As the end of the year approaches, sometimes survival feels like the name of the game. Keep showing up, keep trying to smile, keep from getting mad at anyone when you’re feeling exhausted and in desperate need of a break. It’s so tempting to put up a big countdown chart on the board and root for summer along with everyone else.
But the problem with counting down is, it doesn’t really speed things up. Or make you feel much better. It puts all the emphasis on what you don’t have yet.
I remember one summer in college when I worked in a candy store. The summer afternoons dragged when customers were sparse. When beachcombers and weekenders crammed in happily demanding custom jelly belly mixes and gift wrapped boxes of chocolate rocks, the time flew.
The end of the year will actually come much sooner when you and your students are busily engaged doing good and important work right up until the end. The tempo and type of work just needs to shift a little to fit the season and everyone’s mood.
Here are five tips, based on my own experience and a lot of great conversations inside my Facebook group, Creative High School English (are you there yet?), for taking some of the stress off you and making the end of the year smooth and successful.
#1 Don’t Leave MAJOR Grading until the End
Oh man, this is such an easy mistake to make. You are likely going to have a giant final exam project, paper, or test to grade already. There is no need to also collect a huge assignment, like a multi genre autobiography, semester’s worth of blog writing, or research documentary project, on the last day of school.
So many teachers across the disciplines stack their major assessments in the last week, so not only will you save yourself a super stressful grading frenzy by scheduling your due dates a bit sooner, but your overloaded students will appreciate it so much.
#2 Create Windows of Productivity for EVERYONE
Whatever you’re doing at the end of the year, build some productive work time on it for your students into the last few weeks of class. Whether they are working on a genius hour project, writing graduation speech final exams, reading a free-choice book and creating a one-pager on it, or some other wonderful final unit, build clear working days with clear expectations for major productivity into the schedule.
They will appreciate a little breathing room in their lives, and so will you. Take this time to clean house – check in with students missing work, zip through all those last quizzes you’ve got sitting in a drawer waiting to be marked, reshelve all the books in your reading library, write those five parent e-mails that are at the bottom of your to-do list, and clean off your cluttered desktop.
Play a nice working playlist, open the windows, maybe even bring in some cookies. Make everyone feel good about being productive, and don’t feel guilty about joining in. Circulate now and then to applaud the great work happening and answer questions.
#3 Clean it Up Bit-by-Bit
There’s nothing like trying to grade fifty projects in a row to let you know it is totally impossible to grade fifty projects in a row. Same with writing grade comments. As things wrap up, try to alternate the types of work you are doing.
Rather than plowing through all your grading and then spending two dusty days cleaning and reorganizing your classroom, change it up. Grade five assessments, then take photos of all your favorite displays (to inspire you next year!) and carefully put them away in folders and bins. Finalize one class’s worth of grades, then tackle that bookshelf where you’ve been shoving stray papers and water bottles for the last six months. Keep a notebook handy where you can jot ideas for your classroom space next year as you disassemble this year’s.
#4 Choose a Creative Exam and have Students Present on the Last Day
Oh how I love to use the day when most students are staring at reams of multiple choice questions to have my students present creative final projects. I make sure my project requires them to think carefully back through all the units of the term, and then I work with them on it for the last week of school and applaud the results on the final day.
Not only does it help keep us going strong in class until the end, but it feels far more reflective of final assessments in college. I never took a final exam in any of my college humanities classes. Papers and projects were the name of the game. If you’re looking for creative final exam inspiration, check out this post I wrote last year or this article I put together for We Are Teachers.
#5 Finish with Positivity
OK, so I have to admit my brother used to call me “Pollyanna.” I made it to all-American status on my college tennis team with a smiley face drawn on my racquet in stencil ink. I look for the bright side when possible, but I’ve seen plenty of rough moments too. At the end of the year, I believe it will really change the way you head into summer if you can try to leave things in a positive place.
Unsurprisingly, I have a few ideas on how to make that happen (I can see you chortling over there)…
Choose a creative activity for the last few weeks of school, whatever it is. No matter how much test prep you’ve had to accomplish in the spring, you’re past it now and it’s time to teach something you LOVE.
Plan a way to say goodbye to your students that is meaningful to you. Write them a short letter about what you enjoyed about being their teacher, go out on campus to take a class picture somewhere beautiful so you can remember them, or take twenty minutes one day in class to put together a top ten moments of the year with them so you can all remember what mattered to you most about your time together.
Share something great you’ve done with one of your administrators. Invite your department chair to see your students present some creative work they’ve done, or send photos of a cool project or event you had with your students to your principal. Be proactive in letting these folks know you are doing your very best. Post something to your social media with the hashtag #greatkidsgreatschools and help change the public dialogue about our schools.
Spend twenty minutes writing down your takeaways from the year – what worked really well? What was tough? What needs attention over the summer? Let that lead into twenty minutes of writing down two or three goals for what you could accomplish over the summer. Before you switch off teacher mode, identify some meaningful things you could fit into your summer somewhere (revamp one unit? Learn about genius hour? Start listening to a teacher podcast? Shop for more outside reading books at used book stores?) so a general feeling that you “should” be working more isn’t hanging over your entire summer.
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