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A Simple “Back from Winter Break” Classroom Activity

By Dave Stuart Jr.

If our aim is long-term flourishing for our students, then we all care about helping kids discover their aspirations, build goals backward from those aspirations, and remain committed to those goals on a regular basis.

And yet, the further you get down the list of those skills, the greater the challenge becomes for our kids:

  1. Defining the big picture goals I want to do with my life is not as challenging as
  2. mapping out sub-goals that build up to those big picture goals, which is not as challenging as
  3. staying on top of those sub-goals daily.

But I love the challenge of helping my students grapple with these challenges. And so even though there's a lot I want to accomplish in class during the first weeks of January, I'm going to take the time on our first day back for a simple thinking, writing, and speaking activity.

Time machines and SMART goals

While many of my ninth grade students have at least a faint outline in their concept of “Future Me,” far too few consistently build goals backward from there [1]. This is partly a motivational problem — it's hard to be motivated by a vague aspiration (e.g., “I want to be a diesel mechanic because they make good money and I like trucks”) — and it's partly a skills problem — they haven't been adequately coached in goal-setting and goal-keeping (after all, those aren't on many standards lists) — and it's partly a mindset problem (e.g., “Boring things are dumb,” or “School is pointless”).

This lesson won't prove a silver bullet against all those problems, but I do think it will help.

Segment 1: Time Machine

Here's how the lesson will start as students finish filtering in and class begins.

Welcome back from winter break, family and team! Before we dive back into our study of world history, I'd like to take a few moments for you to work on your own role in that history. We're going to alternate a few times between me giving you a prompt, and then you writing in response to it, so you'll need your notebooks out.

Here's your first prompt: if I were to jump into a time machine and travel 10 years into a future where you're living a life you really enjoy, what would you be doing?

(It's useful here to project these onto a screen or post them on the board.)

  • Tell me about your relationships: Do you have a spouse? A family? A close group of friends?
  • Tell me about your work: What kind of job do you have? What skills does it require of you? Where does it require you to live? What kind of training did this job require you to get? Are you still a student? If so, what are you studying? 
  • Tell me about your life outside of work: What kinds of activities do you do regularly? Where do you live? What kind of reputation do you have?

All right, that's enough from me. Write freely; this writing is just for you. You have five minutes and a goal to answer as many of the prompts as possible with as much specificity as you can muster.

As students write, I walk around, helping and encouraging where it is needed.

After five minutes, I bring the students together again.

All right, come to a closing spot in your writing. Thank you.

Now, I'd like you to re-read what you wrote, specifically looking for specifics. When you read a clear, specific detail that you included, underline it. If you don't have anything to underline, use an arrow to add in a specific sentence. I'll give you a minute for that.

Again, I'm spending that minute walking around the class to get some formative intel on how their re-reading and revision work is going. If it turns out to be a confusing task, I re-phrase it or replace it with something else.

Beautiful. Now, in a minute, I'm going to have you share with your partner what you wrote. View this as a conversation, not as re-reading your piece of writing. I'd like each person to speak for 30 seconds, and I'll call time when the first 30 seconds* have passed. Start with the partner closest to the door. Go.

Again, walking and listening. There's a lot of “again” in my class because I am not a Today's New Strategy guy. I just want to help my students do a lot of thinking, reading, writing, speaking, and growing — five things, every week, all year.

*That 30 seconds bit is important: without fail, every year begins with my students severely struggling to keep an externally-designed conversation going for more than a couple of sentences. If you feel like 30 seconds isn't enough, try 45 or 60. The key here is that you don't want this activity to last for an entire period; I want to end class with at least a few minutes for our regular curriculum.

Segment 2: Happy New Year's! Time to choose your own adventure

Thanks for having that conversation with your partner. These are pretty personal things that you wrote and conversed about, so I'll only ask for a few volunteers to share out their time machine exercise. Before you volunteer though, here's the thing: you'll only have ten seconds to share out.

Okay, Lexi, you ready? Ten seconds starting now.

I'll take a handful of volunteers. Volunteer kids at this point in the year are often very comfortable speaking in front of the class; as a result, they sometimes struggle with efficient use of the floor — hence the 10 second limit.

I appreciate those volunteers. Now, let's take one more step toward making those time machine exercises a reality. How many of you know someone who set a New Year's resolution last week? How many of you set one yourself?

Nice. New Year's resolutions are basically time machine exercises. People envision what they'd like to have accomplished one year from January 1, 2016, and then they set goals that will allow them to get there.

Now, since I haven't covered SMART goals with my students yet this year, I'm going to explain the acronym to them quickly. I'll write the acronym on the board as I'm explaining, not the examples.

The best way to set a good goal is to remember to make it SMART. Please write this in your notebooks. A SMART goal is:

  • Specific: Example 1 — “I'll climb Mt. Everest,” not “I'll climb a mountain.” Example 2 — “I'll earn an A in Algebra,” not “I'll get my grades up.”
  • Measurable: Ex 1 — Climbing to the top of Mt. Everest is pretty simple to measure; you look around and there's no higher place to climb. Ex 2 — Grades are also easy to measure; what does PowerSchool say?
  • Attainable: Ex 1 — If you can't walk 100 yards without getting winded, climbing Mt. Everest may be unattainable in year. If you don't have a lot of money, Mt. Everest is unattainable. Ex 2 — If you've always failed math, an A could be a pretty tall order.
  • Relevant: Ex 1 — Mt. Everest would take an enormous amount of time, effort, and sacrifice. In that case, it had better be a big part of your long-term plans. Ex 2 — Passing Algebra is mandatory for high school graduation in Michigan, and getting a high grade in Algebra is a pretty solid idea if any of your long-term aspirations include college.
  • Time-Sensitive: Give yourself a deadline. Ex 1 — I'll climb Mt. Everest by the time I'm fifty. Ex 2 — I'll earn an A in Algebra by February 1.

