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Idle Hands? Not In Our Class!

While the school year draws to a close in some parts of the country, we here in New York City still have about another month to go!  I’m starting to think about our end of the year, and as we plan our fifth graders’ senior trip (a camping experience in upstate New York), ‘prom,’ and graduation ceremony, I am finding myself both happy the end of the year is nearing and full of urgency to cram in that last bit of learning! Today, I want to give you a look inside my classroom right now in terms of our last few academic activities as well as offer some suggestions for sustaining energy for learning when the weather gets warmer and summer vacation fever approaches.

In reading, we are in the midst of our class novel, The Westing Game.  My students are enjoying the freedom I am giving them to read in groups and determine some of the guiding questions for our lessons; in fact, I have been selecting various students to read a chapter ahead and come up with class discussion questions for the rest of the students.  They then take an opportunity to be ‘teacher’ for a period and moderate the discussion.  I have been an active participant in these conversations and have been struck by the degree to which this has empowered some of my special-needs students.  While I was initially concerned to extend this opportunity to some of my lower readers, our classroom community has willingly stepped up to support each reader, with some students even requesting buddy readers to enable everyone to have their chance to teach a lesson.  Several of my lower readers have even “co-taught” the daily discussion with a higher reader, prompting one student to comment, “Wow, Ms. Z, it must be harder for you to teach with Mr. K than by yourself!”

We have temporarily combined our social studies and writing blocks to engage in an economic history project in which students researched the economic structures in such ancient civilizations as Egypt, Greece, Rome, Sumer, Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and North American Indians.  They are using their research to compare and contrast at least two of these economies as well as evaluate which one of the two they chose was better at meeting its citizens’ needs and wants.  It has been nice to see many of the conventions and strategies addressed in Writer’s Workshop over the course of the year come to life in an authentic project, and I am most pleased to see how independently my students have been able to tackle this assignment!

In science, we are finishing up a unit on animal adaptations and creating PowerPoint slides in the computer lab to share our knowledge.  My plan is to create an overall presentation that incorporates each student’s two or three best slides and ‘screen’ it movie-style using my laptop and borrowing our LCD projector.  It has been a real struggle to make our computer lab time productive, but I am hopeful we will have an excellent end result!

I've found it's sometimes hard to maintain my energy and my kids' interest in these highly academic projects at this point in the school year.  Here are some tips for keeping the learning happening in your classroom as you and your students prepare to leave it for the summer:

  • Balance your activities... trying to push too much work can result in none getting done at all.  For my special-needs students with attention issues, this time of year really requires frequent wiggle or stretch breaks.  I try to incorporate art, music, or drama into our schedule daily.  This is also a great way to make sure content "sticks!"
  • Prepare for room cleanup... in my school, we have to store everything in closets over the summer and may not leave anything up on the wall.  To prevent stress at the end of the year, my students and I are taking about 10 minutes each day NOW to decide what to keep and what to throw away, make sure things are organized for storage, and labeling things.  This will enable us to keep using learning time for LEARNING, not room cleanup!
  • Use the outdoors... as a behavior reward, I ask my principal to allow my class outside for independent reading periods on a nice day in the week.  This gets the kids outside and they are actually MORE able to focus on their books when they aren't daydreaming about the beautiful weather instead of enjoying it!
  • Continue to set and enforce behavior expectations... all children, particularly those with special needs, require structure and consistency to be successful.  If you continue to provide it, you can often head off some of the conflicts that come with warmer weather before they start.

I am preparing for a summer of personal development working as a Curriculum Specialist at the Teach for America New York City Institute training new teachers.  I’m really excited about this opportunity to shape our profession in such a formative way, and as I gear up for that and wind down my year, you will be hearing from me once a week on Thursdays instead of twice.  I will be posting three more times, winding up on June 18th with a retrospective for this year and a look ahead to next year in my classroom.  If you have any questions or comments on my work so far or some last-minute things you would like to see, please don’t hesitate to post them here! 


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