About Lori H Rice

Lori Rice is a fourth-grade teacher at West Elementary in Wamego, Kansas, who has taught K-2 reading as well as kindergarten, first grade and fourth grade since 1996. She has a passion for creativity, learning, questioning and the whole child. Her classroom is a place of acceptance and celebrating differences.

I'm Done! How to Challenge Kids Who“We have noticed our child is not reading near the amount of books he read last year,” a set of parents commented at conferences.  “He still has a passion for reading and he reads at home, but we are not getting new books as often.”  This same student loves Tuesday in my classroom.  Tuesday is Vocabulary Day.  The students work on vocabulary, but being a quick worker Jay (not his real name) is usually done about 15 minutes early and can free read.  “Tuesdays are my favorite day, Ms. Rice!”  smiles Jay. “I know!” So, what has changed?  What has caused the decrease in the amount of reading Jay is doing?  It did not take much thought for me to figure it out.  Expectations…”I’m done!”

When I moved to teaching fourth grade I quickly noticed how many of my students would quickly finish assignments and projects, go get a book, and read quietly at their desk.  Don’t get me wrong.  I LOVE reading!  I am one of those people who have three books going at once.  I have a book in my car (you have to do something while waiting to pick up athletes and dancers), a book in the bedroom, and now with e-readers a book that goes everywhere with me on my phone.  SO, the funny thing is I do not allow free reading in my classroom, often.  I understand these kids.  The love for reading is so strong that it can allow you to speed through your work and then read; they have found heaven.  But it lowers the quality of the work.

“I’m done!” It is a feared utterance that teachers hear far too often from students.  In a classroom full of diversified learners, there are very few lessons that allow everyone to finish at the same time.  The best lessons and quality projects still have a finish and not everyone will arrive at that finish at the same time.  There comes a point when someone is “done.”  In my classroom, “done” is almost a dirty word.  I spend the beginning of the year with my new, eager fourth graders, explaining what quality work looks like.  We talk about, discuss, and practice self-checking for accuracy and neatness.  When you finish a worksheet or project the first thing to do is look it over and think, “Is this MY  best work?”  It takes the first nine weeks before this is done independently by the majority of the class.  Before it is independent I spend a lot of time asking, “What do you do when you finish?  Look it over and see what you can make stronger.”  Step one to the “I’m done!” declaration.

Step two is providing options when they are done.  The rule in my classroom is whatever time we have dedicated to a subject is the subject you spend time with.  SO, on Vocabulary Day Jay* is allowed to read because it is during language arts.  During all other subjects, however, there are other choices.  These choices are connected to the subject time block.  I have found this increases student effort and engagement in the activity, especially for my higher learners. Below are the ideas I use during the various subjects for students to be engaged in the subject.  There is a learning curve and students have to be taught, like all other beginning of the year expectations, what to do when they are “done.”  It is fun to see them find new interests and try new things during this time though beyond free reading.  This year my class has really gotten into Sudoku.  Last year’s class wrote elaborate creative stories.  “When one door closes, another opens,” Alexander Graham Bell.  Pushing my kids beyond free reading in their free time has opened many doors for them.

Math—I have a basket of things students should be able to do independently.  These games can be done individually, with a partner, or in small groups.  I try to rotate the items about once every other month.  Ask parents to donate games they are no longer using.  I search garage sales and used stores.  You can often find games for under $3.00 each.  Education.com has a list of board games recommended by grade level.  Provide copies of games you have played with your math unit.  iPad apps are also a great thing to practice skills.  My students’ favorite is Slice It!

Tangram puzzles


Card and dice games


Math games



Science—I have an area set up beside my sink on our counter top with books and items related to the current or past science units.  Get picture books and nonfiction books from the library.  Research and field guides are also good to include.  I have a blank journal entry form for students to draw a picture and write an observation about any items in the center.  I have magnifying glasses, tweezers, goggles, etc. for science tools.  iPad apps are also a great thing to practice skills.  My students’ favorite is Tinkerbox.




Dirt and sand

Mystery jars (Use an empty water bottle and put a solution inside for students to determine what it is.  Glue the lid on.)

Dead insects (brought in by students or often found in my garage)

Flowers (ask families to send flowers from their garden or flowers they have from bouquets they will be throwing away)

Estimation jars

Social Studies—I have a small area on our bookshelf dedicated to social studies with books and items related to the current or past units.  Get picture books and nonfiction books from the library.  Research, vacation guides, and maps are also good to include. They have to include a page number and evidence from the book.  iPad apps are also a great thing to practice skills.  My students’ favorite is Stack the States.  I have a list of questions about geography.  Students can use any book (including their own chapter books) to answer the questions:

Find examples of landforms: beach, island, peninsula, canyon, mountain, etc.

Find examples of waterways: river, lake, bay, canal, stream, ocean, etc.

Find examples of government.  Compare this government type to American Government.

Find an event from history.  Is this an actual event?  How do you know?

Writing—On our writing bulletin board, under the six-traits, I keep a list of questions and prompts.  Students can find something on the list they would like to write about.  They can also write poetry, a letter to an author, or a letter to a governmental official.  iPad apps are also a great thing to practice skills.  My students’ favorite is  Toontastic.

Describe the most interesting activity you ever did in school.  How would you do it differently now?

Describe the most challenging class or unit of study.  What do you like about it?

On a scale of 1-5, select a subject and tell how much you like it?   (1: not at all, 2: sort of/sometimes, 3: most of the time, 4: I like it, 5: I LOVE it)  Explain why you like it.

Outside of school, who do you think believes in you and supports you most? How do you know?

Tell me about something that’s been hard for you in your life.  What did you do about it?

Tell me about something you feel proud of.  Why were you proud?  Who did you share this with?

Tell me about something you love doing that has nothing to do with school.  Why is it fun or exciting for you?

What’s your favorite thing to do on the weekend? Why?

If you could have three wishes, what would they be?

Where in the United States have you visited?  What did you like about this place?

Where in the United States would you like to visit?  What would you do there?

Language Arts—This is the easy one and what prompted me to change the way I respond to the age-old comment, “I’m done!”  I have books, newspapers, magazines available in the classroom.  Students may read or listen to an audio book.  iPad apps are also a great thing to practice skills.  My students’ favorite is StoryLines.

Talking with Jay’s parents reinforced our “I’m done” method.  I have seen Jay participate in using tangrams, Sudoku, and write cartoons.  His love of reading has not been hampered and he is still reading outside of the classroom and during his very precious time on Tuesday.  It has, however, pushed him to do things he would have not experienced because he would have been reading.  Providing options does not take much time from my life and it has a payoff that is huge.  It is also an incentive to students who do not enjoy reading as much as Jay and encourages them to finish their work, check their work, and then be rewarded with something of interest.

The next time you hear the words, “I’m done!” I hope you are able to smile, ask if they have done their best, and provide students with meaningful alternatives to continue the skills you have covered in your classroom.  Implementing this method, by the end of the year my wish for you is you will not hear, “I’m done!”  I rarely do any more and it is wonderful.


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