End of Year Reflections: What My Students Learned (And What They Taught Me!)

While most schools in the state have already concluded their school years, we’re still winding down.  We are closed for 4th of July weekend, but we’ll return for one final week on July 10th and 11th before our summer break officially begins.

The end of the school year is always bittersweet.  I’m relieved to have a few weeks off of lesson planning, grading, and waking up early, but I’m also sad to see my students depart for the summer, knowing they’ll grow and change so much in just the few short months before I see them again.    

 

I’m proud of all my classes and students, but for today, I’ll focus on just a few classes.

Introduction to Grammar

Students in Introduction to Grammar spent this past class finishing up their encyclopedias. I’ve done this project for several years.  Students select a topic, outline their research, conduct the research, write a rough and second draft, and finally publish a hardcover final project.  Students are asked to use the grammar knowledge and skills they’ve learned this year to write and revise their projects.  They must meet specific writing requirements such as including at least one appositive phrase in each chapter, varying the subjects of their sentences, balancing the number of linking verb predicates with action verb predicates, varying the structure of their sentences, including imagery, and using strong vocabulary.  Students participate in a number of self and peer revision activities that ask them to look for these elements in their own writing and, when necessary, to work on including these elements.  

Students write a total of ten chapters; each chapter must be at least one paragraph, and the chapter must include at least six unique pieces of information.  Students must also demonstrate their knowledge of paragraph structure by including an introduction and a conclusion for each paragraph.  

This project also serves as an opportunity to teach students about plagiarism and copyright protections.  We have numerous discussions on these topics throughout the project, and the students learn to identify whether or not an image is “Fair Use” and what type of credit the creator requires.  

While the first and second drafts must be handwritten, students earn the right to type their final project by earning a 90% or higher on their Grammar Final Exam.  Students that do not meet this benchmark are provided with an opportunity to make up for lost points by further studying the grammar topics they need more work on.  

The students will present their projects on the final day of class.  I usually facilitate a “milk and cookie” pajama party for their presentations, but we’ll be hosting our presentations outside this year.

View Excerpts from the Students’ Encyclopedias

I’ve selected a chapter from each of the students’ encyclopedias.  

Paragraph Writing

Students in Paragraph Writing spent this past class finishing up their board games.  This is another project that I’ve repeated for several years though it has been modified slightly over time.  Students select a book or series as the basis for a board game.  Then, they write either a sequel or a parody based on the novel of their choosing.  Using this narrative, students design a board game.  The board game must pair with the story by either (1) telling the story as the game progresses, (2) focusing on a symbol from the story, or (3) providing some other parallel or reference to the story that “makes sense.”  Students must write character descriptions for four characters in their story, a game objective, directions, and any other elements (such as cards) to go with their game.  Finally, they put it all together into a board game.  

For each written element, students are responsible for writing a rough, second, and final draft.  They participate in a number of self and peer revision activities to ensure that their meeting the written requirements for the project and to check for any grammatical or spelling errors.  They must also revise the written elements to ensure they all make sense together; classmates must determine whether or not they understand the directions and feel they can play the game without guidance from the game creator.  

On the final day of class, students play each other games and write reviews!

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View Excerpts from the Students’ Narratives

Essay Writing

I wanted this class to do a big “A Year of COVID” End of Year Reflection activity.  I tried giving the students a tremendous amount of flexibility, hoping some of my students would have some profound insights on the past year or so.  I ended up assigning a creative project.  I asked students to build a roller coaster as a symbol of the last year based on the adage “Life is a Roller Coaster.”  They were allowed to build their roller coasters out of any medium.  To go with it, students could write either a personal essay or a narrative.  I also gave students the flexibility to choose a different style of writing so long as they sought approval from me first. 

While the students did well on the written elements — structure, grammar, spelling ,vocabulary — all great! —  I wasn’t all that impressed by their insights.  Then, I realized, that perhaps that is just it — this year really didn’t have any profound impacts on them that they could or would recognize — at least not yet.  Most of my students reported that this year, overall, was uneventful and unnoteworthy.  

One of my students is writing a fiction narrative based on what he would have liked this year to have been.  After reflecting on the year, he determined that it was mostly boring, and for the most part, he felt pretty “blah.” He didn’t find anything particularly noteworthy to discuss about this past year, so why not write about what absolutely didn’t happen?  

