How to Make the Most out of the Last Day Before a Big Holiday Break + GIVEAWAY!

Keeping engagement high the last day before a big break from school (like Thanksgiving or Winter break) can be difficult. Students can barely contain their excitement, teachers are beyond exhausted, and you’ll still find yourself surprised after all these years about exactly how many families decide to begin their breaks a day early.

Here’s what I do…

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Typically, I try to end a unit before going on a large break. I really don’t like having a week (or two!) off in the middle of a unit, so I’ll always try to test before going to break. That being said, I always try to avoid doing it the very last day before break, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the number of students who are absent the day before a big break is astounding. I don’t want to have to go through the hassle of before/after school makeups for 10+ students–plus, the odds that they’ll do as well with a week+ in between is highly unlikely. On a more personal note, I also refuse to give a big test on the last day before a big break because then that means I have to spend my break grading. Teachers deserve breaks, too! Do yourself a solid and plan to give the big assessment the second to last day before a break that way you actually have time to grade.

So, that brings us to the big question…what do you do with that last day before a big break?! I always try to use it as an opportunity to review essential past skills in a game-like format or incorporate in other activities that I normally wouldn’t be able to fit into a unit. For example, before Thanksgiving break, I like to play my Domain & Range of Continuous Functions Connect4 activity with my Algebra 1 class. Domain and range is such a critical skill for success in high school algebra courses (both Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Pre-Calculus focus heavily on it) and is typically a trickier topic for students, so reviewing it at key points throughout the year has really helped improved my students’ long-term skills. We review with a fun Connect4 game, which is essentially like BINGO but 4×4 instead of 5×5. It’s incredibly low prep for us teachers, and the students can never get enough!

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Right before Winter break, I typically review solving one-variable inequalities because we move onto rearranging/graphing two-variable inequalities and systems of inequalities right after we return from break. Having a firm reference is a total plus and makes the future lessons go off much, much easier! To review, I normally use my BINGO game with some individual student whiteboards. Again, as a teacher, this activity is just about as close to no-prep as you can get (just print out a few BINGO cards and you’re set!), but students love it!

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In both cases, since these are topics students have seen before, they think it’s an “easy day,” and are SO into it. What they don’t realize is how important it is to interleave practice and spiral back to core concepts, so this ends up being a total win-win situation.

This is also a great opportunity to do some of the non-content related activities that you’ve been dying to use all year long. Team-building and perseverance-building activities are perfect for this time of year! Here are a few ideas:

  • Play 31-derful (a team-building, strategy/perseverance activity). Here’s a digital version.  (NOTE: this activity is pronounced “thirty-wonderful”). You could totally play this game with a regular deck of cards, too!
  • Spend a class period doing Number Challenges. Here’s a full blog post with free downloads! This activity is great because it reviews order of operation skills, group work norms, and focuses on building perseverance.
  • Play Petals Around the Rose. This is a free online activity where students must figure out the rule for getting the score of a roll of 5 dice. This game is AMAZING! It is a total testament to perseverance. Students will both love it and hate it all at the same time, but they’ll hate it in the best of possible ways–trust me, they will ask you to play it again. Don’t give them any spoilers! They may not figure it out in one class, so keep them waiting. If you have an extra 2 minutes at the end of a class period a week later, play Petals Around the Rose. Everyone finish their quiz early? Play Petals Around the Rose. The only thing you can tell them is that (1) the name of the game is Petals Around the Rose, and the name of the game is everything, and (2) the score is either zero or even.
  • Do a team-building activity like The Maze. This activity is super-low prep and gets your whole class to listen and work as one. Plus, it’s super fun!


Since this time of year is so hectic, I wanted to treat you a bit, so I’m participating in a giveaway! There are two ways you can win:

****Giveaway Open W 11/21 – Su 11/25****

  1. Leave a comment below telling me (a) what the hardest part of the holiday season is for you as a teacher, and (b) what product you’d most like to win from my store (<$10). I will randomly select a winner, and you will be emailed the product of your choosing.
  2. Enter the Rafflecopter Giveaway for a chance to win a $50 gift card to! Again, a winner will be chosen randomly and contacted by email. Make sure to enter the gift card giveaway here!

