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Response: End the Year With Moments 'Students Will Remember'

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

What are the most important things to keep in mind when ending a school year?


The last month or two of the school year offers challenges and opportunities.  Today's column will explore both and how to respond to them.

Pernille Ripp, Alfonso Gonzalez, Jeremy Adams, Roxanna Elden, Ann Mausbach, Kim Morrison, Michael Haggen, and Maia Heyck-Merlin contribute their ideas, and I've also included comments from readers. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Pernille, Al, and Jeremy on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

 

My quick comments on how I handle the end of the year include having high-interest and student-led lessons (see The Best Resources For Applying "Fed Ex Days" (Also Known As "Genius Hours") To Schools); organizing field trips (see 'Great Field Trips Expand the Mind'); goal-setting (see Students 'Take Ownership of Their Learning' Through Goal-Setting); and working to pre-empt the "summer slide" (see The Best Resources On The "Summer Slide").

I maximize the very last day of school by having students write class and teacher evaluations (see Best Posts On Students Evaluating Classes (And Teachers)), along with have individual conversations with each of my students (see "It's Been A Pleasure Having You In Class This Year").

In addition, you might want to visit my EdWeek article, Finishing The Year Strong, and What Do You Do On The Last Day Of Class (Part Two)? as well as two previous posts that have appeared in this column:

* Ways to Use Class Time During the Last Two Weeks Of School

This post offers suggestions from two exceptional teacher authors: Roxanna Elden and Donalyn Miller.

* Ideas for the Last Two Weeks of School—Part Two

This piece includes responses from three great educators: Chris Wejr, Alice Mercer and Bill Ivey.

Finally, consider joining me at at Education Week Teacher "Facebook Live" discussion on Wednesday to listen and share your own ideas:

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Response From Pernille Ripp

Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp) helps students discover their superpower as a 7th grade teacher in Oregon, Wis.  She opens up her educational practices to the world on her blog.  and is also the creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, a global literacy initiative that has connected more than 1,500,000 students.   She is the author of Passionate Learners - How to Engage and Empower Your Students, now in its second edition, and Empowered Schools, Empowered Students, both focusing on creating learning spaces and communities where students thrive and all stakeholders are empowered and passionate about learning:

No matter how many end of year's I have seemingly lived through.  No matter how many final days and final classes I have had with kids.  No matter how many years I have taught, they always seem to sneak up on me.  I find myself realizing that all of those plans that I had for the entire year may not actually happen, because all of a sudden we have less than x amount of days together and I know that we have something important to do.  

We have something that will end our year together just right.  I think many of us have a bittersweet relationship with the final days of a school year.  Summer awaits, which to many mean more personal learning and a renewal of ideas.  Summer is waiting and that also means goodbye, thank you for this year, and I hope I was good teacher for you.  Summer is waiting and we still have so much to do.

I used to focus just on the fun; end the year with a non-curricular activities so that kids would remember just how great our year had been.  Yet every year, no matter how much fun we had those days would drag on a little more as we scrambled for activities to fill them up.  A few years ago I saw the potential, finally, of those last few days together.  I saw them for what they really are; the best days of the year because in the end is when we know each other best.  In the end is when we feel the most comfortable,  in the end this is when we can create our best work and end the year knowing that this year we mattered. 

So instead of filling our end of days with just fun, or movies, or final remembrance activities, embrace those days as curriculum days as well.  Create a project that encourages students to dig the deepest that they have this year, that honors the community that you have built, and make sharing the results part of the final week.  Have students take control over the project as all of their knowledge of how they learn best comes into play.  Have it be a social experience so that they can cement the relationships that have developed in your classroom over the year.  Take part in it yourself so that they know that you are a part of the community.

Create a project that will help students walk out of your classroom, out of your grade level, out of you school and know that this year mattered.  That they were a part of something bigger.  That this year was a good year and next year probably will be too.

