The challenges of the last week of school

June 7, 2012

in classroom management, rants and reflections

This eCard image rings a little too true for most of us, doesn’t it? The last week of school always makes me feel like the kids are in the way, and that’s an awful feeling.  It’s even sadder that the kids know we feel this way: they sense that there’s no purpose in them being around except to scrub out the cabinets for you and run papers down to the office.

It’s the great irony of the last week of the school year: there’s way too much for the teacher to do and not nearly enough for the students. Every educator I know has a massive amount of paperwork to complete and multi-page checklists of miscellaneous time-consuming tasks that have to be done before summer. And yet students are left pretty much twiddling their thumbs, and therefore, exhibiting behavior problems.

A big part of the problem is that teachers are usually required to submit 4th quarter report card grades weeks before the quarter actually ends. It leaves them scrambling to produce grade mere weeks after the last report cards were issued. And it’s unfair to the kids because they only have 6 weeks to improve their grades instead of 9.

Everything students do in the last 3 weeks of school doesn’t truly count. Do the powers that be realize how hard it is to get kids to put forth their best effort on a beautiful 80 degree afternoon in June when they know their fate for the year has already been determined? Sigh.

Then there’s the practice of having teachers turn in textbooks a week or two in advance. I didn’t use them often, but the kids saw the empty shelves and somehow made a mental note that all the “real learning” for the year was done.

And of course, the clincher: that no-backpack rule during the final days of school. This is one that I never quite understood. My first year of teaching, I was told that kids at our school had a tradition of bringing rocks in their backpacks and smashing them through teachers’ windows on the last day, so I thought it was a unique situation. But the no-backpack rule was given in every school I taught at thereafter.

No backpacks means no homework and no sending notes home to parents. The home-school connection is completely cut off (or at least limited to phone and email). Even worse, it means that half the classroom has to be deconstructed so that students can take home their projects and assignments that are displayed around the room. I managed to get around that one for a couple years by sending the kids home with plastic grocery bags the last two days of school, but eventually that was outlawed, too.

I’ve written before about breaking the vicious cycle of teachers and students giving up at the end of the year: it’s really important to maintain routines and expectations as close to the end of the school year as possible. But how can that be done when the classroom’s been packed up and the materials are put away?  This happened to one substitute teacher who realized there was truly nothing left to do 12 DAYS before the end of the school year. What a waste of time for everyone involved.

These things frustrate me so much because the last week of school is not inherently pointless. It has the potential to be a time of meaningful learning that’s free from the test-driven constraints that suck the fun out of the rest of the school year. The last week is the only time all year teachers can actually do something with their classes and not have to produce data proving the effectiveness of the lesson and the students’ level of mastery. It can be a wonderful chance to bond with your class, enjoy them as individual people, and create memories. But with all normal routines and procedures removed and teachers being driven to distraction with clerical tasks, it’s nearly impossible to really savor that last week of school.

I hope that things will be better for you this year. I hope you have a chance to do some really fun end-of-year activities with your class. I hope you can put away the to-do list for at least a short time each day and bond with your students for the last time. They won’t remember everything you taught them, or everything you said, or everything you did. But they will remember the way you made them feel. They will remember that you smiled at them and asked how they were doing, that you listened to their rambling stories, that you did  something special with them on the last day of school to let them know you care and will never forget the year they were in your class.

What’s the last week like at your school? How do you make time to connect with your students when there’s so much for you to do?

 

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Subscribe via email for blog updates, exclusive tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jill June 7, 2012 at 4:50 pm

I can’t believe those rules in place for last days of school. The administration at my school isn’t very particular about details like that (I dread the day that she retires and I know it is coming up within the next few years. She has the required time in, she just wants to stick it out a little longer). We have to get our textbook counts in before the end of the school year, but we don’t actually turn in the books themselves. Those we are on our own to find storage space for over summer. The kids were also able to bring backpacks even on the last day of school in order to take everything home.
My school also has until the last minute to turn in final grades. Our last day for teachers/report card day was May 22, I know some teachers were still putting grades in to the computerized system on the 21st. Retentions and such are determined by progress up to mid-term.

We plan a lot of fun activities: a nature hike field trip near the school, a beach day (our equivalent to field day) where they bring outdoor toys and play games as well as each child gets as beach ball and sharpies and can sign each other’s beach balls, and the last day of school is always ‘board game day’ where they get to hang out and play board games. Generally the rooms are opened up in my grade level so kids can go to whatever room they wish to play with friends from any class- I teach in a portable so I just had the kids stay in.
I remember in place of guided reading work stations once I had to turn in my guided reading books, I pulled out literacy-based games for the kids to play: I led a Scrabble station (vocab/spelling skills), we had HeadBandz (inferring and questioning), and A to Z Junior (again vocab skills). Another day I did sight words BINGO, books on tape, and homophone matching stations.

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2 Angela Watson June 7, 2012 at 5:19 pm

That’s fantastic, Jill! I love that things are more reasonable at your school. And it’s great that your kids get to do so many enjoyable things. The literacy game idea is a great one!

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3 Heather Welsh June 7, 2012 at 5:54 pm

I go through many of the same constraints that you mentioned above except the “no backpacks” rule, which is ridiculous. My grade level takes turns letting the kids watch the movies of the read-aloud books we read this year (James and the Giant Peach, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, etc.) and we compare the book to the media. Two classes go into one room to watch the movie, so we can take turns doing paperwork and getting things done in the other room. I also did an Angry Birds activity for math (see my blog) and we wrote a “Heads Up” letter to the upcoming 4th graders. We’re still doing work even though tomorrow is the last day!

