What to do with earlier finishers? Students may start a project all at once but each student will cross the finish line at a different time. Some students are always slow, careful, and deliberate in their work while others may be spontaneous and quick-paced in their approach. Some students do the bare minimum while others choose more complex solutions. Some students are very social and don’t realize how much their chatting impacts their productivity. So, it’s not unusual for there to be a wide expanse of time from the first student done to the last one done. 

Before we dive into all the ways you can utilize early finishers time let’s explore some strategies to mitigate the divide between the first and last finished. First, don’t wait until the last straggler is done to wrap up a project. I anticipate 50 percent of my students to complete an assignment before moving on to the next project. I explain to my student that while we will stop working on the project in class, this is not a “due” date. I usually put the due date about a week later and review options for completing outside of class time. Essentially, this becomes their homework. Some will come after school, others drop in during a study and a few may bring work home.

Strategies to slow students down

When you start a project be sure to prepare the students thoroughly for the project. For example, before you dive into still life, how might you prepare them to create good compositions? Did you study what makes a good composition? Did you require students to make thumbnails? When it comes time to shade the drawings, did you teach them about form and value? Did you practice drawing basic forms? Make value scales? All this prep work will lead to better results and a deeper understanding of what goes into making a quality piece of artwork.

I am a big fan of having students practice ideas first. If I am doing Zentangles with students, we spend time exploring patterns in their sketchbooks. Trying things out in a sketchbook first allows them to see what is working well or not, without committing to it. If I just launched students right into the project with a good sheet of paper they are bound to make mistakes that could have been prevented. This leads to wasted materials and frustrated students.  

Another strategy I employ is daily goals and/or “stop” points. Another teacher calls them “speed bumps” and yet another calls it “chunking” the assignment. All these terms refer to breaking a project into achievable steps. With still life, they might have the goal of creating a minimum of 10 thumbnails (with a mix of vertical and horizontal) from the still life from different positions in the room and different parts of the still life over two class periods. These steps are graded, often on a 5 or ten-point scale in contrast with a project being 100 points. Knowing how long they have to achieve a goal helps them pace, and no one is charging haphazardly forward. It also improves the quality of the student’s work.

Another teacher creates timelines for projects so students can pace themselves. Other teachers find success with critiques, gallery walks, and TAG (an acronym for T, tell something you like about the artwork. A, Ask a question about the artwork. G, Give a suggestion on how to improve the artwork) or other peer assessments at intervals. This helps students be reflective on their own work.

One middle school teacher shared that she shows her classes the original cartoon movie The Tortoise and The Hare. She then gives awards called Turtle awards which are given to students who worked slow, steady, and did not lose focus. She goes on to explain, “It is a great story about how you have so much talent and still come in second to someone that kept plugging away to the finish line.” She prints up little turtles that she adds to their art when hung in the hall or at the end-of-the-year art show. Art teachers can also build using time wisely and show good craftsmanship in the grading criteria or rubric. When possible, share exemplars so students understand what is expected for earning a top grade.

Strategies to speed students up

Students can lag behind for a few reasons. Some common reasons include frequent absences, distractions/poor work habits, and personality. By personality, I refer to the perfectionist type who typically displays excellent craftsmanship. They work slowly and steadily and are often, but not always, very focused (sometimes they even overfocus).

Each one of these types requires different responses. The student with frequent absences will require you to work with the guidance department or the school’s administration. They will provide more background on what is causing the attendance issues and how the school can respond. The distracted student will need their seat assignment carefully considered. They need to be away from distractions, which might include a friend or the classroom door, a window, etc. Be sure to check any IEP/504s for any required accommodations and insights for the students. Sometimes other teachers and staff (Guidance Counselors, Special Needs teachers) can provide support and suggestions to both teachers and students. Some of the same strategies used for quick finishers are as applicable to slow workers. Daily goals, breaking projects into smaller tasks, rubrics that include work habits, etc will help all students pace and become aware when they fall behind so they can take corrective actions mid-project rather than have work pile up. 

For students who display excellent craftsmanship but always take longer, I suggest exempting students from any classwork where they have shown mastery. If they didn’t complete a value scale in their sketchbook but their still life drawing shows an excellent understanding of value, you have the discretion to drop that grade. You can even adapt the size a student works so they have less area to shade or paint. Many of these students have the discipline to see a project through, however, so you may not need to take any action other than to check in with the student. I also liberally grant students extensions who show me in writing a concrete plan to complete the work. 

Once you have narrowed the window of when students complete a project, we can now tackle constructive ways to use an early finisher’s time. Stay tuned for Part II next week.

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