As educators, we know that come October, fatigue is a fact of life for students and teachers alike. The excitement of the new school year has dissipated, we have put in many long days designing and executing curriculum to meet the many standards and learning objectives we are required to teach. School is getting real for students as they receive their first rounds of report cards and the work mounts up and classes after lunch can be particularly challenging. 

From mid-October straight through until that last day before December break, we’re tired. They’re tired. What can we do to continue holding high standards for student learning? My advice is this: energize them (and you) by keeping things simple and clear, infuse fun and rigorous competition, and put the hardest part in the middle.

 

Keep things simple and clear

Students want to feel successful. This is a given, but keeping this in mind can be helpful framing to combat student learning fatigue. Simple and clear doesn’t mean easier content or skills. Students feel successful when they know exactly what to do-- which is why students of all ages thrive with routine. 

The holiday season isn’t the time to introduce complex new strategies or lesson structures. Continue to teach rigorous standards, but do so through your established, routine activities and lesson structures that students know how to execute.That way, they can impress you by explaining the expectations and meeting them, rather than listening to you explain a long list of instructions and responding with confusion. 

My favorite lesson structure is a common one: stations. 

With sixth graders I: 

  • Set up two sets of three stations 

  • Students spend six minutes working independently at the station

  • Then have 1-2 minutes to discuss the highest leverage question from each station 

  • Then they move to the next station 

Another way to provide simple, clear expectations and help students to feel successful is through visual feedback. 

This can be as simple as a sticker or stamp system in real time. If students need to complete a certain number of questions or pages, circulate the room and stamp each section as they complete it. State up front that they need a certain number of stamps to earn full credit for the day. This strategy can do more than just encourage completion. You can ask students to revise their work after a turn and talk, and only stamp once you’ve seen evidence of revisions. The holiday season is the most important time to have very clear expectations, ideally that students are already familiar with because you’ve taught them in September and early October.

 

Infuse fun and rigorous competition

Students love games. I used to think that games weren’t rigorous, but you can turn almost any skill objective into a game. 

At my school, all classrooms have desks arranged in four rows and three columns. A great competition model for us is between the three columns at the board. In my geography class, they compete to label countries on a map of the region we’re studying: 

  • Each column is a team 

  • Each team has two minutes to send a representative up one by one to label a country on the map on the board

  • They pass the marker off to a teammate as quickly as they can 

  • Each correctly labeled country is a point 

  • All teammates must participate. Any noise from students during the two minutes subtracts a point from that team. 

This game runs itself: the students love it, the room is silent, and I sit in a chair marking points on the board the whole time. This could also be done with completing steps of math problems, listing character traits, completing multiplication tables, giving approximate dates of historical events, fixing grammar mistakes, listing examples of scientific concepts, and so forth. 

 

Put the hardest in the middle

This one is particularly applicable to younger students, but can still be beneficial to all students when fatigue sets in. 

Students are asked to perform to a high level in every single class. And sitting for long periods and concentrating is difficult. So instead of building up to the most rigorous, application-level of the content toward the end of class, when students have been sitting for a long time, place it in the middle. 

 

In a sixty minute period, the lesson could be structured as follows: 

  • 10 minutes for a Do Now/Warm Up 

  • 5-10 minutes of direct instruction or modeling

  • 5-10 minutes of practice

  • and then the most rigorous 10-15 minutes for application 

This leaves 15-20 minutes: play a review game such as the one described above, four corners, Kahoot, etc.to practice foundational concepts or skills, as well as take a quick mental shift and movement break for 10 minutes. Then collect an exit ticket to assess student learning on the application-level content from earlier. This is also a positive way to encourage students to work with increased purpose throughout other parts of the class period, knowing their goal is to save time for the game.

Adapting and integrating the above to best fit your teaching practice and the needs of your students can help combat that inevitable October through December slug, and any other point in the year when fatigue happens to the best of us.