Staying Ahead of Early Finishers

Today’s post comes from an email I recently received from Tanya, one of our newest English teacher colleagues (used with permission):

Hi there! I’m a first-year teacher and I’ve been a fan of your blog since I started my credential program. Your first day stations activity was a life saver! I was hoping you could give me some advice. 

When I student-taught 7th grade English this past spring, there were occasionally some students who would finish early. My mentor teacher always had them read silently if they were done early, so I did the same. She had a great classroom library and the department had required SSR everyday, so the kids always had an independent reading book with them. I now teach 9th and 10th grade English. I was hired last minute and do not yet have a library set up. Today, I had a couple students finish the assignment for the day a half hour early! I didn’t have anything prepared, so I let them “hang out.” This lasted about five minutes when I realized what a mistake this was. I made a quick assignment on Google Classroom and had them work on that.

I feel like a horrible teacher, but I’m honestly in survival mode right now. I guess my question is: What can I have students do if they are done early? 

Thank you in advance. You and your blog encourage me to be the best teacher possible! 

Hi Tanya,
Congratulations on joining the fun on this side of the teacher desk! Oh, those early finishers…what to do? The first thing is to figure out if those early birds truly finished the work quickly because it was too easy for them or if they just zipped through the task without giving much effort.

If it’s the latter, I’d just have the students re-do their incomplete or thin work. When I’m given a paper like that, I quickly mark two or three gap areas and immediately hand it back, saying, “Oh, I don’t think you’re done with this yet.” If those kids are advanced, you’ll want to differentiate the work, giving them a separate, more challenging task/set of questions/writing prompt/whatever. You said this was just a couple of students, so it should be easy to figure out what’s going on there.

You could also add back in SSR and require students always have their books with them, though I prefer to save the SSR time for Fridays. Instead, in those rare times when a kid has finished early and given an excellent effort, I allow him/her to complete homework or study for another class. They’re not allowed to be on their phones and they have to be working on “something of an academic pursuit.” If the kid says he doesn’t have anything to do, I tell him he can write a letter to a grandparent (“They love and miss you!”) or write a practice SAT essay for me; I have lots of retired essay prompts from the College Board. No surprise, the kid almost always finds work to do for another class rather than write for me.

Moving forward, start over-planning like crazy. I a-l-w-a-y-s have a few folders filled with emergency class sets of materials, just in case I run into a weird day where an unexpected assembly messes with my schedule or maybe my timing’s just off with one particular class. After all these years, the idea of dead air still turns my skin cold and we both know that “hang out” time is a disaster in the making.

Some throw-these-at-them handouts I keep in my file cabinet:

Just Give the Word – a dictionary-based game (free)

Word ADDiction – a little half-sheet game that’s harder than it looks (free)

• Vocabulary-building analogy worksheets (paid)

High-interest non-fiction articles with short answer questions (paid)

• If you have magazines or newspapers available, have the kid choose an article and complete this current events grid. (paid)

• If you’re at a 1:1 school, have the kid choose a TED Talk to view and complete this grid. (free)

• If you’re working through a writing unit, use this Thesaurus Abuse matching game to fill a few minutes. (free)

Finally, Tanya, stop beating yourself up. The first year is insanely hard. You’re not a horrible teacher – you’re a teacher. We all have horrible days, but it’ll even out. Don’t give up! Just be prepared.

Okay, everyone, what else would you suggest for Tanya and all of us who need to keep those early finishers focused while everyone else has a chance to finish? Leave a reply below and, as always, teach on!

2 thoughts on “Staying Ahead of Early Finishers

  1. Lara Dieckmann says:

    I got a Donor’s Choose grant for magnetic easels and several magnetic poetry kits. I have the students create their own poems. I ask them to write their favorite works on index cards and submit them to me for inclusion in the magnetic poetry contest our school sponsors in April. They know there will be prizes for the contest, and the winning poems in three categories are read aloud. it is a huge hit. The kids love working on those poems. It is a fun way to get them thinking creatively and composing poetry without it seeming like work!

  2. Magnetic Poetry

    Fantastic idea, Lara! Indeed, kids are drawn to our magnetic poetry sets and I’ve learned the hard way to edit the kits when I first get them to remove the…um…more suggestive verbs. 😉

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