It’s that time of the year when it’s not unusual for both students and teachers to have difficulty focusing — there’s a month or two left in the school year, everybody’s a bit tired, and summer is in the air.

It’s a perfect time for the second in my “What Do You Do…” series — posts that focus on questions or challenges that I face in my teaching and ones that I think others might share, too.

My original plan was to wait until mid-May to publish this so there would be more time to received reader contributions.  However, since I received so much feedback from teachers that they’d like to get some advice now,  I decided to publish early and still encourage reader suggestions in the comments section.  I’ll happily incorporate additional suggestions into this post or even do a separate “Part Two” version.

The first post in this monthly series was What Do You Do When You’re Having A Bad Day At School?

As I said in that post, I don’t pretend that I’m sharing any particularly original or earth-shattering ideas, but hope this post will generate some from readers…

Here is what works for me (and for others who have contributed suggestions):


A Big Field Trip: I typically schedule a major field trip sometime in May that requires a fair amount of lessons prior to the trip and educational projects afterward.  Usually, for me, it’s an insane one day field trip to Yosemite National Park with 100 students.  Langwitches has a great post on What Is In A Field Trip? sharing ideas on how to maximize the learning experience for students.

Start All Students With An “A” When The Final Quarter Begins: We’re in a two semester schedule, with each semester divided into two quarters.  During a semester, many teachers continue the first quarter’s grade into the second quarter.  Some of us, though, start all over — everybody begins with an “A” at the beginning of the third quarter.  The final semester grade, then, is typically a very generous average of the two quarter grades.   This has worked for some students who would have ordinarily “checked-out” long before the school year ends.

Students Spend The Last Two-Or-Three Works Developing & Teaching Their Own Thematic Unit: By this time of the year, students are quite familiar with the instructional strategies and materials that I use in class.  I’ll often have students self-select their own small groups and their own topics that they want to use to create a thematic unit.  It’s quite structured in terms of what has to be in the unit (clozes, data sets, read alouds, sequencing activities, think alouds), but the fact that students can choose their topic (subject to my approval) and their own groups tends to get students pretty energized.  Past topics have included video games, fashion, soccer, basketball, and Hmong food.  Each group is given thirty minutes to teach one part of their thematic unit.

Students Prepare Another Kind Of Presentation: Diane LaGrone, a Master Teacher at College of Liberal Arts, University of Texas, suggests using Aaron Shepard’s Home Page as a source of resources for Readers Theater.  I agree with that suggestion, and have used it myself.  Sometimes I’ve used scripts from his page as a model, and then have students write their own stories and scripts, and then they perform at a local elementary school.  I’ve also had students finish the year creating and performing puppet shows, as well.  The creativity itself tends to be energizing, and the fact they will be performing for an authentic audience helps, too.


Every Friday, I have students in my mainstream ninth-grade English class complete a short reflection. It usually consists of two or three questions they can answer within five minutes. Students then share in pairs, and then a few with the whole class.

This past Friday, these were the questions:

What are three things you can do to help you finish the school year strong academically?

What is one thing you can do to help your classmates finish the year strong academically?

People seemed to take it pretty seriously. Monday, I’m going to ask them to make posters highlighting what they wrote and illustrate them. Then I’ll post them in front of the classroom for the rest of the year.

I’ve written about studies that show the importance of making goals public. I figure having students see these each day, and me — at times when they might be forgetting what they said — being able to point out what they had written sure can’t hurt.

I might make a slideshow of the posters and and share them here.

I’ve also found that one of the best ways to keep students focused is to make sure that I stay focused.  Students seem to have an eeringly accurate sense of my mood and energy, and that obviously has an immediate effect on what happens in the classroom.

That observation leads me to the second part of this post….


Many of my experiences from a nineteen-year career as a community organizing have been very helpful to my teaching, including the strategies I used (and taught to other organizers) to “stay fresh.”  Here are some of them:

Work Fewer Hours: By this time of the year, “throwing time” at school doesn’t pay dividends.  Cutting back on my typical number of outrageous hours per week usually results in my feeling more energized in the classroom.

Read A Stimulating Book: Finding an intellectually-stimulating book (or article) on teaching and learning can get me excited to try-out some new things even though it’s at the end of the year.

Write Something Useful For Other Teachers: Whether it’s a blog post or a lesson plan (or something else), forcing myself to craft something public keeps my mind sharp.

Make A Point To Eat Lunch — Individually — With Teachers I Don’t Know Well, But Am Impressed With: We have well over 120 teachers at our school.  Since we’re divided into seven “Small Learning Communities” (each one has 15-20 teachers, and the same 300 students stay together for all four years, it’s easy to not be connected with faculty in other SLC’s.  I always get energized after meeting with another teacher to learn why they chose this profession, what they’ve learned about teaching and learning, what gives them energy, and just their “story.”

That’s all I got… and hope to hear more suggestions from readers.

The subject of my next post in this series will be:

What Do You Do When You’ve Finished You’re Lesson, But Have Five or Ten Minutes Of Classtime Left?

Feel free to contribute your suggestions in the comments section of this post.  The deadline will be June 7th.