How to Kill the Dead Time: Students Droning On

The title of this post sounds a bit unsympathetic, but you know what I’m talking about. You ask a question of the students, perhaps a warm-up at the beginning such as, “How was your weekend?” And one student starts to tell about his weekend in great detail for five to ten minutes. Or maybe it’s the answer to a reading question. You ask, “Why did the man see his father?” and you want an answer like, “To help fix the sink” but one student starts retelling every nuance of the relationship between the man and his father. He’s preempting your next question, “Why is that significant?” by explaining how Dad has Parkinson’s disease and can’t do the job alone. He’s talking about irrelevant details like the color of their clothing which is confusing the class. Most importantly, while this one student is talking, the others are taking out their cellphones, doing homework for their next class, or reading ahead which throws the whole class timing off.

This article is the second to last in my series on How to Kill Dead Time in class. I really think that when we teachers keep the class moving and don’t give students a chance to get bored or distracted, a lot of class management issues disappear. You can read about other ideas by looking at that earlier post. This post is on suggestions of what to do when one student is dominating class time. This is an important area for me and one that I am not good at managing. Hence I’m really enjoying looking at what other teachers do about it and I’d love to hear your comments as well.

Getting Students to Shut Up (I mean…managing over-enthusiastic participators)

This is tricky because we usually encourage students to talk, right? So how do you politely tell a student to give a shorter answer without 1) insulting him or her, 2) discouraging participation, and 3) discouraging complete answers?

  • When you hear the right answer, cut them off quickly with praise. Say, “yes” and maybe echo the answer. This provides a model of the kind of answer you want and also interrupts the student with praise.
  • When the student moves beyond the right answer and starts to preempt your next question, tell them, “That’s my next question. Who else can tell me?” If they persist, say, “Let’s give someone else a chance.”
  • Talk to dominant students outside of class.
  • Obviously NEVER be sarcastic or indicate that talking long is a bad idea. Never mock students in class.

Preventing the Problem in the first place

  • Make sure the question is clear and students get what you want. Sometime students give shotgun answers, they just talk and talk and hope they hit the target.
  • Make sure this is a question that needs to have a free answer. I know we are taught to always let students talk and ask open-ended questions but sometimes holding up a piece of paper with the answer, or matching, or something else is better practice
  • Think-Pair-Share gives students a chance to think first and refine their answer with a partner. Plus talkative students may get it out of their system by talking to another student.

Funnily enough, British Council’s just posted a related question on what to do with a dominant student in class:

The ideas I liked included:

  • A basic, always-enforced everyone speaks once before someone can speak a second time rule.
  • Give students a set number of talking cards per class or activity. Every time they talk, they spend one card. Once they are out of cards, they cannot speak. This helps if you have perpetual talkers in class.
  • Speak to a dominant or loquacious student after class and let him or her know that while participation is awesome, he or she needs to let everyone talk.
  • Force students to raise hands. Never call on a caller-outer.


How to Kill the Dead Time: Students Finish Early

Still following up on my post on keeping students focused in class by killing dead time. You can find links to my other suggestions for killing dead time. This post is on keeping early finishers entertained. You know the student that does every quiz in ten seconds flat and finishes every worksheet before you’re done handing them all out.

This is really one of the simpler areas. Give them something else to do! The problem is 1) making them do it and 2) not giving them something that is going to put them perpetually ahead. For example, if you tell the student to do the next exercise, he’ll be one exercise ahead. And the problem just snowballs Have her start the homework and she won’t have any homework that night. Plus other students will start rushing so they can do homework in class.

So it’s really a question of having some busy work for them to do and making the busy work fun or relevant (I always get so busy copying my quiz that I forget to copy my busy work!). A few easy suggestions:

  • Extra worksheets–the ones you think you won’t have time to get to. (And then have them check it themselves (see the list How to Not Hand Back Homework for ideas on giving students answers without taking up too much of your time).
  • Riddles, puzzles, brain teasers, fun stuff like that!
  • A reading book. Especially if students have picked the book themselves that can be fun. However again giving them a chance to do assigned reading is not great. It rewards being fast as opposed to being accurate.
  • A diary or journal. Give them fun or interesting prompts
  • If you can’t keep them off their cellphones while they’re bored, put those cellphones to use. Tell them to find three examples of vocabulary words or grammar on Wikipedia.

Any other ideas? What do you guys do for early finishers?

How to Kill the Dead Time: Handing Back Papers or Conferencing

This is part of a series of posts I’m writing about how I try to keep students engaged by killing deadtime in the classroom. You can read my main post on keeping dead time in class to a minimum and find links to the other posts–I’ve already covered some ideas for taking attendance.

Another area where the majority of the class is not paying attention is handing back homework or conferencing with students. I put these two together because I suspect the same solutions apply to both. Also, I don’t know about you but when I’m handing back worksheets, students often want to conference. It’s a time when students want or need individual attendance and you have to do something with the other students.

Keeping Students Active Especially While Conferencing

  • Something else to do: The classic way to keep students active while conferencing is to give them another assignment. I find that doesn’t always work because the students are dying to know their grade so they don’t take the assignment seriously. Plus, as you hand back essays students start chatting and comparing. I suppose you could give a graded exercise–then they have to take it seriously.
  • Something important to do: There are also some nice ideas on this article on Edutopia, How to Keep Kids Engaged in Class. You could give them review questions for an upcoming quiz or test. Or preview questions for the next lesson. I think the important point is that the busy work shouldn’t be busy work. It should matter to the class. And have consequences for not doing it.
  • Another route is fun work. I like handouts with riddles and brain teasers. They get really into them. Of course you have to think of your students’ levels. Also be careful of puns and plays on words. Those don’t always translate. But some riddles about language actually build awareness of spelling or double meanings. I like the question, “What’s the difference between here and there”? Answer: “The letter T”. (These also make good Do Nows!)
  • Give it back ahead of time: I have never gotten this one to work but I know some teachers hand out all the essays ahead of time. Students then have a chance to see their grade and prepare questions and complaints before you see them. I find that too many students look at the grade and then stuff it in their bag. But some teachers swear it works.

