Friday, May 4, 2012

Are you counting time, or making the time count?

My, it sure is getting nice outside. With the mild winter and early spring we have had in Minnesota this year, it is no wonder that students (and teachers) are having a hard time concentrating in school. Even still, I did a double-take this afternoon when I discovered there are only 22 days of school left. How and why did this happen? Because there never seems to be quite enough time to accomplish every academic goal set in the fall.

This is my first blog post in which I'm overtly eliciting feedback; whether you respond on Facebook, or on LinkedIn, or to this blog. I'd love to hear your favorite end-of-year units and activities, both from when YOU were a student, and that you have USED in your own classroom. Whatever your area of expertise may be.

Piggy-backing off my pie chart above, I'll start with my own experiences as a student. The most memorable spring project for me was in 7th grade, back at Dakota Hills Middle School in Eagan, MN. That would have been around 1992 or so. We had a science/ math/ language arts interdisciplinary project, involving plotting the growth of particular ferns in the woods near our school. We measured and graphed changes in math class, and looked at the fractal patterns formed in the leaves. In science, we studied the species of plants and made hypotheses which we tested over time. I honestly couldn't tell you what we did in the Language Arts piece; other than it involved using the school phones to make calls to local businesses, and I got my teacher's phone privileges revoked by sharing the building's dial-out code with a friend that she had entrusted to me. (back then, that was a big deal!)

As a teacher myself, I love to do projects and cover some of the items in our math curriculum that aren't necessarily tested by the state. My mentor teacher introduced me to the "Teach the Teacher" project idea, in which students are given time to develop a classroom lesson to teach "to the teacher" (but really to the class). It follows the principle, "to teach is to learn twice". And how true it is! You can see how well, or poorly, a student has really internalized a concept, when they attempt to explain it to their classmates. And the best part is, when you divide up the entire year, and assign a chunk to each group, you as the teacher can sit back and let the STUDENTS take charge of review for their classmates!

I do still offer a final exam, which is a little old-school. I like to have the data of a pre-course and post-course exam; however, I am still undecided whether or not any test data as late as June is really reliable for students still putting in good effort to show growth. I am starting to think it would be better to offer the final exam right after state testing is done, while the cumulative review is still fresh in their heads. Any end-of-year assessment can/should be more performance-based, to go with where their brains are at (which is NOT in a textbook or cramming for a test, for 80% of them). Again, I'd love to hear feedback on how others in the educational community feel about giving official "finals". Especially in the middle grades.

Lastly... my favorite end-of-year activity: Happy Awards! Once again, my fabulous mentor (who will remain nameless, she knows who she is!) had this fabulous idea... and I will not take any credit myself... but must share it:

Let the kids spend the last days of school thanking EACH OTHER and teachers in the building, celebrating all the positive things they have accomplished during the course of the year.

I tailored my own version, making a zillion different "silly awards", like "best laugh" or "future president" or "Lady Gaga Award for most unique dresser"... and of course the "Facebook Award", which I always receive a ton from students each year. (Yes, you let students give YOU awards as well :o) Always make 5+ extra awards than there are students in the classroom, so they have a wide variety to choose from. My biggest class has 35 students in it this year, so making 10+ new awards is going to be a challenge...

A couple more tips for the happy awards, should you attempt them:

1. Always make a class roster for each student, with room to record the award given, and to check when delivered. Have students write a quick note, or at least write "From, So-And-So" on the back, and threaten any nasty note-writers with an immediate lunch detention on the last day of school, should they turn this positive activity into a chance to bully with notes...

2. I make the awards quarter-page size, so it doesn't blow the school copy budget... and in as many colors of the rainbow as possible.

3. I make a cover sheet that is 1/2 page large, folded length-wise. I put the student's name and picture and "7th Grade Happy Awards!" on the cover, so everyone can tuck their awards in the corresponding folder as they pass by.

4. If you really want to be gung-ho, double hole-punch all the awards, and the cover sheet, so you can bind them with string or ribbon when they are done. They are so neat; even more-so than a yearbook, because they are personalized, and it often surprises the kids, who gives them what. The more positive the awards you make, the more meaning and memory your students will get out of them :o)

5. Save some time at the end of the class period for a class picture! These are so much fun, especially to look back after a year or two, and see how much they've grown. And try not to cry! It was another really great year!

Have a great weekend, everyone... time to get outside and enjoy this BEAUTIFUL MN WEATHER!