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The term “lame duck” is most often used to describe a president who is still sitting in office after his or her successor has been elected. Technically this person is still the president, but his or her decision-making power is generally perceived to be minimal.
We have something like that in school: those days when technically we’re still in school, but because it’s right before vacation, the end of the school year is near, or we’re in the middle of standardized testing, those class hours don’t have the same instructional potential as your average school day. In some cases, like on standardized test days in certain districts, teachers are explicitly told they CAN’T plan regular instruction. On these Lame Duck days, it’s hard to figure out what we can do to still provide valuable learning experiences for our students.
Sometimes instead of days, we have small bursts of Lame Duck time: The leftover 15 minutes after the fire drill, when you know you don’t have enough time to actually finish the lesson you were teaching, but you don’t want to just let them sit there. We often call the activities we need for these times “sponge activities.” Regardless of what you call it or how much you need, we all have those times when students are right in front of us but the regularly scheduled programming just isn’t going to work.
In some schools, they’ll still let you show movies. I worked in a place like that, although near the end, we were starting to get pressured to cut that out. And I understand why: As a parent, when ask my kids what they did in school on any given day, and I hear “watched a movie,” I’m annoyed. I mean, I can show my kids a movie at home. Surely school can step it up a notch? What’s worse, “show a movie” in some classes actually means “Put a movie on, but let students do whatever they want while the movie provides background noise.” And when the movie is, say, The Sound of Music, or some other classic I have waited years to experience with my kids, and then they tell me their music teacher puts it on all the time, I feel robbed as a parent.
Okay, that’s my rant about showing movies in class. Take it with a grain of salt, because (a) I totally showed movies when I needed a day to grade papers and get caught up, and (b) I’m fully aware that a TON of absolutely amazing movies, video clips, and documentaries are absolutely jam-packed with educational value. So I get that it’s not the worst thing you can do, and I know it CAN be done right. This is why I would never support a school banning videos across the board; that kind of blunt policy doesn’t respect teachers’ ability to make the best instructional choices for students.
HOWEVER…when it comes time to plan for Lame Duck days, we really do have so many more options beyond the showing of videos. So if you’ve decided you want to do something else, or you’ve been told you flat-out have to, here’s a great list for what to do instead. Some of these ideas come from my own teaching experience, others come from online resources, and a lot of them are from a Facebook Live broadcast I did a few weeks ago, where other teachers contributed their own ideas.
I’ve broken this list into three sections, based on how much prep you’d need to do to for each one and how much time each one would take.
Some list items contain Amazon Affiliate links; if you purchase from Amazon after going through these links, Cult of Pedagogy receives a small commission at no extra cost to you.
These activities can be done at a moment’s notice, with little to no required materials. They can be used as a 10-minute filler or as the main activity for a whole class period.
- Clean-up Day: Give students a chance to clean out their binders or lockers and enlist students to help tidy the classroom as well.
- Learn a Line Dance: Either you teach your students, they teach each other, or you all learn together from YouTube. What’s great about line dancing is that anyone can do it, whether they have rhythm or not. Go back a few years to learn the Cupid Shuffle, further back to learn the Macarena or go way back and learn the Hustle.
- Thank-You Notes: Since this important life skill isn’t really a part of any curriculum, a Lame Duck day is a perfect time to have students practice it and show some gratitude to the people who deserve it. Provide them with paper and envelopes and have them write thank-you notes to friends, family members, school staff members, or other students. For best results, show them a few examples of thoughtfully written notes ahead of time.
- The Compliments Project: This is an incredible activity where students take turns being in the “hot seat” while their classmates write compliments on the board behind them. You have to see this one to appreciate its full impact. Watch here. Although this activity only takes about 5 to 10 minutes per student, which means it would be something you could squeeze into the end of a class period, you should only get it started if you know you’ll eventually have time to put every student in the hot seat.
- Go Outside: Many of the activities listed in this post could also be done outside, or you could just play a classic outdoors game like Red Rover or Red Light, Green Light. Check out this list of games for ideas.
- Play Charades: Teach kids the basic rules (here’s a simple overview of charades rules from the Game Gal website). Word clues could be content-related or just for fun. This word generator could provide words without the need for you to prepare anything ahead of time, and students could click through word options quickly until they find one they like.
