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How to End the School Year Strong (Opinion)

Can you feel it? The school year is drawing closer to an end.

I’ve previously published a number of posts with ideas on how to finish the year strong (see Best Ways to End The School Year).

Today’s post shares additional suggestions from teachers.

‘Family Heritage Project’

Laleh Ghotbi is a 4th grade teacher at Riley Elementary School and lives in Salt Lake City. She is also a member of the Hope Street Group, a Utah Teacher Fellow, and was one of four finalists for the Salt Lake City school district’s teacher of the year for 2023-24:

I teach in an elementary school where the majority of our students are from diverse backgrounds. When my own children were in school, they were hesitant to talk openly about their cultural values. Their diversity wasn’t acknowledged or appreciated, so they thought it was better to downplay their cultural identities to fit in.

Witnessing their negative experiences as students of color prompted me to explore new ways to empower my own students. I was determined to create an environment where students take pride in their cultural heritage and gain a deeper understanding of their unique traditions and values.

This is why I initiated the family heritage project with my 4th graders; of course, this project is adaptable for students of all grade levels.

Each year, after the end-of-year testing, my students research their ancestral countries. Before starting their research, I send home a parent survey designed to collect information about their families’ countries of origin, encompassing cultural values, traditions, notable individuals, holidays, music, famous landmarks, tourist attractions, and more.

This project provides valuable opportunities for my students to connect with their roots, engaging in meaningful conversations with parents and grandparents, some of whom still reside in their countries of origin.

Once the necessary information is gathered, I guide my students in the process of creating a Word document to compile and preserve their newfound knowledge. Then, they start their online research to further enrich their understanding of their cultural heritage, incorporating the valuable insights shared by their parents and grandparents.

Witnessing my students’ enthusiasm as they uncover fascinating details about their own cultural backgrounds overjoys me. Here are a few of their comments, reflecting their excitement and engagement in this learning experience:

· I didn’t know the largest pyramid ever built in the world is in Mexico and not in Egypt!

· Did you know we have a king and queen in Tonga? Cool!

· A Mexican female astronaut, inspiring!

· What!? My dad’s family is from Spain and my mom’s family from Mexico!!?

· Congo has many beautiful places, it’s not all deserts.

· I want to learn my family’s language, so when I visit Tonga someday, I know how to communicate.

After they have completed their research, I meet with them one-on-one to review their work, ensuring the accuracy of the information, and encouraging them to add more details as needed. Then I print out their work, which is filled with interesting pictures and informative captions.

Next, my students eagerly put their posters together and add photographs, preferably of their family members dressed in traditional clothing, which adds a personal touch to their posters and makes the students feel more connected to their heritage.

The final step for them is to practice presenting their posters. I give them the choice to partner up with another student who shares the same cultural background. I also extend an invitation to their family members to attend and either observe or participate in the presentations. It is truly gratifying to witness my students and their families proudly sharing information about their countries and engaging in a mutual learning experience.

This school year, I extended the opportunity to all grade levels in our school by inviting them to take a tour and view the projects. My students thoroughly enjoyed presenting their work to both younger and older students. It turned out to be a highly successful experience for everyone involved. Even the little kindergartners were attentively listening and admiring the posters.

My students take great pride in their unique identities and diverse backgrounds. They have a strong desire to learn more about their cultures and even have plans to visit their original countries someday. Their families are proud to witness their children’s appreciation for their traditions and their eagerness to learn from the older generation.

Last school year, our school introduced an initiative where every grade level created one cultural poster. These posters were prominently displayed in the hallways during our family-night event, where we celebrate cultural diversity through music, dance, and food. It’s a special occasion where families come together to embrace and share their rich cultural heritage.

‘A Class Yearbook’

Chandra Shaw has more than 24 years of experience in education, as a teacher, reading specialist, instructional coach, and now a literacy consultant at one of her state’s regional service centers. Chandra is a TEDx speaker and amateur YouTuber:

Typically, I spent the last two weeks of school helping my students with their end-of-year projects. The elementary schools I worked in did not have a school yearbook, so we spent that time creating our own class yearbook. These books were done the old-fashioned way, complete with lots of glitter, glue, cutouts, and most importantly, a use at last for that dreaded manila construction paper that showed up on the district’s supply list every year! Each student hand made their own book covers and completed a series of pages. I’d bind them using a book-binding machine.

The pages in the books varied from year to year but were a lot like the ones you’d see in a Senior Book. There were autograph pages for their classmates to sign, “Most Likely To” pages, “Best Of” pages, and a section for students to reflect on the work they’d done that year. Students were encouraged to scavenge their portfolios for work samples that they were most proud of to include in their yearbooks. They also reread their first week of school letters and wrote responses to the new and improved students they’d become.

On the last page of each book was a place for me to write each student a handwritten goodbye letter. Every year as a teacher, I wrote letters to my students sharing my favorite moment with them, telling them my hopes and dreams for their future and how much I was going to miss them. While I can’t say for certain how much of an impact this activity had on students, I will say that throughout the years, I would encounter former students, and they’d often tell me about the books from my class that they still possessed. They still had their Mother’s Day poetry books and their classroom yearbooks.

One special incident occurred with a young woman who had come to my classroom in 4th grade during the middle of the year. She had come from a school district that was known for being a bit tough. She started off having a difficult time fitting in with our classroom and our culture of high expectations.

I remember writing on her end-of-year letter how she had come to our class as a diamond in the rough but finished the year showing her brilliance. I wrote that I couldn’t wait to see everything she’d accomplish in the future. One day, while out grocery shopping, I heard this booming “Ms. Shaw!” from across the store. I turned to see that student. She ran up and gave me a huge hug and then proceeded to tell me about still having her yearbook and how my words to her about being a diamond had positively impacted her confidence. It’s the kind of special moment that teachers look forward to, and I loved hearing how well she was doing in college!

