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Posted at 4:00 PM ET, 11/30/2010

Why should pre-holiday school days be wasted?

By Jay Mathews

I wrote this two weeks ago, knowing it would appear in the Local Living section of the Post on Thanksgiving. (It is appearing five days after that on because I couldn't reach my blog entry site from my mom's house in California.)

Did I have a holiday theme when I started typing? Nope. Then I saw education expert Mike Schmoker suggest that teachers have regular days in which students do nothing but read and write.

That hit a nerve. Many people, including me, have been demanding longer school days and years. But smart educators suggest we first get full use of the classroom hours we have before adding more. The biggest time wasters, I think, are days just before holidays. Not much gets done. Students and teachers tend to fidget and watch the clock.

Why not turn those empty hours into reading and writing days? Students can’t be expected to concentrate on what teachers are saying when holiday fun awaits. Teachers wonder why they even bother to present a lesson. Turn those days into time for individual work, and attitudes might improve, at least a little.

Many students (not all, to be sure, but work with me here) would see the advantage of getting ahead on a long-term project during school hours. Teachers could check on progress and answer questions, and the rest of the time catch up on paperwork.

For this to succeed, every class should participate. Math and science classes could be set aside for reading: No talking allowed. English and social studies would be for writing and editing, with students going over one another’s work and teachers helping less confident writers.

Which days are available? Halloween, of course. Attention spans are short with candy in abundance and students checking out those in costume. Then add the day before Thanksgiving weekend, the day before winter vacation, the day before Presidents’ Day weekend, and the day before spring vacation.

If the administration is particularly daring, it might even address the most wasted part of the school year: the period after final exams and before summer vacation.

On the last week of school, suspend the daily routine. No regular class. No bells. Everyone has a writing project that will end on the last day, with a public presentation. (A few high schools already do this.) Students could be organized by topics and genres: sports writers, short story writers, speechwriters, literary critics, editorial writers, nature essayists.

Educators and parents talk about the need for more writing in school, but it is still not happening. I am with those teachers who want every student to have a required research project. But we know what happens to such grand schemes. They are discussed in faculty meetings and PTA meetings. Long proposals are written. The assembled plans sit forgotten in the deeper reaches of a principal’s computer.

Why not use the dead days before holidays to just do it, one class at a time, and let the reading and writing evolve? An English teacher announces no homework for the Thanksgiving weekend, as long as students spend the last day writing a 500-word essay on the most important day of their life. She hands out paper, waits five minutes and then calls up each student to her desk in turn, two minutes for each.

She sees what they have in mind. She make suggestions. She checks what they have written. Students who finish early edit one another’s work. The teacher collects all of it and promises prizes when school resumes. A bag of cookies or a slice of pie for the most original essay, the funniest, the most moving, the most surprising.

Everyone goes home happy, with no homework. (Okay, the poor teacher still has to read them, but not grade them.)

Reading and writing days could, of course, prove to be disasters. But that’s not much different from the pre-holiday doldrums we have now. Writing could break the spell. To teenagers anticipating a few days for sleep and food and more sleep, it would have to be better than listening to a lecture by a teacher who doesn’t want to be there, either.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | November 30, 2010; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  Mike Schmoker, wasted school time on pre-vacation days. making that time count with reading and writing projects  
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Reading/writing days across the school makes some sense but there are practical issues. For one thing, 6-7 hours of such activity would be difficult for most of us on our best days but for teenagers before a holiday . . .

Working with students on writing is time-and-energy consuming.

Two anecdotes:
In my team-taught 10th grade American Studies class for students with reading/writing difficulties, we often had such 'drafting days' as suggested in the column. With two teachers and an aide, and only 12-15 students, with two or three excused to work with a special ed aide one-on-one, we did keep most students on task - for one hour, with three adults, with a dozen students.
Once I invited four local university students to my class to work with 12 lower-ability students on a writing assignment. The combination of numbers, a well-organized assignment on a topic of interest to the students, and the novelty of college students in our class led to an excellent learning time. As I said afterwards, "We had a great class - it only took 5 of us!"

