#54U: Unfinished Work

Managing all those pieces of work students didn’t complete, didn’t hand in, or that got lost in my classroom was one of my biggest stressors as a new teacher. With more than 30 students in my class, seven subjects, and five days of work a week, there is inevitably a lot of “stuff” to manage – both for teachers and for students. Over the years I developed a few easy systems that helped reduce stress for me, and my students. Here are my top five strategies for managing unfinished work.

1.Why Is Work Not Being Completed?

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Are your instructions and expectations clear. Do students understand the assignment and have clear deadlines? Provide your students with an age-appropriate written copy of the assignment and how you will assess their work. Go over it verbally, and check in personally with students you know will need extra help.

Reconsider the overall workload. Are there assignments you could be shortening, or removing all together? Are you giving students enough time both in class and at home to complete work? I always tried to make sure that students had both weeknight and weekend time to complete assignments. That way families can decide for themselves what works best for them.

Remember, you don’t need to collect or grade everything students do in your class! At the heart of differentiation is the idea that not all students need to do exactly the same assignments. An easy way to do this is to work with individual students to help them prioritize what work, and how much work, they need to complete in order to meet their learning needs.

How are you supporting individual students that struggle?

I tried my best to include strategies for differentiation in all my lesson plans – thinking about content, process, and product. One strategy I used was to have regular lessons about different kinds of graphic organizers, and explicitly teach how to choose the best one for a task and how to use them. Graphic organizers are great for everyone, not just students that are struggling! For students who struggled I would often focus on assessing content knowledge by only assessing the ideas in the graphic organizer.

2. Teach Time Management Skills

You can download these documents in PDF below.

A Three Part Agenda of Today, Work To Be Finished and Due Dates helps students see the big picture. I dedicated a large white board to the Three Part Agenda (I think I just dated myself there!), and students also had a copy they would update as they completed tasks. We would start every day by reviewing each part, and I would do an informal check-in to see how things were going and if I needed to adapt due dates.

As they year progressed I would introduce different systems for keeping track of assignments, including things like using a paper agenda, digital programs like google calendar, and homework apps. I encouraged students to try out different systems to see what worked for them, and then to share back with the class any new strategies they found worked for them.

A Planning Guide is great for any sort of longer assignment. At the start of the year I would provide a complete Planning Guide, and students just needed to check off as they finished the task, but as the year progressed I would give students more responsibility for making their own plans for how to break up a large assignment and setting their own goals (while making sure I supported those students who still needed it).

3. Set Up Systems

Washing bins were one of my favorite organizers!

TBF is short for To Be Finished. We started each morning with half an hour of TBF time to work on things we had already started, and also had other periods dedicated to TBF. Students had the choice of what they wanted to work on, and usually had free choice of where to work as well – including quietly in the hallway. I would use this time to check-in with students, and read Asking For Help Tickets, and meet with students as requested (more on that later).

Asking for Help Tickets serve multiple purposes. I primarily used them as a way to encourage students to feel comfortable and take responsibility for asking for help with anything from requesting a new place to sit in the classroom, understanding a science concept, or needing time to clean their desk. It was also an important tool for me to make sure I didn’t miss things. And finally, asking students to list what they have already tried was a positive encouragement for students to be independent.

I also used a Turn In Spot (a washing bin) with Student Numbers so students knew where to hand things in – and I would know where to look! Students could volunteer to help me sort through the Turn In Spot during TBF time by sorting different subjects into piles, and then putting each pile in numerical order, so I could easily see what was missing. Then they could quietly go to each student and ask them if they had assignment X to hand in.

4. Model Completing Your Work, and What To Do When You Can’t

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This is a more complicated strategy. One of the things I did when we reviewed the Agenda was think out loud about my own planning. So sometimes I would say things like “I just realized that I have the Learning Letters due on Tuesday, but I am out Tuesday night so won’t be able to finish correcting them. Why don’t we make them due on Wednesday instead”. Or, and this is the important part, I would say “I’ve fallen behind on my planning so I think we will do a double period of science tomorrow to give me time to plan the next steps in our Inquiry, is that ok with everyone, or do you have another idea?”

As the year progressed students would often have ideas about what we could do instead. And they would start to use this kind of thinking in their own planning. For example, a student might hand in an Asking for Help ticket that said “I had hockey three nights this week, so I didn’t get my Learning Letter done, but I did finish my Math. I’ll work on the Learning Letter on the weekend and have it done by Tuesday.” And my answer would be “cool! Thanks for letting me know”.

5. Be Generous!

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Finally, and I can’t stress this one enough. Be generous. Both to yourself, and your students. Our world is busy and stressful. We often know very little about what is happening in our students’ home lives – maybe they are over scheduled, there is family illness, or there is no quiet place for them to work. Too many children live with food insecurity and family violence. Thinking about homework needs to be low on their priority list for these children. There are so many important reasons why students don’t complete work.

Once I decided to always take a generous approach in my own heart, it made all those pieces of missing work so much less stressful for me, and for my students. And usually we managed to work something out so that students did the work they needed to do to learn what they needed to learn, and I got what I needed to be able assess for learning and of learning.

I hope these strategies help you deal with missing work with your own students. If you decide to use any of them I’d appreciate it if you’d post it on social media and tag me at @kitesintheclassroom on Instagram and @classroomkites on Twitter.

