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Last month some colleagues and I ran a workshop for teachers at my school on differentiation. In preparing for it, I came across the idea of anchor activities. Unfortunately, many of the resources I found giving examples actually list a lot of the traditional time-filler busy work (extra worksheets, copy and define words from the dictionary, coloring pages, etc.) and slap the “anchor activity” label on them. In her book The Differentiated Classroom, Carol Tomlinson defines anchor activities as

meaningful work done individually and silently. This could be journal writing, free reading, foreign language pattern drills, seatwork in math, or sketchbook assignments. It’s something useful and important for students to do…. (p. 97)
The key words I see here are meaningful, useful, and important. We have to put as much thought into selecting what we ask students to do in their unstructured time so that it never actually becomes down time.

At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that students’ brains cannot stay in high academic gear all day long. They need frequent short “brain breaks” (as Eric Jensen calls them) to be able to stay alert and focused throughout the school day. The real trick is finding the balance and making sure that the breaks are built into our instruction so that students are more able to continue academic work during their unstructured time.

As with many differentiation techniques, though, anchor activities should be just a starting point. Tomlinson herself explains that setting up anchor activities as a routine in your classroom should be a way to train students to expect that there will be times when different people are doing different things so that some students can break off from the group.

What do you do, then, when you have students who are ready to break off? Perhaps you have a few gifted students who have compacted out of part of a math unit. Or you have several students who routinely finish their work quickly and accurately. Here are a few ideas for ongoing, long-term activities they can do that are meaningful, useful, and important:

  • Independent Study. This is of course the tried and true traditional approach, and much has been written about it. What I recommend is that you always give students a way to share their results or integrate it back into the classroom community. I had a student once who was fascinated with folk tales and fairy tales. Her fourth grade class was learning about Africa that year, so her independent study project was to find and study some African folk tales and adapt one into a play (another interest of hers). She then selected student volunteers and put on a very simple (just a few masks and props) production in the classroom.
  • Classroom yearbook. Have your regular early finishers form a “yearbook committee.” Their job is to plan, design, and prepare a classroom yearbook to go home with your students at the end of the year. They would need to interview each member of the class, prepare a page about each, take photos, record important classroom events, and so on.
  • About Our School video. Have your kids take snapshots of activities around the classroom (and around the school if your situation permits and your students are trustworthy). Use Animoto to put together an introductory music video that the principal could use during Back to School night presentations or post on the school website.
  • Unit reconnaissance. Enlist the aid of your better researchers to help you find good materials for upcoming units. Tell the students what the next unit will be in one subject area. Give them some guidelines and some topic suggestions, then give them time to explore the library and the Internet for materials that will support what you will be doing. Use online tools like Diigo or a classroom wiki to gather the information in one spot.

What are your ideas for keeping anchor activities and bigger projects connected and meaningful? How will you work to eliminate busy work from your classroom and school this year?


Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
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