Teaching Until the Very End

How to make the most of the final weeks of the school year

June 6, 2017 9:28 AM
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By David Rawson

David Rawson is a high school languages teacher in Australia with a particular interest in improving assessment and creating school cultures that value teachers as researchers. For the past year, he has been a Frank Knox Fellow  and a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard, where he recently completed a master's degree in educational leadership at the  Harvard Graduate School of Education.

With the end of the school year in sight, it’s tempting to fill class time with low-lift recreation that leaves us free to manage the administrative routines of June — while managing our own exhaustion. We’ve all been there: We might show a film in the hope of discreetly grading a couple of papers from the back of the room, or we might have students engage in silent reading to keep them busy. I’m guilty as charged.

But there’s another kind of June narrative we could be writing. What if, instead of trying to keep students entertained, we recognized that they are ideally positioned for a new kind of challenge — for the more cognitively demanding tasks we might not have been able to assign earlier?

The end of the year can be a time for heightened creativity, problem solving, and collaboration — for making the most of the community you’ve worked so hard to form.

Students have learned our lessons, sat through our assessment, and received the feedback of their classmates and their teachers. Now is the time for all of that to gel. It’s a time for heightened creativity, problem solving, and collaboration — for making the most of the cohesive and intelligent community you’ve worked so hard to form.

If we teach right up until the very end of the year, the conditions are just right for students to flourish.

What follows are a series of ideas to help you design productive end-of-year experiences for you and your students.

Leverage the strong relationships you’ve forged

The final weeks represent the point at which you have known your students longest. Use this time to build upon the trust you've developed. Delve into the ethical dimensions of your material, or confront controversial topics using the tools students have acquired. In a unit focusing on Romeo and Juliet, for instance, have students consider the ethical implications of characters like Friar Lawrence defying the explicit wishes of the children’s parents.

Allow students to demonstrate mastery

You have provided students intermittent feedback and coaching. Now in these final weeks, grant them the opportunity to enact your advice. Rather than winding down, allow students to flex their mastery muscles by devising creative solutions to complex problems. Consider ways you might include the wider community and have students develop something useful for a real-world audience. High Tech High and the Buck Institute for Education provide useful examples of projects you can adapt for your context. Have students make a website or a video about a local issue they care about; have them write a song or animate a concept. Have them create a guide for next year’s students. Get creative, without feeling shackled to standardized tests or internal assessment.

Prioritize feedback over results

Rather than winding down, allow students to flex their mastery muscles by devising creative solutions to complex problems.

As we take stock of the term, it can be tempting to focus on kids’ overall grades. Students, parents, and school leaders certainly demand it of us. Don’t obsess over grades, though; focus on feedback instead. Take the time to speak with individual students about their progress, as well as commenting on trends and patterns you observed across the class. Providing feedback before and as separate from final grades can help to reorient students towards a growth mindset.

Evaluate your programming — with student input

What did students think of your unit? Do they have suggestions for improving the curriculum or pedagogy? It can be daunting to humble yourself to students, but they will appreciate your willingness to involve them in the evaluation process. By seeking student input, you’ll gain useful information for future planning — and signal to students that you value their voices.

Celebrate your class community, and model kindness

In the last weeks, don't obsess over grades; focus on feedback instead.

Take the time to show students that the class community you have shared is worth celebrating. Make it clear that you value them. You might write your class a letter (or a poem, if you’re so inclined!) in which you share memorable moments, both humorous and those that have impacted your community. Acknowledge acts of kindness you have witnessed, provide shout-outs for those living out the class norms, and celebrate the collective success of the group.

Learning does not have to stop when the final piece of work has been handed in. Some families will inevitably depart early for vacation, but this need not deter us from developing a climate in our schools where the norm is to challenge our students right to the end — freed from some of the typical boundaries of curriculum and assessment. Our own summer vacations will be all the sweeter for it.