Now-What-itus.  It can strike at anytime.

We’ve all been there.  Our students are rockin’ along doing their assignment or project.  You think there is no way any of these kids will finish in the next 10-15 minutes…and then you hear, “Teacher!  I’m done with all my work.”

“What?!?!”  you exclaim, “Let me see that!” is what you say in your best teacher voice as you grab the work from their hands.

Sure enough.  The work is done…and done right.

Such students are exceptionally bright, so they tend to finish their assignments in break-neck speed.  Sometimes so they can be the first finished (which, if that is the case, please make them go back over their work) and sometimes they just know the content so well that they finish quickly.  So, what do we have them do? 

Well…I’m not a big fan of “busy work.”  Having students do worksheets that they’ve already done, word searches, and cross-word puzzles are…for the most part…busy work.  These activities are designed to keep them out of our hair (and the hair of their neighbor) and to keep them from disrupting class.  These types of activities do nothing to encourage student growth, and can become almost a punishment for finishing early.  How then do we deal with “I’m done with all my work” students?

I’ve had two strategies work really well in my classrooms. 

First, if a student finishes early, I encourage them to help other students.  This works well with project based assignments.  If a student has finished their Solar System model in Science for example, then I let the other students know that So-and-So is available to be used as an extra set of hands and someone to bounce ideas off of.

This strategy is also beneficial to projects that require knowledge of processes and concepts.  If my students are working in Photoshop in Graphic Design and a student finishes early, I’ll ask them to go help others who may not quite understand how to do a certain step of the assignment at hand.  By helping others, they strengthen their knowledge of the project concepts all the while helping out a neighbor who might be struggling with said concepts.

Second, I like to inspire my students to hone their critical thinking skills and get the creative juices flowing by doing something that causes them to perform tasks that encourage “outside the box thinking.”  One way I’ve designed to do this is through what I call “Thinking Outside the Box Challenges.”  The activity is simple.  I basically give the students a sheet of paper that has 3 separate items on it, then ask them to design something “useful” from the 3 items.  I’ve included a link below to a free book of 26 scenarios.  I encourage you to download them.

For example, I might hand them a piece of paper with the picture of one bungee cord, two gift wrap rolls, and two jar lids.  The student must then design on paper (or computer if they have access to Photoshop, Paint, PowerPoint, etc.) something useful– a benefit to society in some way—using only those 3 items.  *It is assumed that the students have an unending supply of glue, tape, hammer, and nails.

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The things the students create are sometimes phenomenal.  I try to steer away from “artistic” products since “works of art” are A) easy to make (just throw the 3 items in the air and how they land is art); and B) the beauty of the “art” is in the eye of the beholder.  I want them to build something that can help society in some way.  I want to see mechanisms that feed animals, holds keys, dries sweaty cups, plays music, etc.  I’ll even accept toys that shoot paper airplanes across the room.  If you don’t think toys are beneficial to society, go to small villages in India, Africa, South America and look at the children whose parents can’t afford toys…but have access to simple items as mentioned above.

We are seeing less and less time to incorporate creativity into our curriculum due to the need to spend time on assessment tests.  I fear that our students will slowly lose the ability to create solutions to problems that don’t exist on paper or on a whiteboard.  A student finishing early is a great opportunity to have them hone their critical thinking skills.  Likewise, allowing them to assist students who are still working on their assignments is a great way to hone leadership skills, communication skills, and interpersonal skills.  Can you say 21st Century Skills???

As teachers we need to learn to not only think outside the box, but utilize our classrooms in ways that benefit the life of the learner.

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