What Do I Do When They Finish at Different Times? - Anchor Activities!

When you think you’re done, you’ve just begun.
— Lucy Calkins

Picture this: You’ve just taught an awesome chunk of information to your students and are providing them with some time to chew on it. The majority of your students are highly engaged and working diligently, but a few students are struggling and need additional support. Still others have finished the assignment quickly and are waiting for their next task. This is the moment when things can go horribly wrong! Students who don’t get the support they need might check out if you can’t make time to support them. Students who have finished early will most likely to look for other (perhaps not so appropriate) ways to entertain themselves. These are the precise conditions that can create unexpected behavior problems in the classroom. Luckily, there is a simple solution: anchor activities – a management must for the differentiated classroom.
What: Anchor activities are specified assignments which students automatically begin working on when they complete an independent task or are waiting for you to come work with them. These activities should provide stimulating, quality learning extensions that are related to the subject matter. For example: silent reading is a perfect choice activity for a language arts class but would not be the best choice for early finishers in math. In math, students could do extra practice with manipulatives, math logic puzzlers, or work on SAT/ACT prep questions. There are many different anchor activities from which to choose, but it’s important to select the right ones. They should be well-organized, appropriately challenging for independent work, and related to the standards of the class - not just mindless busy work. (See our featured free resource for examples of easy, content-specific anchor activities to use in your classroom. Our Inspiring Learners books also have ideas and information about classroom management in the Differentiated Classroom.)
Here is a quick summary on anchor charts:

Anchor activities ARE:

Engaging activities to be completed independently (or with 1 other student) after finishing regular classwork or waiting for the teacher
Subject-specific activities
Self-correcting (answer keys available)
Additional opportunities for students to grow their thinking and skills

Anchor activities ARE NOT:

Group projects
Busy work (word scrambles)
Distracting or loud activities
Extra grading for the teacher
Opportunities to rush or get out of regular classwork
Why: We know that we will always have students beginning and finishing assignments at varying times; so we must be proactive in planning to handle that challenge. Anchor activities are the key to effectively managing the differentiated classroom. When students know from the beginning of the school year that they are expected to have something to work on if they are waiting or done early - when they know what options they have and what is expected of them, then we can run our flexible group lessons smoothly without having to worry about behavior problems. Anchor activities teach our students how to become independent workers. Students learn the important life skill of making choices about how to use their time wisely. Teachers are then freed up to give individual assessments or to work with small groups of students who need extra support or an extra push. These activities make it possible to fulfill the goal of truly differentiating instruction.

How: As with all aspects of classroom instruction, the thoughtful and transparent introduction and implementation of anchor activities is vital for its success. At the beginning of the year, explain to students that in order to best support them and help them grow, you need to be able to work with students in varied ways. (Fair will not be same.) Tell them that people will be working on different assignments at different times, and it's important to maintain the right classroom environment (quiet, productive, focused) and individual study habits to support these efforts. Be sure to explicitly teach the class the procedures for completing anchor activities. The expectations should be clear, and students should know what, why, where, when, and how they should work on these assignments. (See last month's newsletter, Making it Look Easy - Routines and Procedures in the Inspiring Classroom for tips on how to teach routines and procedures and this month's free resources for anchor activity ideas and examples.)
Organization is also crucial to the success of implementing anchor activities. Students should know where their work goes when they complete it and where to find the materials to use during the activity. Some teachers create folders for each student with “working on” and “completed” files (or "do/done" folders) like this video demonstrates. Teachers explicitly show students how to use the system so that there will be no confusion or interruption during independent work time. Materials for anchor activities can be organized using a hanging shoe pocket organizer, plastic drawers, file folders, manila folders or any other tool. Each activity can be labeled with the task, and the items that should be found in the container. Answer keys can be placed in a particular place where students can check for themselves. (Teach students not to use the guide until after they have completed the assignment.) This organization will allow students to have everything they need before starting and to know how to return everything to the correct place after finishing. 
When introducing anchor activities to your class, start small. Remember we have to go slow to go fast. Start by introducing only one or two activities to the class. Allow students to become very familiar with the procedure before introducing new options for choice activities. 
Taking it to the next level: If you’ve already been using anchor activities in your classroom, and you have done a good job of making sure that the activities are subject-specific, then you are ready for your next challenge. Here are some ideas to help you step up your differentiation game to the next level:

  • Create unit-specific activities and rotate anchor activities out at the end of a unit. (Many times we have cool ideas we are never able to get to in our units. Some of those make excellent anchor activities.)
  • Create leveled anchor activities. (One teacher puts math problems in color-coded pockets in a shoe holder. The students get to pick the level of challenge they wish to work on that day.)
  • Incorporate technology into your assignments. (How can students look up, find, and share cool information related to the topic?)
  • Create cross-curricular assignments (still related to your subject's standards but infusing other subjects’ standards as well) – For example: If you’re studying the rock cycle in science, students can be challenged to write and illustrate a story about a rock going through the rock cycle (thus incorporating language arts into science). Or maybe students could write a song about the rock cycle. 

Whether you’re just starting out or ready to step it up a notch, we want to take a minute to celebrate your journey! When incorporating anchor activities into your classroom, you are doing what it takes to give each of your students what she needs in order to learn and grow. That’s exciting! We want to hear all about your educational adventures. Please share your triumphs and struggles with us on Facebook or Twitter. Check out the numerous resources on the Infinite Horizons website to help you along the way! Remember – the same quote that we tell our students applies to us on our journey to learn and grow as professionals. “When you think you’re done, you’ve just begun.” Keep on learning!
 Written by: Michelle Leip, with Kathleen Kryza