End of Year
by Tiffany Creager
As we end this school year, I am witnessing and experiencing the complexity of feelings among school staff. This school year that started with so much hope and longing for a return to normal proved to be one of the most difficult to date for many. Stress, student behavior, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and an overall feeling of tension have been the headliners in many of our lived experiences.
The close of each year brings a bittersweet feeling to most, but I see so many of us simply focusing on survival at this point. With that in mind, a closure to the end of this school year may be more important than ever as we aim to recall the joyful moments (they really were there!), learn from the struggles, and eventually create a plan to forge ahead in a healing and restorative way. All while remembering our humanness and extending to ourselves the grace we so often give others.
First things first, it’s important to acknowledge the complex feelings we and our students are experiencing. You are likely to see a sense of grief and loss, pride of accomplishments or mere survival of a tough year, joy, relief, exhaustion, and so on. For me, bittersweet summarizes my experience as I felt a constant shift between the bitter sorrow and the sweet joys of life.
The lows were low and the highs were high and I’m ready to move on. As you consider how to sum up your experience, I’ve gathered some ideas that may help you and your students bring this year to a meaningful end and prepare them and you for summer and then (eventually but not too soon) the next school year!
Importance of Ceremonious Celebration
Ceremonies are one of the oldest ways to bring the care of a community to life. Ceremonies serve as documentation of the passing of time while leaving us with meaningful memories that define beginnings and endings as we move through life. They allow those participating to feel supported and empowered to face new challenges. Ceremonies also give us the opportunity to connect with ourselves, to each other, and sometimes to something bigger than us. This time celebrating allows us to acknowledge the time we spent together, to celebrate growth, and signifies the end of our collective journey and the beginning of or return to the individual’s journey. In short, ceremonies are powerful ways to celebrate and reflect while readying ourselves for what is to come. How might you mark the end of this school year ceremoniously or in celebration? Here are some ideas:
- Graduation – a bigger celebration for those transitioning between elementary and middle school, middle school to high school, or high school to postsecondary work and learning allows a time of reflection, appreciation, and recognition of accomplishments whether they’re academic, mental, or physical.
- A parade! I don’t mean blocking off the roads around town and decorating floats and throwing candy – although if that’s your thing, go for it! Again, with those students in mind who are transitioning out of one building to the next, allow them to walk through the halls of their school while their younger classmates and past teachers cheer them on! I’ve seen this done at several schools and am always brought to tears! Take it one step further and allow the high school graduates to tour their elementary schools in the same way – talk about understanding and celebrating how far they’ve come!!! That one is a real tear-jerker!
- Awards or certificates – this one can get tricky! A separate awards ceremony might be appropriate for students who have earned special recognition; however, it can still be fun to have a simple or even silly awards ceremony in class with unique recognitions that speak to the bonds created in your classroom over the past nine months. I’ll never forget receiving the “Miss Perky” award in my 7th grade science class – ha! I can assure you that was the ONLY award I ever received in a science class! (Thanks, Mrs. Perez!!)
- The signing of yearbooks, t-shirts, or books created by students – this type of activity allows the students to focus on the peer connections they’ve made throughout the year. I’ve seen students each draw a self-portrait and then the teacher created a book for each student full of their classmates’ work. Kids could add on to this activity by writing notes of appreciation on their page in each students’ book!
This world we live in seems to be “on the go” constantly. It’s rare to have time to slow down peacefully if it’s not intentional. Even then, that pause sometimes comes with feelings of guilt. However, the truth is that the practice of pause and reflection is wildly important to our well-being, to our growth, and to our development. We know that our brains are hardwired to seek the negative in an effort to protect us; however, intentional reflection can help us recall the joy or the sweetness of the bittersweet experience we’re bringing to an end. Here are some ideas for guiding our students and ourselves in practicing the pause and reflecting on this past school year.
- What went well? Simply pose the question and ask students to list things that went well this year! This could be done individually, in small groups, or as a class. Share what went well with your administration and parents. This practice, when done daily, has been scientifically proven to help rewire the brain to seek the positive!
- How have you changed? Some years you’ll witness physical growth, others mental growth, and of course, there is always the celebration of academic growth! Allow students to answer these questions for themselves. Join them because you, too, grew quite a bit this year, I’m sure of it.
- Journal, journal, journal. Writing is such a powerful tool for reflection. When we journal about our fears, we take the power from them and empower ourselves. Allow students to write about themselves, their worries, their points of pride, their joys, their experiences. Remind them that journaling needn’t be performative or perfect. It’s not meant to be published, it’s a tool for the author. A healing tool that allows them to bypass the logical brain and tap into the intuitive wisdom that might otherwise be missed.