Posted by: aspnh | November 30, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

This is a somewhat bizarre topic, Jay. Your column is on my "favorites" pulldown in hopes you'll say something important, of course. This doesn't appear to be the day for that.

I've already worked through Diane Ravitch's complicated new column, though, and so now I've let myself get drawn into this fanciful eddy.

Presumptuous pundit that you are, you suggest, "Math and science classes could be set aside for reading: No talking allowed."

Many math and science teachers, you may be surprised to learn, use pre-holiday energy to fuel particularly exploratory, high-interest activities. I have a tradition now of passing out little laboratory apparatus bags, to revisit and reimagine kinetic and potential energy before the second semester push to quantify them.

They do group presentations, each group using their target vocabulary to explain their assigned toy and lead the class in its exploration. Many kids have never spun a top, and some have never had a high-bounce ball of their own, let alone a sticky hand, or a snowman water-yo-yo, or a popping disc. Elastic and inelastic collisions, ground states and excited states. Force times distance equals work, which can be transfered as kinetic energy or stored in the spring of a pull-back car.

It is a rich and rewarding activity, and gives students the needed common experience pool and physics vocabulary, acquired through shared delight.

I think shared delight is one reason for holidays, don't you? Is that out of place in an educational setting? Or, are you thinking specifically of Yom Kippur?

Posted by: mport84 | November 30, 2010 7:36 PM | Report abuse

My daughter's 3rd grade class did this last year during the last week of school. They had what was called a RAD Read-All-Day. They brought sleeping bags and pillows pushed desks back and tried chapter books to read during the summer. I thought it was a great use of those not so well used last days.

Posted by: Brooklander | November 30, 2010 7:49 PM | Report abuse

Jay, as a teacher I say, "Great idea!" Many studies show the benefits for students when the have SSR: sustained silent reading--especially for English language learners. Writing is in serious trouble especially in DCPS. Our students are poor writers. So I would welcome days like these. We usually get only about half our students on days before holidays and breaks so why go on with a lesson when it has to be repeated when the whole class returns? As for paperwork: we NEVER have enough time to get paperwork done!

However, do you realize IMPACT does NOT allow for days like these? If a master educator comes in to your classroom and you're not hitting all twenty-some points in the 30 minutes they are observing, then your job is on the line. See the problem with IMPACT? It's far too scripted and doesn't allow for "creative" and "outside the box" thinking.

The 2 visits from the ME's and 2 out of the 3 visits from principals are all unannounced. Most principals know better than to come into a classroom the day before Winter Break or Spring Break. However, ME's have been known to come in those days and the first day back from those breaks which should be days for review to get students' wheels greased again, not new lessons.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | November 30, 2010 9:04 PM | Report abuse

I think this is actually a great idea, to an extent. As aspnh mentioned, that is a long time to just be writing...especially right before a holiday. The students are antsy as is. I can't imagine having them sit and write for that long is going to be an achievable solution. I've written many papers in my day, and I even need to take my breaks. However, maybe different writing or reading activities can be implemented throughout the day. In my personal experience, many students have not learned the skills to read and write. I have not been exposed to many districts, but I do see a common theme among teachers saying this is a problem. I have noticed that while students can "read," some have not developed the ability to comprehend what they are reading. Perhaps exercises like this could be done during those days. Instead of using the days before holidays to teach new material, go over material that has been covered. Bring in some primary sources or articles about that topic. Have students analyze them, write summaries, use graphic organizers to organize the information they are reading, write rebuttals to opinion-based sources, etc. This allows students some writing and reading while at least being active. Discussion can even be used for this type of learning as well.

Posted by: LMK87 | November 30, 2010 9:34 PM | Report abuse

Just to keep it real, most teachers will not assign this type of work because then they will have to grade it. Or parents and students will decide that if it is "just reading" they don't need to show up.

High interest days should involve 21st century technology to provoke high student interest.

Posted by: Hrod1 | November 30, 2010 11:56 PM | Report abuse

Oh, for heaven's sake. Start with the idiotic premise--what evidence do you have that the few days before the holiday are wasted? Do you just talk to a couple teachers and get these ideas? Sure, concentration is a bit hard to grab in those last few days, but they aren't wasted.

