Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Rethinking Morning Work

The days of being an elementary school student, walking into class in the morning, completing a worksheet silently, and pulling out a book to read when you're done are over.

Wait. No they're not.

This age old practice continues in classrooms across the country and I am curious as to why. Teachers (including yours truly) have expressed frustration as a teacher with this routine:

- Students who always do their work complete it quickly and find it easy. Those who need practice the most either don't do it or can't do it.
- Students who come in late are either rushing to finish morning work or don't have time to do it.
- Even though students complete the work, you don't have time to review it.
- Students are talking to each other or are distracting each other when it is supposed to be quiet.
- The routine of morning work is boring and does not increase rigor since it's frequently comprehension or knowledge based problems.
- If you photocopy morning work you're battling for copy machine space. If you have a problem on the board, kids are finding gum-wrapper sized pieces of paper that they're solving the problems on.

.... and so on.

What if we were to rethink our mornings? What if mornings were a time where students were excited to come into class? What if students were doing activities that involved collaboration, strategy, creativity, rigor, problem-solving, critical thinking, or addressing various learning styles?

I first saw the idea of "Morning Choice" floating around on social media, but then saw it implemented in a basic version in one of my student teacher's classrooms last fall. Naturally, I was curious what it would look like in a true, full blown fashion!

I employed one of my former students at Wake Forest, now a first year teacher in Atlanta, to test this out. Here is her story:

When I first introduced the idea of Morning Choice to my class, the students’ faces lit up with excitement. The thought of coming into school and having the opportunity to work with their peers while doing something enjoyable was incredible to them. The thought of not having to come in silently, unpack, and be forced to complete a worksheet was a dream and unlike anything they had ever experienced! But, first thing’s first – clear expectations had to be established for this new morning routine to be successful!
I explained to my students that the goal of Morning Choice would be to provide them with alternative morning “work” that would promote critical 21st century skills, such as teamwork and collaboration. Ideally, after a few weeks of mastering the routine, they would be able to come in and choose a choice to go to independently each day. However, to start it off, they would be assigned to a choice each week until the routine and expectations were mastered. I gave my students the opportunity to complete a survey and rank their preferable choices. Then, I created a master schedule based on these preferences each week that listed the choices and which students were assigned to that specific choice. This was posted on the board and the choices were labeled around the room, making it very clear to each student where they were supposed to go and who they were working with for the week. At the elementary school I teach at, there is a five minute countdown until the announcements are on and the day officially begins. My students know that their choice station has to be cleaned up and they must be seated and ready to go by the time the countdown reaches zero and the announcements begin.
What if a student fails to meet the expectations or is not on task during Morning Choice? Well, in this class discussion, I also allowed the students to communicate and decide on consequences. By allowing the students to devise the consequences, I felt that they would be more likely to take ownership of their actions. The consequences my class agreed upon for being off task was eliminating the choice for the next morning and silently reading at their desk.
With the expectations set and the consequences established, Morning Choice was ready to go! I have 24 students in my classroom with six different “choice” options. These options provide for the students to demonstrate independent critical thinking skills, collaboration, artistic expression, communication, leadership, and problem solving. With only four students per group, it eliminates chaos and provides an opportunity for all students to work together and foster relationships with one another in a small group setting. The groups change weekly, as the student locations at each choice also change weekly. This provides for variation and allows students to constantly be working with different classmates. Additionally, all groups can function with one person at a time, so when the other students arrive they can join right in and the first person is not dependent upon the arrival of their classmates.
Here’s a look at the choices in my classroom:
Choice 1 – Artistic Expression. The students have the option to paint, draw, or color at this choice. Students will have the entire week to complete their creation, or two. At the end of the week, their artwork is framed and hung up on a wall in our classroom, giving the students a sense of ownership of their learning space and they are proud that everyone who enters the classroom gets to observe their success!
Choice 2 – Problem Solving. There are a variety of different problem solving activities at this choice for students to choose from and can be completed independently or together. These activities include, Balance Beans, Amaze, and Jigsaw puzzles. All activities encourage students to challenge themselves and use critical thinking skills to complete a task or create a design.    
Choice 3 – Computer Time. As students are assigned this choice, they enhance their math fluency skills by supporting our school wide program – FirstInMath. Within this program, students compete against one another in the class, in the grade level, in the school, and in the district with different math fluency games and problem solving activities. For each grade level, there is a “Player of the Week” and a “Team of the Week.” Students are motivated to come in and get to work to win for our grade level and help our classroom be the team of the week!


