Sunday, May 11, 2014

10 Ways to Finish the School Year Well

Imagine a sports team that reaches the two minute warning or final inning only to set its engine to cruise control and coast along until final buzzer sounds. That scenario would be a recipe for disaster and that team is in for a dismal finish! This is a great analogy for the last few days and weeks of the school year. Imagine a teacher who, when the final few weeks are in sight, sets his teacher engine to cruise control. (Surely, none of us know teachers like this...) Dismal finish.

The end of the school year is no time to settle in and wait for the final bell. Rather, the end of the school year ought to be a time when a teacher teaches with an unparalleled sense of urgency. Kids often begin dreaming of summer vacation, sleeping late and the like, as the end of the school year approaches. That does not mean, however, that a teacher has to allow his students to check out and disengage. In fact, here are ten ways a teacher can finish the year well and keep kids plugged in all the way to the last bell or the final exam of the year.

1. Keep expectations high. The end of the year is no time to slack off on procedures, expectations, rigor and high standards for work and behavior. If anything, a teacher should redouble his efforts to make sure students and parents know that expectations remain high until the last bell rings.
2. Put away the worksheets. I once was told by an old (not just veteran but old) teacher to keep kids extra busy in the last few weeks of school, and if that means stacks of worksheets and extra questions from the book, so be it. Oh. My. Gosh. To finish well and to keep kids engaged, do something interesting and avoid busy work at all costs.
3. Put the VHS and DVDs back in the closet. Watching a marathon of anything and hoping kids stay in their seats and quiet with a video is not the way to close out the year, even after AP exams and state testing. Using bits and pieces of excellent and meaningful videos remains a great way to supplement learning. Avoid the trap of showing videos bell to bell and do something more meaningful. Maybe let the students write and produce their own videos...
4. Be encouraging. In my experience, kids more often than not do what we ask them to do and rise to our expectations when we encourage them. For the kids who have things under control, encourage them to finish strong. For the kids who are struggling to make it to the finish line, pour into them and let them know they can do it. For kids on the fence, do whatever you can to make them believe that finishing is possible and preferable. Encouragement is a powerful thing.
5. Communicate with parents. No parent wants a surprise at the end of the school year. Be diligent in communicating with parents. Whether a student is in trouble academically or is soaring, the last few weeks of the year are crucial for clear communication between teacher and parents.
6. Give students choice. Why are teachers always amazed at how much engaged students are when students have some input into what they read, write, study, explore or produce? When possible, allow students to pursue something about which they are passionate or in which they are interested. Choice can be an incredible tool.
7. Be available. The end of the school year is no time to fudge on the start and end of the work day. Be as punctual as ever, if not more so. Likewise, if your school offers a tutorial period or office hours, be available and let your students know you are available. When students know you haven't checked out yet, they are less likely to check out early.
8. Remain predictable and supportive. Simply put, the best teachers are both predictable and supportive in terms of classroom culture, assessments, grading policy, instruction, relationships and more. Students need predictability and support at the end of the year more than ever because so many other things around them are sending them messages that say, "Wind things down, school's almost out."
9. Look ahead. The best teachers know that learning should occur in a vacuum and shouldn't end in May or June. Take time during the final weeks to talk about what comes next, what students can do to continue learning over the summer, what students can expect to learn next year, etc. Just like a great teacher does often on a daily basis, a great teacher can show students where their learning is taking them next.
10. Tie it all together. What have you been doing all year in the classroom? The end of the year is the perfect time to demonstrate to students in interesting and meaningful ways how everything they've done all year ties together, has meaning, has relevance and connects to the real world. If students head into the summer thinking they spent a year just "doing school," what a shame. If students head into the summer seeing the bigger picture and how their learning has relevance in their lives, wow!

Cruise control is no way to end the school year. Instead, a great teacher puts the pedal to the metal to finish strong.

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