Embrace those final days not by cramming as much as you can into them but instead creating moments that the students will remember after they leave.  Make it meaningful, make it matter, and watch the days fly by until the very last day and the very last hug, when you turn to your students and you thank them for the journey.

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Response From Alfonso Gonzalez

Alfonso Gonzalez has been teaching grades 4 to 8 for 25 years. He is a National Board Certified Teacher in the area of Early Adolescent Generalist with a Masters of Arts in Teaching and has completed two ISTE Capstone certifications. He blogs regularly at Mr. Gonzalez's Classroom:

How do you keep all your students engaged in learning when summer vacation is quickly approaching? I've heard it before and I can tell you that it works for me and my students: a project.

Project-based learning or problem-based learning (PBL) has many benefits for ending the year focused on learning and schoolwork instead of watching movies, having parties, and passing the time away until summer vacation starts.

Why PBL? When ending a school year here are the benefits of ending with a project:

  • Students have the potential of being engaged in a project that is based on a real-world, maybe local, problem. That way you don't have to tell them why they are learning about the topic they are studying, it's built right into the project! That makes the work students do the last days of school relevant. Relevancy is important.

  • Projects lend themselves readily to collaboration and teamwork. Working with peers is important to students, especially those last days of school.

  • Teams can focus on students' diverse skills and talents. Teams need a leader, a manager, artists, mathematicians, scientists, engineers, designers, speakers, note-takers, and technologists. Being able to use their skills and talents gives students a purpose and having a purpose is important.

  • Projects have the opportunity to allow for student choice. Even if the teacher chooses the main topic, students can still have choices. Students can choose:

    • Who they work with (let them self-select their teams),
    • What sub-topics they study,
    • How they learn about their topic(s),
    • How they show their learning,
    • What tools, for example, technology, they use to learn and show their learning!

Projects can happen before, during and after standardized testing. If you start a project before testing day it's easy enough to take time off from the project to do some test prep and make sure students are ready for the tests. On test day it's actually quite relaxing to sit with project teams, check in and get some work done on the projects. And once testing is over students can focus wholeheartedly on their projects and make sure they finish on time.

And if you build in presentation time and evaluation (self, team as well as teacher evaluation) then the last days of the year will be filled with student presentations and discussions of each other's projects! I believe it is important to end every school year on a high note and ending with a great project does just that!

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Response From Jeremy Adams

Jeremy Adams teaches AP Government at Bakersfield High School in California. He is the author of The Secrets of Timeless Teachers: Instruction that Works in Every Generation (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Full Classrooms, Empty Selves (Middleman Books, 2012). His writing frequently appears on The Educator's Room and The Huffington Post Education blog:

For those of us who are blessed to teach high school seniors, the end of the school year is ripe for both promise and high drama.  

There is often a metamorphosis in the disposition of departing seniors as the finish line nears. Sometimes the change is dramatic and, at times, can even be a little antagonistic.

They are impatient for the future and possess a palpable longing to break free from the juvenile chains that have been imposed on them since childhood. They want to enjoy the splendors of adulthood in a way only teenagers can: by embracing the promise of adult freedom while simultaneously ignoring its duties and obligations.

As the last few weeks of school meander towards graduation, students who were once curious and inquisitive sometimes display a sudden lethargy and indifference to the classroom that can both dishearten and disorient a teacher. In some cases, students almost change personalities overnight once they see the finish line in the distance.   

Students label this unfortunate behavior as symptoms of the legendary, much maligned, "senioritis" syndrome. When ending a school year with seniors it is essential to address this reality directly. And the reason is simple: while seniors surely remember a variety of moments from the school year, the truth is seniors take their departing impressions of a class and a teacher with them for the rest of their lives.

As a young teacher, I found this situation to be utterly demoralizing. I worked an entire year creating a strong rapport with these students, writing their college and scholarship recommendation letters, giving up my lunches to help on upcoming exams, going the extra mile so they were ready to conquer their AP tests. And yet, in the final few weeks, their attitudes often turned grim instead of appreciative and kind. In the infancy of my career, I had no idea how to address this disheartening phenomenon.