Choice 4 – Collaboration. At this choice, students use Legos to design and build different structures. Students can either create their own or look at a task card and complete the task to the best of their ability. Sometimes students will also challenge each other and race to see who can be the first to successfully complete the task.  The students are very excited about this station and often want me to photograph what they have created!
Choice 5 – Leadership. One goal I had for my students this year, as they are in their final year of elementary school, is to feel a sense of leadership. They are the oldest students in the building and I strive for the rest of the students, faculty, and staff to view them as leaders as well. One way this has been achieved is by teaming up with a kindergarten classroom to have some of my students review sight words with them or read them stories in the morning. Not only does this help the kindergartners grow and learn, but my students are challenged with devising creative ways to help them reach their success! They love having the younger classes look up to them and wave at them in the hallways as we pass by!
Choice 6 – Game Time.  This choice promotes good old fashioned fun and team work by playing games with one another. There is an independent game for the first student that arrives. However, once more classmates arrive, students will engage in games such as Headbanz, Guess Who, and Trouble - all games in which critical thinking and problem solving are required for winning.
Overall, Morning Choice has drastically transformed the culture and classroom atmosphere early in the morning to start the day! Students rush to unpack their things so they can get to their choice for the morning. They appreciate beginning their day completing a task they enjoy without the stress of having to ensure they complete a worksheet or something that will count as a grade. From a teacher’s perspective, it is a much more enjoyable start to the day to have students come in and working together. It provides for much opportunity to build relationships with the students, communicate with them, and help them work on skills that are essential in the 21st century.  This positive classroom environment early in the morning sets the stage for a successful rest of the day! 
Thank you to Ms. Siragusa and her 5th grade class for sharing her Morning Choice!

For more ideas for your classroom, check out my book Inside the Trenches! You can also follow Adam on Twitter and Instagram @adamdovico.

New pictures from Ms. Siragusa's classroom during Morning Choice! (It was mustache day, so don't be alarmed, they're still regular 5th graders!)



  1. I would love ideas as to how to use this idea in a middle school reading and/or ELA classroom.

    1. For middle school classrooms, I think it would depend on the structure of the schedule. Since many middle schools operate on periods, there may not be that "morning" time that elementary schools typically have. However, with all that being said, there may be opportunity within the middle school reading/ELA classroom to explore centers that connect the standards or content you're working on to communicative and collaborative type activities as done in the Morning Choice.

  2. I love this idea. I love the good old fashion board games because it teaches children to communicate with each other, take turns and work together. The students sometimes play board games in my room and I see impulsive students learning how to wait for their turn and learn skills on how to problem solve and get along better with each other. I would love to see play doh at a station with other art stuff. The students really enjoy this and I have noticed that they work out anxiety, stress, and frustrations through playing with the play doh. I know we have students who get off the bus frustrated and upset first thing in the morning.

  3. I'm in the middle school. If you check out and search learning stations on "teachers pay teachers", there are thousands of ideas.
    Read it, write it, draw it, explore it, research it, watch it, build it, and assess it are my stations set up now.
    At the bell, set an 8 minute timer.
    My warm up review slides have been moved to "exit ticket" and "Friday quiz" status now.

  4. Thanks for sharing! Great ideas to empower and engage students! Worksheets are not motivating.

  5. I love this idea, but middle school is so constricted by time restraints. I did something similar to this when I was in public school, but I have found out the hard way that teaching time in a private school is not protected. It is so hard to get in the important things when you are given 20 minutes because the headmaster would not stop talking in chapel. I don't understand why they don't consider curriculum to be more important than PR.

  6. I really do like this article. We only have about 20 minutes from when students are allowed in the room until class time starts so my concern would be clean up time from any centers we do.

    1. Let them work for 15 minutes and have a 5 minute clean up time. Reward the first group to clean up correctly. Also, put things in the stations that are easily cleaned up.

  7. Love this idea! I can see the students getting a lot out of the morning work this way! It would also be a great way to fit in games and activities that we otherwise don't have time to do!

  8. When I taught in elementary school we called it "Settling In Time" The kids came in, put up their stuff, pulled their name card and put it in the pocket chart (instant attendance) and then got to work: we had a morning message written on chart paper. They would read the message (or ask friend to help read the message.) The message always instructed them to do 2 things - the first might be to take a survey by asking 10 people in class about their favorite color, and then 'make a chart or picture to show their answers'. The second thing might be to say, "good morning! How are you?" to 6 people in class. The Friday work was always just 1 - finish the work in their unfinished work folder. The kids were up moving around the whole time, but working and collaborating. Productive noise. This gave me a chance to observe or talk 1 on 1 with kids who needed it. After settling in time was over, we gathered for circle time and read the message together, and talked about the work we'd just done. I'd never heard of morning work that is all silent!

  9. Love this! Can't wait to implement in my own classroom! Sounds so much better than the usual struggle to get activities/tasks completed.

  10. "Read it, write it, draw it, explore it, research it, watch it, build it, and assess it" Love this! And I'd add on - whatever you choose it should be done with a partner or two or four - Collaborate

  11. Do you assess this in any way or is it just to get them going? What would you do for that student who is always tardy?

    1. No assessment. Just an opportunity to explore creativity, build collaborative skills, etc. While it is unfortunate if a hold is tardy and misses Morning Choice, as the teacher you don't have to worry about making it up later. There's a chance that it might even encourage tardy students to get to school earlier?

  12. Suggestions of how to make this concept work in a kindergarten classroom?

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