11 unique ideas to finish the school year strong

These ideas can create a high level of energy to enhance learning and head into the summer break on a high note

State testing is done (or will be), the weather is getting nicer, and the school year is coming to an end. It’s hard for students to stay focused and sometimes even harder for educators.

We cram in field trips and awards ceremonies after testing, and that can give the impression that “teaching is done.” Having been a principal for 10 years, I understand this time of year can be hectic, exhausting, and stressful for teachers and school leaders. Here are some ideas that can create a high level of energy to enhance learning and finish the school year strong.

11 ways to finish the school year strong

Classroom ideas

In a game, a race, or anything that have a start and finish, the finish is what we remember. We need to step up the intensity of learning and lessons—not step back.

1. Have students create units: Create an avenue for students to identify a topic (or topics) that highly interest them. This immediately adds relevance to learning. Ensure the topic matches the grade-level curriculum goals and assist students to frame the outcomes to match grade-level standards. If there is more than one topic, groups can prepare a full-fledged unit instructional plan on a specific topic and then teach a portion to the class or another small group. Allowing students to have a role in teaching is motivating and will provide intrinsic drive.

2. Unit trailers: Take student-created units to the next level. Once they design the goals, lesson ideas, and learning outcomes, students can use video or posters to create movie-like trailers. This activity will build excitement and put a little mystery into what is to come.

3. Create a talk show: Talk shows like Ellen, The Tonight Show, and Jimmy Kimmel Live often feature experts on a topic. Modeling this can occur two different ways. First, if students have a specific skill (e.g., academic area, sports, dance, acting, etc.) have a “show” to allow students to talk about the topic and showcase their skill(s). The audience (class) can ask questions and learn more about the skill. Teachers can set up a “This week’s episodes” and have panels of different skills.

Another option is to research and create “experts” on a variety of skills like “Achievements in Science” or “Space Exploration.” Again, make sure that the research topics match the grade-level scope and sequence. Students in content groups can research the topic, write a script on it, and go on the talk show as their characters to teach the class about the topic.

4. Top 10 List: In the spirit of late-night shows, one of David Letterman’s trademark bits was a top ten list. Have students reflect on their learning and create a list of their 10 favorite or most impactful things they did at school this year. This can start as an independent activity and then the whole class can try to create a class Top 10 List for the year.

5. Letter writing: There are a few options when it comes to letter writing or end-of-year communication.

  1. Letter to themselves: Students can reflect on the year and write thoughts about things they overcame, accomplishments, areas of personal growth, or just a funny story from they don’t want to forget. Students can use this letter over the summer to build up excitement and self-admiration about learning to kick off the next school year on a high note.
  2. Thank-you notes: Teachers are working daily to teach students to be compassionate and look outside themselves. One way to do this is to have students write to the people who have helped them succeed throughout the year, including teaching assistants, volunteers, office staff, nurses, or even other students.
  3. Welcoming new students: Every year a new crop of students enters the class. Who knows the ins and outs of the class better than the students who just completed it? Students can write a note to the incoming class giving advice and encouragement on how to succeed.
  4. Writing prompts: Sometimes students get stuck on what to write about. Prompts are a good way to spark thinking. Here are a few I recommend: What did you learn about yourself this year, either through your hard work or your missteps? How did you help someone else this year? What do you understand better about your learning style? What challenges did you overcome?

6. Community projects: Another way to model good citizenship is to take on community service projects. Select a cause or causes that are meaningful to you and your students and that relate to the year’s learning and grade-level content. Students can learn more about the cause and design a project in support. They can write letters to government leaders, organize fundraisers, or create newsletters around the issue. You can focus on state- or local-level events to add relevance to the learning.

If you want to make the project an authentic assessment, you can have students research ways that children their age can make a difference. Create a class collection (in a binder or digital portfolio) or design a website that lists volunteer activities or causes that welcome the support of students. This could turn into a school, or even community, resource.

7. Take advantage of the nice weather. As the weather begins to get nicer, get creative by designing lessons or projects that can be completed outside. Students can explore nature using many core subjects, e.g., counting organisms for math, designing an inquiry activity for science, or writing a poem for ELA.

School leadership ideas:

By modeling educational vigor, administrators can energize teachers to implement their own spring ideas.

8. Make a toast: Why do we only give gifts at holidays? Can’t we do that to recognize accomplishments at the end of the year? Each staff member can select a name and learn a little about that staff member’s year. They could have lunch together or go for a walk. This also increases collaboration and culture. At the end-of-the-year staff meeting, give each staff member a cup of juice or non-alcoholic champagne and allow each member to be toasted by their peers with a specific compliment or accomplishment.

9. Culture lunch: Take a break from the usual staff lunches and connect with local family-owned restaurants to learn about their culture and the food they serve. Feature one restaurant a week during staff lunch and invited them in to give a little history of their family business and to cook/serve their food. You can also take it one step further and bring in food trucks during the warm weather. These activities are great for your team to eat and socialize, allowing them to re-energize and feel valued.

10. Own accomplishments: Teachers often remember the things they didn’t get to instead of the great things they accomplished. Provide a guided activity that allows teachers to own their accomplishments and then ask them to share their thoughts with their colleagues. Ask teachers to complete this sentence: This year I grew as a teacher when _________________ because I ________________. This activity prompts teachers to recognize not just their successes, but the steps they took to accomplish said successes.

11. Game day staff meeting: End-of-the-year staff meetings too often function as a means to get information out to everyone. Most of this information can be done in an email or shared document. Instead, use your end-of-the-year meeting to host a game day with activities ranging from trivia to video bowling to outdoor cornhole. Mix in funny, unique prizes to display for continued bragging rights. Allowing staff to participate in some friendly workplace games can help build a greater sense of community and keep the momentum going for the first staff meeting the following year.

Remember: You have only 180 days with your students and staff. Make each day count by planning end-of-year learning activities that are just as exciting as the beginning of the year activities. Until the last time your students/staff walk out of the classroom/school door, they’re yours to educate. Make every day count.

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