by Mike Anderson
The end of the school year is an emotional time. By this time, many students (and teachers!) are eager for summer vacation, yet many children have mixed feelings about leaving the comforting structure of school. As the weather warms, attention to schoolwork fades. And perhaps most difficult for teachers who’ve worked to build a strong sense of belonging, the classroom community can feel as if it’s falling apart.
I’ve heard some teachers say that mentioning the end of the school year as little as possible will keep stress levels down. In my experience, though, the reverse is true. We know that students are excited or worried or both, so I think it’s important to spend time talking about what’s going on. We need to address the transition to the next grade, refocus on this year’s classroom community, and reinforce the expectation that learning will continue until the last day of school. As with every other aspect of school, the more time we spend setting children up for success, the better.
Planning for the End of the Year
This is a great time to be thinking about how you'll finish strong. Here are a few ideas to try:
Hold End-of-the-Year Meetings
Beginning in late spring, hold meetings to discuss the transition to the next grade. Invite students to share their questions and concerns. A few questions that will likely surface are “Who’ll be my next teacher?” “Who’ll be in my class?” and “Can I come back to visit you next year?”
Consider letting students write down questions and put them in a box. Answer a couple of questions during each meeting.
Do a Culminating Activity
Culminating whole-class projects or outings are a great way to consolidate learning while keeping the community strong. One year, my class wanted to spend some time outside together, in a natural setting. With the help of a parent who was an outdoor enthusiast, we spent a day in late May taking nature walks, fishing, catching tadpoles, and making sketches and notes in our science journals. We even watched a box turtle lay her eggs in the middle of a field.
Another year, students wanted to make a movie. I had just read A Wrinkle in Time as a read-aloud, so we rewrote the book into a screenplay. Small groups of students came in an hour early for about three weeks while we taped the movie around our school.
Other fun ideas for an end-of-the-year project:
- Class Jeopardy game. Students create questions from their learning and shared experiences throughout the year. Possible categories include weather, math read-alouds, and funny events. Play the game on afternoons during the final weeks of school. (Make sure to deemphasize the scoring and keep the game relaxed.)
- Create a time capsule. Have students gather and store mementos from the year in a box they decorate together. Show them where you’ll keep the box and explain that you’ll invite them to come back at the end of next year (or another year) to open it together.
Reach Out to the Incoming Class
Sharing their expertise and experience with next year’s students gives a class a great sense of accomplishment while helping the incoming class. One simple idea with a literacy twist is to have each child write a letter to one of next year’s students, welcoming that student to the new grade. Writers can offer one piece of advice or describe something the new student can look forward to.
Connect with the Next Grade
The more we demystify the coming year for students, the more relaxed they’ll be as they finish the current year. Here are a few demystifying techniques:
- Meet the teachers. Bring your class to meet next year’s teachers. Or have those teachers visit your classroom.
- Do a Q&A meeting. Have some students from the next grade run a Q&A session to give your students a kid perspective on the year ahead.
- Look ahead. Describe the major units taught in the next grade. Let students discuss what they know about those topics and what they look forward to learning.
- Visit. Spend some time in a classroom at the next grade to give students an “on the ground” feeling for what next year will be like.
- Learn who’s in next year’s class. If your school doesn’t place students in classes until summer, can you advocate for earlier decision making? Knowing in advance who will be in next year’s class with them can be enormously comforting to children.
Whole-group celebrations help maintain the class’s sense of community while letting children enjoy some playful time together. Support students’ self-control during celebrations by proactively reviewing behavioral expectations, quiet signals, and class rules for keeping everyone physically and emotionally safe. Also, plan how you’ll bring the celebration to a calm close—perhaps by singing a quiet song together or doing a favorite calming activity. (For tips, see "Successful Celebrations.")
Here are a couple of celebration ideas:
- Class movie night. Students love the novelty of being at school at an unusual time, doing unusual things. They can wear PJs, eat popcorn, and sprawl on the floor while enjoying a movie together. If you’re really brave, turn it into a sleepover. Have a few parents stay to help chaperone. And clear your Saturday schedule so you can catch up on sleep!
- Fruit salad social. For this healthy alternative to an ice cream social, brainstorm fruits, toppings, dressings, etc., that might work well. Then prepare the feast together. If you plan an evening event, families can join in.
It's Not Over Until It's Over
Our school days are so busy that slowing down to think about anything further away than the next week often seems impossible. But it’s exactly because we’re so busy that we need to think about ways to keep the focus on learning and community right through the end of the year. Otherwise, we risk losing valuable learning time. And we may deprive students of that wonderful feeling of bringing their work together to a fruitful conclusion. There’s a lot you can do to end the year on a positive note. Start planning now!
Mike Anderson, a Responsive Classroom consultant, is the author of three books in the What Every Teacher Needs to Know series and The Well-Balanced Teacher. He has fifteen years of experience teaching third, fourth, and fifth grades.
This article is an adapted excerpt from What Every 3rd Grade Teacher Needs to Know About Setting Up and Running a Classroom (NEFC, 2011), part of the What Every Teacher Needs to Know K–5 Series!