Seven Creative Alternatives to Showing Movies Before the Break

December is one of the most exhausting months of the year for teachers. The days are shorter. The weather grows colder and (at least here in Oregon) wetter. Students are anxious — whether it’s a buzzing excitement for vacation or a sense of dread that some kids feel in homes that are unsafe during the holidays. And teachers are tired. They’re tired of redirecting behaviors and tired of the mid-year pressure of the test and simply tired of the sheer energy it takes to be a teacher.

It’s no wonder that so many teachers begin playing holiday movies around this time of year. They want to create a sense of fun and escape and enjoyment, and a motion picture promises exactly that. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s a part of creating a culture of joy.

But for me, movies always fell flat. For my first few years, I showed a movie the day before the winter break. However, within minutes, kids were disengaged. They were passive. It wasn’t special. My students could go home and watch a movie whenever they felt like it. It had me wondering . . . was there something that they could do in my class that they couldn’t do anywhere else? Was this actually the chance to do something epic and make something memorable?

Over the years, I’ve learned that kids don’t grow tired of learning. They grow tired of school. This is the chance to tap into wonder and curiosity and creativity.

With that in mind, I thought I would share a few creative ways you can spend the last few weeks before the winter break. I realize that teachers have curriculum maps and expectations, so you’ll notice that these ideas are all things that still include the standards and still require critical thinking.


#1: Genius Hour

Genius Hour (also called 20% Time) is a chance for students to engage in an inquiry-driven, independent project. They own the entire learning process, from the concept to the questions, to the research, to the project management to the ultimate final product. My friend A.J. Juliani (one of the founders of Genius Hour) wrote a guest post on the benefits of piloting Genius Hour. Genius Hour is all about student ownership, where they get to own every aspect of the learning process:

#2: Design Thinking Project

Design thinking is a flexible process for getting the most out of the creative process. It is used in the arts, in engineering, in the corporate world, at universities, and in social and civic spaces. You can use it in every subject with every age group. It works when creating digital content or when building things with duct tape and cardboard. It can even be used in planning events or in designing services.

This is the perfect time of year to test out design thinking. While other classes are watching Frosty the Snowman, your students can engage in inquiry, research, ideating, and prototyping. They will do something creative — and they’ll remember it forever. If you’re interested in trying design thinking, you can download the free Create a Sport challenge. It’s part of the Design Thinking Toolkit. You can check out the video for it below:

#3: Thematic Blogs

In keeping with the theme of student ownership, thematic blogs are blogs based on a student’s interests, passions, and ideas. It could be a foodie blog, a sports blog, a fashion blog, a science blog, or a history blog. They choose the topic and the audience. It’s a great way for students to practice writing in different genres (persuasive, functional, informational/expository, narrative) with specific blog topics they choose. They can also add multimedia components, like slideshows, pictures, videos, and audio.

Think of all the blogs out there that people actually make outside of school. That’s what you want students to create. It’s their chance to participate in the global blogging community by tapping into their own expertise and interests.

#4: Multimedia Projects

With two weeks, you could have students create documentaries. They can go through the research process, film interviews, and edit their segment of the larger class-wide documentary. Then, instead of watching a movie on the day before the break, it’s a chance to watch the film together as a group.

If you want to go shorter, consider having students create and edit podcasts. There’s less work to do on the visual side and they can capture the audio of Skype calls or YouTube On Air (though you’ll need to extract the audio from it). Maybe they would rather do narrative-style podcasts or conversational shows. That works, too.

However, I had the best luck at this time of year with whiteboard videos. Students start out by storyboarding a concept they’ve learned throughout the quarter. They then record one member of their group sketching out the ideas in an RSA Animate style with the whiteboard. Next, they speed up the whiteboard drawing, edit out any mistakes, and add an audio layer that they record in iMovie or Movie Maker. It doesn’t require a ton of technology, but it does require some creative risk-taking.

#5: Maker Projects

We’ve done two types of maker projects. The first uses design thinking to go through the entire design process. The second involves less research and planning and gets students into rapid prototyping as soon as possible. The idea here is that students make something with physical products that they are upcycling — often duct tape, cardboard, and plastic.

