What is a “Burst of Time”?
For us, a burst of time is defined by the teacher announcing, “We will have [this many] minutes to finish this specific assignment.”
Why Do Bursts Work?
There are several reasons bursts of time work well in our classroom:
- Change: they’re a deviation from the daily routine (that we work so hard to get in place). Because bursts of time are outside of the regular routine, students put out maximum effort when they’re announced.
- Habit: they occur often enough that students know how they work. On average, I might use them a couple times a week.
- Focus: students who often have trouble focusing usually double their output. Why? Some see the timed assignment as a game—and they want to win, even when they’re competing only against themselves. A burst of time can also refocus a sluggish group or class.
How to Use Short Bursts of Time:
- To begin, the teacher announces that students have a specified number of minutes in which to work. I use my stopwatch to count the minutes and seconds. That way, the students know they need to be fully engaged in the task. If I forget to use my stopwatch (or fail to let the students see the stop watch) the burst of time is less effective. Knowing the burst of time has a short and specified life span allows students to go all out.
- Use with a specific activity in this burst of time.
- Try to use them to finish up an assignment they’ve been working on, rather than start one, except when…
- Occasionally, you can use the burst to brainstorm, or possibly create story maps.
- Try them mid-class. Used sparingly, it can be an effective kick start.
Sample Bursts of Time
Following are four different bursts of time we’ve used effectively in our classroom. Note that these time bursts range from lasting a few minutes to an entire week.
#1 – Creative Writing
“Write for thirty minutes on your current story project.” During Creative Writing, it’s hard to gauge how much a student should write. Diligent students might write only a few lines when they’re thinking through what is going on the paper. A careless student might write three pages; but if they’re ineffective, I’d rather they slow down and do it right.
A Creative Writing burst of time doesn’t demand that students write a certain number of words. Ironically, by not pushing for certain expectations in a 30-minute burst,, I usually get higher quality writing—and more of it. With the pressure of having to write a certain number of words taken off their shoulders, students seem to write more.
Once we have the stories outlined, a 30-minute burst of time is our standard writing block. If we tried a longer burst, students would lose focus. Any shorter, and students are barely getting warmed up when their time limit is up. (A few students will intentionally write longer than the required time, but I don’t expect that.)
I require all of my students to tell me when they are ready to begin writing. This means they have their story ready, their pencil sharpened, and they’re ready to write. Getting a drink of water, finding their lost story manuscript, or putting away other assignments must be done ahead of time. The burst of time starts when they’re ready to begin writing.
I’ve found it essential to write down when each student starts. Yes, as teachers, we think we can remember when each student began, but in our multi-graded three-ring circus, the reality is we won’t. If a student is fifteen minutes in and asks to take a break, I write that down as well. In order for these bursts of time to be most effective, I need students to use the whole of their allotted time.
#2 – Double Social Week
Trying to get through the Social and Science curriculum is challenging every year. Our multi-graded classrooms seem to take even longer because we have to spread our focus across two or three other groups. When we fell behind in our Social class, I announced that we’d be having double Social classes so we could catch up. The extra time for Social time was taken from the Language Arts block (I rationalized that we were still reading in content areas).
I thought this was going to be a dreary, take-your-awful-medicine kind of week. Understandably students aren’t always engaged in comparing the government of Canada to that of Ancient Greece. As it turned out, however, this week-long burst was effective in four ways:
- Both the students and I recognized that we were covering the curriculum much more quickly. When I doubled the number of minutes we worked on Social, we got four times as much done. The content moved more quickly, and we made better use of our blocks of time. By day two, I was amazed that we had covered twice as much as I thought we would.
- Students told me they were more engaged. Student 1 said, “This unit is more fun now. I am learning more.” On a different day, Student 2 said, “I liked doing this better than (traditional) language.”
- Follow up is faster. During Double Social week, I can give an assignment in the morning and check the work that afternoon. The more immediate the feedback, the more students learn.
- I could give bigger assignments because we have twice as much time. It’s challenging keeping Social 4–6 busy while I work with Social 7–8 (and vice versa). When we did Double Social, I assigned more worksheets to keep them busy while I worked with the other group. Since we were doing twice as many minutes, the assignments were bigger because I knew we would have time in the afternoon to complete the portions that didn’t get done in the morning.
#3 – Last Five Minutes (the Big Burst)
We have a 45-minute block of Math first thing every morning. My students are more engaged during this block than any other during the day. So, as we’re winding down, I want them to push themselves a little harder for the last few minutes.
“Last five minutes of math; focus and work for five minutes,” I say. Even if they thought they were drained, students almost always manage to pick it up a gear. Often I’ll give suggestions to a student or group about they could finish in the five-minute burst.
#4 – Quiet Burst
When students get too loud, a quiet burst of time can be effective at lowering the volume in the room. While the class is engaged in desk-work, the noise can easily climb above the acceptable level. Early in my career, I would have singled out the loud students with some kind of verbal rebuke or punishment. But once we start down the punishment road, the discipline can tend to take centre stage over student work.
Now, I say, “It is too loud. Five minutes of working silently on your work.” Almost without exception, students take it as a game as they mute the volume and (not coincidentally) up their work output. By the end of five minutes, the loud classroom is much quieter, and students have remained on task.
Bursts of time should have built-in consequences when students break their burst. Here are a few examples:
- Billy wrote for 15 minutes (out of the 30 minutes dedicated to the Burst) and then left for a drink. His time restarted when he was back at his desk. If he doesn’t use the entire 30 minutes during the assigned block, he will need to make the time up later.
- As the five-minute math burst was coming to an end, I could see that Mary was still on the same question she was on ten minutes ago. Once I determined that Mary knew what to do, I started her five-minute burst of time from there.
- Bob spoke out of turn during the quiet burst of time. “Bob, you were talking, and I wrote you down for five minutes,” I said. When Sally spoke to her neighbour about something off task, she was written down as well. During a quiet burst of time, there’s zero tolerance for talking. Students can ask me a question related to the content, but that’s it. Those who do talk make up the five minutes later (usually after school).