Weekends without school work? Is it actually possible?

This post was also published on The Paper Graders.

Yes! It IS possible to have weekends without school work.

We’re several weeks into second semester, and somehow I’ve succeeded in not having to do any school work on the weekends.

(Except for reading the books I teach. That I have still been doing on the weekends as needed. But I really don’t consider that work so much…)

This is revolutionary for me. I can’t remember a time where I didn’t have the shadow of papers to read invading every single school-year weekend.

Yes, my students are still writing and I’m still reading their writing and responding. No, things aren’t piling up. I’m keeping up with the work.

This all came about as a matter of necessity. I have a book deadline coming up, and I need to make progress week by week. I need huge chunks of time to write, and I have those blocks of the time only on the weekends.

So I had to find some way to free up my weekends for that work.

This is my 22nd year teaching. Funny how I’m still learning things that I should have figured out years ago.

Here’s what I’ve figured out:

ONE: I’m in control of when my students turn work in.

If I’m slammed with a bunch of work at once, it’s MY fault. I know that I get overwhelmed when I have more than one class worth of papers to review at any given moment, so now I work to keep this from happening.

For years, when I’ve voiced exasperation to my brother (a truth teller in my life as a sibling often is) about how much student work I have to get through, he has said, “well, who gave them the work?” HA! I would think. My students need to write and there’s no way around that.

That is true. But I ALSO have way more control over what I collect from them and when I collect it than I realized. I can control the flow of work I need to look at if I am more intentional about it.

Here’s another thing I’ve recently figured out: if I know my evening time will be compromised (like as it was last week for two nights in a row of parent/teacher conferences), I can plan to NOT collect anything from my students on those days. I’m trying to avoid the work stacking up.

If I won’t have my usual time to read and respond to their work, then I won’t collect it.

This means maybe students will take a week off from the normal routine, and they’ll appreciate that. This means maybe students will still do the work, but I won’t look at it. This is okay at times too! This means maybe students will do the work, but they’ll share it with each other instead of turning it in to me.

TWO: I can set due dates that are not only reasonable for me, but reasonable for my students.

I do not set due dates over a weekend. I won’t look at the work anyhow, so why collect it then? Whenever possible, I avoid Monday-at-school due dates too and stick to Monday evenings through Thursdays as due dates for my students to turn work in.

I also avoid 11:59pm as a deadline–why on earth would I want to encourage my students to be up working on stuff for my class at midnight? Sure, they can turn it in earlier, but remember what it was like being a teenager? Were you more likely to leave it until the last minute or turn it in early?

I can encourage healthier study habits by giving my students reasonable deadlines that don’t encourage them to be working when they should be sleeping (or weekending–they need time away from school too!).

I didn’t see a lot of this until my own kid hit high school. I have found myself annoyed when she has to turn something in by 6pm on Sunday, for instance. We might be in the middle of a Sunday evening family dinner and she dashes off to get something done. Of course she could have turned it in ahead of time, but the deadline could have been at a different time as well so that it didn’t even suggest the possibility that she might have to duck out of a family dinner to do school work.

THREE: I have narrowed down what it is that I actually look at and respond to.

My students need to write far more than I’m able to handle on my own.

It’s okay if much of the work my students do gets a quick glance from me and that’s all.

I spend my thorough feedback energy where it matters most–on the work my students will revise and keep working on so I know my feedback efforts aren’t wasted.

FOUR: I can stagger when students turn things in.

This year, I teach two sections of AP Lit, two sections of our non-AP/IB senior language arts class, and one section of journalism (I advise the school newspaper).

My senior LA students turn in a draft every week. I used to schedule their weekly drafts due on Fridays, leaving me two stacks of drafts to get through over the weekend.

Now I collect the weekly drafts on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Due to our modified block schedule, I see one of these classes on Wednesday, and the other one on Thursday. I can easily get through one class worth of weekly drafts in about an hour. So what I collect on Wednesday afternoons, I return on Wednesday evenings. What I collect on Thursday afternoons, I return on Thursday evenings. Students get their work back from me quickly, and I roll into the weekend with no weekly drafts to look at.

More staggering: my AP Lit students do timed writes every other week along with peer feedback. I make notes in the gradebook about what comes up in the peer feedback and glance over their timed writes to get a sense of how things are going, but I don’t do feedback on these.

My students do choose one timed write to revise with me, back and forth, until we decide they’ve learned what they can with it. These take me a while. When I collect two classes worth of these at once, I feel like I will never get them done.

So this semester, I made a schedule where I collected these from a third of each class last week. Another third of each class next week. And the last third of each class two weeks after that. On the days I’m collecting these, I get no more than six total (three from each class). I can handle six of these in an evening. Easy.

So far, I’m returning these to students usually the day they turn them in (or the next day). They’re getting immediate feedback. But the best thing is that I don’t feel overwhelmed.

I also advise newspaper. I use the off period I have before that class meets to read and respond to anything I need to for that particular day.