We’re actually doing a cool maker project right now. You can check it out below. If you’d like to receive the free maker project, fill out this form. You can also participate in the global competition.

#6: Wonder Days

This is a fun, easy way to get students engaged in non-fiction reading. I use it as a high-interest way to help students learn the research process. Students begin with the sentence stem, “I’m wondering why/what would/how/if __________” and from there they ask tons of questions. This ultimately leads to research and finally a place where they share what they learned.

For more ideas on how to bring wonder back into the classroom, check out this post. You can also download the free Wonder Day Project (just set the price to zero).

#7: Simulations

I recently wrote about how hands-on simulations can push critical thinking. You don’t need a maker space or fancy gadgets or anything like that.

They work with any subject where you are trying to get students to think about a complex, abstract idea or system. Simulations bridge the abstract and the concrete. They are fully immersive. You are moving around, physically maneuvering your environment to make sense of the information. In the process, the information sticks after a simulation. Simulations become mental models that students go back to in order to make sense out of what they have learned.

Student engagement skyrockets. Most simulations have a goal in mind and students are actively making decisions that allow them to process the information in real-time. They go beyond what Schlecty calls “strategic compliance” (high attention but low commitment) and into a place where they have full buy-in. Moreover, students at any ability level can access the information in a simulation. It is not necessarily reading-dependent or writing-dependent.

Note that simulations work best when dealing with abstract ideas and complex systems. A predator and prey version of tag can help students think about the food chain, but a simulation showing how stanzas work will tank. With students feeling antsy, these hands-on, movement-oriented simulations can provide the perfect outlet while also reinforcing concepts they have been learning in any subject.

Be Different

These last few weeks before the quarter are a chance to be different. They are an opportunity to innovate and try something new. It might not work. Mistakes are bound to happen — and that can feel daunting when you’re already exhausted. But I’ve found that piloting something new is often the very thing I get re-energized and to increase student engagement.  Ultimately, this is a chance to make something meaningful — something that your students will remember forever.

Listen to the Podcast

Just click on the audio below to listen to this Creative Classroom podcast. You can also listen to it on the go by subscribing on iTunes (ideal for iPhone users) or Google Play and Stitcher (ideal for Android users)


John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

8 responses

  1. John,

    These ideas are super helpful. My favorite is the podcast idea–which could be used for a “panel” discussion on content-related topics. I’m saving this link to my Evernote! -Todd

  2. […] meaningful, engaging, and powerful activities to do leading up to Winter Break, I highly recommend this article by John Spencer. Students are craving something engaging and meaningful to get them through these […]

  3. “But for me, movies always fell flat. For my first few years, I showed a movie the day before the winter break. However, within minutes, kids were disengaged. They were passive. It wasn’t special. My students could go home and watch a movie whenever they felt like it.” I’m a school nurse, but also a mother of three (now grown) and can very much relate to this statement. I look forward to reading more from your site. Thanks so much for this, and also for mentioning the importance of a culture of joy, which so, so many of our students (and dare I say, our staff) left behind a long time ago.

    1. I teach media arts, and two weeks is not enough to do a proper documentary video or podcast. Storytelling, film and sound editing are all 21st century skills, and should be taught as such.

      1. I taught a photojournalism class and two weeks was plenty of time for a short podcast (even a narrative style). As for a documentary, two weeks is a great primer for a whole class documentary. If they have a foundation in storytelling, they can learn the basic video editing skills in a few weeks and the end results can be pretty impressive.

        There is power in short bursts of rapid prototyping followed by a slower, more methodical project. When I taught journalism, students had to learn to do shorter blog posts that were simply write-edit-publish. They did the same thing with podcasts and videos. But we also spent an entire semester on a longer documentary.

  4. Thank you for sharing!
    I am a teacher working in swedish and international school and after school.

    Entrepreneurial process is the future and link between the artistic and innovation learning . Will bring your site to my team how we can work!

  5. […] To read some of the best solutions to this problem, check out John Spencer’s fantastic post, Seven Creative Alternatives to Showing Movies Before the Break. […]

  6. […] Seven Creative Alternatives to Showing Movies Before the Break, by John Spencer […]

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