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  • Writer's pictureKristin Phillips

Make Every Moment Count: 14 Ideas to Create a Productive Sense of Urgency in the Classroom

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

As a principal I frequently visited classrooms. Sometimes a classroom visit flew by, but at other times I watched the clock. What makes the difference? Many things, but often it is the pacing of the lesson. When the time is dragging no one is enjoying the learning, not even the teacher! As we move out of the disruptions of the pandemic (fingers crossed), teachers around the world are faced with the daunting task of teaching grade level curriculum to students who may have missed large chunks of the last two years.

One of the ways teachers will accomplish this is by making every moment count. In a previous post, I called this "productive urgency". A fast paced classroom where students are anxious and unable to keep up is not going to work. A classroom with lots of down time and wasted time is not going to work. But teachers who figure out how to get students working, on task and feeling successful will be in a better place to make up lost time and close gaps.

Here is the blog post originally titled "A Productive Sense of Urgency in the Classroom". I hope it resonates as we begin to plan for the next school year:

I actually get more done when I don’t have enough time. I get more done when there is a structure to my days. I think students are often the same. We don’t want to overwhelm students but how we structure and pace our lessons can greatly influence the amount of work students get done. You want to create a productive sense of urgency in the classroom. Your students need to be energized and engaged in the learning. You know yourself that when things drag on you quickly become less engaged and less productive.

Here are some ideas that lend themselves to students getting more work accomplished in shorter amounts of time or ways that teachers have organized time and materials to lessen the amount of wasted time in their classrooms.

  • Have a routine that students do when they enter your room to get them on task right away. I recently read The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, a classroom teacher who gets her students to read 40 books a year. One of her tricks is to have kids pick up their book and read the minute they enter her class. Some of our core teachers have implemented that practice. It means that not only do your students get more reading done, but it also gives you some time to take attendance quietly, deal with any administrative tasks and maybe get reset from the previous lesson.

  • Or other types of “bell work”. The trick to this type of activity is that it needs to be engaging for students. If your routine is that students review their notes from last class they probably won’t do it. Here are some other things that might engage students as they enter your room and could possibly act as review:

    • Have a word sort on their tables as they enter

    • Have a problem to solve on little white boards as they enter

    • Hand students either a question or an answer as they enter and they have to find their partner

    • Have students work in pairs to compare homework answers – if they have the same answer chances are it is correct; if they have different answers they have to talk it over

  • Get kids up and moving during the class. Post some questions on the walls and have students go around and answer them. If you have a method of students checking their answers after each question, they get immediate feedback. One teacher posted different levels of questions on different coloured cards. As soon as students got three correct of one colour they received that colored dot on their hand and could move on. Don’t have the activity last more than 15 minutes.

  • Have and teach routines in September. Keep the little white boards in the desks. Keep the math manipulatives in a bin on the desks. Have a bucket of sharp pencils. Have the worksheets/duotangs organized for students to pick up as they enter. Have a system for students to go to the washroom without having to ask you. All of these little organizational tricks (and others) will lessen transition times in your classroom.

  • Tell students how long they will have to do the work: “You need to have 3 examples done in the next 15 minutes” “Your group has 5 minutes to think of ten words to describe X” “In 10 minutes we will share 3 different leads to our stories”. Don’t have the end of the work time be when most students are done; rather you set the time limits on the activities. Of course you don’t want to do this for all activities; you don’t want to encourage speed reading or sloppy work. However, creating a sense of urgency and having deadlines for short amounts of work will keep everyone on task.

  • Never say “If you don’t get done, then you will have it for homework”. Instead of creating a sense of urgency you have just given every one more time. Kids, and many adults, are not good at organizing time and will just take this as permission to do it later.

  • Grab kids who are off task and have them work with you at the guided table for a few minutes. Assume that off-task behaviour is a result of misunderstanding and get them back to work. If everyone is antsy, do some push-ups and jumping jacks or run around the school. It is hard to sit all day. While you may think that this disrupts your pacing, it is more beneficial than constant nagging to get on task.

  • Give small chunks to do, especially to the more disorganized kids. The whole page, the whole chapter, the whole story, the whole piece of music is overwhelming and impossible. Their solution is often to do none of it. Beat them to the game and only give them a small chunk and then a check-in. They will accomplish a lot more.

  • Keep Learning cycles short. Try to create units/learning cycles that last 2-4 weeks maximum. This creates “flow”. It is easy to sustain interest in a topic that long. It is more difficult to maintain interest for 10 weeks. Interest is engaging.

  • Return to key concepts frequently over the course of the year through shorter learning cycles. Students need percolating time. Students need to repeat and practice. Practice is better when it is spread out over time. You don't learn to program you car's clock because you only do it twice a year. So, instead of trying to teaching everything at once, pick up the pace but come back to the key ideas again and again. Familiarity is engaging.

  • Ensure students have ample talk time with each other without it being so long that they get off topic. We understand that students need time to have focussed discussion but that when it is planned, purposeful and reasonably short, they stay on task. Collaboration is engaging.

  • By providing small group instruction at either the back table or as you circulate among groups you are providing just right instruction for specific groups of students. Kids are hearing only that which is relevant to their learning. Feedback is engaging.

  • Let students struggle by not telling them everything. How can you create challenge and discord? Do you create problematic situations? Do you create inquiry? When you provide just enough information to get students thinking but not so much that they are only completing a task, they are challenged. Challenge is engaging.

And the last thing the 7 minute talking rule. Very rarely should you talk for more than 7 minutes. Your lesson at the beginning can include you talking for 7 minutes and kids trying things out for another 7 minutes but a lesson that goes much longer would be rare. Mini lessons should be mini. Set a timer if you think you are talking too long. Pacing is usually better when kids are doing more and we are talking less.

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