Battling the Winter Break Brain Drain

Tuesday, December 17, 2013 -- Scott Sterling

Most districts are about to embark on a two-week, well-deserved break for both students and staff. Unfortunately, most of the students will leave their brains back at home in early January when the break is over.

It just comes with the territory that the brain loses some of its pre-break sharpness if it’s not exercised. So how do we help our students do that without being the teacher that assigned homework over Winter Break?

Get them reading

I hope that you established some sort of outside reading program earlier in the school year. If you haven’t, now is the time. The key to a successful outside reading program is a lack of structure and rules. You shouldn’t care what the kids are reading; just that they are. And because American education is becoming much more cross-curricular, even teachers of subject areas other than English/language arts can encourage their kids to read outside of school.

Keep online discussions active

Many teachers use online class message boards to facilitate dialogue between themselves and their students outside of class. Let’s face it: the kids are going to keep texting and chatting with each other during break, so they might as well do it in a way that’s enlightening and earns them some credit. Keep the topics light (it is a holiday, after all), but remind them that the boards will still be open and expectations still need to be met.

Give them a preview

Most teachers I know decide to end a substantial unit before Winter Break, so they do not have a two-week hole in the middle of crucial content. Before everyone leaves, give the kids a sneak preview of what will be happening in class once they return from the holidays. If it’s engaging enough (aren’t all of your lessons engaging?), it should keep their wheels turning during break.

Have them come up with the plan

Building off the previous idea, if you have a unit where the students have quite a bit of leeway about what they study, such as a self-directed or project-based unit, use it after break. Before you leave, preview what will be happening and let them know that their ideas on what to study will be expected of them as soon as they get back. Knowing that they will need to hit the ground running should get them exploring their options during the holidays.

Give in to the drain

Fighting the drain might be a losing battle. The best you can do is try to contain it. You do that by facilitating a short, 5-10 minute “What did you get for Christmas? What did you do?” discussion at the beginning of the return class. Let them get their verbal chatter out and you should be able to move on to real content quickly. Otherwise, you’ll have unauthorized backchannel discussions going on all day.

We want to hear from you! Share how you battle the brain drain in the comments below. And, if you're looking for strategies to keep your students learning in the chaotic weeks leading up to winter break, check out this blog on Engaging Students over the Holidays with Classroom Incentives!

Bright ideas for tech-savvy educators, right to your inbox