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A Simple Solution to the 'Do Now Dilemma'

Figure 8.1.JPGI think everyone agrees that the opening of class is very important. A strong opening routine sets the tone for the classroom, distinct from the hallway, and from wherever students were before (lunch room, another classroom, school bus, assembly, etc.). During this time students switch gears and enter, physically and mentally, our learning space. 

It's common to begin class with a "Do Now" or "Warm Up" activity. These activities are designed to be quick exercises students can do on their own, without much instruction or assistance from the teacher. This time allows students to get organized and activate their thinking around the work of the class, especially in middle and high school, where students travel from one subject to the next. Teachers have a chance to handle administrative tasks like attendance, check or collect homework, and check in with students who were absent. For travelling teachers, setting up the board and materials may have to happen at the start of class. 

There are two dilemmas I have around the Do Now; the first is about silence, and the second is about time. I've found one simple solution for both issues: reading.

The Issue of Noise Level

It's fairly common for teachers and schools to ask students to be silent during these opening routines.  I've taught in schools where silent entry to class was required and others where it wasn't, and I see benefits and drawbacks to both scenarios.

The benefit of practicing a silent "Do Now" is that students cannot bring the conversations and drama of the hallway or social media into class. The routine demands that they focus on the work right away, and no one has to sort through the gray area of whether their chatter is productive or distracting.  A hard line is drawn; there are fewer distractions for students, and the teacher can be more efficient with administrative tasks and more helpful to students who need it.

The drawback to a silent entry and do now is that it's natural to greet and chat with people around you when you enter a space. Adults do that when we enter a meeting, for example. It's unnatural, especially for children, to ignore everyone around us and be silent. Teachers become enforcers of a somewhat bizarre and controlling atmosphere that can often veer toward the negative. For example, students often want to ask classmates for help with the exercise, but in order to maintain silence, we have to prohibit their collaboration—or else head down a slippery slope of making exceptions to a rule.

[Solution coming at the end of the post]

The Issue of Time

The Do Now is meant to be a quick lead-in to the day, but often runs much longer, foiling other, more important plans. Intended to be a quick practice of something already taught or a way of activating students' prior knowledge on the topic of the day, the Do Now supposedly doesn't require much instruction or facilitation by the teacher. That is supposed to wait until the actual lesson. However, when we invite students to share their answers aloud and discuss them, the whole process often takes 15 to 20 minutes. If you only have, say, 50 minutes total, this starts to eat up too much of the class period.

The teacher can arbitrarily cut off the warm up activity without much discussion or review, but that often feels like a poor choice when students have real questions and comments about the material.

The problem is that the pedagogy gets muddled. The teacher has put time and thought into planning an engaging and important lesson, but the "five-minute" Do Now activity takes most of the class period, and the rest of the lesson plan gets short shrift. A good number of students didn't need the review in the first place, though, and they may tune out after confidently completing the exercise in the first three minutes of class. I have observed this in my own and other classrooms more times than I can possibly count.

Simple Solution

My favorite solution to the Do Now dilemma is to have students begin class doing something extremely valuable, where silence is actually the natural state: independent reading. In my classroom, students generally enter the room, say hello to one another, take out materials, and within a minute, are silently reading. I allow them to stay in their assigned seat, or find a comfortable spot elsewhere in the room (just not in someone else's seat). Sometimes, they are reading their copy of the novel that the whole class is reading (#wholenovels) and other times they read a book of their choice. Sometimes I put out copies of Upfront Magazine (I always try to have a subscription to this great NY Times resource for kids), or other articles I think might interest students, depending on what else we are doing in class. I generally end the reading time after 10 minutes, but can be flexible depending on what else we have on the agenda. 

I love the reading do now, besides of the natural gift of silence it gives, and the way students come to look forward to the protected reading time. It also means that I don't need to begin the day's lesson with an arbitrary activity that may or may not be simple for students to do independently. I can begin the lesson however I think will serve the students and the goal best.

The only issue with the reading do now is that students often don't want to stop; but I think that's a great problem to have.

Stay tuned for a post on how the reading do now can look across content areas. 

For more on how to encourage authentic reading in class, check out this post, When Real Reading Isn't Happening...Four Ways To Respond

[Photo taken with permission for the book, Whole Novels For the Whole Class

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