End-of-the-Year Activities & Keepsakes

It's that time of year when we are all feeling run down and ready for summer break. At the same time, we've been with our students all year (or semester) and have seen their incredible growth. It's bittersweet when we finally reach our last week or day of class.

At the high school level, I always hate to end my final class period with an exam, even though it's required. I usually give students time leading up to the test day for review (obviously) but also for a no-strings-attached fun activity to end the year on a positive note. I do this because: 
• Ending with a test is definitely not the most positive way to send my students off AND
• I think secondary students deserve to have some fun at the end of a long year, too, AND 
• I don't want anything I have to grade. 😏 

The activities have varied from year-to-year (depending on the time I have left by the end of the semester). One thing is certain: they must be activities that the students WANT to complete even though they most likely are not going to get any grade for doing them (some years I have given a simple completion grade, but most of the time they do the activity because they want to). 

Here are some of my favorites for our final day(s) together:

Live & Learn Life Lessons: This activity is so simple but always generates the most amazing results. First, I share some "life lessons" with my students: one-sentence proclamations that summarize a (sometimes hard) lesson learned. The writers of the lessons are known only by their age. 
Examples include: 
"I have learned that if you have gum, everyone will ask for a piece. -Age 14"
"I have learned that grades don't reflect knowledge, but effort. -Age 15"
"I have learned the build-up to getting your driver's license is actually more exciting than getting it. -Age 16"
"I have learned that dog poop freezes in the winter and when you step on it, it doesn't mush or smell. It's like a rock. -Age 16"
"I have learned senior year goes by faster than any other. -Age 18"

After I share examples, I pass out a slip that just has "I have learned..." and "Age: ___" printed on it. (You can download the template FREE here.) Students respond in writing, then after everyone is finished, we read them aloud. Students have the choice of whether they want to reveal themselves or not. Some even ask for theirs not to be read. In the end, I collect them in a binder and make copies of them for their graduation. 

It's also a wonderful retirement keepsake to give a teacher. Instead of just "I have learned...," type "I learned from Mr./Mrs./Ms. ______..." You can also use it as a nice send-off for a student teacher; it's guaranteed to be something they will reread and treasure for years.

Advice Memes: Oh, how I love using memes in class! The images can convey so much in such a short, simple way. I love to allow my students to create their own and the end of the year is the perfect time for them to create memes for future classes. They not only help future students, but they give me feedback on things I may need to tweak or adjust for future classes.

Yes, I am guilty of taking way too long to grade essays (and pass them back), as shown in one of the example memes above. Even though it can be humbling, I still find using them extremely helpful for improving my own instruction. Plus, you will have your first day partially planned out when you share the memes with your new classes in the fall! You can find ready-to-go handouts and instructions for this activity here.

Word Cloud Posters: I love using sites such as WordArt.com, WordClouds.com, or Tagxedo.com to create fun and meaningful art for my students. They are also great for having students create their own art using original poems (such as an "I Am..." poem) or a short story they have written. At the end of the year, though, I love importing a class list of my students' names and having the website generate a word cloud with them using their graduation year as the shape template. Then I just print them and pass them out before students leave for the year. 

Memory Books: Have your students record their memories, information, major events, and favorite things from the past school year. 

Memory books are a great addition to a school yearbook and a nice keepsake, especially for those students who may not have purchased a yearbook.  

I offer different spins on the traditional memory book. I have a range of memory flip books (ALL have been adapted for distance learning!), a simple memory page (great if you are short on time!), and an editable memory book specifically for teens where students can insert their own pictures and text using Google Slides or Microsoft PowerPoint or Word (perfect for 1:1 schools). 

Social Media Exit Slips: You can use these social media handouts as exit slips (or bell ringers) with your students for a fast, fun activity. 

Have your students summarize the year either in hashtags, through emojis, or with a playlist of songs. You can display them on a bulletin board after they have all turned them in or have students share them aloud with the class. 

Download them FREE by clicking here or on the image. If you need a digital version you can share online with your students for distance learning, you can find it here: End of the Year Exit Slips for Distance Learning

Free distance learning exit slips for the end of the school year

Time Capsule: Using any of the activities above, have your students create a time capsule that won't be opened until a specific date (like their graduation). In addition to any of the aforementioned activities, have your students write a note to their future self. They can summarize their school year and write about what they hope to be doing when the capsule is opened. Use either regular-sized or large manila envelopes to store the contents (students may include anything else, such as an essay or poem they've written or an assignment they are particularly proud of. They can either store the envelopes themselves or, if you have the means, you could put them all in a box and store them, then distribute. Another option is asking your school librarian if he/she could store them for the students. 

What are your favorite end-of-the-year activities? 

My friends here on the blog have shared some of theirs, too. 
Check them out here:
End of the Year Growth Mindset Activities by The Daring English Teacher

Group Poster Projects for the Secondary ELA Classroom

One of my favorite ways to actively engage my students and encourage student collaboration is by incorporating collaborative poster projects in my classroom. These projects are great for analysis and critical thinking, and they are relatively simple to facilitate and assign because they are low-prep, student-centered activities.

