Published Online: May 20, 2009

Teaching Secrets: The Last Day of School

It's that time of year again—the last few weeks of school. Many of us work hard at plans to keep students engaged during this time but, at least in my experience, far fewer have a well-considered plan for the last day of school.

This final day together can be an important time for both the students and the teacher. It's a time to reflect, to celebrate, to say goodbye, and to give our students a nudge into the future.

I put out a call on my blog for teachers to share what they do on this special day. I also surveyed some of my colleagues and reflected on what I have done in the past. The results seem to fall into three categories.

CATEGORY ONE: Placate and Vegetate. This section requires little explanation, and I've been guilty of it myself some years. The teacher puts on a movie, sets out games for students to play, or allows them to listen to music and chat. Everybody pretty much just counts down the minutes. It's clear to me that we do our students a disservice, especially in urban schools, when we choose this category. For many of our students, school provides constancy and order in otherwise chaotic lives. This day is our last opportunity to honor their work and help them prepare for what can be a boring two-and-half months at home. For many, those months will be followed by a major transition to another grade, another school, or another city—often without a lot of family support.

These next two categories, I believe, are much more appropriate for the last day or last few days of school.

CATEGORY TWO: Celebrate and Appreciate. Many of the teachers who responded to my call-out have celebrations. Nebraska teacher Beth Still organizes a barbecue at a local park, with her husband grilling the burgers. A 6th grade teacher known only as "Teachin'" stages a Scattergories tournament using content learned during the year.

Others, like Florida 4th grade teacher Jason Flom, have an awards ceremony where every student is recognized. I generally do something similar in my classes. In a nod to what Alfie Kohn says in his book Punished By Rewards about the potential negative effects of rewards, I don't tell students in advance what the awards are for and make sure that everybody gets one. I also think strategically about which students might like getting serious certificates, and which ones would better appreciate funny ones.

CATEGORY THREE: Evaluate and Agitate. This category relates to lessons I learned during my 19-year career as a community organizer, prior to becoming a high school teacher five years ago. In organizing, we often talk about the difference between irritating and agitating. I can be irritating you if I'm challenging you to do something I'm interested in. On the other hand, I'm agitating you if I'm challenging you to do something you’re interested in. In my classroom, I want to be an agitator as much of the time as I can—and especially on the last day of class.

There are two things I know that grab my students' interest: (1) "turning the tables" and grading me for a change, and (2) writing and talking about themselves.

High school English teacher C. Whede says he has his students evaluate him and his class on the last day of school. I do, too, and both my students and I get a lot out of it. In addition to the usual questions ("What did you like the best...," etc.), I think it's important to include questions that dig a little deeper, such as: "Mr. Ferlazzo is patient….some of the time….a lot of the time…all of the time." Or "Did you feel that Mr. Ferlazzo was concerned about what was happening in your life? If yes, how did he show it? If no, how has he shown that?" Or "Do you feel that Mr. Ferlazzo listens to you? If yes, how has he shown it? If no, how has he shown that?"

In my organizing days, we also spoke about the difference between opinion and judgment. Opinion is something you develop on your own—it’s "untested." Judgment, on the other hand, is the result of interaction with others—where you allow yourself to hear what others might have seen that you did not. I try to teach that difference throughout the school year, and on this final day I have one more chance to do so. I set up students in a sort of "speed-dating" system where people get to share their evaluations of the class and me with each other. Then they have an opportunity to update their (anonymous) responses before a student collects them for me.

I share the results—warts and all—each year with my colleagues and principal.

I also typically have students do two projects that relate to their futures. For one project, I share the abundant data documenting the negative effect of the "summer slump" on many students—how they can fall behind academically by not doing any reading during their time off. I then explain that I have made certain arrangements with their next year's English teacher (our urban school is divided into seven "small learning communities," so I know, and they know, who their teacher will be). They will receive extra credit (I’m not a total believer in Punished By Rewards) for every book they read during the summer. To claim their credit, they’ll just need to come see me when school begins in the fall and answer a few questions about each book so I know they actually read it. (They have to bring the book, too.) Students can also check out books from my extensive classroom library. I've only lost a few books this way, mostly when students moved away during the summer. The idea of starting the next year with a zillion extra credit points can generate a fair amount of student interest.

T.S. Eliot wrote, "To make an end is to make a beginning." So, as another step towards thinking about the year to come, I have students draw and write a metaphor or simile of themselves (I am like a ______ because ________) that I will give to their next teacher. I explain this will be the first impression their new teacher will have of them. This is one more way students can reinforce a positive self-image. It also opens the way for the student and new teacher to make an early personal connection when they meet in the fall.

These are just a few ideas, and I'm sure there are more and better ones out there. I hope you'll add yours in the comments space below.

Go celebrate, appreciate, evaluate, and agitate (you could probably stimulate and captivate, too). Don't placate or vegetate, and, while you're at it, you probably don't want to pontificate or dictate, either!

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