required no equipment or special supplies.  In my class, they were geared to take about ten to fifteen minutes to complete, required only paper and pencil or simple manipulatives that were laminated and stored for easy student access.  Most were independent but some could be done with a partner. They were tied to what we were learning so they changed with every unit.  And most importantly they are engaging. Here are a few of them. 

Vocabulary Dominoes. Basically, it's a matching game. Finished correctly the "dominoes" will line up with a vocabulary word on the end of one domino matching its definition on the end of another domino.  Students may work alone or in pairs. The student doesn't turn in anything. You check their work at their desk when they're finished and record a score.  I print sets on different colors of cardstock so it's easier to make sure you don't get sets mixed up. I store them in zip-close bags. To the right is a picture of my ecology vocabulary dominoes in action.  They are a bit time consuming to create but having a few sets on hand as anchor activities for different units is SO worth the time it takes to make them. 

Root word task cards.  90% of scientific vocabulary is based on Latin and Greek.  The more opportunities you give students to practice learning the root words the better.  When they practice the root words they will eventually get to the point where they can work out a reasonable attempt at the meaning of science vocabulary word the first time they see it. Root word task cards are hard to beat as an anchor activity. Students can work in pairs or alone. They answer the question on the card and turn in their answer sheet. If you have a quick turn around time on grading, you could laminate a few copies of the answer sheet to reduce the amount of paper you use for anchor activities.  To the right are some sample task cards from my Earth Science Root Word Vocabulary set. 

Hidden Message Puzzles. I find few things less valuable for learning than wordsearch puzzles. And for students who struggle with reading, wordsearch puzzles are just aggravating and difficult.  But you can remove barriers for students with disabilities, and easily turn word search puzzles into something that has more educational value simply by making them into a hidden message. You create these.  They're pretty easy to make.  The completed puzzle is turned in to you. Don't require students with reading disabilities to find the words in the wordsearch.  It's pointless and not fun for them. They fill in the blanks to get full credit. Other students will enjoy finding the hidden words in the word search.  You don't have to announce that not everyone is required to find them.  Just quietly tell the students with disabilities to fill in the blanks first and you'll give them credit without the puzzle. Pictured to the left is the teacher key for a free hidden message puzzle in my Teacher's Pay Teachers' Store. I made it for use on the day of Winter Solstice, during an Earth Science unit. The yellow boxes are letters that are "used up" by answering the questions.  The remaining (white) unused letters spell a hidden message, "One kind word can warm three winter months".

If you want to try making a hidden message puzzle, create a table on a Word Document, PowerPoint or Keynote slide.  Write the fill-in-the-blank questions first.  Format the cells of the table so that the letters are centered both horizontally and vertically.  Enter the letters for the vocabulary words.  Then fill in the remaining squares with letters from a short quote you like.

Non-fiction reading passages.   If your school requires that you support English/Language Arts standards for reading and writing in science, this is how you do it painlessly and still have time to teach your own science curriculum.  Use non-fiction reading passages as anchor activities to give students practice with reading informational text. That's just as important in science as it is in Language Arts. You can make your own (with accompanying questions) from an article that matches your students' abilities and interests. I'll be sending a free reading passage about The Radium Girls to my email subscribers soon, so if you'd like it, be sure to sign up for the email list! Take a closer look at it by checking out the preview of the full resource here.

Color by number review. Color-by-number review activities are among the most engaging ways to keep your early finishers happily working. Pictured is a color by number resource for reviewing symbiosis.  If you can write a multiple choice quiz, you can make your own color by number review activity on ANY topic using these free editable color by number pictures.  Instructions are included. And talk about easy to grade! Nothing is easier! See some more ready to use no-prep color by number resources for science here.

By the time students hit middle school, they won't do extra work if it doesn't affect their grade.  That's just reality.  It's sad but I can't say I blame them.  So in my classroom, I did require a certain number of points from anchor activities each term.

That put a little bit of pressure on students to stay on task regularly so that they could have ten minutes here or there for anchor activities. For my students with disabilities who sometimes struggled to complete their regular work and might not have time for anchor activities, I would just quietly adjust the requirement on a case by case basis.

The number of activities I  required depended on how much time I anticipated that a typical student would have to work on them during the quarter.  Usually, I required six or seven activities per quarter.  But I hate grading papers.  I would rather wash every toilet in the school by hand than grade every answer on 7 pages of anchor activities for 185 students!  So I graded on a four-point scale: 1-4 which basically equates to a GPA scale but didn't require that I read every single answer on every single activity or give a direct point value to match the number of questions.

You can tell at a glance if something is barely an attempt (1 pt.), has some effort put into it (2pts), is nearly complete or near mastery (3 pts), or represents mastery (4pts).  The important thing is that anchor activity points should not have an inordinate effect on a letter grade. I found four points each to be the sweet spot but, of course, that sweet spot will be different for you. I personally would allow students to do extra anchor activities at the end of a term (IF their required work was completed on time).

I hope that these ideas and freebies will give you a start on creating your own anchor activities.  Don't forget to think about things like crossword puzzles, logic puzzles, and other kinds of valuable and mentally stimulating activities to keep your "fast finishers" on task!

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