George Lucas Educational Foundation

"I'm Done": Meaningful Work for Classroom Downtime

"I'm Done": Meaningful Work for Classroom Downtime

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Want to get those pesky little quick finishers off your tail? You veteran teachers know what I’m talking about. The kids who finish first and need to tell you they’re finished.

“I’m done.”

Those two words bring chills to my spine every time I hear them. Sometimes I just want to say….

“Do you want me to stick a fork in you?” Or “Give it up, high-five!” Maybe even…  “Did you flush?” Things I would love to say, but would probably get me in trouble. So, I’ve devised a plan to never hear those words again and to never be tempted to respond in such an honest, but unprofessional manner.

“I’m done.”

In the 1984 blockbuster, The Karate Kid, Daniel’s first encounter with Mr. Miyagi was quite amusing. Daniel finds Mr. M (The handyman) trying to catch a fly with chopsticks. He asks him to fix the faucet. Mr. M. responds, “Aye.”  Then Daniel asks, “When?”  “Afta’,” Mr. M. responds. “After what?” Daniels continues his pestering questions. And to his shock, Mr. Miyagi shoots out, “Afta’ Afta’!” Yes, the name of this idea spawns from The Karate Kid. Sue me. Here’s the clip if you want to see it.

This is not brain surgery and I’m pretty sure most of you already have a really cool system in place for kids that finish work early. Please share in the comment section. I guess what I wanted to accomplish with The Afta’ Afta’ was an easy system that required little/no paperwork (Friends Don’t Let Friends Make Worksheets) and gave students a choice.

The Afta’ Afta’

Done? Do this.

Check unfinished folder/projects for unfinished work

All work finished? Cool, now you can…

Write More

(Students can continue with works in progress)


Read More

(Continue books in progress- independent reading/reading workshop)


Sketch (All of my kids get a sketch book)

When I was in elementary school, drawing was for indoor recess or after school.  It seemed like we had to engage in the serious stuff of school (reading, writing, math) before we could draw. Of course that is just silly because imaging is a huge part of comprehension and learning. I value drawing  in my classroom by not only allowing my students to sketch during school hours, but also using the sketchbook for many lessons throughout the year.


Depending on my class, I might make an Afta’ Afta’ schedule.  I started a schedule a couple years ago because I wanted some variety. I didn’t want the kids to always gravitate towards one area during the Afta’ Afta’.

Monday: Writing/Reading

Tuesday: Reading/Writing

Wednesday: Sketching/Reading/Writing

Thursday: Reading/Writing

Friday: Sketching/Reading/Writing

The Afta’ Afta’ is also a very good meaningful go-to for unexpected/expected wait times.  I often use The Afta’ Afta’ when the class is using the bathroom after lunch.  As soon as my students return from lunch, they immediately transition into The Afta’ Afta’. They know once the sound settles; I will begin to call tables for the bathroom.

You can also use it when you’re waiting for….

  • Assembly
  • Visitor
  • Party
  • Bus

This time is also a good time to meet with kids individually to make up a test, extra help, or maybe discuss a behavior issue.

Do you have a worksheet-less system for Math? Any quiet single player games?

Please share.

"I'm done."

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Great thoughts. "He cut!" are two words which also make me cringe!

I taught my students when writing to say "I'm ready for the next step." Especially for those kiddos who want to be one and done. One word, one sentence or one short paragraph. I also teach them to be reflective when doing all their work- did I give my best effort? Have I R2D2'd my work? R2D2 = Read it twice, do it twice. Basically have I checked my work.

For other times I have the "What to do List" pocket chart. When they forget about the chart and ask me what to do, I silently point to the chart. For instance, the What to Do List may have items in this order: 1. finish draft of poem 2. Plant log measurement 3. Fix-n-Finish folder 4. DEAR. I rearrange, add and remove items on this list to keep it fresh. One side of the Fix-n-Finish folder is labeled "Must be Done" and the other is "Can be Done". All students have enrichment tasks/projects in their "Can be Done" side. Items in the must be done side need to be complete before moving on to the can be done. Must be done items are make up work or items not finished in the time allowed. I love the sketch book idea.

There are those quick finishers that are ALWAYS caught up and never absent- for them have them pick a topic and we create some sort of mini-project they can do in all that spare time. Sometimes the project will be a continuation of a unit and sometimes it is just one of their hobbies or topic they want to know more about.