"Math and science classes could be set aside for reading"

Well, sure. Because, as you said just recently, in America we just don't value the maths and sciences. So let's show how much we care about the subjects by dumping them in favor of some narcissistic writing assignments.

Why are so many people determined to overvalue reading and writing? They are tools, not answers, and certainly not morally superior activities.

"I am with those teachers who want every student to have a required research project."

Sure. Come up with yet another fanciful moralistic way to force kids to do work they could care less about. Great!

And of course, full employment for private tutors who will help wealthy kids do a thorough job, to further exacerbate the gap between the prepared and the unprepared.

When will you figure out that basic, short, on demand assessments are *better* for kids with few resources--fairer, more equitable? Until you realize that the SAT is fairer than AP, that multiple choice tests that are done in a room with no help are a more reliable ability indicator than those absurd research papers, you're going to continue to make suggestions that hurt the very kids you say you want to help.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 1, 2010 1:01 AM | Report abuse

At my previous middle school, our PE department organized an all school field trip the day before winter break. The focus was on lifetime fitness. It allowed students and staff to be physically active, have some fun together, and connect outside of the classroom. Students could choose bowling, ice skating, roller skating, or basketball/swimming. Students and staff had a great time every year. Many students picked activities that they had never tried before.

There is more to education than reading and writing. This activity was also very conducive to a day where many students are absent or overly excited.

Posted by: daverussell | December 1, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Interesting a retired teacher, I remember well the many days of trying to hold the line on excited students looking forward to the holidays. The staff in the schools I worked at were also committed to not "wasting" the days.

The simplicity, and probably the quieting aspect of Jay's suggestion is very attractive....(except for teachers having to go through a lot more papers).

Because some students are very worn out with their academic struggles by holiday time, I would suggest adding 2 or 3 other choices to the reading and writing;these two are fairly easy to implement:
1) opening some classrooms in addition to the art studios for having the simple joy of creating things for the holidays or just indulging in open drawing/painting/collages. - many students don't get art in their regular schedules, and they would probably enjoy the release while having the satisfaction of creating.
2) (our schools used to do this) Have a couple of teachers who are interested set up some community service tasks...or even serving their own school - extra cleaning, grounds work, decorating, whatever needs to be done.

The above activities have the added advantage of engaging physical energy and fostering social skills with other people the students would not normally seek out.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 1, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

The responses above from actual classroom teachers again prove my point that Jay should be giving a large amount of weekly space to those doing the job. The creativity, imagination and experience of these teachers show clearly the high quality, intelligence and dedication that should be made known to the public. This might begin to dispel the popular-as-pushed-by-media notion of incompetents-everywhere in public schools. It's simply not true, no matter how much the haters yell and misinform.
Thanks to all those who have stayed in the classroom and inform us here.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | December 1, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Some great reactions here.

For lbnthrdntht---You are absolutely right. You will never read anything by me saying that incompetents are everywhere in public schools. Much of what is posted here, including stuff I write, comes from great teachers, and my books are all about great teachers.

For UrbanDweller---you raise a great point. Did I assume wrongly that IMPACT visits would never be scheduled on such days because both the principals and the Master Educators know it would be an unrepresentative sample of what the teacher does? If you know of IMPACT descending on teachers the day before holidays, let us know. Seems to be those days could be taken off the IMPACT schedule. I know that IMPACT doesn't visit the last week of school---WAY too late to file the necessary paperwork.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 1, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

When will you figure out that basic, short, on demand assessments are *better* for kids with few resources--fairer, more equitable? Until you realize that the SAT is fairer than AP, that multiple choice tests that are done in a room with no help are a more reliable ability indicator than those absurd research papers, you're going to continue to make suggestions that hurt the very kids you say you want to help.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier


Can you cite any research that will support these conclusions you make? Aren't you just offering a group of young people "another fanciful moralistic way to force kids to do work they could care less about"?