Essentially, for a collaborative poster project, I instruct my students to work together in small groups to discover or analyze and present a specific topic.

To make sure that I am prepared to throw together a collaborative poster project at the drop of a hat, there are several supplies that I always keep stocked in my room: a roll of white butcher paper, ledger-sized (11x17) copy paper, and plenty of markers. You can use either type of paper. I usually prefer butcher paper because it is much larger, and so it is easier for multiple students to work on the poster simultaneously.

There are a few reasons why I love assigning these types of activities in my classroom, and since I've had so much success with them, I am always trying to think up new ways to incorporate the collaborative poster project into my curriculum. I love how these projects foster critical thinking and collaboration. I also love that these are student-centered projects. Additionally, I love using collaborative poster projects as a formative assessment tool. As my students are working on the assignment in groups, I can walk around the classroom and not only monitor student progress, but I can also assess my students' understanding of the content we are studying based on their group conversations and analysis. One of the best things about these projects is that I can use them at various points throughout my unit.

Assigning a group poster project to introduce a new unit or concept is a great way to have students work together and discover important information about a particular subject or concept. When I do this to introduce a new novel unit, I first think about various big ideas or thematic ideas relating to the novel. I assign each group a different concept and give them almost the entire class period to find out information about that particular concept. Usually, students briefly present the information the next day.

When assigning an introductory collaborative poster project, here is a list of items I typically have my students include on their posters:

  • A dictionary definition of the word
  • The word defined in their own words
  • Synonyms of the word
  • Antonyms of the word
  • A quote about the concept from a philosopher, historian, author, or politician
  • An illustration of the concept

After this initial assignment (which usually takes about one and a half 55-minute long class periods), I display the posters around the classroom, and my students refer to them throughout the novel study as we discuss and analyze essential passages. I like to have my students complete an activity like this for their dialectical journal entries they complete as we read a novel.

Another great use of collaborative poster projects is as a formative assessment for analysis. As I mentioned earlier, these projects are perfect for monitoring your students' progress in learning and mastering a specific skill. Plus, you can include these posters in any fiction, nonfiction, or poetry unit.

The Rhetorical Analysis Collaborative Poster Project

The very first group poster project I assigned my students was a rhetorical analysis poster. I did this during our rhetorical analysis unit because I needed to get through quite a few speeches, but I still wanted a jig-saw-like activity to be meaningful.

For this project, every group had a different speech to read and analyze. After the initial analysis, students compiled their information, including their annotated speech, onto the poster.

After my students completed their posters, we used the next day to listen to each of the speeches aloud. Then, students completed a gallery walk activity where they looked at each poster and made a note of which rhetorical devices were used and why.

The Short Story Collaborative Review Poster Project

After such a successful rhetorical analysis poster project, I took the idea and used it as a short story review activity. I assigned each group a different short story that we read together in class. After spending just one class period working together on their poster, students needed to have the posters complete and ready to present the next class period. This was the perfect complement to my literary analysis unit.

Each group had to include each of these elements on their posters: title, author, summary, definitions of literary elements, examples of literary elements within the story, and quotes. For the literary elements, students included theme, motif, conflict, character type, tone, mood, symbol, and point-of-view.

Poetry Analysis Collaborative Poster Project

In addition to rhetorical analysis and literary analysis, the collaborative poster project concept also works well as a poetry analysis poster project. When I teach poetry analysis and have my students analyze poems, I have them use the SWIFT acronym: structure (or symbolism), word choice, imagery, figurative language, and theme and tone.

For the poster, each group has a different poem. They analyze the poem using the SWIFT acronym and include each element on the poster. Additionally, I like to have them illustrate some of the imagery on the poster and also include a copy of the annotated poem on the poster as well.

When I assign credit to these projects to assess student learning, I mostly grade these assignments holistically as a learning process. Read: as long as my students put forth the effort, I usually give full credit. However, I’ve created these three rubrics especially for you to use in your classroom.

Whether you utilize group poster projects to introduce a new concept or novel or as a formative assessment tool, your students will use their collaboration skills to work together to complete the final project. And what's even better is that this method naturally lends itself to quick and informal student presentations where the students present their information and ideas to their peers.


5 Ways to Use Collaboration and Critical Thinking

Hey, y’all! Danielle here, from Nouvelle ELA.

Today, I want to get real honest about something that’s been on my mind over the last couple of years. You know, I used to start my lesson planning with the text in mind. When I planned out Romeo & Juliet, I created anticipation activities, scaffolding vocabulary and plot, and ways to review each act to make sure every student was on board. Sure, I felt like my students understood, but then what? Were they really getting the most out of my class?


Now, I start with collaboration and critical thinking in mind. These are the tent poles for every unit I create. How are my students going to build these skills, and what texts can I use to support them?

