Ending the School Year with Distance Learning
The end of any school year can be a bittersweet time for both teachers and students. This year, these feelings are heightened as we consider how to have closure with our students when we might not be physically together with them in school. Students and educators may experience feelings never encountered before at the end of the school year, including great sadness, anxiety, anger, grief, fear, and relief. It is important to acknowledge these feelings, and to understand that saying goodbye in the time of COVID-19 is going to look and feel different. We have to rethink the routines and activities we typically use in the classroom at the end of the year. Here are some ideas to create meaningful closure to the 2019-2020 school year while engaged in distance learning.
Review the School Year
It is important to begin with a review of the entire school year. So much energy has been placed on the current pandemic situation, and this may be overpowering students’ memories of the first two-thirds of the school year. Students will benefit from reminders of the first seven or eight months you were all together in school. Create a visual timeline of the school year, and include photos of you, your students, your classroom, and school. Share the titles of books you read together and other reminders about field trips, concerts, classroom projects, assemblies, etc. Reviewing the entire school year will give students an opportunity to recall favorite moments and articulate what they learned.
Reflect on Goals
Lead a reflection activity on student hopes and dreams or SMART goals that were set at the start of the school year. Send each student the goal or goals they set back in 2019. If student goals are hanging up in the classroom, perhaps you can take photos and send them to your students or type the goals in an email or shared document. Ask your students a few open-ended questions to prompt some thinking about whether they accomplished the goal or if they are still working on it. For example, ask questions such as:
- Have you already met your hope and dream?
- Is this SMART goal still a priority for you?
- If you haven’t met this goal yet, how might you accomplish it?
Play End-of-the-Year Games
Play virtual Bingo to review what was learned during the school year. Create a variety of Bingo boards that contain facts, concepts, and skills that students learned and experienced throughout the year. Share one Bingo board with each student. To get ready to play, students can either print out the Bingo board or have it open on their device. Instead of calling out the traditional “B, 32,” it may sound like, “N, insects have 3 body parts and 6 legs” or “O, the answer to an addition problem is called a sum.”
You can also play a version of Family Feud. Survey students ahead of time with some questions about the school year, and compile the top answers. To play the game, read the questions one by one, and have students share what they think were the most popular answers. Students can either jot their answers on sticky notes or pieces of paper and hold them up to the camera, or you can call on individual students to share their guesses.
Read Books to Reflect on Endings and New Beginnings
Read-aloud is often a favorite time of the school day for teachers and students, and this is an activity that now easily takes place virtually. There are many picture books written about the last day of school, with settings in traditional classrooms and schools. However, many students are now ending the school year from home, while others may be in school with many restrictions on social interaction. Books depicting typical classrooms and end-of-the-year parties and traditions may be difficult for you and your students to see and hear. Here are some books that provide inspiration and positive messages about endings and beginnings but are not school-focused. These titles will make for wonderful read-alouds at the end of this unique school year.
- Summer Days and Nights by Wong Herber Yee (grades K–2)
On a hot summer day, a little girl finds ways to entertain herself and stay cool. She catches a butterfly, sips lemonade, jumps in a pool, and goes on a picnic. At night, she sees an owl in a tree and a frog in a pond, and hears leaves rustling. Before long, she’s fast asleep, dreaming about more summer days and summer nights.
- I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (grades K–3)
This is an inspirational book full of endless good wishes—wishes for curiosity and wonder, for friendship and strength, laughter and peace. This book is perfect for celebrating life’s joyous milestones and sharing words of encouragement.
- Only One You by Linda Krantz (grades K–3)
Mama and papa share some of the wisdom they have gained through the years with their eager son. They want him to know that there’s only one of him in this great big world, so let’s make it a better place. Their words, simple and powerful, are meant to comfort and guide their son as he goes about exploring the world.
- My Teacher Likes to Say by Denise Brennan-Nelson (grades K–5)
While this book does include some illustrations of classroom settings, the teacher’s words are the focus of this book. It includes a delightful interpretation of maxims, idioms, proverbs, and clichés many students remember hearing on a regular basis in the classroom. From “Do you have ants in your pants?” to “Stick together!” and “Great minds think alike,” readers will be intrigued by the history of these adages, told in poetry form as well as expository text, and amused by the witty illustrations, depicting these sayings as a child might imagine them.
- Whatever You Are Be a Good One: 100 Inspirational Quotations Hand-Lettered by Lisa Congdon (grades 4–8)
This thought-provoking collection of quotes compiles the timeless wisdom of great original minds—from Marie Curie to Stephen King, Joan of Arc to Jack Kerouac, Oscar Wilde to Harriet Tubman—brilliantly hand-lettered by beloved indie artist Lisa Congdon. Readers will find enlightening insights (“Wisdom begins in wonder” — Socrates), stirring calls to action (“Leap and the net will appear”—John Burroughs), and stimulating encouragements (“Be curious, not judgmental” — Walt Whitman) beautifully illuminated on every page.
- The Knowing Book by Rebecca Kai Dotlich (all ages)
In this inspiring story, a young rabbit travels through the wide world, experiencing joy and sorrow and wonder. Along the way, he chooses a path and explores the unknown. And at the end of his journey, braver and more confident, he returns home—a place he can always count on.
Share an End-of-the-Year Slideshow
Ask your students some reflection questions and encourage them to jot down answers or draw something that communicates their answers. Compile their responses along with some photos from the school year. Choose some music that is meaningful for your students, such as a song they sang for a chorus performance or a favorite tune you often sang together in class. Put it all together in a slideshow to look back on the school year together. Here are some ideas for reflection questions:
- What are three things you’re proud of accomplishing this year? Why?
- What did you learn about yourself this year?
- How did we support each other’s learning this year?
- What are two things you learned about your classmates?
- What was a funny moment for you this year?
Give Virtual Compliments
Many teachers end the school year with a compliment activity, in which students circulate around the classroom jotting down a compliment or positive words for each classmate. To accomplish this virtually, consider creating a grid and writing each student’s name in one of the boxes. You can post the grid to an app such as Seesaw or share the document electronically with your students. In each of the labeled boxes, direct students to write one word that describes that classmate. Turn the responses into a word cloud for each student and email it to them on the last day of school.
Welcome the Next Class
Invite your students to write a “letter from the experts” to your incoming students. Let your students know that they are now the experts in their grade and class, and this is their opportunity to pass on their wisdom. In their letter to your new students, they can share all about the learning that takes place, as well as any special projects, field trips, performances, or assemblies that are unique to that class or grade. Invite students to also include tips and tricks for having a successful school year. Share these letters with your new students at the end of the summer or on the first day of school.
Another way to welcome new students is to have your current students create a class information book, slide presentation, or video. Some ideas for titles are “Tips for First Grade,” “What’s Great About Third Grade,” or “Things You’ll Learn in Fifth Grade.” Each student can create a page or slide with two or three tips. You can assemble all the submissions into a single book or presentation that can be shared digitally.
Reflect and Celebrate Together
Closure is important at the end of every school year for students and teachers. Hopefully these ideas provide a new twist on some end-of-the-year traditions. Whatever you choose for reflection and celebration activities, be sure they are sensitive to the current situation your students are facing and supportive of everyone’s feelings and emotional well-being.