Another student identifies a “down” in their rollercoaster of life as when a relative passed away.  His “ups” for the year include winning soccer games and finally being allowed to go to his friends’ houses after a long year of isolation.  While winning a soccer game would have been particularly unnoteworthy in the past, this year it made up the highest point of his roller coaster.  He’s finding more joy in things that would have once been seen as much more mundane.

Another student identifies that this year was stressful but admits that she’s stressed most of the time, and this year wasn’t all that different than years prior.  

I felt so certain that they had to have more to say.  This year has been filled with the unexpected.  As their teacher, I’ve listened to them complain about missed birthday parties, cancelled vacations, virtual school, restrictions, and isolation.  I’ve watched the most motivated students lose their motivation for temporary periods this past year.  How could they not have more to say?  

To try to incite more insights, I prodded them with questions.  How was virtual school?  What are some things you missed out on?  What are some really great things that happened to you this year?  What were some major life events this year?  

Overall, my students felt that virtual school was “fine.”  They spent most of the fall semester complaining at length about virtual school. I asked them to elaborate.  They almost all agreed that ‘it is what it is.”  While they can’t wait for a more “normal school year,” they’re rather indifferent about this past year.

When asked what they’ve done for fun in the past year, most of them shrug their shoulders. Some of them share excitement over recent birthday parties after missing out on them last year.  Most had rather low-key birthday parties this year, but simply seeing their friends made it one of the best days out of the whole year.  

As adults, I think we’ve spent the better part of the year stressing and worrying about the children and the effect this year has had on them.  While some students have struggled this year, have encountered death for the first time, and lost out on some opportunities, they will be — they are — just fine.  To them, this past year is already becoming a distant memory.   As several said, they normally just do whatever their parents tell them to do.  This past year was no different.  They still had homework; most still participated in sports, and they all still had parents nagging them to do things and telling them “what not to do!”  

Kids are resilient, and they will be — they are — just fine.  Did they miss out on some things this past year? Sure.  Did they get the same exact education that they would have in a “normal” year? Probably not.  And yet, they’ll be just fine. 

So, none of my students had any profound insights for me.  None of them spent their year of isolation reflecting on their lives or their goals.  But, that’s also just fine.

Expository Writing

Students in this class have been working on a unit on Transcendentalism for the past few months.  This was a challenging unit, asking them to read advanced texts and to answer questions that required introspection and maturity.  Students read excerpts from Thoreau, Emerson, Jon Krakauer, Elizabeth Peabody, Bronson Alcott, and more.  Then, students chose from one of four questions.

 

One of my students answered the question, “What can nature provide and teach an individual about himself or herself that society cannot?”  She asserts, “Spending time in nature teaches an individual to focus on becoming a better person; on the other hand, society enforces stereotyping and assimilation.”  She goes on to assess that both nature and society can evoke fear and anxiety in people; however, nature makes people uncertain of themselves as individuals by forcing them to reflect on themselves whereas society makes people anxious to fit in.  In many ways, she personifies nature and society, allotting them a tremendous amount of power.  

 

Another student answered the question, “How does self reliance and nonconformity help you become a more independent person?  Provide examples that connect your actions to Emerson and Thoreau’s ideas.  Why is this important?”  She starts off by stating, “A self-reliant and nonconforming person only depends on themself and doesn’t conform to others’ expectations and actions; these characteristics make a person become more aware of their own thoughts and less influenced by others’ opinions because of their lessened  communication and dependency upon others and/or communities.”  Simply defining these terms — self reliance, independence, nonconformist, and self-awareness was a tremendous task of its own; figuring out how they’re related to each other can be an even more daunting task.  In the end, she shows that one needs to be independent to become self-reliant, and one needs to be self-reliant to become non-conforming, and one needs to have all three of these qualities in order to be self-aware.  She hints that this — self-awareness — is the ultimate goal.  

 

No two students chose the same question.  In response to the question, “What current political or social issue would you use civil disobedience to fight?  Why?  How would you take nonviolent action to support your belief,” one of my students decided that he’d like to use civil disobedience and nonviolent action to improve the teacher selection at his school.  His paper illustrated some frustrations with some of the teachers he has — or has had — and his demand for “more competent” teachers.  He advocates for a new and improved hiring method which would “include a trial teaching period, a student survey of the teacher, and a parental survey of the teacher.”  He devised a very detailed plan for this new hiring method which includes requiring teachers to participate in a two-week trial period, student surveys, parent surveys, and test for the students to determine whether or not they’d mastered the content standards the teacher had taught during that trial period.  

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