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Making the Most of the Home Stretch

NOTE – This post originally appeared on the Spark Learning blog
Thinking back to my high school history teaching days, I don’t remember the final quarter of the year too fondly. Mostly, images of test prepping, crowd control, and glazed over eyes comes to mind. I remember distinctly thinking that I just needed to make it to the end of the year, then I’d have the opportunity to start fresh the following year.
This is a pretty rational (albeit jaded) way to approach the final stretch of the school year. After all, teachers are tired, students are tired, and exams are staring us all in the face. What’s to get excited about? I submit that, with the proper perspective, this time of year is ideal for testing the waters in small ways to till the soil for the next year.
As long as you don’t bite off too much, this is a good time to take some small, calculated risks to try some things to either deal with a problem or challenge or explore a new opportunity. After all, you’ve built up a rapport and level of trust with your students at this point. You won’t have them in class much longer. Try out one or more of the following experiments before the end of the year.
Learn from your students
Students can be great advisors and consultants. We just have to ask. If you have questions about the routines, procedures, or layout of the classroom, now is the time to ask. Consider distributing a survey with targeted questions that students can answer anonymously. Create some lunch time focus groups where you invite small groups of students (4-8 works best), prepare some questions, and let them talk.
If some issues surface that you want to deal with, consider partnering with a “task force” of students to develop some prototypes for possible solutions. Sometimes students see issues from a really different perspective and their ideas can be quite insightful. You can then encourage the group to share the problem and proposed solution(s) with the rest of the class for their feedback. If there’s time, try to implement the changes and observe how things go.
Support your students’ physical and emotional needs
As exams roll around, we all get a little stressed. This is just as true for students as it is for teachers. Unfortunately, many of us just try to double down our effort, suck it up, and push through. This can be really counterproductive, however, as this can just compound the stress and anxiety. Mindfulness and physical movement can be great ways to combat this stress and anxiety.
Build in short periods of quiet for students to let their minds wander, focus on their breathing, listen to some music on their phone, or even put their head down. This short reset can work wonders. If students are working independently on something – maybe a review sheet or practice test – play some calm music in the background. Instrumental movie soundtracks or songs from the Vitamin String Quartet are available online and great for this. Get kids up and moving. Review activities can take place standing up at stations around the room rather than at their desks. If it’s feasible, take a 5-minute walk outside. Do some stretches or even jog in place. Any of these activities can help us to get out of our heads and relax a bit.
Take an instructional risk
At a certain point, you’re done with the required curriculum, students have taken exams and you’re left with some white space on your calendar. Is this the time to watch videos or play games? Heck no, this is the time to try some activity, project or experience you haven’t had time for. This works especially well for short-term, bite-sized experiences.
Try a BreakoutEDU related to something you’ve studied. Have your students do some creative writing or game development. Try out a simulation or roleplaying experience. Connect with an expert or community member related to a topic you’ve explored to create an interactive experience for students. Take a virtual field trip. Engage students in a design challenge. Or even just mix it up with some new learning activity types. Now is the time to test new waters. You might identify some new experiences that you want to build in to the curriculum next year.
Try a passion project
In many ways we try to encourage student choice and voice in our classrooms. We might give students some choice in choosing a topic for a research paper or other assignment. We might offer multiple assessment options at the end of a unit. We might even encourage students to design their own demonstration of learning. These are all great, but all limited by the focus of the curriculum. What if we were to open up possibilities for students to explore something they’re passionate about?
Enter the passion project. A passion project gives students the time, space, and limited structure to explore any topic they are passionate about. Maybe Juan is an avid consumer of vlogs on Youtube. He might enjoy doing some research on how someone gets a channel set up to produce their own videos. Maybe he’s interested in monetization strategies. Give him the time and support to explore this. Maybe Monica is really into anime. Her passion project might be to create a short fan fiction novella based on her favorite author/illustrator. You can even encourage students to find some tie between their project and some aspect of your class – it could be a concept, skill, or habit that you’ve worked with them on during the year. I highly recommend Don Wettrick’s book, Pure Genius, as a roadmap or field guide to get you started.
Share their learning
Your students have done amazing work during the year. Maybe they’ve compiled a portfolio of their favorite work. Maybe you’ve kept great samples as the year has gone on. Why not give your students a platform to share their learning?
There are a number of different ways for students to share their work from classroom museum exhibitsonline exhibitscelebrations of learningpanel presentations, a shark tank, and many more. The scale can be small (maybe inviting another class), medium (inviting parents after school), or big (a community-wide event) – at any scale, though, students will be proud to share their learning. For a great resource on designing an exhibit or celebration of learning, check out Leaders of Their Own Learning by Ron Berger, Leah Rugen, and Libby Woodfin. If you take on this challenge, share your results on Twitter with the hashtag #shareyourlearning and tag me @markhofer.
Finish Strong!
Whatever you choose to try, I challenge you to finish the year strong. You’ll learn some things that you can then build on in the next year. And, you’ll be energized as you finish up the final stretch.