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How to End the School Year Right

—Image via Flickr user Pasco County Schools, under Creative Commons.
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When I was getting married, all the wedding books and websites had countdowns to the big day. They usually went something like this.

  • 6 months before the wedding:
  • Bride: Review and approve proofs of wedding invitations, notify bridesmaids about dress fittings, select attire for flower girl and/or ring bearer.
  • Groom: Try on tuxes.

  • 3 months:
  • Bride: Address wedding invitations by hand, make honeymoon reservations, update wedding registry.
  • Groom: Make a final decision on your tux.

  • 1 week:
  • Bride: Confirm honeymoon travel arrangements, get traveler’s checks, arrange for delivery and placement of wedding flowers.
  • Groom: Pick up tux from tux store.

And so on. I did all my “groom” jobs for the year in an afternoon.

These lists got me wishing I had some kind of wedding-style countdown for the last stretch of the school year. Given all the end-of-the-year tasks, from filling out report cards to tracking down the 17 missing library items I have no memory of checking out, this checklist would more closely resemble the bride’s compendium of tasks than the lazy groom’s.

In the 15 years since I started teaching, I’ve had some magnificent last months, days, and hours of school. I’ve also had some botched and dismal ones.

So as the days get warmer, the kids get crazier, and we are overcome with that impending sense of nostalgia, panic, contentment, and bone-deep relief that the end of the year brings, here is my countdown checklist for a good home stretch. Teachers, I’d love to hear your additions to the list.

One Month Out: Re-Creating Community

My students always start to lose their little 8-year-old minds around now. At the same time, the thrill is gone. Guided reading, 100 charts, and place-value blocks can all start to seem so 2015-16.

Because of that odd combination of mania and boredom, it’s a good time to do some of the class-community things we did at the start of the year. Revisit what good listening looks like, how to resolve conflicts without complaining to the teacher, how we promise to treat each other and why.

Set goals for that last little leap the kids want to make in their reading, math, or writing abilities. Have the students work in groups to propose a new seating arrangement, then either pick the one you like best or let them vote.

Once standardized tests are over, bringing a merciful end to the many miseries they bring, it’s a great time to plan some multi-week projects that have nothing to do with filling in little bubbles with a #2 pencil.

Have the kids write and perform plays. Do an engineering design challenge. In one of my favorites, kids get a box of 100 straws, some tape, string, and a few index cards. Then they design and build a skyscraper to be judged by its height, symmetry, and stability. (We blast it with a blow dryer to test whether it stays still, wobbles, or topples over.)

Inject everything that school should contain all year—time outside, creativity, color, noisy raucous fun—into these last four weeks.

This is your chance: Teach like no one is watching.

One Week Out: Mementos and Reflections

The last week of school can feel overwhelming, with all the books and blocks to pack, charts to take down, and library books to return. But if I get too overzealous with the de-cluttering and wall-clearing, the room can start to feel sterile.

My solution is to have the kids do colorful drawings or paintings of their favorite memories from the year, or what they’re looking forward to doing this summer. I put their works of art up on the wall where the anchor charts used to be, and the students take them home on the last day.

I always have some kind of end-of-year gift to give the kids this week—their own copy of a favorite class read-aloud, a plastic chess set, or a jumbo box of crayons or colored pencils. This year I bought them their own art kits like the one the class pillaged for our economics project a few months back.

Another great end-of-the-year take-home gift is a class literary magazine. Starting a few weeks before the end of the school year, I have the students choose an original story, nonfiction piece, or poem to revise and illustrate. (Given the tendency for 2nd graders to type in all caps, tap the spacebar five or 10 times to separate sentences, and select 72-point font, I type up their final drafts myself.) Then I run off and staple enough copies of the magazine, which includes a piece of writing from each student, for every child to take one home.

The kids are proud of their work, they see themselves as authors, and it puts some print in their homes for the summer. It also provides a way to reflect on how much progress they have made as writers.

I also always write the kids an end-of-the-year letter. I tell each child a few things I noticed she or he improved upon this year, like describing the setting in her stories, or taking deep breaths to calm down when he’s angry. I remind them about funny memories and inside jokes from the school year. I tell them how happy I was to be their teacher this year, and I wish them a great summer.

Last Day of School: Celebrate

I’m always amazed how many interruptions hit on the last day of school. Teachers across the hall pop in to ask for that book they claim I borrowed back in October. Parents arrive to check their children out four hours early. Rowdy packs of older students roam the halls on vague missions they swear their teachers gave them.

Given this chaos, I plan for plenty of down time—art projects, partner reading, long blocks when the kids write and draw whatever they want. This gives me time to just talk to these little people, whose company I will greatly miss, about their summer plans, favorite memories from the year, or hopes and fears about going up to 3rd grade.

Still, the last day seems to go better when there’s at least a loose structure to it. (Watching a two-hour movie rarely ends up being as much fun as the kids and I think it will.) These are a couple of my favorite Last Day activities.

Class mural: Unroll a giant swath of butcher paper from one wall to the other, pass out markers, and have the kids draw their favorite memories from the year. It’s a bonding experience to all be working away at the same piece of art. Everybody’s looking in the same direction for an hour or so, working in companionable silence or laughing and joking about the memories they’re drawing: field trips to plays, museums, or botanical gardens; explosive science experiments; funny things that happened like the fundraiser where our principal had to pucker up and smooch a real live pig.

Memory wheel: Half the kids form an inner circle on the rug, with the other half making an outer circle so they’re each facing a student on the inside. I give a prompt like, “What have you gotten better at this year?”, “What was your favorite class Read Aloud and why?” or “Talk about something funny that happened this year.” Each child talks to the student in front of them, then the outer wheel rotates so everyone has a new partner.

There are thousands of good Last Day options. One of my favorites when I taught 1st grade was a Water Day, which featured water balloon tosses, wet sponge relays, and a squirting game with ketchup and mustard bottles filled with water.

During the other 180+ days of the school year, the kids don’t make enough choices, get enough time to play outside, or make enough art. The last day can be a celebration of all those things school could and should be.

We may end up teaching 2nd grade (or whatever grade you teach) 30 times in our career. But our students only get one 2nd grade year, and they only get one last day of 2nd grade. Might as well make it spectacular.

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