How to NOT Hand Back Homework

  • Record your feedback at home on Voice Thread or a similar program. Students can then talk to you later if they have specific questions.
  • Put the answers to the homework in a folder in the classroom. Students are on the honor system to do homework first and then check it.
  • Give students the answers to the homework and let them check their work. Then talk about only the ones they didn’t understand.
  • Give preview homework. Do not collect it–but do check who did it. Teach the lesson. Then for homework, students check and redo their preview homework.

As always, I am always thrilled to hear more ideas and suggestions in the comments!

How to Kill the Dead Time: Taking Attendance

I recently wrote a post about keeping students focused and off their cellphones. Basically, I think students play with their cellphones because they are bored. And students get bored when there is dead time, time when they have nothing to do and what is going on in the classroom doesn’t really concern them. Note that I don’t say, “doesn’t engage” or “doesn’t entertain” them. I don’t think students expect every second of the class to be super fun and insightful. Students know classes are sometimes routine or boring. But if something boring affects their lives, like describing what the test will be about, you bet they will be paying attention.

I identified a few areas where dead time can creep into the classroom. I’m going to make a post on each area. And as always I love comments, suggestions and criticisms.

One area that is often dead time in class happens right at the beginning. For some reason, getting off on the right foot is very important to me. I think you set the tone for the class in that first  ten minutes or so. And unless your students are super-motivated, getting them to switch to class mode takes some doing. So if the first thing you do is take attendance and the students start getting bored immediately, I think you’ve lost half the battle already.

How to Keep Students Active While Taking Attendance

  • A “DO NOW” on the board. This also can shore up that dead time between the start of class and when you actually get their attention. Every class put up either a riddle or puzzle on the board. Or a quote that students have to guess the meaning of. I sometimes put up instructions for checking homework. Or the topic of the first warm-up discussion.  If you turn this into a habit, you theoretically don’t have to even start class (or so Tessa Woodward assures her readers). Students will come in, sit down, and start doing whatever is on the board. Meanwhile, you take attendance, get your papers in order, have that first sip of coffee, or whatever you need to do.
  • A similar idea is to set a routine beginning to class that all students can do.  In a writing class, class starts with journals so students know that at 9:20 they go to the cupboard, pull out their journals and write about their day. Or they get out their homework, find a partner, and start checking it. The only difference between this and a DO NOW is that a DO NOW is different every day.
  • Take attendance later when the students are doing something else like working on a work sheet.
  • Call on students to tell you if another student is there: “Michael, is Sarah here?” Expand it to ask weird things, “Michael, is Sarah wearing her glasses today?”
  • Ask students about things the whole class is interested in. I think asking each student individually, “How was your weekend?” only captures the attention of that student and his or her friends. Asking the group, “Who did something fun this weekend?” might also lead to a ten-minute monologue by a student no one likes. I prefer questions like, “How was the exam in your last class?” or, “Who saw Simon drop his papers in the hallway? I missed it, tell me about it.” Those get almost everyone talking or listening.

How to Ban Cellphones: Kill the Dead Time

Bored Student Falling Asleep While Studying

From: or not students should have cellphones in the classroom is a big debate these days. And I feel schizophrenic about the debate-I love tech toys, I think telling my 25 year old student to put away his or her cellphone is condescending, and I know that students sometimes use them for a quick translation or comprehension check rather than interrupt the whole class to ask what, “schizophrenic” means. On the other hand, my classroom is often full of students staring at tiny little screens and when I call on them I get a bleary-eyed, “What?” But recently I had a great epiphany. Students start pulling out their cellphones in class for the same reason I pull mine out at lunch with friends or in the middle of a webinar–BOREDOM. How do I know? Because my classroom is also full of students staring out the window, napping, chatting, doodling, doing homework for another class, checking the time every five minutes, trying to distract me from the lesson so we can just talk and kill time. It’s not just the cellphones. The problem isn’t that kids today are addicted to evil technology. The problem is that I am a boring teacher!

That’s a tough thing to admit, but I’d be surprised if a lot of cellphone use didn’t come down to students being bored. And look, I don’t think we need to entertain our students 24/7 with games and jokes and juggling tricks. I don’t think they want that. They want to learn and they know learning is sometimes not fun. Listening to a lecture on the present perfect can be interesting, if not exactly fun. Filling out a relatively rote worksheet about a new grammar point can be satisfying, if boring. Reading an IELTS passage on the Titanic can be insanely boring but students understand that it is necessary. So it’s not that I am a boring teacher per se. It’s that my class is boring sometimes. And when is my class the most boring?

Class is most boring when nothing is happening. So to keep students off their cellphones (and looking at you, not the clock) I need to identify the dead time or downtime in my class. Usually it’s when:

I don’t know if you would add anything to the list. I’ve been slowly trying to work on these moments so that students always have something to do and it’s been working well. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing ways that I kill dead time in my classroom that have worked for me. I’d also love to hear from you about what you guys have done to keep students active and talking and off those cellphones.