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Why Independent Work Matters

Independent work is a crucial part of a child's development. It helps students to learn important life skills such as time management and self-regulation, but it also helps them increase their engagement, and stamina while helping them build their self-confidence.

I have always encouraged independent work in my classroom, but this year, I changed the way I approached the topic and it has been absolutely magical! I have seen my students rise to the challenge in ways that I never expected. I am able to work with groups and my students are engaged and excited by the weekly tasks.

By no means, do I think I have the one-size-fits-all approach to handling independent work, but I do know that I have found something that works for me and I love to share in hopes that maybe you too can find something useful that will help your students succeed.

Hello Green Folders

My day is broken up into essentially two parts. Our morning is spent on math, reading, and handwriting. We have recess and lunch and specials and then we have our afternoon learning block which includes Phonics, ELA and all of its parts, Social Sciences, and Bible.

In the past, I found group time to be challenging because my students were rotating through stations and it was noisy and hard to focus. My students would try to keep their voices to an acceptable volume, but it was still hard for my students in groups to focus.

This year, I decided that I needed to change something in order to make my time more productive. I had the opportunity to do a professional development course this summer and the teacher talked about how she did independent work, and it got my wheels spinning thinking about how to take her ideas and modify them to fit my class's needs.

Enter the green folders. Green means go and I wanted my students to correlate that with the need to get started immediately. When they come back from specials, they have instructions on the board. Basically, it says, to get your green folder and work quietly. They know as soon as they come in, they can use the restroom and get to work.

I have a cloud lamp that lights up on my desk that I turn on whenever independent work starts. This signals that they can not ask me any questions because I am currently closed so I can work in groups. I do groups four days a week. That means, I give them four sheets to complete. One per day. Group time is typically 30 minutes a day so even one the days they work with me (I see each group twice a week), they are still given at least 15 minutes per day to work. This is more than enough time for them to finish their work as long as they stay on task.

What does this look like?

Monday, when they enter the room, they grab their folders and sit at their seats and wait for me to explain the instructions. I take questions and make sure they have all had plenty of time to understand what is expected. The instructions are also written on the papers. I am not giving them anything to do that I don't first explain. I am also not expecting them to do anything challenging. This is practice. It is a time to review skills that they have already learned. It is simply a reinforcement tool. I honestly, don't even check their work. I check to see if it is completed only.

Tuesday through Thursday, I do not take any questions. I tell them they need to read the instructions if they are unsure what to do. I remind them that I explained earlier in the week and they can read for themselves.

On Thursday, they line up and I check their folders. If a child is absent one day or leaves for special services like speech, OT, etc...I modify the amount of work I expect to be done in order to earn their reward. I don't believe in rewarding expected behaviors and I do not do things like treasure box, candy, etc... so Fun Friday is an exciting incentive.

Students are expected to be quiet during Green Folder Time. If they finish early, which they almost always do, I give them alternative activities. They never change so they know what they can do without having to ask me. They earn desk pets in my class so they are able to play with them quietly or they may read or draw in their Extra Notebook. They are learning to self regulate and figure things out.

I believe kids need time to be creative and play. They do not need to be doing endless worksheets just for the sake of being busy!

Fun Friday

So they're doing their work, but why? To earn Fun Friday! In my class, Fun Friday is a big deal. I also hold them accountable by making them complete their work in order to participate in Fun Friday. Has a student ever missed Fun Friday? Absolutely! I make them sit and complete their work while everyone else enjoys the Fun Friday activity. I have done activities like a virtual roller coaster, game day, free play time, dance parties, movie day, STEM toys, etc... for Fun Friday. Sometimes they are more elaborate but typically they are low-prep, high-engagement activities. The kids never know what they are working towards. I like to keep the element of surprise.

My students are learning to manage their time wisely. They are learning how to work independently. They are learning how to be a good listener and how to follow directions both written and verbal. They are learning that there are choices and consequences for choices made. They are learning about the sense of accomplishment of completing a task.

Students must feel the weight of their own choices and actions. If they use their time wisely and complete their task, they earn the reward.

Life is about choices and consequences. If they choose not to do their work, they feel the weight of that choice by missing out on Fun Friday. I do not let myself be talked into or guilted into letting them participate if they haven't earned it because I would be doing them a disservice. I would be robbing them of the feeling of satisfaction after working hard to earn something. I would be doing myself a disservice by teaching them that my words have no weight.

I could ramble on for hours about the amazing changes that I have seen in my students. I could tell you about the way they cheer and holler when they've worked hard to complete their work and finish early and how they clap and cheer their classmates on. I could tell you how they are more confident to attempt challenging tasks throughout the day because they realize that hard work pays off. I could tell you how their stamina has increased and how they are able to work quietly when I ask because they practice this skill daily. I could tell you how their confidence and scores have improved in reading tests because of the independent skills practice. I seriously could talk for hours about the positives that I have seen.

Maria Montessori said "The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, 'The children are now working as if I didn't exist.'"

I couldn't agree with her more!



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