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4 Angela Watson June 7, 2012 at 9:45 pm

Good for you, Heather! Sounds like you found a great mix of fun and educational activities to do with your class. Thanks for sharing.

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5 Mary Bauer June 7, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Our school is pretty reasonable about this. We have to turn in some things a few days before school ends. I had never heard about the no backpack rule. I’m glad we don’t have that where I teach.

We have two more weeks and some fun events planned to keep students engaged.

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6 Angela Watson June 7, 2012 at 9:46 pm

I’m glad your school is more reasonable! Enjoy the last two weeks with your kiddos. :-)

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7 Cori June 7, 2012 at 9:13 pm

Yesterday was our last student day. Since Friday we have had altered schedules to allow 8th graders to take their exams. I teach 7th and have no exams. I had a guided reading from the text about American holidays, American symbols and state flags. The students read and answered the questions and then we went over the answers. Students turned in their completed worksheets for a “grade”. Then we read independently for 20 minutes and then I let them play boards games and sign year books. This worked great and the 2 hour block went by in a flash!
We cleaned our lockers out Monday but students were still allowed to bring their backpack. We do eat lunch in our classrooms (ick!) because of previous food fights the last day of school. This has been in practice the entire time I have taught at my school.
I really enjoy the last few days of school.

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8 Angela Watson June 7, 2012 at 9:49 pm

That’s awesome, Cori, that you enjoy the last few days! I forgot about the eating in the classroom, thing–I had to do that, too. It was a pain because I really needed my lunch break so I could get things done, but it was such a treat for the kids! I put on a movie and we had a nice long lunch together. A lot of them helped out with stuff in the classroom when they were done eating, too.

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9 Penelope June 8, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Wow, I never heard of turning grades in 3 weeks early, that’s insane. We have a work day the day after the kids are done to finish clean up, turn in all that paperwork and so on. (Grades however, are due by 1pm the last day, which we all thought was too soon.) High school is very different from what you describe in a lot of ways – the last week is exams and half days so the kids do have plenty to do. We also don’t have some of those odd rules.

However, I do struggle with the last month of the school year. See, my kids take their state end-of-course test in early May. Once that’s over of course they think school is over. So then you have 3 weeks of struggling to keep them motivated. I usually do a final project since having the state test so early doesn’t give me much time for projects throughout the year. Then the last week before exams is extra-weird because kid who passed the state test are exempt from their final but still have to come to school. So I’m trying to review for the final with the small group that actually need to take it and also find a way to keep the kids who are done with my class entertained/behaved.

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10 Angela Watson June 9, 2012 at 1:44 pm

The last week before exams–that’s a tricky situation, Penelope! Although I am really glad to hear that grades aren’t due until the last day. Thanks for sharing the experience from a high school teacher’s perspective.

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11 Jenny June 8, 2012 at 9:31 pm

I hate to pick a bone here but this struck a nerve with me. It pains me that grades are the driving force for students, especially as early as elementary school. If school were more focused on the learning than the grades, it wouldn’t matter when the grades were due. Students would be there for the learning.

That said, the last weeks of school are rough as everyone is exhausted, teachers and students, which would make anything rougher but added to all the assessments, packing, and celebrations becomes often chaotic. The conversations here are fascinating (as always!).

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12 Angela Watson June 9, 2012 at 1:39 pm

That’s the larger problem, isn’t it, Jenny? My third graders weren’t too focused on grades, but I know plenty of upper elementary and secondary teachers who complained their students wouldn’t do anything at all if they weren’t being graded on it. :(

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13 Sunflower Rays June 9, 2012 at 11:33 am

The answer is – again – money. Have the students come until the last day of school. Then pay teachers to come in, pack up, file, copy, inventory, all the other stuff the following days. I can’t see another way to get it all done with the kids and teachers having the same last day of school.

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14 Angela Watson June 9, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Yep, like everything else, this comes down to money in many ways. It just seems ironic that every minute of every day has to be scheduled and documented and assessed for 9.5 months, and then suddenly it’s as if no learning is expected at all for the last two weeks or so. I think about all those teachers who are denied things like class parties and field trips and fun learning activities because they “take time away from learning” and all that stuff has to wait until the end of the year.

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15 Peggy Zepponi June 15, 2012 at 3:14 pm

I was a classroom aide for a California State Teacher of the Year back in the 1990s. He told his 5th grade students that they would be learning ON the last day of school–and by George that’s what happened! Regardless of report cards, text books, or whatever, they were engaged in a learning activity that last day. Of course they also helped clean and organize the room and such, but he set the learning standard on the first day and kept to it. So what did he do? He did cool writing lessons set around Chris Van Allsburg stories, summer-related Math activities, theme projects, and so on. He was a much loved and respected educator.

I teach Kindergarten in the central valley of CA. We have no early time frame for grades or text books (except that this year we had to change out our Language Arts curriculum for the new adoption). Our last day is taken up with our K Celebration and reception for parents. We did technically finish up our L. Arts units a couple weeks early, but we worked on leftover projects. Many had already “checked out” mentally, but for the most part they were happily working away.

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