FIVE: I block out time each week for ongoing curriculum planning.

Due to our modified block schedule, I have the longest chunks of time for prep on Wednesdays–so I reserve my off-periods on Wednesdays for planning all of my curriculum for the following week.

I make my plan for the the week and post it to my Google Classroom pages. I pull together/create all the materials necessary too. This keeps me always planned ahead of time, always thinking ahead, always ready to go. And NOT having to do my lesson planning every single day–just once per week. Of course I make adjustments as I go, but this takes only bits of time. I get the bulk of the planning done once per week.

SIX: I set rules for myself and honor them. 

Curriculum planning always gets done on Wednesdays at school. If for some reason I don’t finish it at school, I must finish it that evening.

In the evenings, I respond to all student work that came in that day (now that I’ve staggered when it comes in, I can almost always accomplish this!).

I don’t collect anything on Fridays so I don’t have any work staring me down over the weekend.

I don’t do school work on Sunday evenings. My lessons for the week are already planned. I can catch up on any student work that comes in over the weekend on Monday.

SEVEN: I get serious about off-periods at school.

I aim to use my off periods as efficiently as possible.

A few moments of goal setting while I’m eating my breakfast helps. A running to-do list on a Google Keep note helps.

A screenshot of the google keep note that is my on-going to do list.

I love that I can access my Google Keep notes on my phone or my computer. Daily goals about what I want to accomplish help me to keep focused, and that makes me much better at using my off-periods at school effectively.

And if what I need to do on an off period is work through a stack of student papers, it’s okay for me to hide out somewhere in the school where people can’t find me to get this work done. I love the people I work with, and I love talking to them. Usually I can work with them nearby and get my tasks completed on my off periods.

But sometimes I need no distractions, no conversation, no on-the-fly collaboration discussions because I just have to get through some student writing. I’ll take my computer and hide out in a corner of the school library and get the work done.

EIGHT: I quit social media.

Okay, not totally. But I did delete my Facebook account last year. I deleted my Snapchat account over the holidays. And I haven’t looked at Instagram for several weeks (and I will be deleting that account soon, too).

All I have left is Twitter, which I value for the professional connections it makes possible. But I control the time I spend there.

The time I’ve gotten back because I’m not endlessly scrolling through social media feeds has helped me to keep on top of my school work during the week.

I did add the NYTimes crossword app to my life, and I enjoy distracting myself with that every day for a bit. But this is so much better for my brain than the endless scrolling that I used to find myself doing on social media.

NINE: Exercise and sleep.

I get some sort of exercise 6 days per week. Walking, running, hiking, or yoga. I plan ahead and work my plan. Exercise helps my mood and my thinking. I’m a better human when I make the time to exercise.

I’m a night owl and love staying up into the wee hours but it doesn’t work well with how early I have to get up on school days. So I need to get myself to bed sometime between 10 and 11.

This means there are times I don’t get all the student writing read and responded to, but that’s when I get super focused on my off periods the next day to get the work done.

A typical Mon-Thurs afternoon/evening for me is home by 4ish, exercise and dinner done by 6/7ish, family homework time by 7ish (my husband is also a teacher and, as indicated earlier, my daughter is in high school. We all have homework pretty much every day).

If my school work is done before I need to go to bed, I’ll read a book–or write something. Without being able to waste time on social media because I’m not on social media anymore, I’ve found I actually have more pockets of such time on my week night evenings. I mean look at me, I’m writing a blog post on a Wednesday!) (and I’ve already read 12 books for 2019…)

TEN: Be kind to myself when things don’t go as planned.

Things come up. Life feels out of my control. Time slips away that I thought I was going to have. I just have to make a new plan and stay focused on getting it done.

ELEVEN: Be kind to my students when things don’t go as planned for them as well.

I work with students when life comes up and they need more time. I frequently negotiate extended due dates with individuals as needed.

I want students to feel like they have the time to do their best work. I want to help them think ahead and manage their time responsibly. I want to offer them a bit of grace when life throws curve balls at them (just as I’ve appreciated this kind of grace from others in my life).

Yes, there are times when the due date is really important for some bigger reason, but most of the time, I can be flexible.

I’m honest with my students about why and how it helps ME to manage my time and workload and life when they hit my due dates, and most of them do hit my due dates most of the time.

When they see me working hard to get their writing back to them in a timely manner, they work hard to get it to me on time (and talk to me when they can’t).

It also helps to work with colleagues who are good at setting boundaries around their school lives. Jay, for instance, is working on his second album as a singer-songwriter. He has very healthy boundaries around his school work so he has time to do that other important work. For years he’s been encouraging me to not do so much work at home–I mean they don’t actually pay us for the work we do on the weekends, right?

With some careful planning and setting some clear rules about my school work this semester, I’ve managed to (so far) leave school at school on the weekends. I’m hoping I can keep this up.

What are your tricks to manage your school work so it doesn’t take over your life?

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