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You’ve made it to December! Now what?

New York Teacher

December can be a turning point for many newer teachers. You may feel like you’ve finally hit your stride in the classroom and have the energy and the freedom to develop new ideas. Or, now that the newness of the school year has worn off, you may find yourself hunting for fresh strategies to try out as the winter looms.

Whatever the reason, here are some ideas for engaging and motivating your students through winter break and beyond.

Let students lead the discussion. Now that you’ve established your own voice in the classroom, it can be challenging to let it fade into the background. But it’s an opportune time to let students step up and take charge of the discussions you’ve been leading for the past few months. At the AFT’s free lesson-sharing website,, you can find a number of resources for establishing student discussion protocols in your classroom. Check out a Share My Lesson discussion toolkit.

Shake it up by making it fun. You’ve probably heard that old — and somewhat debatable — piece of advice for new teachers: “Don’t smile until December.” Well, welcome to December.

If you spent the first few months of the year perfecting routines and expectations, it may be time to “reorganize and revitalize,” says Lauren Bakian Aaker, a 4th-grade teacher at PS 110 on the Lower East Side. But there’s no reason you can’t do so creatively.

To switch up student partnerships in reading, writing and math, Aaker writes students’ names on scrap paper and then cuts the paper into puzzle pieces that interlock. “Have them find their new partners with the added mystery and excitement!” she says. Once students are paired up, she gives them the opportunity to come up with a cool secret handshake.

For students who may need some gentle reminders about class rules and expectations, Aaker suggests issuing a “challenge of the day”: Challenge students to keep the same pencil all day without losing it or to organize their workspace. Students who succeed in the day’s challenge receive a fun acknowledgment, such as a pass to wear a hat in class.

Use goals to help students take ownership of their learning. With a vacation from school on the horizon, it’s a good time for students to take stock of their learning and set goals for themselves if you aren’t already discussing individual goals in your classroom.

Mariel Posner, a 3rd-grade teacher and a model teacher at Yorkville Community School, helps her students choose learning objectives in reading by transforming the language of her teaching points into goals students can work toward. For example, she asks her students to think through what the class has worked on in the first few months of the year and choose a particular element to focus on.

Then Posner’s students use “goal logs” to keep track of their progress. Students simply fill in the date and an example of how they worked on their goal that day. When their log is full, they meet with her to discuss their progress.

“They’re excited and motivated to fill up their logs,” Posner says.

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