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Finishing the School Year Strong

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 04, 2011 5 min read
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This article is adapted from Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers to Classroom Challenges by Larry Ferlazzo, just published by Eye on Education.

A teacher thinks: State testing is done, the weather is getting nicer, and we are all getting spring fever. There are six or seven weeks left of school and students are easily distracted. It’s even hard for me to stay focused. I don’t just want to “coast.” What can I do?

Those last few weeks of school can be challenging, and it is understandable that both students and teachers would be tempted to “slack-off” a bit. However, it is important for the future of our students that we actually “step up” the quality and intensity of what is happening in our classrooms during that time period.

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman tells about an experiment done in the 1990’s when two groups of patients were given colonoscopies. One group “finished” when the procedure was completed. The other group stayed a while longer, believing the procedure was continuing when in fact it had ended—so the pain was gone or reduced dramatically. The second group described the procedure afterward as much less painful than the first group did, even though both groups had recorded similar levels of pain during the procedure except for the extra time provided the second group. Kahneman uses this example to explain that we have an “experiencing self” and a “remembering self.”

The “remembering self” is comprised of the one or two “peak” moments we have had in a situation combined with how it ends (this is known as the “Peak/End Rule”). It is the remembering self that tends to stick with us and the one we use to frame future decisions.

From this perspective, what occurs in the final weeks of our classes will have a huge influence on how students feel about—and make future decisions related to—learning, schooling, the subject you are teaching, how they might feel about future teachers (and how they might feel about future male or female teachers, depending on your gender), showing leadership in a class, etc.

This time near the end of the year provides us the opportunity to help students finish strong, with a peak or two to remember as well. I have previously shared ideas on what we can do on the absolute last day of school. Here are a few suggestions on things we can do for students and ourselves during the final weeks.

Introducing the Idea of a Strong Finish

Students can reflect on these two questions, turning their answers into posters that can be hung around the classroom as reminders and shared with each other:

• What are three things you can do to help finish the school year strong academically?

• What is one thing you can do to help your classmates finish the year strong academically?

Students’ own unit plan: Have small groups of students identify a topic in which they have a high-degree of interest, prepare a full-fledged unit instructional plan on the topic, and then teach a portion to the class or to another small group. Allowing students to assume the teacher’s role can be a strong motivator near the end of the school year. Students should use whatever engaging instructional methods have been previously used in the class.

Other cooperative learning projects: If a student-created unit plan does not sound like a good idea for some reason, other cooperative learning lessons and strategies, including problem-based and project-based learning, can be a good alternative. Here’s my list of best sites.

Field trip—real and/or virtual: A local, or not-so-local, field trip can always be an energizer. Learning activities in the days leading-up to the trip that are specifically related to the trip—followed by reflections afterward—can provide a good week’s worth of engagement. Sometimes a “real” field trip can be challenging logistically and financially. But thanks to Web 2.0 technology, you can now have students create their own virtual field trips. There are many free websites that will let users easily create virtual field trips. Students can use these applications to visit places online, describe them, and show them to their classmates.

Other technology projects: In general, the end of the school year is a great time to take the leap and try out more technology integration in your classroom. Engage students with learning experiences that are a good fit with digital tools and techniques. Create online projects for “authentic audiences” where people other than the teacher can see and comment on them.

How Can Teachers Stay Energized?

The previous suggestions relate to how we can help our students stay focused. What can teachers do to keep their own teaching energy turned up? Here are a few ideas that are modified versions of what community organizers (I was one for 19 years) are often urged to do when they are feeling “burned-out":

Work fewer hours: By this time of the year, “throwing time” at school doesn’t pay dividends. Cutting back on outrageous work hours per week can often result in feeling more energized in the classroom.

Read a stimulating book: Finding an intellectually-stimulating book (or article) on teaching and learning might get you excited to try out some new things—even though it’s the end of the year.

Watch an intellectually stimulating video on the Web: Watching one of the numerous short and thought-provoking videos on the Web from sites like TED Talks, The Big Think, Ignite, Big Ideas Fest or Pop!Tech is another option. These videos are free and showcase presentations by people who are doing some of the most “cutting-edge” thinking and working in the world.

Write something useful for other teachers: Whether it’s a blog post or a lesson plan to be shared (or something else), forcing yourself to craft something public can keep your mind sharp.

Make a point to eat lunch—individually—with teachers you don’t know well, but are impressed with: It can be energizing to meet with another teacher and learn why they chose this profession, what they’ve discovered about teaching and learning, what gives them energy, and to hear their “story.”

Though we generally think of the word “end” as a conclusion, we should keep in mind it comes from the Greek word anti, which means “before.” While we might think we’re concluding the school year, we are really—much more importantly—setting students, and ourselves, up for what comes next.

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