Smart, right? Let's try this on for size: I'd like you to set three SMART goals for the year 2016, making sure that they are relevant to your time machine exercise from earlier. Consider creating one SMART goal each for a few broad categories: maybe one for school, one for a hobby, and one for your interpersonal skills. Just a recommendation; the only requirement is that you make three SMART goals.

Since I'm having you set three of these and it's a new skill, I'm going to give you six minutes. Don't be afraid to mess up; I'll write a few of mine on the board during the first minutes.

As the students start working, I'll write a few of mine on the board.

  • Successfully complete the Bayshore Marathon with my brother Ben in May.
  • Earn a book contract for my second book by June so that I can draft the book during the summer.
  • Work with Crystal to save up X dollars by December.

(As I wrote those, I realized that none of them end on January 1, 2017 — that's okay!)

I'll have students Pair-Share (see Segment 1) these goals, and then we'll wrap up the activity.

Closing and Follow-up

I'm curious to see what my students do with these goals, so I'll close with a fairly open-ended directive and check back with them in a month.

All right, to wrap things up, I'd like each of you to select one of your three SMART goals that you'll focus on in the month to come, and please write that one goal down on a slip of the scrap paper I'm passing out right now. Please also write your name on it because I'm going to collect these and give them back to you in a month to see what progress you've made with your goal.

In one month, I'll do just that. I predict that I'll find a mixed bag: some kids will have made progress, others won't. As a class, we'll spend 5-10 minutes discussing what might have caused our success or failure in keeping committed to our goals, and we'll make modifications from there.


  1. Thank you to Dr. Dave Conley for providing an “aha” moment about this trend during a guacamole-infused conversation we shared in early August 2015.

Thank you to the AP Lang teacher from South Jersey who gave me the idea for this activity at an all-day literacy workshop that I led in Glassboro last December. Small activities like these, as he pointed out, are great ways to incorporate character strengths into our work with students with an experimental approach

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7 Responses to A Simple “Back from Winter Break” Classroom Activity

  1. Erin January 2, 2016 at 10:21 am #

    I really like the Time Machine analogy–it explains it better for the kids’ minds to connect. I attempted SMART goals with my sophomores in Sept. but I think I’ll revisit them again next week as we reflect on their writing (one of MY formal educational goals this year is to have the students chart their own progress on different writing skills throughout the year & for them to journal & set goals and editing focus areas from that data).

    I’ve found discussions about organization, time management, and goal-setting are great opportunities to demonstrate opportunities for us to use technology to enhance our lives (rather than pulling us away from life). I give an example to my kids from my own life. I want to get healthier. That’s a HUGE goal & there are lots of different steps to meeting that goal. Rather than get discouraged, I make a list and start tackling those steps one or a few at a time. This past fall, a step I tackled was upping my water intake (getting myself more hydrated, cutting down on the amount of coffee I was drinking, and eliminating soda all came with that). I specifically wanted to drink 3 of my 1-liter water bottles every day at school. So to accomplish it, I used the Reminder app on my phone to set alarms throughout the day to keep me on track. At 9 a message pops up asking me if I’ve filled my water bottle, at 11 it asks if I’ve finished the first, etc. If I’m done, I get that little reward of accomplishment; if I’m not done, I hurry up & finish the current bottle to stay on track. I encourage kids to use this feature to remind themselves to return that book they keep forgetting, or to use it in the same way we use note cards with inspirational says or Bible verses to keep us focused on our goals. Program your AM alarm on the phone to play an inspirational song instead of a noise; have a short message pop up at the time of day you’re most likely to fall into temptation to eat the food you shouldn’t, slack off on your workout, procrastinate the homework, etc. I love that these types of lessons give us the opportunity to model what balanced living (even as a work-in-progress) looks like!

    • davestuartjr January 4, 2016 at 3:00 pm #

      Erin, that’s one of my favorite things about teaching — the better I get at teaching my students toward long-term flourishing (which doesn’t rule out lessons like the many valuable ones you mention), the better I get at life. If we are doing it right, our families and our students should be getting more and better service from us as the years go on.

  2. ML January 2, 2016 at 10:22 am #

    Happy New Year!
    Can’t wait to try this! Thanks! I also plan to reintroduce Marshall Goldsmith’s ideas from his book Triggers. This website I just discovered looks pretty helpful: askmeevery.com

    • davestuartjr January 4, 2016 at 2:58 pm #

      That is a cool website, ML! What a great idea. Thank you, and best to you and yours in the new year.

  3. K Gechter January 4, 2016 at 1:41 pm #

    Hi Dave – What a fantastic way to start the New Year! This was a wonderful way to start the second half of our school year – focusing on my students’ goals and how they will achieve them. Thanks again!

    • davestuartjr January 4, 2016 at 2:57 pm #

      Dear K,
      I’m glad it went well. My students enjoyed it today, too 🙂 May you and your students have a great new year.

  4. Tammy January 4, 2016 at 10:52 pm #

    Thanks Dave for the idea. I am going to try this tomorrow with my 7th graders.

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