4 Ways to Keep Students Focused During the Holidays

Parties, shopping and vacation time can derail learning. Here are rock-solid solutions to keep students on task
Christopher Piehler

Late October through early January is a festive time in many American households—and a challenging time in many American schools. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas present distractions for students in class, and vacation time keeps them out of class for days or weeks in a row. To find out what educators around the country are doing to keep their students on task during the most wonderful time of the year, we talked to a superintendent, a principal, and a teacher.

Mary Elisondo, the principal at Ramona Elementary School, a TK-5 school in Oxnard, CA, focused on environmental science, said that keeping students on task during the holidays is “a battle that will test even the most veteran of principals. How do you say to a kid, ‘I know that Christmas is a week away, but I need you to focus on your multiplication’?

Here are four ways that educators are doing just that:

1) Turn Distractions into Teaching Opportunities

According to Dr. Stephanie Miller, the Superintendent/Principal at Congress Elementary School District #17 (AZ), when the holidays come around, “The trick is to integrate. Teachers have learned to take learning and integrate it into the holiday season activities.”

With proper planning, she said, “Distractions, such as class parties, become focused learning time because the party is embedded in the learning.” For example, at Halloween, Congress Elementary encourages students to come dressed as their favorite character in a book or movie and to share why they chose their character. “The learning,” Miller said, “takes place around the costume.”

For the whole-school Christmas Play, Miller added, “Every student has a part and performance task. The joy of the season is not lost, and reinforcement and teaching of State Standards are embedded in the play practice activities.”

At Ramona Elementary, Elisondo said, “We have limited seasonal parties because there has been such a huge need to focus on the academics.” The school does, however, give students the day before Halloween off so they have time to prepare costumes, and Ramona teachers spend time discussing various traditions of the season, including Dia de Los Muertos. “We talk about it as a tradition, we have an altar, we ask children and parents if they’ve participated in it,” Elisondo said, “And we try to bring in their traditions. Sometimes we expand that to ‘What would you like to do?’ ”

Ashleigh Schulz, who teaches gifted classes at Moss Bluff Elementary in Lake Charles, LA, agreed that handing over some control to students helps keep them on task. “During the holiday season,” she said, “I provide choice menus and student-directed independent learning activities for those students that need extra work. Always having activities that are engaging helps my students focus and not become easily distracted with outlying stimuli.”

Like Elisondo, she had asked her students to research the holidays that various cultures around the world celebrate. “Taking this 30 to 45 minutes out of one day to allow students to explore and report on their findings allows them some freedom to express themselves as well as learn empathy and support for various religions and customs of other countries,” she said, adding that no matter the subject, “holiday activities can be incorporated so that the students feel a sense of the holiday spirit!”

2) Keep the Learning Going Despite Interruptions

Even for the best teachers, maintaining the momentum of students’ learning over vacation is a challenge. Congress Elementary is on a trimester system, and the winter break usually falls in the middle of a trimester. “As students return from break,” Miller said, “they are immediately immersed into learning by ongoing, quality teaching. Holiday fun has not ended, because the learning activities after the holidays still have the same aspects used during the holiday season.”

For Schulz, the semester ends the day before Christmas break, so the new year is a fresh start. “We typically begin a new unit of study,” she said, “and continue with our self-directed learning.”

Ramona Elementary has a creative way of dealing with that awkward stretch of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations. “Sometimes we take a break from the regular curriculum,” said Elisondo, “and have a mini-unit during the three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

Elisondo is so devoted to this idea that she herself has been teaching a Genius Hour in both of the school’s fifth-grade classrooms. Last year, she started with the issue of vaccination. This year, using this TED Talk on environmental responsibility as a jumping-off point, the fifth graders will examine what it really means to use, for example, paper versus plastic shopping bags. As Elisondo said, “The issue is not whether or not the product ends up in the landfill. It’s ‘what is its usage in its lifetime?’ “

During her Genius Hour, Elisondo asks students to do research on a topic they’re interested in and—if they have time—create something. She wants students to experience how they can use technology in the classroom, so she takes “small increments of time every single day to teach them something super-small research-wise with the use of technology.”

3) Connect to Students with Technology

When she is teaching, Elisondo uses ClassDojo to “help with some of the discipline and staying on task.” She also encourages her students to use myON, an online library that promotes student literacy. “It’s super helpful,” she said, “because kids have access to holiday books.”

Taking advantage of the fact that the school has 1:1 iPads, Ramona Elementary has started a tech-based tradition of its own: a myON holiday reading contest. Every student has to read at least one book, and the students who read the most books win certificates and “bags full of goodies.” During the first contest, held over spring break 2015, the winner read more than 200 books. Elisondo said that he comes from a Spanish-speaking family and, “He also read to his siblings. He would share the information that he had read with his parents, who speak Spanish only.”

For the Christmas contest, the school is not tracking the number of books that kids are reading, but instead the number of minutes they spend in myON—times that includes reading and taking quizzes to get credit for the books they’ve read.

At Congress Elementary, project-based learning is the norm, and Miller said that “The use of Defined STEM’s project-based learning units has been a core instructional piece” that her staff uses “to keep students engaged and learning at the highest levels at all times of the school year. The holiday season is filled with STEM-themed learning that is immersive and productive.” As an example, Miller cited first-grade teacher Emily Morse, who used a Halloween party as a launching pad for anin-depth study of how to grow and use pumpkins.

Schulz also uses a project-based approach in her classes, and, she said, “Because my students work on various projects at a time, they often rely on each other for guidance and support.” She uses a Flexcat audio system from Lightspeed to monitor the class and provide assistance when needed. “I can listen to group conversations and keep running records of the learning that is taking place,” she said. “I can check in quickly and not be invasive to their learning area. It is a seamless part of my classroom that I would not want to be without!”

4) Communicate with Parents, Teachers, and Students

As a teacher, Schulz said that “hitting the holidays head on and allowing students to enjoy the time of year while respecting boundaries of all students is important.” She keeps her students dialed in by the simple process of asking them what interests them and having them study their interest areas. “I can always get my standards across through a variety of topics or I can provide a specific topic and allow my students the freedom to complete the assignments with whatever way they choose,” she said. “For example, if we are studying inventors, my students may choose their inventor and create a multimedia project surrounding the inventor. I provide the guidelines, but they may choose how they would like to fulfill those requirements.”

Superintendent/Principal Miller keeps lines of communication open during and after the holiday season with “regular visits of classrooms; sharing of learning activities; and keeping focused on challenging professional development goals aligned to the school's goals.”

Principal Elisondo said that her communications campaign to keep parents and students engaged over vacation starts at the beginning of the school year. The school makes sure that parents know when the breaks are going to be, all the while underlining the importance of schooling. Teachers also prepare packets for students who ask for work to do at home. To help students make the transition from vacation back to school, Elisondo said, “We encourage parents to have a routine even when their kids aren’t at school. If they’re accustomed to going to bed at 8 on school days, on Thursday or Friday before the first day back, they better go to bed at 8 so they’re ready for that when they go back to school.”

Finally, Elisondo said, teachers and administrators have to avoid getting caught up in the frenzy of celebrations and vacations. “Everybody’s got to breathe. Everybody’s got to relax and know that there’s a lot going on in homes. Everybody’s empathy has to go up during the holiday season.”

Christopher Piehler is the former editor-in-chief of THE Journal. He has been an ed tech commentator on both TV and radio, has served as a CODiE award judge, and has been a speaker at the FETC and CoSN conferences.

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