No free time?

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I did give a little free time last year. If my homeroom class won the attendance challenge for the week, the school provided them treats. I let them eat their chips, drink their little water bottles, and take ten minutes on those days. Those free minutes posed no threat to the bigger instructional picture. They were tied to a specific performance target.

In my last post, I pushed hard against “free time,” though, and I know I am getting some push-back. Like me, many teachers are probably saying, “But kids aren’t machines!”

They’re not machines. They need breaks. We need breaks. I am 100% in favor of recess. In fact, I am in favor of nap time in the early elementary grades.

The problem with free time can be captured in Ben Stein’s latte effect. If I buy a soy, green tea Frappuccino on my way home from work, I have spend $5. That $5 seems like a relatively small sum of money in return for a delicious drive home. The problem arises when I pull into that drive-through every day. After one September of teaching, I have spent 22 * 5 = $110. Over the course of the school year, I can spend 180 * 5 = $900. Nine-hundred dollars can buy me a plane ticket to Europe, or provide me with hotel fees and show tickets for a long week-end at a nearby Shakespearean festival.

The temptation to give free time at the end of a class period may be strong.

“We did our work! Yeah, you said you liked my project! We need a break!”

By middle school, some children have become great salespeople.

“You look tired, Ms. Q. You have been working really hard. Why don’t you just sit down at your computer and relax. We could all look at some YouTube. We won’t cause any trouble. Yeah, you deserve a break, Ms. Q! Why don’t we look at funny falls? No, soccer! No, whatever Ms. Q wants!”

Twenty-some solicitous thirteen-year-old adolescents may be looking up front with expressions of compassion and helpfulness. Let us help you find YouTube, those expressions say. You can rest. We will locate that video with skateboarder who ended up in the tree and we can all have some laughs.

After a long day, that video sounds great, but this post again is for the newbies: Don’t give in as a regular practice. Right before Thanksgiving break, when the work’s done, fine. But on any regular day leading into another regular day, that free time request is trouble. Once you give in, the demand for free time will never go away. Once you start making any regular practice of free time, you will lose 5 minutes here, 5 minutes there until by the end of the year, you may have sacrificed — let’s consider those free minutes Frappuccinos — 5 * 180 = 900 minutes or 15 hours of instructional time, or 2 full days.

Do we need breaks? Yes. I suggest crossword puzzles or other word games. Art activities also work great. Hand out construction paper and markers so students can draw the parts of a flower or whatever you are studying. But free time, like lattes, ought to be saved for special occasions.