Unfortunately, it seems that Jay and most of the people who respond to Jay are attempting to offer ways of improving a malfunctioning system when the system itself is the problem and needs to be dismantled and redesigned. At least that is the conclusion that someone like John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist who has actually studied how the brain works and people learn best, has reached.

This is the same conclusion reached by the people most informed about brain science and learning. Unfortunately, many in education seem to ignore this research. And too many spout off about things they think will work rather than trying to set up a system that takes advantage of the things we know will work.

It seems to me adult egos are getting in the way of doing what is best for the student.

Posted by: thesilverback | December 1, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you've been misinformed. IMPACT does NOT have any days set aside when visits by ME's or principals are out of the question. Each principal observes a teacher 3 times a year. Only the first observation is announced--usually only a 24 hour notice. Each teacher is observed by an ME 2 times. Neither is announced. As I said in my post, most principals with common sense know not to visit days before a holiday and most won't.

The IMPACT cycle runs through June 15. The last day of school is June 17. So visits from ME's and principals DO occur during the last week of school. I know teachers who were visited last year during the last week of school.

Whoever gave you that information from DCPS is lying to you.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | December 1, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

To UrbanDweller---My clumsy writing has inadvertently misled you. I was trying to say I assumed that principals would not use those days for the very reason you cite. I did not think those days had been formally excluded.

to thesilverback---I have heard such interesting theories many times, but they don't take us very far because they don't say specifically what should be done to replace the current system. It is even more of a problem, to me and the teachers that influence me, that such visionaries have usually never attempted to run schools in a different way. The history of American education is full of grand experiments that failed. As a reporter, my job is to write about real events, not theory, so I generally receive all such theories with skepticism until I see somebody actually try a new systemic approach with real students, preferably disadvantaged ones who will provide a good test of any new ideas. That is why I have written so many impatient columns about the vague promises made for 21st century education.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 1, 2010 6:28 PM | Report abuse

Jay- from where I teach holiday activities have long since disappeared. The only assemblies we have recognize veterans & Dr. King. No harvest festival, no winter holiday themes, Columbus day, etc. There is nothing. The policy is if you wouldn't teach it on a "regular day" don't teach it prior to a break or holiday. I'm a little saddened. I fondly remember dressing up as Abe Lincoln to recite the Gettysburg Address for our President's Day assembly.

But now I am continuing to focus on content during the final days prior to break I have found that many students are absent. Many of them are missing school to get a head start on their holiday. Thus I end up reteaching it anyway.

I'd prefer to waste my instructional time with an activity that engages students differently than the typical school day.

Posted by: CDuerr | December 2, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

The local elementary and high school public schools where I live in S.California make the week of Thanksgiving an entire week off school. It's part of their union contracts. The administration claims that so many schools have low attendance and that affects their average daily attendance monies, which harms their budget.
I don't see too much use of your suggestion working where I live, but hey...this parent and taxpayer think you have a great idea.
It will work when you have teachers committed to it and parents who value education. I'm not holding my breath that those two will collide and work.

Posted by: kodonivan | December 3, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse

It's a good idea and I think I'll try it.

The only problem I see is that what is really important in education is always an add on. And so it's still a difficulty to keep the kids focused because there has been no genuine relationship developed with the material and the activity.

For example, in geometry, how many posters in the non-teaching section of the Washington Post know that the exterior angle of a triangle is equal to the sum of the two remote interiors? How many would actually give a hoot? I certainly didn't, even though I majored in math. And the constant repetition of determining the missing remote interior to prepare for a standardized test would make my eyes glaze over, just like these kids.

But learning that I could determine the height of a tree, or spaceship hovering above, with just these concepts and a good friend might make me think twice about education being useless. That's a real skill, but that takes time for reinforcement. Unfortunately, there are so many non-essential things taught in school, I would hesitate to jump on board for the longer days.

There would have to be some pretty bright bureaucrats to show me they have improved the quality and design of public school curriculum. I think I would jump off a bridge if I had to have longer teaching days teaching the same way, forced to teach these objectives by a certain time so that boredom puffs that heavy pipe a bit harder.

Posted by: Playitagainsam | December 5, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

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