The Ten Minute Challenge

By Patrick Kelley, author of Teaching Smarter

The Ten Minute Challenge: What to Do When Your Lesson Ends EarlyYou take a deep breath and look out into the class of happy faces, and there it is: The clock is mocking you. You think, Did I see that right—ten minutes left of class before the bell? Oh, no! Well, it is all good, I’m sure they’ll just sit there quietly and talk, maybe even reflect on the cool lesson that I just presented. After all, time moves fast in a situation like this, and a little down time is good.

No, you don’t think that at all! You know better. You would rather be standing in line at the DMV right now—at least in that case your boss isn’t going to randomly walk in and blame you for the lack of efficiency permeating the building. She is not going to enter the room and say to herself, “So this is what happens every day in your classroom? What, you never got the memo on teaching bell to bell? Maybe I need to visit here more often to keep you in line.”

Every teacher’s nightmare.

It is certainly true that the currently prevailing school of thought is that we need to teach from bell to bell. It would be hard to contest that logic, at least from the perspective that we all want to make the best use of our time and be productive. However, I would still argue that on occasion productivity, retention, and student buy-in is best served by not planning an academic activity for every minute of the day.

How so? Well, I will never forget my favorite teacher, a bald-headed, middle-aged, potbellied man with a stained beard and flakey sports jacket, who occasionally ended his lessons ten minutes early with a random question such as: “How about them Lakers?” Now, we were all Celtics fans, and this started quite a spirited discussion with many of the guys in the room, guys that normally struggled with classroom protocol and had little interest in history on the best of days.

In fact, he, despite his lack of fashion, proper dry cleaning, or hipness, became quite well-liked with such academic-free endings. The next day, we listened a little better than we perhaps would have. We were waiting for the random act of inquiry, the unscripted part of the day that made him human and real. We did not dread his class because occasionally he was wise enough to give us a ten-minute respite from the academic all-you-can-eat buffet. Yes, he got it: It is better for your digestion to quit before your button pops off.

His class was not at all like my first job at a major burger joint, an institution that made us stand in line to punch out at exactly 5:00 p.m., not 5:01 p.m., not 4:59 p.m., but exactly 5:00 p.m. every single day. God forbid that the girl in front of you hesitated, scratched her nose, and the right number did not appear on the timecard. There would be hell to pay in burger heaven for such poor clock management. Have we not become like that as teachers? We are afraid to punch out unless the clock gives us permission.

“Sometimes in order to accomplish more, you have to do less.”

I’m not sure if that is a famous quote or not, but I like it. Sadly, the powers that be rarely subscribe to that. Now please remember my thesis. Here it is: SOMETIMES—not every time—it’s okay not to completely fill students’ plates with academic goodies.

For the purpose of buy-in, likeability, future enthusiasm, being relatable, bonding, and being human—just to name a few reasons—here is my fab five list of things to do when the lesson plan finishes before the bell:

  1. Buy a book of clean jokes, read a few of your favorites, and make sure to laugh.
  2. Read a list of “Fun Facts” that make up the crazier side of your subject matter.
  3. Invite your students to share with the class their strangest experience while on vacation, in a restaurant, shopping, riding a bus, in a movie theater, etc. They love to tell what is weird.
  4. Have every student bring in a copy of their favorite (half page or less) poem, short story, passage from a book, lyrics from a song, or lines from a famous speech, and then collect and file all of these half-page excerpts in a box. Now, when you finish ten minutes early, randomly have a student pick one out of the box. I like to have the student who brought it in read it to the class. (They love this by the way.)
  5. If you or any of your students play a musical instrument, have them/you present a mini (ten-minute) concert. I have several students so inclined, and it is awesome! Some actually played songs from the Civil War for my history class. Great bonding occurs every time, and it is fun!

Author Patrick Kelley, M.A.Patrick Kelley, M.A., has a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from California State University, San Bernardino, and a bachelor’s degree in history from Castleton State College in Vermont. He has been a classroom teacher for more than twenty-five years. He has experience as a mentor teacher and an AP coordinator as well as ten years of experience with the AVID program. He is certified in Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) and currently works with the International Baccalaureate program. Patrick provides workshops and presentations to districts, schools, and teams. Visit him at

TeachingSmarterPatrick Kelley is the author of Teaching Smarter: An Unconventional Guide to Boosting Student Success.

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1 Response to The Ten Minute Challenge

  1. Norah says:

    It is good to have something fun and productive to fill in those quiet few minutes. It pays to be well prepared.

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