Sentences Over Swings

**This is a story about a situation I witnessed during an observation of a first-grade classroom. All identifying information is withheld.**

The students in a first-grade classroom begin their day by copying down 10 sentences projected on the whiteboard. They write the sentences in their notebooks and illustrate their favorite; later, when all students are seated on the carpet, they read the sentences together as a class. This morning work assignment is part of the students’ daily routine; however, it’s a meaningless “busy work” task that tugs at the back of my mind. For the children in the class who have long attention spans, the sentences are quick and easy to copy down. They are able to focus on the board, translate what they see to their paper, and move on with their regular classwork. For a good half of the class, however, this assignment is a dreaded part of the day. It takes forever for them to look back and forth from the whiteboard to their papers, painstakingly copying every letter of every word; for those with difficulty reading, the ones who can’t quite figure out what the sentences are saying, this assignment lacks any sort of relevance or purpose besides being “busy work.” Many students are unable to complete the 10 sentences by the time morning work is over; about four of them don’t complete a single sentence.

Time and time again, a struggle over this assignment unfolds between the students and the teacher. Those who don’t complete the sentences during morning work time have to work on it at various points throughout the day. If the students don’t finish their sentences by recess, they don’t get to go outside and play.

Yes, you read that right. No recess….. for “Jacob,” who has dysgraphia and cries because the blank notebook paper is too much of an obstacle. No recess for “Brian,” who has severe attention difficulties and hyperactivity and who can never get past three sentences in an entire day. No recess for “Linda,” who achieved the highest score of the whole class on the spelling inventory but is constantly spacing out…. No recess for the kids in the class who need it the very most.

The teacher kept about eight students inside during recess. The ones who were held back because of talking and disrupting class were able to rejoin the class outside in five minutes. But the students who WEREN’T disrupting anything, the students who simply hadn’t been able to complete the ten sentences? They had to stay in until they finished them all, which, for almost each of them, meant they’d never step foot on the playground.

As the teacher left the students in the room and took the rest of the class outside, she told them, “I am very disappointed by those who cannot complete their work, day after day. You are to stay inside and make sure you complete your sentences. Do not disturb anyone or cause any more trouble.” With that, she left.

Yikes. Because of the way she framed that, the students now felt the heavy weight of their teacher’s misplaced disappointment. My heart shattered while my mind silently screamed at the stupidity of the assignment, the lack of differentiation, the clear disconnection between the work and the lives of the students…

Some of the students left in the room looked around shamefully. “Jacob” began to cry and put his head down at his desk. “Brian” was rolling around under his desk, playing with pencils, unaware that he was being expected to complete an assignment. “Linda” was working diligently but slowly, trying her hardest to complete her second sentence.

As I spent some time later reflecting on the whole “sentence situation,” my eyes caught on an article that one of my Facebook friends, a mother of two, had shared. It was a 2014 New York Times blog post by Jessica Lahey called “Students Who Lose Recess Are the Ones Who Need It Most.” (Read it here:

My throat caught. Wow, I thought. What a coincidence that this eerily relevant article found its way to me.

77 percent (over 3/4!!!) of school principals report that they withhold recess as a student punishment, even as they hypocritically praise the benefits of recess and unstructured play for children. Recess, play, and physical activity have been proven crucially important to student achievement and development time and time again. Recess promotes the development of self-control and social skills in children, helps students stay attentive and focused on their academics, boosts academic performance, and improves student memory. According to educational psychologist Michele Borba, withholding recess as a punishment is likely to affect a student’s relationship with his/her teacher, connection to peers, energy level and ability to focus, and understanding of what he/she did wrong (and how to fix it in the future). Personally, I believe that withholding recess also drastically affects a student’s motivation and desire to learn.

By keeping those students inside and off the playground, that first-grade teacher is doing something completely counterintuitive. Rather than giving them a needed brain break and offering them space to release their pent-up energy, she is building up frustration and angst within them that will lead to deeply-rooted problems in the future.

On top of that, what she is doing is also illegal.

Section 3 of North Carolina’s “Healthy Active Children” policy on physical education/activity in public schools, “Recess and Physical Activity,” states:

(a)  Structured/unstructured recess and other physical activity (such as, but not limited to, physical activity time, physical education or intramurals) shall not be taken away from students as a form of punishment. In addition, severe and inappropriate exercise may not be used as a form of punishment for students.

(b) A minimum of 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity shall be provided by schools for all K-8 students daily. This requirement can be achieved through a regular physical education class and/or through activities such as recess, dance, classroom energizers, or other curriculum-based physical activity programs. However, such use of this time should complement and not substitute for the physical education program.


Do I think that teacher realizes what she’s doing is wrong? I can’t say for certain; however, I think she’s doing the only thing she knows how to do. I must also point out that she’s not the only teacher making this decision; an incredibly large number of teachers take away recess as a punishment. I think her mindset is probably along the lines of “if my students do not complete what they’re required to, they will have something they enjoy taken away so that they don’t repeat the mistake in the future.” Taking away recess, however, is much more harmful than helpful.

As future teachers, this is a battle we will have to face in our own classrooms. If you have students constantly disengaged with a task or they seem unable to complete it, take some time to first examine the task. Is it engaging or is it boring? Is it relevant to student interests? Is it something that aligns with their ability level? Is it something that is providing them with the correct amount of challenge (without being overwhelming)? Is there a way you can alter the assignment to suit the needs of individual learners (i.e., printing out the sentences with lines in between so students like “Jacob” can copy them underneath and closely reference their spellings/formations)? Can you alter the format or grouping of the activity to make it more participatory and social? Can you present the material in a more hands-on way? Can you incorporate technology or leave time to share?

If the problem is not the assignment itself or a learning difficulty, but a behavior issue, approach your thinking from another angle: The angle of connection. WHY is the student acting out? Is he/she simply looking for one-on-one attention from you? Are you constantly correcting or disciplining the child (or the class itself!) and forgetting to reinforce behavior in a positive way? Allen Mendler’s Edutopia blog post, “Connections, Not Consequences” (, offers three possible explanations for inappropriate behaviors: over-reliance on consequences, a failure to connect with students as individuals, and a lack of DNA (dialogue, negotiation, and agreement). Make it a daily priority to get to know your students: Their favorite things, their home situations, their hopes and dreams, what excites them and what shuts them down. When inappropriate behavior is demonstrated, take time to discuss it privately with the student, rather than just calling him/her out in class. Explain WHY the behavior is a problem, negotiate a consequence and solution with the child, and form an agreement for action towards future behaviors. Having a child choose their own consequence may also help the child understand that he/she is responsible for his/her own behavior.

And if the child needs to take extra time to finish an assignment? Rather than pulling from recess, examine your schedule and figure out a time of day when students can complete work. In my internship class now, the last 30-45 minutes of the day is spent eating snack and watching episodes of TV shows (another story entirely). That time would be perfect to pull a small group and have them finish some things. Another idea would be to give each student a manila folder for incomplete work; when they finish something early and have a few free minutes, they can work on something in the folder and make sure everything in the folder is completed and turned in by the end of the week.

Do you have any solutions or ideas to try? Comments? Questions? I’d love to hear anything you have to say! Post a comment below!

See you on the playground,



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