Class time is precious and limited. With so many standards to cover and stakes being so high, it is imperative that everything we put in front of our students be standards-based, purposeful, and designed to drive and assess student growth. Over the years, I’ve reflected on some activities that I’ve done with students and realized that maybe just maybe 🙂 some of them were “fluff.” In the past, I have certainly been afflicted with “activity-itis.” In this blog post, I will explore in depth how to determine if activities are of quality and value.
The Symptoms of Activity-itis:
- The students have no idea why they are doing the activity. You could probably argue that there will always be students who are clueless in a sense that they aren’t trying. In this case, I the problem goes much deeper. There are times when I dive right into a lesson or activity and just don’t tell my students why we are doing it or what it connects to. If I just forget to tell them, that’s one thing, but if I can’t answer the questions “Why are we doing this?” or “What are they learning from doing this?” then why are we doing it? Why are we building a model of a fire-proof house with our 451 unit? Guilty. Why are we drawing a picture of our favorite character in The Lord of the Flies? Guilty again. Instead, let’s trace the symbol of fire throughout the novel and analyze how it changes. Let’s read an informational text about how fire works and make literal and symbolic connections. If we want students to get to know characters, let’s have them create a body biography with text-based descriptions. Just make some tiny, purpose-driven adjustments can make huge changes in students’ growth and understanding.
- The students are busy, but there’s no challenge. I suppose this could happen for a couple of reasons, but like I said before, class time is precious and limited. I’m going confess here that two of my biggest pet peeves are coloring and watching movies. I actually use and sell resource for both. However, there is always something students are doing that is skills based. Yes, coloring and movies make excellent brain breaks and sub plans, but even then, I just can’t get behind vacuous time-fillers. If students are coloring in my class, they will be editing sentences in order to color by number. If they are watching a movie, they are analyzing character development. More on using movies effectively in this post. There is always something that can be done to up the ante with any assignment.
- The activity steps too far out of its subject, isn’t grounded in standards, or isn’t connected to any prior or future learning. I think this one creeps up a lot in English class because we do so much with texts that we feel we need to introduce. When I first started teaching The Crucible, I felt I had to tell students everything they needed to know about Puritans before we started the unit. Then I had to spend another day or so talking about the 1950s. Then, yet another day was spent covering the elements of drama. A week or more had passed and we hadn’t even started reading the text; and my kids were bored and over it. Eventually, I stepped back and asked myself, what I am I doing wrong? I love this play so much, but the kids hate it. Then, I realized: it wasn’t the play they hated, it was the presentation. Wow. So, how did I fix it? I ask myself one question: Why am I teaching this play? The answer? It wasn’t so they could learn the history of the Puritans. It wasn’t so they could understand the 1950s. It is so we could analyze a true hallmark in the canon of American literature — for the literature. That’s why I am teaching. In that regard, the only intro material I kept was one short informational text article about McCarthy and a quick vocabulary lesson on allegory. Then, we just dug in. I let the text do the talking. I developed questions, prompts, close reading exercises, and activities that drove students further and further into the text. The result? Students who enjoyed the play more than ever before, and students who were mastering standards.
- The activity lack true engagement and/or collaboration. Students aren’t talking at all or aren’t talking about the actual task. How many times have you overheard students saying “What’s for lunch?” or “I have to work this afternoon” during an activity? Sure, students get off task with even the best designed activity. However, a key symptom of activity-itis is students who are off-task. If I have students in groups, what I really want them to be able to do is collaboration, bounce ideas off each, and share out. I want them to even learn to hear different ideas and defend their own answers. I love to have students think first, and talk second, so they have something prepared when they join the group. Task cards are hugely helpful with getting kids thinking and giving them direction.
- There is no assessment or there is a discrepancy between the assessment and the activity. If at the end of the day, I’ve done a lesson and can’t recall if the students really “got it,” then I’m pretty much in panic mode. For me, it can be as simple as asking them. Other times, I’ll have a worksheet they have to complete. Other people like to do the ticket out the door. Whatever you choose, again, it needs to be purpose-driven, and truly measurable. You won’t find me having students hold up their thumbs, unless everyone’s eyes are closed! I need to truly know what they learned.
- Design, discuss, and post essential questions to drive planning and measure learning. For more tips on creating essential questions and a free planning template to help with creating standards-based lessons and activities, take a look at my CC standards aligned depth of knowledge chart where I’ve aligned every ELA standard 9-12 and my free Guide to Essential Questions.
- Student self-reflection. This isn’t always easy, but with particularly reluctant groups, I have success with my weekly reflection task cards that come in my student-directed data pack.Think about the end goal when planning. In other words, plan backwards. In order to help myself remember this important piece, in every one of the teacher planners that I design, I have a reflection page at the end of the month. It reminds me to pause and reflect on what we accomplished and need to work more on. More on planning backwards in this post.
- Assessment and measurement that are consistent and align with the skills.
- Make connections to prior and future learning. This can be done effectively if you work inside of units where a big picture is evident.
Yes, there are crazy-day schedules, half days , sub days, or sick days, or any number of random odd days occasionally when we need a quick low-stakes, no prep activity, but even those days need to be utilized to matter. Ultimately, I now evaluate each lesson and activity I plan for its standards-based value.