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What should “work time” really look like?

March 8, 2012

Teacher Musings:
In my class we often have 20-30 minutes of the period (unless it is A block after lunch, in which case we have 15 since everything takes me longer in that class!) as some form of “work time.”  At the start of the year I was more careful about classifying that time, and giving it more structure.  Sometimes it was “writer’s workshop and writer’s conferences” where students were making list and goals (or using ones provided by me), checking them off and continuing their work.  Sometimes it was an “activity” or “worksheet” related to our class text, that they then shared with a partner.  These types of “work time” have always part of my class.  But last year, and now this year as well, I have been trying to give my students more choice and more opportunities to direct their own learning.  While there is always some product to work toward in “work time,” the way the students choose to work on it, and even the form of the product itself, has become more and more up to them.  For example, this week I had students doing the following during “work time” for reading, and/or “work time” for writing:

– producing  a book trailer for “The Secret Life of Bees”

– discussing which theme their book group should settle on before they found songs to match that theme.
– searching for passages in their book that showed the theme they had decided on.
– writing a letter to the MBTA bus service that employed sarcasm
– deciding whether to write a “how-to” article or a more narrative-style expository piece about making a large weekend breakfast.
– learning about the rules for a sonnet and writing one out
– free-writing about family issues to get more ideas for the final writing piece

As you can see, there is a lot of variation.  I have been giving students more individual choice in multiple realms of their work.  They have a lot more choice in topic (as you can see from the variety of topics they are writing about) and also in how their writing process works.  Some of my students are like me – they produce a very messy draft, and then really revise and edit it.  Other students like to plan everything out, either on the page or verbally, before they start drafting.  Even with our book project, some students wanted to just look over the book individually first before stating a theme, and others wanted to talk to their book groups and review their notes first.

There are several benefits to this type of choice and flexibility.  The first is that I have found kids to be way more invested when they have choices about what they write about, what they read, and so on.  However, a second benefit is that I have the flexibility to push students to where they need to be as individuals.  Some students are challenging themselves to write sonnets.  Some need to be pushed to explain their reasoning in an op-ed.  Some need to have a graphic organizer/outline in front of them, and they write in the sections themselves.  Some need guidance and direction, and some need validation.  While I’m not always able to get to everyone I do bounce around enough to guide most of my students where they need to go within the week.  And all this choice and flexibility allows me to provide some of this more individual instruction.

So, what does this work time look like?  Well, after having some serious disasters on my hand, here are the pieces I have found that make this time most productive:

– Have a deadline.  My students have a piece of writing due every week, that is usually worked on during Wednesday and Thursday.  With a deadline looming, they are often more productive (even if “all” they have to turn in is 1-2 pages of prewriting!)

– Have choice in topic and or form!  For book projects some students made a book trailer, some wrote about songs related to their book, and a few others wrote “the next chapter.”  Choice made the more invested.

– Make students write a plan.  We have practiced this all year, and now they don’t need much direction.  At the beginning of the year I made it so detailed that students had to write down what they would do “in the next 15 minutes” and then we would do a check in, then work for the next 15 minutes in a similar manner.  This type of goal setting works, and helps them focus on their own, individual, goals.

– Conferencing.  If I am running around signing bathroom passes, dealing with discipline issues, and trying to find paper, students soon start to get off task.  If I am checking in with each student quickly, and then sitting down with some for longer (like 5 minutes or so) students seem to work more productively.  If a student is seriously disruptive, I just send them out in the hall for a few minutes.  If a student is asleep I go and nudge them and give them one chance to wake up before I send them for a walk around the classroom.  I don’t linger – I can’t afford to the way I might in other circumstances.

I certainly don’t have this all figured out, and I have really, really bad work sessions (usually when the “work” is not well defined, or students are more worried about getting their math homework done than doing serious reading and writing in English).  But this week they actually went pretty well.  My assessment is based on a) how much learning I hear/see happening and b) what is produced at the end.  After playing around with this idea of “work time” I think it is here to stay for me, and I look forward to making my mini-lessons even more “mini” in order for students to really get to learn during our actual “work time.”

Yummy Stuff:
This weekend the G-man made Lentil and Bacon Stew from The Hearty Vegan.  It was super delicious, and I will post our adapted (recipe next time we make it (we want to try out a few tweaks).  However, it got me thinking about the joys of vegan bacon (which was on the stew), and now I’ve been jonesing for some to go with pancakes this weekend!  Here is the vegan bacon recipe I use most of the time – it is compiled from various versions, including Colleen Patrick Goudreau’s in The Vegan Table and Robin Robertson in Vegan on the Cheap.

Tempeh Bacon


1 package of tempeh
3 TB tamari (soy sauce)
4 TB water
3 TB maple syrup
1 TB canola oil + 1-2 TB more for cooking the bacon
1 1/2 tsp of liquid smoke

1) Cut the tempeh in 1/2 horizontally, and then cut thin slices (as thin as you can without letting it crumble).
2) Steam the sliced tempeh in a steamer basket over boiling water for about 10 minutes (you can skip this step if you are pressed for time, but your bacon won’t be quite as good)
3) Mix the rest of the ingredients together in a dish that has a lid.  Add in the tempeh and shake it around so that the tempeh is as well covered by the liquid as possible.  Let the tempeh sit in the marinade for 30 minutes or more.  (I sometimes do this the night before and let it sit in the fridge overnight).
4) Heat a skillet on medium-high heat.  Pour 1 TB of canola oil in the pan.  When the oil is heated, lay the tempeh down in the pan and add 1 TB of the marinade.  Let it cook for about 5 minutes.  Flip the tempeh when the cooked side is brown.  Repeat with the other side (you may need a bit more oil at this point).  Then, enjoy with some pancakes, or on a BLT, or even just straight from the pan (shhh . . . don’t tell the G-man I said that!)

  1. Sarah L. permalink

    Are you implying that math hw isn’t serious? 😉

    • Only when “doing math hw” involves borrowing a buddies math homework and copying their mistakes onto your paper 😉 Of course, if they were making roller coasters THAT would be the real deal!!!

  2. Anonymous permalink

    Thanks for the inspiration, Marie! I love the make a plan for the next 15 minutes. How can I let get allow for more choice in ESL 1? Hm…

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