When I have a quick finisher I always ask myself: Have I set the bar high enough on the content? Does the student have other areas of need? For instance I have had several extremely talented mathematicians in the last few years. I ask them how they did the problem and they shrug- the answer just magically appeared of course. A majority of those kids have had social/communication difficulties. So as a result, instead of the what to do list, I get them to either write about their math work/process, or have them learn how to communicate better by supporting other students who need help. This is a win for everyone- the early finisher gets to share their knowledge and learn how to communicate better. The students in need get support from their peers. It only serves to strengthen the community. I also work to get the slow finishers time to support other students in a similar way so it isn't just the quick finishers who get that social/communication piece. Kids as teachers is a key element in my room for SO MANY REASONS.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.


You basically wrote a part 2 to my post. Amazing work, brutha'. I'm already drawing my R2D2 for the classroom. Is that your idea? I want to make sure Credit is awarded.

Setting the bar higher is always on my mind, then I say to myself..." They've finished what was expected or there's some extra time...let them choose and go with it" I've had kids devour books during their AA time. It's time they don't get a home. Or write in the genre of their choice...drawing? I've discovered artists in my classroom just because they had the time to do it.

I also allow kids to collaborate on writing/art during the AA, which is a really cool thing to see. The writer and the illustrator working together. It's the freedom I never had in school. Kids are happy.

Thanks for the comment.


Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

Great resources, you two. I'll be saving this to share with elementary teachers I know who might be struggling with this.

M Shafer's picture
M Shafer
Third grade teacher in the Midwest

Great ideas. With first graders, choosing wisely and staying on task is an acquired skill. Reading is always an option, with the featured books changed out every week or so. Once our writing skills can handle it, writing notes to friends and parents is a choice. I have a file of activity sheets (not worksheets but activity prompts) to use as "anchor activities," as well as math and phonics activities and games we have used in class that kids can choose to return to. One of their favorites last year were puzzles made from cut-apart 100's charts. (Thank you Pinterest.) For the independent bright kids I provide individual folders with puzzles sheets and writing projects tailored to their interests. The challenge is always to make the activities interesting and worthwhile and make sure everyone gets a chance sometimes so they don't rush through assignments to get to the fun stuff.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

My students love their 100's chart puzzles. I include math games in my What to Do List as well. I really like the writing notes to friends or parents idea- I'll have to add that to the mix. I agree making sure everyone gets a chance is important.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Since I teach English all day, I can't help with your math "I'm done-ers," but I can definitely relate to kids claiming to be "done" when they have written just one draft and figure that's it - they're done. It's an ongoing challenge to get kids to stick to a piece of writing beyond that initial draft: have they reread it? have they looked for ways to revise/improve it? have they asked a peer for feedback? have they done anything with that feedback? have they read my comments on it and tried to use my feedback to improve the piece?

I need a poster of suggestions for when they think they're done with a piece of writing...

Swms's picture

I teach middle school language arts, and students are often finishing at different paces. I have a collection of interesting, weird, unusual photographs found on the Internet. I'll project a couple of the photos and let the kids pick one of them to use as inspiration. They LOVE this and don't seem to get tired of it; they beg for chances to finish their stories and for the chance to share them with their friends. I find most of the photos I use on Pinterest which provides me with an easy way to store them to access quickly and easily at school.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Swms, I love the picture idea. Can you explain a bit more about how you project the images. Specifically, I'm wondering how the students who are not done react when the "done" students move onto the image work. Do you feel it motivates the not done students to work faster? Good idea using Pinterest as a image management tool- I never thought of using it for that purpose really.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

I've done something similar, except I have a few buckets of laminated photos available for writing inspiration. I've collected photos from old calendars, magazines and even my family's own collection of travel photography. Students can grab the bucket, sort through it and choose a photo to use as a writing prompt.

The comment from Swms just gave me an idea, John, for how to manage this so that students aren't distracted by images projected for just a few early-finishers. I don't know if this is available to students as young as yours, but I could see creating a Google Slide (Presentation) of images found online, and then sharing it with my students so they can access it on their own. That way they could use it for writing inspiration without distracting other students. They could also submit photos that they find (or take) to be added to the Slide.


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