The end of December is a crazy time for most of us, and early January isn’t much better. Our students have seemingly forgotten everything we’ve taught for the past four months and are pretty content to make up their own rules. Here are some tips to help you survive the school days before and after winter recess:
* Don’t feel pressure to do all of the elaborate holiday stuff that other teachers do. So what if the teacher across the hall covers her room in tinsel and lights and creates extensive holiday-themed centers which culminate in a life-size replica of the first North Pole expedition? That teacher either: a) sacrifices her own mental sanity in order to live up to the unrealistic expectations she’s placed on herself, or b) has a higher tolerance for stress and more free time to devote to school stuff. Either way, she’s not you. Don’t compare yourself, and don’t wear yourself out trying to keep up. (That goes double for buying presents for the kids. Your teammate may choose to spend $50 on trinkets, and that’s great. But you’re not a bad teacher if you don’t.)
* Integrate high-interest projects and group work so kids are actively involved. I like to finish the majority of my direct instruction by mid-December so that the week before break, students can spend most of their time applying skills. For example, one year during the week before winter break, I had my third graders publish their narrative essays in writing, complete main idea partner activities in reading, create gingerbread houses in math, and make land form changes pop-up books in science. These activities are interesting enough to keep the kids focused on their work, and didn’t require them to be sitting still and following along with me (since that’s pretty much impossible three days before Christmas).
* Maintain your regular routines as much as possible. I try to continue with regular routines for morning work, reading groups, math and writing warm-up assignments, and so on throughout the month of December. These routines are the glue that holds the rest of the (sometimes chaotic) day together. Having some predictability in the framework of the day sends the message to kids that it is, in fact, a school day and regular behavioral expectations apply. Then on the first day back in January, I find that our routines are still pretty fresh in their minds. I’ve also noticed that the security of knowing what to do and when to do it is comforting for a lot of kids after a long break from school, especially if things have been chaotic and unpredictable at home.
* Keep the last day before and the first day after winter break low-key. Three hours before you pack up your whole family and make an eight hour trip to grandma’s house is NOT the time to execute an elaborate and messy paper maché activity with your students. You’ll be distracted by your own holiday plans, the kids who actually show up won’t be able to follow directions, and you’ll be running around like crazy to clean up so you can leave on time. Instead, give meaningful work assignments that the kids will like completing, and enjoy the last day together. Ditto with your return in January–both you and your students will be tired and need some time to get back in the swing of things, so don’t overplan for the first day back.
* Review your procedures and expectations before AND after the break. It’s probably been a few weeks or months since you’ve articulated and modeled some of your classroom procedures for the entire class. (As we all know, just because you tell the same four kids over and over that NO, they cannot get a drink in the middle of a lesson does not mean the rest of the class was paying attention when you reiterated your expectations.) A fun way to reinforce procedures is with this PowerPoint Class Rules Review Game. There’s one slide for each category of expectations (Papers, Moving Around Campus, Working Cooperatively, etc.), and each slide has a handful of questions about related classroom routines that zoom in one at a time. The slides don’t include the answers so that the kids can supply them (bonus: you can modify your rules without redoing the PPT). This can be used as a teaching tool and to spark discussion, or can be played as a competition between teams (who knows our classroom routines the best?). I do a few slides each week during December and again when we return in January until we’ve reviewed all of them, and it makes a remarkable difference in how smoothly my classroom runs. There’s also a paper-based version that’s great to use whenever you have a few minutes to spare.
* Don’t be afraid to change routines and procedures you don’t really like. Sometimes the hectic pace of December means that kids temporarily need extra incentives and supports. Sometimes you want to start fresh with a different way of doing things in January. That’s fine! It’s NEVER too late to change something that’s not working or make improvements. Here’s a post that explains how to change routines and procedures mid-year, complete with sample wording you can use to explain to your students what will be different and why.
* Give yourself at least two days during the winter break in which you don’t think about school AT ALL. Get prepared for January before you leave in December, if possible. Use the day before break to take down any seasonal decorations you have up, change the calendar, finalize your lesson plans, etc. There’s nothing worse than coming back to work after two weeks off to discover silver glitter and unwritten thank you cards all over your desk. Then put work out of your mind completely for at least a portion of your break. Relax, enjoy your family, and enjoy some time for yourself. When you return in January, you’ll have a new year and a new start.
What are your tips for maintaining your sanity around the holidays? How do you make the transition back to school in January easier for you and your students?
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