Building Up to a Finale

Teaching is a challenging business and as we approach the end of the school year, it is an amazing feeling to finally see the finish line in sight. “We’ve made it!” we’ll excitedly tell ourselves and each other. And we’re right. The year has probably been more of an obstacle course + marathon combination than a sprint. We have triumphed. We have perservered. We have overcome. Let’s celebrate!

There is however, an important BUT we must insert here if we’re being diligent: We are close to the end and we will have done all of these things but not until the school year has actually ended!
As we near the end of the 2014–15 school year, we can choose to either count down to the end or build up to a finale. Based on the number of favorites and retweets my message around this has received, it’s clear there are a lot of educators who value the latter option and it is for you that I offer 3 suggestions to help you get there.

1. Consider your legacy

I only have one memory of one of my high school teachers. I don’t recall anything we did or learned in his class. I don’t even remember if I liked the class. The only thing I remember is that he had a calendar on his bulletin board. Inside each box on the calendar, he had written in how many days were left in the year and at the end of each day he would put a big red ‘X’ through that date’s box. This teacher literally counted down to the end of the year. Each day with his students was one of about 180 items in a check list he needed to get through in order to get back to vacation.

My guess is that this teacher knew his content area, was passionate about kids and chose his career because he wanted to make a difference in the world. But with at least one of his students (me), this is not how he was remembered. His legacy is that he was counting down, not building up, and that legacy is a lasting one. When I entered the profession, one of the first goals I set for myself was to never share his fate. I wanted to be remembered for the teaching and learning that I inspired.

There are many factors that go into how and why we remember some things and not others. To this end, not all of your students will remember you and your class. For those who will, how you finish the year might not even be a contributing factor in forming their memories. But you can still take agency in trying. A few ideas:

Seek a way to make the final project a lasting artifact. I still have a story book I made (using Hypercard!) in middle school Spanish class. My Civics teacher had us write a U.S. Senator to advocate on an issue we cared about and somewhere in my parent’s basement is a memory box housing the signed (form) letter I received in response. Buried deep at the end of the Internet is the “About Me” web site I made in my college Computer Science class. These were great legacy assignments!
Ask students to consider how they might use learning from your class next year, in three years, and in ten and thirty years from now. Today, I would struggle to successfully solve a proof for Geometry class (the thought is making fingers shake and my palms sweat!) but the pragmatic thinking and problem solving skills are part of my daily life 20+ years later. That response I received from a U.S. Senator taught me about civic engagement and as a result my elected officials hear from (and sometimes see) me multiple times a year.
Start a conversation between students’ current and future selves. Sixteen years after graduating high school, a letter in familiar handwriting found its way to my current address. After reading the first sentence, I was transported back to my Senior English class and could picture the teacher’s crowded desk, the partitioned walls of the room and my precise seat in a row where I had written that letter. I remembered how rowdy my classmates and I were, how anxious we felt to graduate and get out of there and how dismissive we were of her insistence, “Take this seriously! You’ll be grateful for this letter one day if you are!” She was right and that is her legacy.
2. Be reflective in a meaningful way
Great educators constantly seek to improve. One powerful way to go about it is to ask our students for feedback. Surveys are popular but there are other tools as well. After reading this post — that describes surveys as a “the most dangerous research tool” — I asked around and learned about a different protocol that I have found to be effective and insightful:

Give each student a blank sheet of paper. Post this instruction: “Draw a picture that represents your ideal experience in [this] class.” Give them 3 minutes.
Put students in pairs and have Student A describe their picture to Student B for 90 seconds. Student B is to silently take notes as bullet points. Stress that Student B should not talk; sit and stare when Student A runs out of things to say. She will probably get uncomfortable and fill the silence with more details.
Give Student B one minute to read her bullet points back to Student A. Provide the suggested prompt, “I hear you saying that ____ is important and meaningful to you.” Student A should clarify any misunderstandings.
Have the two students switch roles and repeat the previous two steps.
In their pairs, have students go through the bullet points of what was important and meaningful to them and place a check mark next to those bullets for which their needs were met and stars next to those they needed more of.
Have each pair share a couple of their points with the whole class and collect their sheets and drawings at the end. Pay attention to the check marks so you know where you are doing well and are intentional about continuing those practices next year. Reflect on the stars and use them to make goals for improving in the future.
3. Remember the relationships
If you only build up to one thing for your end of the year finale, make it your relationships with students. Greet students at the door with a smile and handshake before class. Ask how they are doing. Ask about their families and their summer plans and whether they are planning to visit any colleges. Give them your business card and write your email on the board. Let them know that they can always contact you (and that you hope they will!). Encourage them to come back and visit you because you want to know about their futures.

Most importantly, tell students that you care.

How do you plan to *Build Up* to a finale this year? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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