#54U: On Motivation

Children naturally love to learn. And yet, as many teachers see in their own classroom, and studies reveal, student motivation to learn tend to decline over time. So what can educators do to help the children in our care succeed? As we all know, a great teacher can make learning fun and inspire students to reach their full potential. Here are five easy ways you can start motivating in your classroom.

1. Create a Safe Space

Get to know your students and let them know you. With the increasingly loaded curriculum, pressure from testing, and a sense of “lost time” from last year, it may seem like spending time getting you know your students is keeping you from getting to the “real work”, but, as every

Allow children a say in what their classroom or space looks like, where they choose to learn and play, and what the classroom routines will be. When I was teaching we took the time to reorganize our classroom on a regular basis. When I trusted them, students thought carefully about what kind of space we needed to support the kind of learning we were doing at that moment, who they wanted to work with, or if they preferred to work alone. And they trusted me to listen to them.

Another important part of building a space where everyone feels safe, is making the effort to make sure everyone understands and has a role to play in your community. This is a powerful way of cultivating a sense of competency and cooperation between students, and helps set the stage for powerful peer learning.  

2. Cultivate a Growth Mindset

Be yourself – someone who has strengths and areas to grow. Make mistakes a regular part of learning, and help your students understand how to move on from a mistake. Provide space for students’ strengths to shine and be recognized by the community.  I had students be my artist whenever I needed something drawn on the whiteboard, one was assigned to discretely let me know when I had marker on my face (a common occurrence), and another remembered my keys for me.

from https://fabulousinfirst.com/2014/09/linking-up-late.html

We always started the year by reading the book “The Dot” by Peter H. Reynolds. After reading it we would make a list of strengths, talents and personal attributes we had in the classroom – everyone was recognized for something that made a difference in our community. We would hang this on the wall, and add to it when new strengths and abilities became visible. This is a great resource similar to what I did. There is even an International Dot Day to help you plan!

3. Follow Your Students

They will tell you what they want to learn – even if it is only by telling you what they don’t want to learn. Offer choices in what to learn, how to learn and how to demonstrate their learning.  Better yet, develop the choices with your students. #GeniusHour and #PassionBasedLearning are two ways you can do this, but there are many approaches. These practices develop a sense of competency and give students a sense of control in their learning, which is sure to be motivating.

Don’t buy into the notion of a separation between playing and learning! 

Older students can benefit from play in the classroom, too. “Play is a strategy for learning at any age… while older students and their teachers might have more curricular demands than younger students, playful learning still has an important role to play — it might just look different.

Mara Krechvesky and Ben Mardell

Try to plan activities that inspire a sense of ownership, curiosity, and enjoyment in your students.

4. Provide Feedback That Helps the Learner Move Forward

Understand the difference between Assessment for Learning and Assessment of Learning, and use them appropriately. Use grades sparingly, and never as a carrot and hammer. John Hattie reminds us that “Feedback provides information about how and why students understand, and what the students need to do next to succeed”. Learn more about how to use assessment effectively in student-centered, project-based learning settings (look for a future post on this!)  Rubrics, conferencing, and Reflection will likely be your friend! Always ask yourself if the feedback you are about to give will motivate the student to try again, or make them feel defeated and incapable.

5. Incorporate Reflection

Teresa and Christ Hulleman suggest “instead of imposing reasons for valuing learning on students, educators can help them make their own connections between their lives and what they are learning”. Building in time for reflection is an important part of this. They have created a resource called “Build Connections” to help students learn how to reflect on the links between what they find of interest and importance in their lives, and what they are learning.

Self-reflection in learning means examining the way an individual learns. It implies that without thinking deeply about how we learn, we can never gain the insight necessary to correct poor habits and affirm good ones. This cognitive process of self-reflection therefore not only helps students improve learning outcomes, but fosters self-regulated learning, a cyclical process that involves planning to complete an academic task; using strategies to monitor progress; evaluating the outcome; and using that knowledge to guide future tasks.

Janet Mizrahi

Reflection should not only be part of your student’s daily learning, but also your own practice. I believe reflection is one of the most powerful learning tools we can use, and will be talking more about how to use Reflective Writing for both students and your own practice in future posts, so stay tuned.

As a start, think about the following questions regarding strategies you use to address student motivation:

  • Which of these strategies  to motivate your students do you already use very well in your practice? Why?
  • Which of these strategies would you like to start incorporating? Why?
  • Which of these strategies do you think would be difficult in your circumstances? Why?


Hattie, J & Clarke S. (2019). Visible Learning Feedback. London. Routledge: Taylor & Francis.

Gärdenfors, P. (2011, October 11). How to Motivate Students? . Retrieved from https://youtu.be/blWcbY5qA58

Hulleman, C. & Hulleman T. (2018, January 10). An important piece of the student motivation puzzle. FutureEd. Retrieved September 13, 2021 from https://www.future-ed.org/reversing-the-decline-in-student-motivation/

Mizrahi, J. (2020, May 14). The importance of self-reflection in learning . Today’s Learner. Retrieved September 13, 2021, from https://todayslearner.cengage.com/the-importance-of-self-reflection-in-learning/.

Reynolds, P.H. (2014). The Dot. Somerville: Candlewick Press.

Tatter, G. (2019, March 11). Playing to learn. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved September 13, 2021, from https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/19/03/playing-learn.

Yarborough, C. B., & Fedesco, H. N. (2020). Motivating students. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved [September 12, 2021] from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu//cft/guides-sub-pages/motivating-students/.