Here is some practical advice if you want to avoid a negative conclusion to the school year: 

  • Address "senioritis" directly: Tell the students that there is never a good time to be rude or disrespectful and there is never a bad time to learn and grow. As Lincoln would counsel, appeal "to the better angels" of their nature by encouraging them to finish strong.

  • Let down your guard a little: When seniors feel respected they are more likely to reciprocate that respect. It's not unprofessional to admit you have feelings and that it is important to you that seniors leave their high school years with a positive vibe.

  • End with something fun or meaningful: Whatever subject you teach, try and end the difficult material a week or two before graduation. Finish the course with a capstone assignment or project that is fun or helpful to the students. Nothing is more certain to arouse senior anger than busy work or new course content in the waning days of high school.

  • Be patient...by graduation night they usually come around: By graduation night students often return to their better selves. The snark and cynicism of the previous weeks is suddenly replaced with a sense of appreciation and kindness. Don't hold a grudge--give a hug and a hearty "congratulations" to ALL the students you see.

  • Give them something to look forward to: One of the greatest gifts of being a teacher is the gift of former students. Tell them (or at the least some of them) to keep you updated about their lives. I tell my students, "The moment you cross that stage feel free to call me by my first name." For some reason they love this specific prospect!

Sad endings are natural when teaching seniors. It's the unsatisfying exit of our students that can haunt and disappoint for years into the future. These tips should help avoid such frustrations.   

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Response From Roxanna Elden

Roxanna Elden is the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, a funny, honest, practical guide with insights from teachers around the country:

For teachers, summer's gentle breeze can feel more like a strong headwind. After all, test-pressure season and other stressful parts of the year are over. Now you've got materials to pack, grades to finish, and the occasional bird flying into your classroom window and knocking itself unconscious. You also suspect that your school's breakfast program has started serving energy drinks and candy.

The temptation to go on autopilot is strong during the final stretch of the school year, but that doesn't mean veering off course. It just means in addition to steering your class toward its destination you also need to prepare for a smooth landing. Here are a few tips:

Plan around grading: Anything you plan to grade in detail should be due at least two weeks before school ends. By the last Monday of the school year, your grades should be all but finalized. The activities you plan for the last two weeks should be productive for students, but not grading-intensive for you. This is a perfect time for activities that involve group work, art projects, informal presentations, or opportunities for students to share their writing. If your students are busy and self-directed enough, you might even be able to work on some of your own end-of-year tasks as they work on theirs.

Enlist helpers: You've got a lot to do. If only you had 20-30 energetic people eager to help you! Oh wait... you do. Students love helping their teachers at the end of the year, and one hour of well-managed help from them can save you twenty hours of rolling up posters, cleaning desks, and packing your classroom library books into boxes. Obviously, the type of help students can provide depends on their ages, but even kindergarteners can do things like sort and sharpen crayons for next year.

Have students review their work. If students have been keeping their work in classroom folders all year, make time for them to reflect on their progress. Let them read, revise, or share favorite assignments. Then ask them to pick a specific number of papers to keep long term - you can have them decorate a folder for this purpose. Have a recycling bin on hand for everything else.

Give anonymous surveys. Your administrators visited your classroom a few times. Your kids were in there every day. After thirty-six weeks of school, no one can tell you what kind of teacher you were better than they can. Have a student collect the surveys and seal them in a folder. Promise that the folder will remain sealed until report cards are printed and kids are on break.

Start thinking about next year. Right now you may not have the energy or the fresh batch of hope you'll have when you're planning in August, but you do have perspective. Start a Google Doc with ideas for making next year better - you can even access it from your phone to include insights you have on the go. Your regrets from this year can make you a better teacher next year. 

