A Focused Finish

Q: What’s the most important thing to focus on during the last weeks of school?

A: Showcasing students’ learning and celebrating the community you’ve built together should be the focus at the end of the year.  It’s a prime time for doing deeply engaging work, such as a culminating project, that pulls together lots of skills and allows students to demonstrate their competence. This type of finale allows children to end the year feeling proud of all they’ve accomplished and well-prepared for challenges to come.

However, it’s more typical to end the year rushing at a frenetic pace, cramming to get everything in. This sends a much different set of messages to students: “We’re behind. We didn’t do enough. You’re not ready to move on.” Ending the year on that note raises students’ anxiety and undermines their confidence.

We all know that end-of-the-year cramming isn’t an effective way to help children learn. We do it because we’re pressured—to get to a certain chapter, to be able to say we’ve covered all the required topics. I urge you to acknowledge (even just to yourself) that you won’t get to everything. Give yourself permission to slow down and spend your last weeks together as a class doing work that’s really meaningful for students. ~ Mike Anderson

Q: What end-of-year classroom projects do you recommend?

A: One great one is to have students decide on hopes and dreams specifically for the last six weeks of school. By doing this, you establish that the tone for the end of the year is going to be purposeful and reflective. It can be a terrific way to get a group re-energized and refocused for those last few weeks.

Start with a conversation about how far you’ve come as a class and how much you’ve learned already. Then, explain that now there are about six weeks left in the year, which is a good chunk of time. Ask students to think about what they, as individuals, would like to work on or accomplish during this time. Share a few goals you’ve set for yourself as an example. Once they’ve decided, have the children share their end-of-year hopes and dreams with each other and with their families. ~ Andy Dousis

A: Having students assemble a book or portfolio about their year is a tried-and-true end-of-year project that can be adapted for any grade level. With primary students, I would set aside a special time for the class to focus on each child in turn. I used to count back and spotlight one child each day. On that day, each person in the class would fill in a web with questions about that classmate, such as “What’s one thing you’ll remember about _______ ?” and “One thing __________ is good at is ___________.” All the completed webs would become pages in the child’s book about the year, along with work samples, self portraits, and other end-of-year reflections. ~ Margaret Wilson

A: Another classic is having students write letters introducing themselves to their next year’s teacher. If you provide guidelines for what to write about, this can be a chance for students to reflect on their strengths, think about what they’re looking forward to, and let you know about worries that you might be able to address before the year ends. And, if you have students write these letters while reviewing their portfolios, you create a powerful opportunity for students to reflect on what they’ve learned. ~ Tina Valentine

Q: What are your suggestions for activities for the very last days of school?

A: Those last few days are a great time to go back through the year’s Morning Meeting messages together. It’s a terrific activity for sparking memories about learning and shared experiences. If you have access to a big space, such as a gym or a playground, it can be very impressive to spread out all the charts and then have the class do a walk-through, jotting down comments to share when they return to the classroom.

Or, do the whole thing in your classroom, but spread the review out over a week or two. Instead of laying out the charts on the floor, display your chart pads on an easel. Circle up and spend ten or fifteen minutes paging through a couple dozen messages at the end of each day. Try going in reverse order! That way, excitement builds as you work back to the beginning of the year. ~ Mike Anderson

A: The end of the year is a time when walls and bulletin boards in the hallways start looking kind of bare. A nice way to enliven the space is to have students brainstorm lists of things they’ve done and learned and then display those lists throughout the school. At the University School of Nashville, some classes would list what they’d learned in all curriculum areas—math, writing, physical education, music—plus memorable events such as field trips, and then hang their lists in the hallways for all to see. ~ Babs Freeman-Loftis

A: Those last few days of school are a perfect time for “step-up” activities that allow students to learn about the grade they’ll be moving to. At Kensington Avenue School in Springfield, Massachusetts, we did this with an event we called “A Day in the Life of . . .” Each class was paired with a class at their next year’s grade level and would spend about an hour shadowing them in their classroom. We staggered the visits so that students experienced both sides: hosting and being a visitor. ~ Tina Valentine

Q: What about whole-school traditions that help end the year on a positive note?

A: Another approach to step-up activities is to have all the visits happen simultaneously, schoolwide. For instance, on a day towards the end of the year, everyone goes to Morning Meeting in their next-year teacher’s classroom—except the oldest children, who help kindergarteners find their new classrooms, and then go back and have a special Morning Meeting with a kindergarten teacher. Doing this before the end of the year helps dispel the anxiety that builds up in some children as they wonder and worry about who their new teacher and classmates will be. ~ Andy Dousis

A: Hosting an end-of-year open house can be a great way to celebrate learning and bring students’ families into school. We did this at Kensington, and it was always one of the best-attended events of the year. Students would choose work from their portfolios, and for a week we’d have displays all along the sides of our multipurpose room. What really made it a success was that it was self-guided. Parents could come by any time during the school day and could stay as long as they liked. ~ Tina Valentine

A: At University School of Nashville, we held monthly all-school meetings throughout the year and ended with a special one we called “A Celebration of Our Year Together.” Normally one grade level or enrichment area took charge of leading these community meetings, but everyone contributed to this last one.

For example, we figured out a way to have all classes share. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, each class listed the top ten things they wanted to celebrate about their learning that year. Then they gathered pictures to represent items on their list. All those images went into a slideshow, which we showed at our year-end all-school meeting.

To make sure things didn’t get chaotic during the screening, each class practiced “silent celebrations,” such as gestures, that they’d use to show their excitement when their class was featured. Before the meeting, the oldest children (fourth graders at our school) modeled the silent celebrations again for everyone. This helped keep the noise level down and the children from getting too wound up. This was really fun to watch—you’d look out at the audience and you could tell which class’s pictures were up because they’d all have their hands up and their fingers wiggling in the air. ~ Babs Freeman-Loftis

A: Awards ceremonies recognizing students’ individual accomplishments are a year-end tradition in many schools. At my school, we approached this differently. Rather than singling out just a few children for awards, we presented each student with a certificate that named a specific way he or she had grown during the year.

The content of the certificates was drawn from reflective writing that students had done in each classroom. Each child wrote about how he or she had grown or become a stronger person that year. Then, teachers chose an idea from each of their students’ writings and filled out the certificates, which were rolled up and tied with ribbons.

The presentation of the certificates was the centerpiece of our district-mandated Flag Day celebration. It was held outdoors, and since we didn’t have an auditorium, it was one of the few times the whole school was able to gather together. We made it feel like a special ceremony. When the time came, each teacher would be called up to the podium to receive her class’s certificates from the principal. The teachers would then hand the certificates out to students back in their classroom, where children would savor them and share them with their classmates. ~ Tina Valentine

Q: Any final thoughts about ending the year on a positive note?

A: It’s important for teachers to reflect and celebrate the year for themselves, too. It’s often easier for us to make time for doing this with students than for ourselves or with colleagues. When you plan your summer, be sure to build in time for reflection. ~ Margaret Wilson

A: Administrators can encourage this, too. For instance, if your staff named hopes and dreams at the beginning of the year, revisit them at your final staff meeting. Use this as an opportunity to reflect together about how the year went. Then, ask each person to name one goal to work on over the summer. Keeping it to just one thing is important. This is not the time to make a whole laundry list of things to improve on. Just as with students, teachers who end the year feeling proud and accomplished are more likely to return feeling ready to take on new challenges. ~ Tina Valentine

Tags: Last Weeks of School

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