My next book is about how teachers can take home less student work to grade. Part of accomplishing this worthy goal is finding ways to grade papers during the school day. There are obvious times like planning periods, recess, or, if you’re really dedicated and/or desperate, lunch. But I like to use those times for other responsibilities (and in the case of lunch, to eat). That leaves grading while students are in the room.
A lot of teachers never grade papers when students are in the room. They feel like when students are in their presence they need to be actively engaged with them. They must be instructing, or working with small groups, monitoring, or assessing. After all, they reason, so many kids need so much, how can they ever justify grading papers?
They also worry about what others will think. What if the principal walks in and finds them at their desks checking math tests? What if the reading specialist comes in to work with at-risk readers? Would she look down her nose or think the teacher is lazy or lacking in dedication?
And there’s the guilt many teachers seem to carry around like a free tote bag at a reading conference. Guilt comes from violating our own beliefs. Since most teachers believe they should do everything they can to help students, taking time out of the day to score student work doesn’t feel right.
But if you want to reclaim your personal life and stop taking so much work home, you’ll need to carve out time while students are in the room to grade papers. There are many ways to do this that are educationally sound and good for kids. One simple way is to give your students breaks.
I started giving five-minute breaks because I hate managing transitions. Conventional classroom management wisdom says that teachers should train students to execute transitions between subjects with crisp, quiet efficiency to maximize every minute of the day. Teachers are warned that sloppy transitions lead to misbehavior and wasted time.
But I always hated demanding these kinds of transitions. They made me feel like a drill sergeant. I couldn’t help notice that with the exception of the military, adults rarely transitioned seamlessly from one activity to another.
So instead of quickly switching from one subject to the next, I give my students breaks. Now, after students have sat through a 20-minute lesson and worked for another twenty minutes on their math, I announce a five-minute break. Students can play games on their Chromebooks, read, draw, or just hang out and talk. I let them know when time is running out and count down so they’re back at their seats and ready when the five minutes are up.
Breaks are good for everybody. They allow us to recharge, change our mood, engage with others, laugh, stretch, and refocus. Science backs it up. A 2011 University of Illinois study showed that participants who experienced diversions once per hour did better at a task than those who plowed ahead with no breaks.
Breaks also help with student behavior. Because my students know I’m going to give them choice time on their Chromebooks a few times each day, they’re less likely to sneak on to a game site during work time. Breaks can also help students get over frustration. This morning I was picking jobs for our class lemonade stand. One student was upset because he wasn’t selected. If we would have moved into more academic work, his negative attitude would have led to a lack of attention and a poor effort on the assignment. Instead, we took a five-minute break. I could almost see his thinking: He could sit there and stew and lose the five minutes of free time, or he could do something fun. He chose to play a game. By the time we resumed work, he had forgotten all about his disappointment over the lemonade stand.
Breaks also help me. They free me up to do some of the work I used to take home. While I sometimes use the time to get ready for the next subject, I’ve also used student break time to work on my newsletter to parents, write sub plans, and check student papers. Throughout the course of the day, my students usually get three or four breaks, which means I get 15-20 minutes of work time. And it’s not as if I’m checking Facebook. Writing newsletters, making sub plans, and checking papers are part of my job. I should do them while I’m being paid.
There are teachers and administrators who will read the above and cringe at the “lost instructional time.” They’re hypocrites, and you can prove it to them.
The next time you attend a long professional development presentation with one of your critics and the presenter announces a break, interrupt her and ask if the break can be skipped. While everyone stares daggers at you, explain that you value your learning time too much to take a break. Tell her you don’t want to “waste” a single minute.
See how that goes over.
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