Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Use the Lead-Up Time to School Breaks for ‘Hidden’ Learning Opportunities

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 16, 2018 11 min read
Boy raises his hand to answer a question in a classroom; he is sitting on the floor with other kids and the teacher is sitting in front of the class.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

It’s easy for both students and teachers to get a bit distracted in the days and weeks leading-up to holiday and summer breaks.

This post will consider ways educators can most effectively use that time.

Responses come from John Spencer, Kevin Parr, Jessica Torres, and Tammy Quist. Though this column doesn’t have an accompanying podcast, you can still listen to past ones here.

Response From John Spencer

John Spencer is a former K-12 teacher and present professor at George Fox University in Portland. He is the co-author of Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student:

Teaching is an exhausting profession. You hit a point right before the break where you just feel tired. It doesn’t mean you’re burnt out or you’ve lost your fire. If anything, it’s a reminder that you have been pouring your heart and soul into this profession and you are ready for renewal. Meanwhile, students are anxious and rowdy. Some are dealing with trauma and are dreading the upcoming time away from school. Others are feeling restless as they think about an exciting vacation. Meanwhile, you feel tired. Tired of the pressure around student achievement. Tired of resolving conflict. Tired of redirecting behavior. Tired from the sheer energy it takes to be a teacher.

It’s no wonder that so many teachers begin playing holiday movies around this time of year. They want to create a sense of fun and escape and enjoyment, and a motion picture promises exactly that. But what if we chose, instead, to find the hidden opportunity in the last weeks before a break? Instead of showing a movie, we could use this week as a chance to take a creative risk and experiment with something new. What if we used this time to spark wonder in your students and inspire creative thinking? This could be the chance for students to do something that they remember for a lifetime.

Over the years, I’ve learned that kids don’t grow tired of learning. They grow tired of school. This is the chance to tap into wonder and curiosity and creativity. And, while it sounds counterintuitive, choosing to end on an epic note can actually be energizing and exciting. You might choose to do an inquiry-based Wonder Day or Wonder Week project, where students pursue their own questions and figure out their answers. Or you might do a Divergent Thinking project, where students are given specific items and have to prototype from scratch. You could start students on blogging or have them record podcasts or mini-documentaries. Or maybe they could do animated whiteboard videos. You could create a game or simulation or have the entire class work together on a History Mystery project. They might do an empathy-driven design thinking project or engage in service learning. Or it could be a chance to do a one-week Genius Hour project. Maybe instead of doing typical presentations, you could create a TED-style or Ignite-style venue for short speeches. You could work with your students on something you’ve never created before. Together, you could discover how to create video games on Scratch or you could learn how to make something new with Raspberry Pi or Arduino.

This is your chance to innovate. It might work. It might fail. But it’s low-risk because whatever you do will be more epic than watching another animated movie.

Editor’s Note: For further ideas, visit John’s post, Ten Creative Alternatives To Showing Movies Before The Break.


Response From Kevin Parr

Kevin Parr is a fourth grade teacher from Wenatchee, Washington and an ASCD Emerging Leader:

Not all breaks are created equal

For teachers, an upcoming holiday or break from school brings feelings of relief, excitement and general positivity. Whether it is reconnecting with family through movie nights, board games around the fireplace or summertime picnics, breaks from school are looked forward to as a source of joy and rejuvenation. Unfortunately, these feelings do not reflect the experiences many students have during their time away from school. The reality is that many students view an upcoming break from school with anxiety and stress. With this in mind, the goal for teachers should be to send students off to their break from school feeling as comfortable and confident as possible. Here are a few simple ways teachers can comfort students before and after a break from school.

Be compassionate: Over and above understanding that children’s vacation experiences may vary, teachers need to demonstrate compassion through the way they talk to students leading up to and following breaks. One way teachers can do this is refraining from asking “What will/did you do over break?” or even worse, having kids round robin share with the class what they will do or did do. I have attempted to demonstrate compassion to students by sharing the following anonymous story with students: “I knew a kid years ago who really wasn’t looking forward to winter break. He said his mom worked all day and he was home alone taking care of his baby sister. He shared with me that he would rather be in school than on break.” A simple story like this can show awareness that not all breaks are created equal and invite conversation with students.

Find something to celebrate: Holiday breaks and vacations can be natural times for teachers and students to wrap up projects and units. Teachers can use these times to create a sense of celebration leading up to a break by planning for students to present their work to their parents, community or school. For students anxious about being away from school, these events will give them something positive to reflect on during their time at home.

Get them looking forward to something: After finding something to celebrate, a way teachers can further reduce student’s anxiety prior to a holiday or break is to focus on the exciting work they will do after break. If teacher’s give students something to look forward to it can help alleviate stress about what will happen after break and help create a positive mindset. Teachers should not create further anxiety by introducing all of the requirements for a project or unit, but can stimulate interest and thought by introducing a driving question or a short introductory lesson. This will not only help create a predictable environment for students to return to but will also shift the class’ focus away from the individual activities they will be engaged in over break to the common work they will do after break.

Although all kids should be fortunate enough to look forward to a vacation or break from school, sometimes the best we can do is control the environment kids are in before and after. No matter what combination of strategies a teacher uses, the goal should be to relieve student anxiety and help make everyone feel comfortable leaving and re-entering the classroom community.


