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Three Weeks to Break: 7 Ways to Maintain Engagement           

student engagement

The three-week period between Thanksgiving and the winter holidays is one of the longest stretches of the school year. Somehow, this short interval of time becomes infinitely longer than it should be as we spend our days driving to and from work in the dark. We could see this early December stretch as a time to simply survive, or we could lean into our festive mindsets and do something special to make our students and ourselves appreciate this holiday feeling. After all, it was only a year ago that so many of us were on Zoom, and now we are back in classrooms. What are some ways to maintain student engagement instead of marking time? Below are some ideas for enhancements to instruction that will make everyone glad to be in school together and not isolated at home.

2021 Bucket List           

The year might be winding down, but there is still time to take care of a few last-minute to-dos. Kids often struggle with long-term goals, but they can look at a short period of time and figure out how they might like to use it. A 2021 bucket list for the last month of the year is a digestible and engaging way to start a conversation that becomes continuous. To begin, students are asked to make a list of anywhere from five to 20 items (more or less is fine as well) that they would really like to accomplish by the end of the calendar year. The list can be serious or silly, or both. For example, one of my bucket list items is to watch at least 10 very bad holiday films, while another is to make charitable donations to local organizations that help to mitigate food insecurity. Once everyone has finished writing (teacher included), we can ask students to share their bucket lists in any number of ways: verbally, or by writing an item on the board, and so forth. The next step is to create a space in the classroom for bucket list celebrations. Whenever anyone completes an item over the next three weeks, create a physical space for them to post the good news. Then, we can take a minute or two at the start of each class to check the board (or wall, or whatever has been set up) and celebrate meeting our goals. Starting the class with such a positive focus will reinforce a cheerful vibe as we move toward break.

Kindness in Action           

We often forget to think about how kind we are to one another, and in times like these, reminders are important. Acts of kindness might be quite small: petting a dog, sharing a cookie, or giving someone a genuine compliment are all just as legitimate as larger actions. In our classrooms, it is so inspiring to carve out specific time for recognizing kindness. Asking students to remember, write down, and share either examples of kindness that they initiated or that someone did for them can help to frame any class with gratitude. As a summarizer or a brain break in the middle of class, brainstorming acts of kindness both spurs conversation and helps all of us remember that the world is a special place. If we want more visual reminders, students can write their kindness examples on strips of paper and hang them up in a pre-designated space. Then, we can keep their contributions up through winter break and have a more cheerful space to come back to.

Deejay Rotation

Sometimes, switching up the classroom vibe to be a little more relaxed helps bring us toward the holidays with more ease and enjoyment. Some of us already incorporate music into our classrooms, particularly when students are working independently, while others prefer a quieter atmosphere. Everyone has different tastes, but asking for students to sign up to be “Deejay for the Day” creates an atmosphere of shared ownership. Rules certainly need to apply to this process, like keeping things school appropriate (and clearly defining what that means) or requesting that students supply instrumental tracks only. However, if we allow music more freely during these three weeks than we normally might, the classroom environment will feel more special and festive. In addition, students will see our efforts to make these three weeks as delightful as possible, and their positive energy will most likely match ours as we work on whatever project or assignment is on tap with a nice background soundtrack.

Holiday Tradition Share           

So many of us have beloved holiday traditions, but it can be hard to share them in large groups. What if we communicate traditions in a low-risk way that allows multiple voices to be heard, and that also does not make students who may lack a contribution feel bad? The process is simple: we take a bucket, a hat, or a box. Students write a short explanation of a holiday tradition (not necessarily limited to this time of year) that they have heard about, participated in, or seen in a movie that they find appealing. Then, they fold up their papers and place them in the bucket. Each day leading up to the break, the teacher can pull at least one paper out of the bucket and read to the class. At that point, the student who made the contribution might be invited to explain or elaborate, or perhaps other students can share their reactions or ideas. Either way, this practice invites a dialogue that opens up and celebrates a variety of possible traditions and experiences.

In and Out Lists           

What might be trendy today is already over and done with tomorrow. We sometimes see newspapers or magazines tell us what is on trend vs. what is out; why can’t we do the same thing? To participate, students divide a piece of paper into two columns, one “in” and one “out.” It should be noted that they cannot write about anything offensive, inappropriate, or controversial. Instead, their examples should be innocuous but fun, like social media is “out” (we wish) and old-school phone calls are “in.” As this example demonstrates, the list does not have to reflect reality. It is just an opportunity to have a bit of lightness come into the classroom and let everyone enjoy being creative.

Board Game-a-Thon           

Good old-fashioned fun can sometimes be right on target. To give students a break in the middle of a heavy week, pause to have a board game-a-thon. This is a relatively simple process, but it does take about a half hour or so. To make this work, we bring a variety of games to school, like Uno or Apples to Apples. Students can either rotate through a couple of different games or play at one station, either assigned or self-selected. Board games engage students cognitively and socially, which has numerous benefits to building the same skills they need to succeed academically. The board games provide a valuable brain break during a tough time of year, and this activity also gives us time to either talk to individual students or to simply witness the fun.

Story Time           

Little kids love stories, but sometimes that enthusiasm wanes with time. Why not bring back story time, retro-style? For this activity, students are asked to bring in either story excerpts they enjoy or children’s books, and then we designate “story time” for either one day or on portions of multiple days. The stories should be vetted by the teacher before sharing occurs, but this process brings back the joy of hearing a story and getting immersed in a narrative. By reminding students that stories can be fun, we will also make gains with any texts we teach after winter break ends and we return for a fresh school year.           

These three weeks can either be a drag or an empowering opportunity. Which path would be better? Personally, I like to savor the festive nature of our pre-break atmosphere and maximize any opportunity to remember the joy of being together. We absolutely have curricular needs to address and instruction to attend to, but taking small breaks to recognize the time of year and enhance our classroom community is well worth the effort. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt to take these next three weeks a little less seriously. Our students will appreciate the fun, and quite frankly, so will we.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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