- Philosophical Chairs Debate: This technique has a lot of different names, like Four Corners, Physical Barometer, and This or That, but the idea is the same: You read some sort of statement to the class, like “Students should be allowed to go barefoot in school.” Designate one side of the room as the “Agree” side and the other as the “Disagree” side. Students must physically walk to the side of the room that best represents their opinion. Then have students take turns explaining why they are standing in that spot. (If you want fantastic pre-made questions on a PowerPoint for this, take a look at my This or That icebreaker).
- Group Story/Progressive Writing: Have every student take out a sheet of paper and have them all write the first sentence (or two, or three) of a story. Then have them pass it to the right and pick up where the last student left off. Keep going until you have a class set of unique stories. One variation of this is to give everyone the exact same sentence to start with, and see how many directions the different stories take.
These require you to do a bit of planning ahead of time, but for many, once you’ve prepared the materials, they can be used over and over again.
- Improv Skits: Have groups of students compete by performing improv skits. This can be done in so many ways, but two structures you could use are 3-Word Skits, where students are given three words and must come up with a skit that uses all three, and Bag of Titles, where you (or other students) write lots of interesting or odd titles (e.g., “The Lady with 100 Cats”) and the performers must come up with a skit that matches the title. Both of these ideas came from the incredible website Drama Notebook. Another great source for improv ideas is this list of games played on the T.V. show Whose Line Is It Anyway? (Screen these yourself first, as they do contain some adult content.)
- Found Poetry: This is a method of writing poetry where you begin with a text that’s already written, like a page out of a book (photocopied in most cases). By cutting words from that text or marking out everything but a few words, students can uncover some pretty fantastic poetry. Here’s an example from the blog of poet Kate Hutchinson.
- Icebreakers: Get students talking with one of my three favorite classroom icebreakers.
- Listen to Podcasts: With some extra time, you might allow students to browse through the podcast collection at Listenwise or try out one of the 8 podcasts for students I reviewed last year. Have students use an index card to write a short review of the episode they listened to and share these cards on a board so others can take advantage of their recommendations.
- Skype: Once you learn about some of the free educational opportunities offered by Skype, you might not want to do anything else in your free class time. One of these is a Mystery Skype, where you connect with another class in an unknown location (only you and the other teacher will know), and students work together to ask a series of yes/no questions until they guess where the other class is. Another is a Virtual Field Trip, where your class Skypes with someone (often a professional in some part of the world, like an ocean exploration with Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of Jacques Cousteau). To learn more, visit the Skype in the Classroom page in the Microsoft Educator Community.
- Coloring Books: Put on some background music, open a few bags of chips, and break out the coloring books. This is an easy, relaxing activity that sets a nice atmosphere for socializing, rather than having students on their devices or zoned out in front of a screen. If you don’t want to spend money on actual coloring books, you can find plenty of free printable coloring pages online, like this set of 50 beautiful coloring printables.
- Read Aloud: Reading books aloud to students is not just for the young ones. Even high school seniors can enjoy sitting back and listening to you read a good book. One of my all-time favorites is The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. To find a title that has been personally vetted by thousands of students and teachers, check out the list of past books at the Global Read-Aloud.
- Board Games or Card Games: I think we can all agree that no one plays board games or card games as much as they used to, and the simple fun and social learning that can come from them are worth the time and effort. Some of my family’s favorites are Pictionary, Spot It!, Dominoes, Scattergories, Scrabble, Quirkle, Uno, or Yahtzee. Or just buy a few basic decks of cards, then check out the Gather Together Games YouTube channel and learn how to play something classic like Gin Rummy, Spades, or Pinochle.
- Minute to Win it Games: These require some equipment and set-up, but not a whole lot, and they will really break students out of their shells. This list from Happiness is Homemade has 10 fantastic ideas, like “Cookie Face” and “Junk in the Trunk.”
- Mindfulness Practice: Especially during testing season, mindfulness practice can ease stress and give students a skill they can apply in so many other areas of their lives. Two great resources for starting on this journey are the Mindful Schools website, and the book Teach, Breathe, Learn by Meena Srinivasan. Two easy-to-make mindfulness tools are glitter jars and breathing sticks.
