Sunday, August 4, 2013

What to do with the early finishers?

Let me start by saying that even writing this is making me cringe.  I’m going to share what I perceive to be the most troubling problem in my classroom and what I’m planning to do to combat it this coming year.  Your input is valued and appreciated!

I’ve gotten better at teaching over the past five years, but there are still some things that I know I need to work on to make me feel like I’m doing as good of a job as my kids deserve.  One of those things is a better plan for kids who finish early or late compared to the rest of the group.  Here’s how it goes down all too often:

Ted doesn’t really need to show his work on these problems.  He does the math in his head and understood it from the get-go.  Racing through the assignment, he makes a calculation error or two, but conceptually gets it and finishes when most of his classmates are just about halfway through.  I engage Ted in conversation about the work when he lets me know he’s done.  I help him discover his errors and try to delve deeper into the meaning and application of what’s been done.  Children who aren’t yet finished have questions for me, and Ted picks up a book to read, helps a neighbor, passes out graded work, takes a bathroom break, or gets started on homework.  Or in the case of some students, Ted gradually becomes a minor distraction.    

No matter how great the earlier part of the lesson was, this is not how I want Ted to spend his time in math class.  I want him to be engaged with the material the whole time.  Other teachers at my school seem to get around this time inequity by assigning lengthy packets every week or two.  Students who finish classwork ahead of their peers then work on the packets while those who need more time to finish classwork end up taking the packets home as homework in addition to the daily assignments.  I don’t see this as a solution because the inequity is shifting to the home and the work in the packets isn’t requiring much application as they’re usually the joke/puzzle worksheets.  

This is one of the issues that has been on the back burner because I could sort of justify "it's only a few minutes" and because teaching five different courses plus a variety of interventions over the past 5 years didn't leave me gobs of time for solving this problem in a way that would work for me.  Getting this fixed will help me feel like I'm making the transition from "novice person who tries to teach a lesson" to "maybe kinda sorta a real teacher."  My beloved college professor asserted that one can teach a class, but one is not truly a teacher for at least seven years.  The closer I get to that magical number, the more I understand what he meant. 

During this, my sixth year, I’ll be making a few subtle changes to alleviate as much of this early finisher as I can.  I’ve made a “When you’re done” poster set to help guide students to appropriate and meaningful things that they can do when their work is complete.  It's hard to believe I didn't have something like this before, really.  You're welcome to download it in either Word or PDF.  As always, I use Noteworthy which makes Box get the pagination wrong because it changes the font of the Word documents, so the PDF is ready to go but the Word doc can be edited to suit your classroom.  

As you can see, some of the choices are based on the Interactive Notebooks I’m starting this year; I expect that students will use the INBs and add to them during these “extra” minutes.  I’m also halfway done a set of problems for my “Problem of the Week” bulletin board.  They’re a compilation of problems from Mathcounts and Exeter along with a few other sites.   More on the Problem of the Week in this post.  I tried to keep most of the items to a higher level than just "do an extra practice worksheet."  There is the expectation that they catch up on anything they might owe me, but after that the tasks are open-ended and higher-level. 

I also realize that this problem would be largely addressed by shifting away from the algorithm-practice-repeat method.  I’ve been working over the past two years to incorporate more inquiry-based lessons into my classroom but I’m not doing these every day all the time.  Practice will continue to have its place in my classroom and while it does, kids will need varying lengths of time to complete that practice. 

It’s hard to write a post that’s self-critical, but in doing so I feel like I’ve given myself a clearer understanding of what exactly the problem is, why I feel it’s a problem, and how I can start to change it.  Pretty good professional learning for free, if you ask me!  Thanks for reading and please let me know if you have other ideas for engaging those early finishers. 

Mathematically yours,
Miss B


  1. All of us experience what you describe! Sometimes I ask the student to discover another way to solve the problem. If I'm well planned then I offer extensions. Perhaps the student could critique his/her work using the 8 mathematical practices. If the student work is accurate, she could also create various levels of practice problems to prepare for the assessment.

    Thanks for reminding me that I should be doing these things ALL of the time.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I like the idea of pushing the students to solving the problem in a different way. I have an extensive list of left-side assignments for my INBs and these would be great things to include on that kind of list so the students are held accountable for using that "extra" time well.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this. I think that encouraging the students to use the left hand page in their INBs is a great solution. They can think about the material in a much more meaningful way! I'm definitely going to try to use some of these strategies this year.

  3. I understand this problem well. Sometimes, I think it comes from having to teach in a prescribed way- mini lesson, demonstration, supported work, individual work (which is the mandated teaching protocol in my school).

    A few ideas
    -don't help him discover his errors- ask him for a plan to assess his own work. "Is it all correct? How do you know? Are you sure?"
    That's a life skill being able to self assess and correct

    -use your teacher's manual or publisher's website, there are always extensions listed towards the end of the chapter that we never get to within the general lesson, try to find ones that are interesting to Ted.

    -Ask Ted how he wants to manage his time, I have always had students (and perhaps I was this kind of student myself) who learned how to "slow down or dumb down" progress because a) it's not a benefit to look "smarter" then others, or b) finishing early= more work. Perhaps there some sort of continuing project that could be pulled out when finished early- a comicbook guide to fractions, making word searches for vocabulary words, a scale drawing plan of something to be constructed with other later.