Keeping Students Focused

So last week our school celebrated homecoming, and as usual, everyone was distracted by “dress-up” days, evening activities, voting for the homecoming court, and of course, the dance. When I was a new teacher, I never paid attention to special times of the school year- whether they were holidays, field trips, dances, or important sports competitions.   I took my job seriously and expected that nothing would interfere with my students’ learning.  I kept the mindset that students were in school to learn, and it was their problem if life distracted them.

Of course, this didn’t make me a very successful teacher during these times, but fortunately I’ve learned from my mistakes!  Over the years, I’ve realized that teachers need to be flexible.  I was a student once, too, and even though it was a long time ago ;) I remember how exciting these times of the year were, so I shouldn’t fault my students for being distracted.  Instead, now I try to help them manage their enthusiasm for these activities while they also continue to learn.

Here are a few tips that I use to help make these weeks manageable:

1.  Acknowledge there is a distraction and plan ahead.  It’s not the wisest decision to make the Monday after homecoming weekend (or Halloween, or Thanksgiving, or prom, etc.) the due date for a major project.  The reality is that many students will not complete the assignment.  Then you’ll have to decide if you’ll let them submit it late or fail the project. If they fail, are they learning?  Ultimately, making the due date on the Tuesday or Wednesday after a special weekend gives them a weeknight or two to finish homework and will result in less hassle for you!

Parents will also appreciate this forward thinking.  For instance, at holidays, many parents struggle to balance travel plans with school schedules.  Consequently, they will likely thank you for making it so their children don’t have to stay up after arriving home from a delayed flight at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday.

2.  However, still keep students accountable during these weeks.  Although it’s important to recognize the holiday or event taking place, and maybe even incorporate a few fun activities, it’s important to continue with lessons from the regular curriculum.  In my class, students have vocabulary assignments every day, and I make sure to collect them. 

With my high school students, I talk with them about planning ahead.  For example, I tell them that they may want to complete their upcoming vocabulary index cards during the weekend before a special week.  This way they can enjoy the evening activities that take place during our homecoming week.  No doubt, this is a helpful lesson for their futures at college and in work.

3.  Participate in some of the fun.  I honestly don’t feel that excited about homecoming anymore (between being a student and teaching high school, I’ve just experienced 17 homecomings) but I still want to connect with the students and have school spirit.  Therefore, I choose a few days to dress-up for during the week.  My students notice that I’m taking part in activities that happen outside of English class, and it opens conversations with them.  Even though I think my English class should be the center of everyone’s attention, lots of my students, parents, and other staff members won’t agree.  They have their own interests and priorities, and I need to accept that. 

My colleague and I dressed up for "Twins Day."

4.  Maintain regular routines.  I believe that structure and routines are beneficial to my students’ learning.  They know they can expect certain warm ups, lessons, and activities on specific days of the week.  For example, they know that I always start with journal writing on Mondays and that we begin class with silent sustained reading on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  This helps me plan my semester and provides consistency.  As much as possible, I keep these routines during special weeks during the school year. 

What advice do you have for keeping students focused during the holiday season or other eventful times during the school year?  I’m always interested in new ideas so please share in the comments below!

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