- Create a memory book with prompts such as: my favorite memory was…, an adult who supported me was…, a friend I made…, etc. Allow students to share their books with the people who are mentioned! I have come up in a few students’ books and ALWAYS made a copy of the page and added it to my warm fuzzy folder. In addition to helping students elicit positive memories, it helps identify anchors in the school who can be called upon in years to come.
- Photo slideshow – there is just something about a highlight reel that evokes emotion in the best way! Pull together some photos from your time together, play some music, and witness the experiences of the year together. Reflect together on the challenges and growth.
Did you know that giving and receiving appreciation impacts the brain in the same way practicing gratitude does? It’s true! Our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that improve mood and make us feel happier! Feeling appreciated also allows the brain to reduce stress, reduce pain, improve sleep quality and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression! I think that is absolutely amazing. You may have heard me reference my “warm fuzzy” file before. As a young school social worker, I worked with a fabulous school psychologist who knew this science and told me I needed to save all the tokens of appreciation in a file and return to them when I was feeling down. Even revisiting past appreciation can benefit your mood and reduce stress! So, let’s get to it! And remember to celebrate, honor, and appreciate your growth and successes as well! You’ve had so many this year!
- Write a letter to each of your students telling them what you appreciate about them as individuals.
- Encourage your students to choose an adult in the building who inspired them and ask them to write them a letter! If you are the recipient of a letter or two – save them! Place them in your warm fuzzy folder and return to them on difficult days in the future.
- Have your students create compliment books! This was something my daughter’s 2nd grade teacher did and we loved it. Every day for a few weeks before the end of the year, students would get a piece of paper with a classmate’s name on it. They would spend some time writing a compliment and decorating the page. On the last day of school, every student had a book of compliments from their classmates! This was a great way to practice the skill of complimenting during their morning meetings. Pro tip – have someone review all of them just in case the lesson is missed by some students (that was my job – it was a fun one!)
My favorite authors and researchers remind me time and again of the power of creativity in healing trauma, connecting to self, and processing emotions. Music, drawing, writing, painting, dancing are just a few of the ways we express ourselves creatively. I find music to be particularly powerful. Music sticks with us and has the ability to evoke emotions and even trigger vivid memories! Remember that scene in Inside Out when the long term memory workers send the triple dent gum commercial up to headquarters causing Riley to hum the song out of nowhere? There is a song like that for me and it happens to be the song we would sing on our final day of show choir camp every year. It replays in my head regularly even 25 years later! The song evokes the bittersweet emotion of ending a week with friends and readying myself to return home. What are some ways you and your class can culminate this school year creatively?
- Choose an end of year song – simply play it on the last day or introduce it earlier and discuss it, write about it, sing it, celebrate it, and then play it on the way out of the door on the last day! It can be upbeat or more melancholy. I have beautiful memories of Pharrell Williams’ Happy and equally bittersweet memories of Boyz II Men’s End of the Road or our infamous show choir song, How Do We Say Goodbye by Mark Brymer, all songs that marked a transition in my life.
- Ask students to choose and share a quote, poem, or piece of music that represents the past year from their perspective – allowing students the time and autonomy to name their experience will be meaningful and memorable.
- Collaborative art project – talk to your building’s art teacher about fun collaborative art projects that your students could do together!
Celebrate the Community you Built
Community is healing. There is profound restoration, peace, and hope built within groups of people who have shared lived experiences. Your class is a community who has endured the joys and challenges of the 2021-2022 school year together. Honor that bond together!
- Have fun! Organizing field day as cooperative games can be a great way to solidify the team feel you’ve created over the year!
- Spend some time each week (maybe fun Fridays) in May doing a collaborative project or game! One of my favorite critical thinking/cooperative skills games is Labyrinth!
- A great activity for the beginning of the year is to talk to students about their anchors in the building, the people they trust and can turn to safely when they need support. Ask those same questions about anchors for the summer or even the next year! Help your students see they have community connections and support even after leaving your classroom. If you are able to do this early enough in May, you might be able to introduce them to teachers, admin, or counselors who will be a part of their educational journey as they transition into the next year!
The end of the year is often bittersweet. I find many educators (and students) to be struggling to stay engaged or energized. It’s simply tough. Still, I believe it is important to pause and reflect on the growth, successes, challenges, and experiences you’ve endured to make it to this point! Perfection is not an expectation, thankfully. Simply consider what might help you and your students be still for a moment. Engage in the power of ceremony, reflection, celebration, appreciation, community, and creativity so that you might all bookend your year honoring the bitter and the sweet. You are worthy of celebration.
Finally, not to get too ahead of myself here, but it might also be a good time to simply imagine how you would like things to look next year. District, building, classroom, and individual perspectives all matter as we learn from each other, the experiences of our school year, and the power of what can be. We certainly hope next year will be better but, as my boss reminds me, hope is not a plan. So, let’s make a plan while maintaining a hopeful heart! More on that later. Enjoy this time, cheers to you, you did it!
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