Response From Jessica Torres

Jessica Torres is a first year elementary assistant principal at Brook Avenue Elementary school in Waco, Texas. She formerly served as an instructional coach and a public Montessori elementary teacher. Torres is a current doctoral student in Tarleton State’s Educational Leadership Program. She obtained her Masters in Educational Administration through Concordia University, and her Bachelor degree from Stephen F. Austin. Known widely as @owl_b_torresedu by her Twitter PLN, Mrs. Torres is a staunch supporter of public education, personalized professional development and connecting with others who are passionate about education and students:

Have you ever noticed the immense amount of memes and jokes that come out around the holidays encouraging teachers to “survive”? The days leading up to holidays and breaks can be difficult for students, specifically those who come from poverty, because of the uncertainty they face when not provided the security of the school building. Creating countdowns to a break can create a heightened sense of anxiety for the students. So, what can we do to make sure that students stay calm and enjoy the upcoming holiday or break?

First and foremost, eliminate any countdown to the break and instead maintain a monthly calendar that shows students all breaks and holidays well in advance. Often students react negatively when they are taken by surprise about a break. If they are aware of breaks and holidays they can mentally prepare for them.

Secondly, plan lessons for students that are engaging and naturally embed the upcoming holiday. As a classroom teacher, I implemented a three-week cultural study of winter holidays the weeks before our Christmas break. Students studied traditions associated with Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and las Posadas and culminated their studies in a feast to sample dishes from all four celebrations. All of our standards were wrapped into our project based learning and kept the students engaged rather than worried about the upcoming break.

Finally, maintaining the routine in the classroom as consistent as possible before breaks allows students to keep their focus on the task at hand and minimize disruptive behavior. If changes to the schedule are to occur, keep the students as informed as possible, and have patience with those who respond in a less than stellar way. Remember, as excited as we may be to have a few days away to rest and relax; it is important that we keep the needs of our students at the forefront.


Response From Tammy Quist

Tammy Quist, MS.Ed., is a Learning Sciences International Staff Developer. Currently a Doctoral candidate at Concordia University in Educational Leadership with a specialization in Transformative Leadership, she holds a B.A. in Secondary Education, Political Science, and Social Science, an M.S. in School Administration, and a Superintendent’s Endorsement in Educational Leadership. Quist was named Teacher of the Year at the Keppel Union School District of California and was nominated for Colorado Principal of the Year:

4 Ways Teachers Can Make the Most of Instructional Time

While both teachers and students look forward to holidays and vacation time, the days and weeks leading up to breaks can be unproductive and stressful. With limited days available for teachers to sustain growth and get the most out of the available instructional time, teachers want to keep students engaged and learning. Here are four practical ideas to do both:

  1. Create learning experiences that capitalize on the interest and energy of the impending holiday while working within grade level standards. Halloween? Student teams can estimate the number of treats in a bucket in a competition with their peers, write a persuasive essay about the merits (or not) of going door-to-door trick-or-treating, create a map to scale of their candy collection route, or compose their own ghoulish song. Working within the parameters of the standards, give students choices to create their own learning experiences that demonstrate they have met the standard while having fun!
  2. Plan a “Rigor Week” or “Learning Tournament” preceding every break in which instruction is designed to challenge, test, tease, and excite students. These can be themed, depending on the grade level and interests of the students (think Harry Potter). Instruction is fast-paced and student-centered, with students creating and solving problems, designing learning experiences that answer essential questions, applying knowledge of previously taught standards, and demonstrating their ability to work together in student teams. Learning can be designed in a tournament fashion with a friendly competition commencing the day before the break. End the school year with a culminating “World Cup of Learning” to send students into summer.
  3. Review the high expectations you have for learning every day in your classroom. Verbally recognize and name the excitement and anticipation of the break--and with it, the difficulty of staying on task. Elicit student ideas--have them work in their teams and brainstorm strategies to ensure continued learning. Encourage them to focus on how they can track their own progress and how the teacher can support them. Design a class compact that each student signs, committing to their learning.
  4. Realize that not all students are looking forward to the break. Know who those students are and understand that pre-vacation behaviors and changes in work patterns may be a result of anxiety and stress. Often, those students are seeking continuity in routine, so providing opportunities for them to take work home is helpful. Creating a montage or fairytale about being thankful, practicing skills in mathematics, doing research, or participating in community service activities to help students feel less anxious and avoid disruption of work prior to a break.

Thanks to John, Kevin, Jessica and Tammy for their contributions!

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What are the best ways for teachers to handle the lead-up to holidays and breaks?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts
Classroom Management Advice
Race & Gender Challenges
Implementing The Common Core
Best Ways To Begin The School Year
Best Ways To End The School Year
Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning
Teaching Social Studies
Project-Based Learning
Using Tech In The Classroom
Parent Engagement In Schools
Teaching English Language Learners
Student Assessment
Brain-Based Learning
Reading Instruction
Writing Instruction
Education Policy Issues
Differentiating Instruction
Math Instruction
Science Instruction
Advice For New Teachers
Author Interviews
Entering The Teaching Profession
Administrator Leadership
Teacher Leadership
Relationships In Schools
Professional Development
Instructional Strategies

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

A previous version of this article had the title Response: Use the Lead-Up Time to School Breaks for ‘Hidden’ Learning Opportunities.
The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.