Openers, bell ringers and to-dos

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The above title lists three names for the same activity. Educational jargon is a moving target. I don’t understand how we teachers all suddenly seemed to know that an opener had become a to-do, but we did. Maybe the aliens used the techno-ray on us, as my young daughter might have said. In any case, your school will have a name for that 5-10 minute opening activity.

To-dos matter. The government is tracking student attendance. Low numbers invite scrutiny and even sanctions. There’s $$ in those numbers, too. Many administrations are keeping close watch over attendance figures. You want to put attendance in within the first ten minutes of class. I recommend against the first two or three minutes. Too soon and you will have to remember to fix the tardies you have marked absent. You definitely don’t want to get attendance wrong.

The right opener makes taking attendance easy. Conventional wisdom now seems to push five-minute openers, probably because of our feverish preoccupation with maximizing text scores and increasing available time for bell-to-bell instruction, but I personally prefer to run a little longer sometimes. As long as students are productively engaged, why not give yourself 7, 8 or even 10 minutes? The problem with the five-minute opener — oops, to-do — lies in the increasing time demands that are being placed on teachers. I am convinced that science experiments declined in my district last year due to these demands. Our prep periods always ended up being filled with meetings and attempts to enter student data into new spreadsheets, creating a tendency to avoid activities in lesson plans that might require a possibly nonexistent prep period.

Let the lesson plan determine the to-do. Slightly-longer to-dos may allow you to set up more complex lessons involving manipulatives, for example. Your target should be to use the shortest time you can get away with while still gracefully getting ready for class. As time and content expectations grow ever more demanding, teachers can sometimes end up seeming rushed or even frantic. Students don’t respond well to rushed or frantic, at least not as a regular occurrence.

Take the time you need to get set up and still enjoy your students. You want a minute or two to ask Daisy how her new, little brother is doing, for example. You want to be able to help Travis get organized. The first few minutes of a class set the tone for that class. Yes, you need to do the attendance piece, but you also want to create a class ready for learning.

Eduhonesty: That said, if administration turns up, you need to get out of your to-do quickly. The short to-do has become a best practice and you mess with best practices at your peril. Best practices will affect or even be used to determine your evaluation numbers.

To-dos should always be activities students can do without you. If students come up to you for help, find classmates to fill in the gaps. The right seating chart can help, allowing you to pair helpful and struggling students. If too many students come up for help, a to-do should be dropped or turned into an exit slip instead.

I have been known to holler, “Abandon ship!” and pass out a back-up opener. If you misjudged class readiness, you don’t need to slog through the growing confusion. Make a joke or two, pass out something easier and come back to the failed opener later.