- Kahoot: If you still haven’t tried Kahoot, you’re in for a treat. This website lets you create interactive, game show-style quizzes that students play as a class on their own devices. You could create a content-based Kahoot, do one just for fun, or even have students create them.
- STEM Challenges: A hands-on problem that students need to solve with science, technology, engineering or math skills is cognitively challenging, socially engaging, and just a fun break from routine in any class. Here are some fun challenge ideas. (Don’t mind that it says “elementary.” They would be fun for older kids, too.)
- Open Mic: This was something I did several times in my middle school classrooms, and it was an incredibly bonding experience. The idea is simple: Invite any student who has some kind of performance talent—whether it’s singing, playing an instrument, magic, martial arts, or even creative writing—to take the stage in your classroom and give a short performance. Something truly magical happens when students get to see their peers step outside of the roles they’re normally in during class. And if your students are anything like mine were, they will recognize the courage it takes to get up in front of your peers and do this. I can still remember the day when one of my 8th grade girls got up and sang an Alicia Keys song a capella. Beautifully. When she was done the room just exploded with applause. If you have students who are too shy to perform live or whose talent can’t be performed in a classroom setting, let them record themselves at home and play the videos in class. One of our great privileges as teachers is helping our students grow into full, well-rounded human beings, and letting them see their own peers in a different light is absolutely one way to do this. (Listen to me talk about this experience on my friend James Sturtevant’s Hacking Engagement podcast.)
High-Prep or Long-Term
- Genius Hour: Just in case you’ve never heard of Genius Hour, it’s a structure for giving students time to explore topics and skills they choose completely on their own. Sometimes they study a foreign language, teach themselves how to code, even start their own businesses. A Genius Hour project usually happens over a period of weeks or even months, in small increments. So if you’ve already got a Genius Hour program going, these extra bits of time are perfect for continued work on projects. To learn more about Genius Hour, check out my friend A.J. Juliani’s webinar and course here.
- Community Service Project: One great way to make the most of the end of the school year is to have students identify a need in the community, then plan and execute a service project. Check out these 7 ideas for service learning projects from We Are Teachers. Another type of service project could be organizing a school-wide yard sale, with the profits going to charity.
- Student Video Project: These can take all kinds of forms: end-of-year retrospectives, book trailers, tutorials or welcome videos for incoming students. You could even hold a student film festival where final projects are shown on the last few days of school. This classroom video guide from EdTechTeacher will help get you started.
- Survivor Game: Using a model like the one described here, put students into tribes and have them compete on various challenges in the style of the TV show Survivor. These can be just regular challenges or they can be developed using course content.
- Amazing Race Game: Just like with the Survivor game above, you could coordinate a game based on the show The Amazing Race following a plan like this one.
- Literature Circles: Amid all these other creative ideas, the humble literature circle may not seem quite so exciting, but never underestimate the value of a small group of students talking about a fantastic book they’re all reading. To learn more, see this Getting Started Guide to Literature Circles from ReadWriteThink.
- BreakoutEDU Activities: BreakoutEDU is kind of hard to explain, but I’ll give it a shot: It’s a kit that contains several boxes, a few locks, an invisible ink pen and UV light, a USB drive, and a few other pieces of equipment. The deal with the box is that teachers use them to facilitate games, games that feel like a cross between a mystery and a challenge, where clues are left around the room and students have to answer questions in order to find them. In the same way that you can plug questions or content into a platform like Kahoot, you can do the same with BreakoutEDU (they also have a lot of pre-made games available for purchase). Learn more here.
- Student/Teacher Unconference: Using a chunk of hours or a whole day, teachers and students plan short lessons on things they are interested in outside of school (crafts, yoga, cooking, martial arts, music, dance, technology), then sign up for time slots like an EdCamp. With the schedule in place, students and teachers can then sign up to attend the ones they are interested in. This would definitely take some planning, especially the first time, but it could be so worth it. What is an unconference?
- TED Talks: Watching these short, powerful presentations has become almost a rite of passage for 21st century humans. Have students watch a few to understand the style, then plan and deliver their own.
Even More Fantastic Ideas:
- 50 Great Ideas for Use After State Testing, by Breeze Through Math
- Seven Creative Alternatives to Showing Movies Before the Break, by John Spencer