Make your parting message a positive one. If you're hoping for a teacher-movie-style grand finale at the end of the year, the last few days can feel like a bit of a letdown. The classroom walls are bare. Students are hyperactive or absent or hoping you'll just let them relax. Even if you are tired and can't wait for the kids to leave for summer break, find ways to show them that you are proud of their progress and will miss them. Students want to know you will remember them in a positive way. The last few things you say and do will help them remember you in a positive way as well.

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Response From Ann Mausbach & Kim Morrison

Ann Mausbach and Kim Morrison are authors of the book School Leadership Through the Seasons: A Guide to Staying Focused and Getting Results All Year:

When my sons were in grade school, they would bring home their art portfolio that contained a series of self-portraits. There was a picture for each school year that always generated a lot of conversation. The boys were quick to notice the changes in their work. They laughed at how disproportionate some of their features were in early drawings and noticed how their attention to detail improved over time. They could see how they had grown as an artist. This is the good part about the ritual of closing down a school year--the chance to reflect, the chance to look at our work and identify how we have grown.

It is very tempting to get distracted by end of the year busy work (i.e., packing, taking inventory, etc.)  However, it is more difficult for students to be successful in the waning days of the school year if structure and instructional strategies evaporate.  To get the most out of this time of year for yourself and your students consider the following.

1- Time is precious for both you and your students.

Time is a limited and valuable resource so we can't squander a minute whether we are tending to our own professional development or working with students in our classrooms.  Showing videos that are longer than 8-10 minutes, or giving students busywork communicates to your students that their time isn't valuable.  You don't want to spend time in meaningless professional learning so honor your students and treat them the way you want to be treated. Provide them with rich and meaningful experiences every day until the end of the year.

2- It's all about growth.

This time of year can be overwhelming, but it also can be extremely gratifying.  Identify the student who has shown the most progress and ask yourself what made the difference. What actions and experiences did you provide this student that forever changed their life?  Now ask the same question of yourself.  Where did you make the most progress in your professional practice?  What did you do to make the shift?  It isn't about being perfect every day, it is about growth. Celebrate yours and your students.

3- Teaching is hard work and you need to work hard at it.

None of us entered this profession because we thought it would be easy. This time of year can seem extra difficult given student behaviors, end of the year assessment deadlines, and evening commitments.  However, in what other job can you have such profound influence?  You literally have the power to change the life trajectory of another human being. Remember that show and tell instruction doesn't meet the needs of the diverse learners in your class. You will need to be a student of the art of great instruction your entire life, don't stop learning because the school year is almost over.

4-  Planning matters.

You can't wing good instruction.  It takes thoughtful and reflective planning to ensure that students develop rich understandings.  Don't short change the planning and reflection process, it matters (and is also one reason why #3 is true).  Use the tools you have (PLC, etc.) to help you develop a process that leads to rich instruction.

5-  Summer is a great time for a good book.

Identify one idea or concept that you want to improve in your teaching and read, read, read.  If we want our students to be lifelong learners we need to be the best role models.  Use the summer to help you think and reflect about what how you want to grow.

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Response From Michael Haggen

Michael Haggen is Chief Academic Officer for Scholastic Education. In this role, he ensures that Scholastic is a responsive comprehensive literacy partner to pre-K through grade 12 districts nationwide. In Haggen's 20 years of academic experience, he has served as a teacher, principal, chief academic officer and direct report to superintendents. His hands-on approach has led to significant change, most recently in East Baton Rouge Parish School System, where he was Deputy Superintendent:

Ending a school year can be one of the most exciting and stressful times of the year.  Even as the enthusiasm for summer builds, students, families, and teachers become more focused on exams, while schools take on a thick atmosphere of pressure to show evidence of growth.  Students beg for extra time to turn in assignments, and teachers do final assessments to show their students' progress. When all is said and done, the school community looks to the principal for the school year's story of success—or to explain areas needing improvement—and to lay out the vision for the next year. Here is a survival check list for every principal.

