Monday, May 28, 2018

You Can Lose Everything Chasing Nothing by: Jason Augustowski

Allow me to begin with a very short story that is not mine but I feel is poignant for the end of the school year.

Once upon a time a man was walking down a sidewalk when the wind picked up and blew his hat into the street.  He chased after it and was hit by a car.

By the end of May everyone is checked out.  Maybe literally checked out - as in the year is over and the keys have been turned in.  But for most of us, this is not literally, as our school years actually do proceed into the first weeks of June.  In high school this is the time of AP exams, state standardized tests, and final assessments.  It is a time of strange bell schedules that throw the entire school into a state of confusion (atop their already low bandwidth to successfully accomplish anything in the time that remains).  It is a time of babysitting: movies, parties, games: anything that requires virtually no planning, absolutely no grading, and will hopefully quell the masses of students anxious for exodus.

But as I have stated in previous posts, the end of the year can be such a powerful time.  Rather than field days and yearbook signings we have the unique opportunity to wrap up the real lessons of the year for the final time with our students and perhaps teach them something new before they walk out of our doors for the final time.  Thinking and designing lessons in this way at the end of the year allows us to focus on what really matters, rather than absolutely nothing.  Here are some ideas I use:

1.  Students use quotes by famous poets to reflect on their year.  I like to use Emerson's quote about success and I ask them if they were successful this year based on the items he enumerates.  This always makes for fascinating reading over the summer when I examine their notebooks and hone my craft for the upcoming school year.

2.  Find the phrase on my large "You are Awesome" poster that they feel best describes their year and explain why.  Examples are "Dream Big", "Go for the finish line", "Just do it" etc.  Again, their responses are diverse and offer insight into how they felt while in the trenches of our class.

3.  Have students create a timeline of their year while listening to the songs "Dreams" by Van Halen and "100 Years" by Five for Fighting.  They should highlight the major milestones of their life from the very first to very last day of their current year.  These don't all have to be academic, but can be extracurricular, social, familial, etc.

4.  Have students listen to and analyze the lyrics of Dave Matthews' "Where Are You Going?"  Allow them time to reflect about what they feel their future has in store.  What do they believe they will need in order to be successful in that future?

5.  Because we discuss so many songs and poems in full group context over the year, I sometimes like to reprise class favorites and have them briefly look at how their interpretations now are different to what they were originally.

6.  Have the class work together (all members - no one in a corner alone) to plan a class party that incorporates and celebrates everyone: everyone's favorite music, food, activities, etc.  No cliques.  Not a few outgoing kids steamrolling the rest.  A truly collaborative and student run experience.

7.  Paper Plate awards.  Each student decorates a paper plate for someone else showing how the recognize and appreciate that person.  These are typically very unique and special for students to receive.

8.  Similar to what Robin Williams does in Dead Poets Society, I like to walk the students around our high and middle school campuses (they are connected) while reading and discussing "To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time."

9.  Have them respond to quick writes like "What's on your bucket list?" "How do you want to be remembered?" and "Any last words?" - all of which when asked are much more epic and sad than morbid (as they probably sound in a blog post).

10.  And finally, I like to round out whatever framework we have been using that year to bring the real life lessons home.  Because back to the story of the man and his hat above, this clearly illustrates my title: "you can lose everything chasing nothing."

Because at the end of the year it is good to reflect.  Not just the students, but us.  What have we done?  Have we lost EVERYTHING - the time, the opportunity, the humanity... chasing nothing (like test scores or an outdated curriculum that doesn't serve students for their journeys into the real world)?  Or have we used our time wisely, chased what really matters, and left our students with a memorable learning experience that has the true ability to impact their futures above and beyond forgettable movie days, field days, yearbook signings, and exams (for which they will cram and forget).  Let's make the end of our years something neither of us will ever forget.  We can do it.

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