For additional chances to win, check out these fabulous ladies’ blog posts! I’ve teamed up with each incredible woman, below, to write posts about keeping engagement high and students motivated at this difficult time of the year. Each blog post will have another opportunity to win, so make sure to check them out!

  • Jean from Flamingo Math is writing all about how to keep your students motivated mid-year! Read her tips here!
  • Kristin from Samson’s Shoppe is sharing her top three tips for how you can survive the holiday and testing season! Read her three tips here.
  • Carolyn from Engaging Science Labs shares a super hands-on activity for making a periodic table! As a math teacher, I got a bunch of ideas from per post about how I could apply it to my own classroom!



Number Challenges – A Team-Building Perseverance Challenge

If you’re looking for a great way to get your students working together, talking about math (particularly the order of operations), and working on perseverance, then search no further! This set of Number Challenges is perfect for any secondary math class.


Originally, taken from Math Equals Love, I wanted to reformat her activity because I didn’t have as much wall-space as she did, and I also wanted to add an extra element of reflection to turn the lesson’s focus more to perseverance, than order of operations (the math is definitely a welcome addition, though!).

I used this activity on the first day of school with my Algebra 1 students, but I think it would be perfect for a “top-up” lesson right before a big break. What I mean by that is, throughout the year, some messages need to be revisited and “topped up.” Perseverance and working as a group are always great things to revisit and place an emphasis on so that skills don’t backslide. Sometimes we have to intentionally be explicit when we teach students how to do these skills, so activities like these are a great framework for a larger conversation about the many “soft skills” that come up in a math classroom (like perseverance and teamwork).

To find the original activity instructions, check out Math Equal’s Love’s original blog post! Here’s a link to the plastic pockets I used, which allowed students to write on the papers with a dry erase marker (this is not an affiliate link)!

Here’s the copy of the number challenges! Print them double sided and place them inside of the plastic pockets so students can work on them with dry erase markers! I make two for each level and had groups of 3 working on different number challenges. When they finished one challenge, there was always a different number challenge waiting to go.

Here’s the perseverance reflection form that I had students fill out as an exit slip. It made for fantastic conversations the next day!

If you give it a try, let me know how it goes!

The Maze – A Teambuilding Challenge for Middle & High Schoolers

Teambuilders are not normally “my thing.” Maybe I just don’t have the personality to sell them correctly, but I’ve found they normally are a bit of a letdown, especially with older high schoolers.

On top of that, many of them are designed for the most extroverted of students, which doesn’t sit well with me. Again, that could just be due to my naturally introverted nature.

With all of the above in mind, let me tell you, The Maze went off beautifully! From freshmen to senior, shy to outgoing, everyone loved it!

Here’s how it works:

Create a 4×4 grid. You can use painters/masking tape, chalk (if you’d like to go outside), softball/baseball bases, you name it!


Next, you’ll need to design a secret path through the maze. Here’s the path that I made. IMG_4330

From here, have students make a line or a circle around the grid and have someone start. Students can only move in the four main directions–left, right, forward, and backward. If they are correct, say nothing and allow them to keep going. If they mess up, they go to the back of the line and the next student gets to try.

Students get SO into this and do an incredible job at watching and listening to their classmates. Natural leaders will surface and help coordinate the efforts. As more students try out the maze, the faster and faster they go–always learning from the students before them and being guided by their classmates. By the time someone finally makes it through the maze, the success is celebrated as a class!

After students have made it through the maze, here are some possible future variations:

  • let a student make their own maze and be in charge
  • make students do the maze in total silence, only with non-verbal communication
  • increase the size of the maze. 5×5, 6×6…10×10?!

What are your favorite team building activities for secondary students? Share in the comments below!