High Five: Contingency Plan Tools

The end of a year is the perfect time to reflect and regroup, recalling the best ideas, tools, and strategies of the year in order to make use of them in the future.  Looking over my last year, I have compiled some lists of the things I have found to make my life as an educator simple.  As we approach the new year, I will be sharing this series of High Fives.

When you work with children, you know that having a plan B is just as important as plan A.  Many beautifully planned activities have to be suddenly abandoned due to unexpected technical difficulties, unpredictable student disinterest, and other impossible-to-expect obstacles.  The last thing an educator wants is to have a room full of bored students.  As has been said for centuries, idle hands are the devil's workshop.  When things go wrong, and the little hands in front of me are beginning to look for mischief, I pull out one of these no-fail, no-prep-required tools.  Then, while students are occupied, I can focus (some of) my attention on writing passes to the nurse, restarting computers, or otherwise handling whatever excitement has come up.

1. Shortcuts by Jeff Harris
 My very first post on this blog in 2008 featured Jeff Harris' weekly learning comics called Shortcuts.  Harris' cool activity pages are published each week in lots of newspapers around the country.  Cut these out and laminate them for easy-as-pie independent learning.  Wet-erase markers (such as Vis-a-Vis) seem to work best for us.  Just a spritz of water and a paper towel leave these ready to go for next time.  To extend this activity, check out the Shortcuts Teaching Guides page which includes ideas for turning the comics into a full-fledged lesson.  This page also lists the topics that will be featured over the next few months, meaning you can plan ahead to include a Shortcut in a future lesson.

2. Sesamestreet.org
The Videos page on Sesame Street's website has 1000 segments from Sesame Street episodes going back decades.  If you're like me, you can recall parts of your own favorite episodes from childhood, and you are likely to find those classic clips.  This fall, I was teaching students about community heroes, and I remembered the "People in Your Neighborhood" song.  Turns out the site has several of these segments featuring all kinds of helpers like a grocer, a lifeguard and a dentist.  But, the best part of this tool is that once you get it started, it doesn't require any other adult attention.  For example, if you type Kwanzaa into the Search Videos box, many related videos will appear as results.  Once you press play on the first video, it will play through.  When it ends, the next video from the search results will begin and so on.  Once the search results are exhausted, other clips will play.  This can mean several minutes of problem-solving time available for the grown-up.

3. Puzzles
Jigsaw puzzles help students develop problem solving, logical thinking, and spatial relation skills.  They also help with students' hand-eye coordination, perseverance, and cooperation (when shared). But the best thing about puzzles when you're in a planning pinch, is that they are ready to go.  I pick up puzzles, as well as the next two items in this High Five list, at dollar stores and in Target's Dollar Spot.  If you help students build a habit of checking their area for stray pieces at the end of each playtime, these $1 puzzles will last through many, many uses.

4. Flash Cards
Flash cards often get a bad reputation.  However, I have had great success letting students have free play time with the colorful flashcard sets you can buy at Target and the dollar stores.  My 5th grade students loved to challenge each other using Solar System or World Landmarks sets (both from Target).  Students love to stack up all the cards they answered correctly and marvel at their own success.  In no time, learners will memorize tons of facts of the sort that are frequently featured on standardized tests.  I always let students make up their own rules for flash card play.  This keeps the activity pretty stress-free and creates time for me to handle other dilemmas.

5. Dry-Erase Activity Mats
Target's Dollar Spot also frequently has these dry-erase activity mats that come with their own marker and eraser.  Each page is two-sided and focuses on a specific topic.  I have used these for Math, Science, Social Studies and Foreign Language reinforcement.  Like the activities above, these mats are totally independent and require basically no preparation.  If you lose the little foam eraser or the little marker, students can use dry-erase markers and paper towels to continue playing and learning.

Sesame Street image from Sesamestreet.org.  Flash card image from Monkey See Monkey Do. Wipe-off map image from The Snail's Trail.

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