Wins

Remember to celebrate wins and raise the bar higher for the next school year--especially if this one was challenging.

Student Growth and Learning Targets

A great leader sets expectations for student growth and learning outcomes throughout the year. At year-end, students should have a sense of ownership of their growth, having had ongoing conversations as the year progressed. This is the time to set next year's expectations. Discuss with your teachers how to transition students to a new grade—or school—and have a plan that clearly communicates goals to families as well. For those students who struggled academically during the year, evaluate academic plans and have conferences with their former and soon-to-be new teachers, as well as with students' families, about how to prepare during the summer for the new school year.

Family and Community Communication

Be thoughtful about your end-of-school-year message. Does it thank partners and provide updates on the strategic goals? What format and languages allow you to communicate most effectively, and when is the best time to send? What academic or social-emotional concerns do you have for your school that could be addressed over the summer, and what are the appropriate action steps? Have you considered a program to provide high-quality fiction and nonfiction books to take home, or a community partnership to provide health services? Families look to principals for advice on learning opportunities to engage in throughout the summer, including academic support, summer reading lists, and community partners' summer schedules and resources.

Teacher Evaluations and Growth Plans

Your final teacher evaluations and growth plans have to be completed with actionable feedback.  Teachers of all experience levels should have clear, measurable academic and professional objectives. In order to maximize the impact of these plans, evaluate them with the same attention you would give to a student. Review observations and achievements. Ask your teachers what professional learning they want over the summer and during the coming year. Then provide a summary of the year and action steps for moving forward.

Personal Growth

Don't forget about yourself. The principal models for the teachers and staff his or her own personal growth plan with measurable learning targets for staff development and student academic outcomes.  Outline the opportunities for your own growth, collaborate with peers and seek out professional development.

Next School Year Calendar

Planning for the next school year is critical.  Principals should go back and review the school year as they work with the administrative team, and family and community liaison for the upcoming year's new calendar.  What worked? What didn't? The calendar needs to be approved and posted as soon as possible to help with the transition to the new year.

Overall, ending a school year is a time for reflection and preparation in order to create more opportunities for student achievement. Take advantage.  

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Response From Maia Heyck-Merlin

Maia Heyck-Merlin is the author of The Together Teacher: Plan Ahead, Get Organized and Save Time! and the recently released The Together Leader: Get Organized for your Success—and Sanity! She founded and leads a consulting practice focused on helping educators plan, prioritize and protect their time and works with many top school districts, charter organizations and nonprofits in the country. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area with her teacher-husband and two children:

The end of the school year is often met with exhilaration—and exhaustion! But before you close the cabinets on the classroom, do a few things to ensure you'll be ready to roll when you return in the fall.

  1. Make a strong plan for your summer. It should include a decent amount of rejuvenation, along with some new professional development books to peruse, a wonderful conference to attend, or a unit you've been planning to redesign. Too many teachers enter the summer in a whirlwind and then feel caught off-guard when the start of school creeps up!  Time is a precious commodity for teachers - and summer gives us a little more time than usual.

  2. Take stock of your materials. As the school year winds down, carve out a day or two to make your materials more useful for the next year. This could look like laminating key charts, renaming and organizing files on your computer, or purging excess papers and materials.

  3. Reflect on your practice. Have you collected videos of your teaching? Work samples from your students? Data from important assessments? This is the time to review it and name your professional priorities for the coming year. Share them with a coach, mentor, or colleague and develop a plan for getting stronger.

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Responses From Readers

SchoolNerd99:

I think that we should celebrate the accomplishments that we made during the school year. It is not easy to create good study habits or work ethics. We should be happy that we were able to do it.

Thanks to Pernille, Alfonso, Jeremy, Roxanna, Ann, Kim, Michael and Maia, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment  with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected].When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form.  It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder--you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first five years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

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Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

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I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for the next "question-of-the-week" in a few days...

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