Whatever teachers do during the final days of school should make those last moments with students special and be worth their time. I chose to reflect on the school year while creating a keepsake that students could treasure for years to come.

‘Reflection and Celebration’

Rebecca Alber teaches in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA. She has been a high school English teacher, literacy coach, and consulting editor at Edutopia:

As the year wraps up, my students were completing an end-of-unit project or preparing for a final assessment. What also mattered was reflection and celebration; these were always front and center in the closing two weeks of a school year in my classroom.

I ask the new teachers who I instruct and advise, “How do you want students to feel when they walk out of your classroom for the last time?” This will lead to conversations about creating opportunities for students to reflect, and celebrate, the ways they have grown as community members, as individuals, as thinkers, readers, writers, as researchers, historians, and mathematicians.

As we entered those last two weeks, I’d kick off the reflection and celebration journey by first reviewing with the students all the learning that took place in our class for the school year. I would do a sort of corralling of the curriculum where my students and I would revisit together key concepts, content, and projects from each unit of study. Presenting visuals for key learning and units really helped them with recall as they gathered from the past school year all the learning they had done.

Following the review, a “show what you know” assignment most students liked was their crafting of a letter to a future student or to their future self.

If it was a future student: What advice might you give them, and what should the student do in order to be successful in this class? How will what they learn help them in other classes? How about in life? I’d have students after they would write, share with a partner or two, select a few golden lines they were proud of in their writing. Students tend to take this activity seriously because there’s a real audience built in. (I’d keep the letters and share parts of those at the start of the new year with the new group of students.)

Students might instead choose to write a letter to their future self. They could record some memories and important learning from class during the year. They can also write their hopes, fears, and expectations for themselves for the following year.

If students were stuck on (not writing) either the letter to a future student or to future self, I’d offer up other choices for reflecting on the year’s learning: craft a poem, make a bulleted list, or create a storyboard, for example.

Another activity those last couple of weeks that allowed students to “show what they know”? Portfolio showcase: Students compiled a collection of their best work from the school year and included explanations for their choices. This can be done in hard copy or digitally and can include illustrations and photos.

Whatever activities I chose that gave students a chance to reflect on the year’s learning, I was always sure to include celebratory elements. How those looked? Students sitting in the writer’s chair and reading aloud to the class some or all of their piece or playing music while students galley walked—strolled looking at each other’s golden lines displayed on the walls. However we celebrated, there was always plenty of warm feedback for each other, laughter, and even some applause.

‘Teaching Until the Last Day’

Elisa Waingort-Jiménez is a grade 4 teacher at a Spanish bilingual school in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She has been teaching for over 35 years:

Educators know that the last two weeks of the school year can be challenging for teachers and students alike: Report card marks and comments have been submitted, summer beckons with its warmer weather and longer daylight hours, kids and teachers are tired and are looking forward to a summer of rest and relaxation. So, how can teachers contain this legitimate excitement that can often devolve into chaos at the end of the school year?

My goal has always been to maintain the same classroom atmosphere and guidelines that I worked hard to establish in September. I tell kids, in no uncertain terms, that I will be teaching until the last day of school. I use the urgency card and let them know that while there will be some fun activities outside of the regular schedule during this time—inline skating, sports day, schoolwide showcase—we still have learning to do. I relay this same message to my students’ caregivers in my weekly letters, hoping that this will spark a conversation at home.

In addition to the mindset I’ve described above, the following are some specific things I do during the last two weeks of school to maintain a calm and engaging learning environment.

· First, I keep the same schedule we’ve had since the beginning of the year, except if there are special schoolwide events, so my students know what to expect. If, for some reason, I have to alter our regular schedule, I tell the class why it has changed, which seems to soothe the more anxious students in my class.

· Because we are in Alberta, Canada, where we have many days of indoor recess throughout the year due to the weather, we go outside for slightly longer recesses during the last two weeks. Sometimes, we have PE outside, and the kids bring out equipment and organize their own activities. As long as they are physically active, I stay out of their way.

· This year, students organized a PJ/squishmallow/stuffy/chaotic hair day for the last day of school.

· I don’t put on movies unless they are related to the curriculum in some way, despite getting repeated requests from students. This may sound harsh to some, but I am firm when I remind them they will have all summer to watch movies.

· This year my grade 3 partners and I organized an end-of-the-year field trip. Although this wasn’t done by design (the dates we’d hoped for were no longer available), I think it’s a great idea for the last two weeks of school. Even a walking field trip to a park would be a welcome break and could still be educational and fun for students. We are fortunate to have a botanical garden near our school that is visited by many classes in our building.

· Finally, during the last week of school, I designate one day for students to create their own schedule divided into 30-minute periods. This is not my original idea, and, unfortunately, I don’t remember who to credit. I’ve done this for the last few years, however. There are certain conditions—students have to read, write, work on their Spanish (we’re a Spanish bilingual school), engage in a math activity, work on a science and/or social studies project.

They can do these activities in any order they want and they need to tell me what they’re going to do during each session. I have them create their schedules one day before and sign off on them, so they can start right away the next day. What I love about this is that students take this project seriously, no matter their age, and there’s a quiet buzz in the classroom during this time. I am available to support students or to answer questions, if necessary.

At the end of the school year, it’s important to maintain routines sprinkled in with some novelty to help students have a smooth transition to their summer break.

Thanks to Laleh, Chandra, Rebecca, and Elisa for contributing their thoughts!

Today’s guests answered this question:

What do you do in your classes during the final two weeks of the school year?

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.

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