What to Do if Your Lesson Ends Early (AKA: “The Flotation Device Activity”)

Thirty minutes of no-lesson-plan time for a new teacher feels like a week and a half in normal-people time. The earlier in the year this happens, the more panicked you will feel. Sure, maybe you should have planned more diligently. Or maybe you did plan­. Maybe you stayed up late cutting out each individual pepperoni slice for your “fraction pizza” lesson, but you didn’t have the experience to know the activity would only take fourteen minutes.

Either way, here you are, watching the first few kids finish off the assignment. You look at the clock. Thirty minutes until the bell rings. You start hoping there’s a PA announcement, a fire drill, a real fire—anything to keep you from having to answer the dreaded question, “So, what are we doing next?”

Is it important to plan good lesson with high academic standard? Absolutely. Should you have paced your lesson better? Definitely.

But there are also times when a backup activity that keeps kids busy and quiet is smart, not lazy.

In my speeches at New Teacher Orientations around the country, I explain why it’s useful to think of the first day of school like running an airport.

Certainly, you hope the flight will be a smooth one that takes you and your students exactly where you want to go. And yet, even if you hope you won’t need it, every flight contains personal flotation devices in case of emergency.

Below you’ll find a few ideas for planning a “flotation device activity” into your lessons. You’ll also find a few ideas if you’re in the middle of a lesson that’s ending right this minute and are truly stuck.

The purpose of all these activities is to provide productive crowd control and keep leftover minutes from turning into a management nightmare. As a related sidebar, these activities are not meant to be framed as a punishment. These activities are not extra work that the kids have to do because they’re not behaving.

They are just an answer to the otherwise dreaded question above.

In other words, here’s what you’re doing next.

Activities you can plan in advance in case your lesson ends early

If your students are old enough to write on their own, be ready with a long writing assignment that has clear directions. A well-planned essay prompt can help you get to know your students, their writing, and their motivation levels. More important, it will take up at least half an hour of class time. Another option for staying ready is to make a few class sets of vaguely-educational-but-not-unit-specific worksheets. If students are too young to write, make an activity packet based on the letters of the alphabet to keep them coloring for a while. (You can find a ready-to-edit, first-day-of school-forms Word document here. The document includes forms, printable student surveys and essay prompts.)

Activities you can do with no preparation if your lesson ends early

Here are three “flotation device” activities that you can use if your lesson ends early and you need something to do now. They require zero preparation and that you should be able to adapt to most grade levels.

Plan a better lesson tomorrow. Do damage control today.

  • Mental math: You talk. Kids do the problems in their heads: “Two . . . times four . . . plus six. Raise your hand silently if you think you know the answer. . . .  Okay, what is it?” Everyone can answer at the same time, so the whole class gets to participate. The trick is to give problems that are challenging but still simple enough for kids to do in their heads.
  • Alphabetical categories: Have students write down each letter of the alphabet on a sheet of paper. Then give them a category that relates to your subject: authors, countries, elements, and so on. Ask them to come up with a related word for each letter. The first one to finish wins, but the real winner is you, because kids will be concentrating at their desks instead of throwing paper.
  • Four-square review: Ask students to fold their paper into four sections then give one mini-assignment for each square: Draw a picture of a new concept, list synonyms for a word, list the achievements of a historical figure, and so on. Folding paper distracts kids from the fact you just gave them four assignments.
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