Here are five ways you can incorporate these skills in your classroom.

1. Build community and teamwork

We’ve talked before on the Coffee Shop blog about building community and teamwork in the classroom. When students feel safe and supported, they can do the other work we ask of them. Before a student can be secure in standing up for a persuasive speech, they need to know that their classmates are cheering for them. What a great reason to focus on collaboration!

In my classroom, I start the year with plenty of collaborative exercises to develop this sense among my students. Day one is a Back to School Escape Room. In the first week, students also do a Peer Interview Project, giving me a real chance to get to know them, even as they get to know each other.

One thing I do to promote collaboration and critical thinking throughout the year is Collaborative Bellringers. These are team trivia bellringers that are ELA-themed and tie in pop culture. Students love them! Trivia is naturally competitive, and I keep the same teams for as long as I use the bellringers. I also love using these because I’ve found they encourage students to get to class on time. No one wants to miss a fun warm-up!

2. Building anticipation

I now integrate collaboration and critical thinking in my anticipation activities. For example, before teaching The Great Gatsby, I make sure students have background knowledge about WWI and the Roaring 20s. I do this through 4-Corners Brainstorming.

In groups, students consider one of the following questions. I use four groups because I have four questions, but you can adapt this strategy as needed.

  • What are some difficulties faced by soldiers returning home from war?
  • What was life like for women and families of soldiers during World War I?
  • What was life like for African Americans after World War I?
  • How did American life change when the automobile became widely available?

The goal is to generate possible answers to present to other students. There aren’t “wrong” answers—the students are sharing prior knowledge in a group setting. Students should record notes from their discussions because they’ll each be ambassadors to other groups. I give students five minutes to complete this first portion.

Next, I split up students and create new groups with at least one member from each original question group. Students share what they came up with in their original groups (practicing small group presentations!) and generate more ideas as a new group. I give students ten minutes to do this. You can use this concept for any set of anticipatory questions, too, and it’s low prep.

3. Maximize critical thinking

My favorite way to center collaboration in my teaching practice is by using Escape Rooms. Escape Rooms are a gamified introduction or review activity that you can create for any text or topic. Students work together to solve puzzles, progress through the levels, and “escape”. It’s great to see students sharing information as a team and truly thinking hard about how the clues fit together.

If you haven’t tried an Escape Room in the classroom, it’s an amazing experience! I have a template for any text here, and I’ve discussed using Escape Rooms in ELA on my blog. Let me know if you have questions.

4. Reduce pressure for them, grading for you

I’ve also integrated more collaborative essays and speeches into my curriculum. This is a great way to reduce pressure on them, decrease busy work, and reduce grading for you. I’ve also been intentional about moving beyond mere “group work.”  Many students hate group work - I was one of those students, and it seemed like I always did way more than my “fair share”. Here are ways you can be intentional when creating collaborative opportunities:

*YOU divide up the work, not them. If you assign a group essay, tell students the breakdown. Set the expectation that groups will be jointly responsible for the introduction and conclusion and individually responsible for a body paragraph. This is an easy way to avoid someone getting the toughest job (the introduction) or the easiest (the conclusion). It will also assure that you’re grading students on equitable displays of mastery.

*YOU set the schedule, not them. To avoid someone having to be a “group leader” or having a group feel adrift without one, set the schedule for what students should accomplish each day. If students are working together on a group speech, set the expectation you’ll see three slides from each student at the end of a workday.

*Value intra-group feedback. One way you can help students learn that every group member has something to contribute is to hold groups accountable for intra-group feedback. When preparing for a group presentation, each group member can give their section of the presentation for the rest of their group first as practice before presenting to the class. This is a great opportunity to incorporate Peer Feedback Activities. When group members receive feedback from the rest of their group, they’ll understand that everyone wants the group to succeed and they’ll feel more empowered for their own presentation or essay. Download these free Peer Feedback Slips to get started!

5. Foster creativity and a supportive space

I love using collaborative writing activities and the workshop model for creative endeavors. One of the first teaching activities I ever tried (way back in my first practicum!) was Round-Robin Writing. Students work together to write a creative story, building on what the group member before them wrote. The trick is that a group of five students actually has FIVE stories circulating, so things get wacky fast. This is such a fun activity for middle schoolers, but high schoolers enjoy the low-stakes chaos of this writing game, too.

Writer’s Workshops are a great place to integrate collaboration. Whereas students should work on their own creative pieces during this time, it is an opportunity to practice free feedback. When students write short stories in my class, I model giving “anytime” feedback. This is what writers do - when they get stuck, they ask critique partners specific questions to get unstuck. Writers pitch ideas to a small group of friends. Writers don’t always fill out a feedback form. Sometimes, it’s informal. Sometimes, it’s magical.

Collaboration and critical thinking - final words

When you plan your unit, add intentional moments for collaboration and critical thinking. This will increase engagement and set up students for success.

Happy teaching!

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