Last Days of School

We’ve all been there (except for those of you who are just finishing up your first year)—the last student day of school is approaching. This means that, even though you still have students coming to class, the already-challenging task of keeping them engaged and learning is made all the more difficult:

  • all books and materials have already been collected and put away;
  • final grades are closed.

Neither of these is your call. I always found it annoyingly ironic that the last two, three, or five days counted as legal school days. I was supposed to take attendance and follow through with absentees; students were urged to attend (often with empty threats of withheld report cards and first-day-of-school suspensions), but there was nothing legitimately related to education that could go on because the administration wanted to wrap up its loose ends early.

Anyway, we’ve all been there. We know we won’t have anything approaching full attendance, but we also know there will be that handful of students who will show up. We could, of course, simply give them a free period. (I confess I sometimes did.) Or we could put them to work helping us batten down our classroom for the summer.

In my school, two or three teachers would sometimes “pool” their students into a single group and take turns having a coke in the faculty lounge.

But I also remember feeling a little sorry for the kids. Here they were, doing the (technically) right thing. They were in school when they were (technically) supposed to be. They had come to school on a school day and deserved better than to be shunted around like someone’s unwanted orphaned nephews and nieces.

I also eventually became that teacher—the guy who hated to waste time, who hated not to be doing something related to the course, who had some kind of work for his kids even on the last day of school before Thanksgiving weekend, the December holiday vacation, and spring break. In short, if you were gonna come to my class, you were gonna see some learnin’ goin’ on!

If you at all aspire to be that teacher, here are a few activities I found to keep my students busy on those last days. I always geared everything toward what we’d done in class that year, but these generally worked even if I took in some other teachers’ foundlings so they could go to lunch … or whatever.

So try these. They all require little to no prep time and minimal materials. They certainly do not need to be corrected, graded, and handed back.

Enjoy your last week of school and have a happy, healthy, and restful summer. You’ve earned it.

The Great (Impromptu) Debate

Depending on your students, you can make this as serious or comic as you want. It’s always a good idea to have a few topics ready in case your students’ brains are already on summer-slumber mode and no one suggests any others.

  1. Without telling them what’s going on, ask students to call out a few theses or arguable statements. (It’s your call whether you require them to be ELA or literature related.)

    Remember, you can make this a serious debate:

    • Post-colonial interpretations of Life of Pi strip the novel of its rich allegorical meaning.
    • Given the most-broadly-accepted standards of “literary quality” (i.e., those studied in class), ___ [fill in the blank: the Harry Potter series, the Twilight series, the Hunger Games series, etc.] __ is/is not appropriate for study in a “literature” course.

    or a comic one:

    • The semi-colon is an outmoded punctuation mark, and its use should be suspended.
    • In a cage match between ___ [fill in the blanks with characters from literature studied in class this year] ___ and ____, ____ would win.
  2. After a few topics have been proposed, choose one by election or consensus.
  3. Assign or select teams—one to argue the affirmative and one to argue the negative.
  4. Give teams a few minutes to prepare. This can include research if you want. The only “rule” should be that all arguments be based on and supported by facts about the literature, the genre, literature in general, or the English language.
  5. Select or elect a moderator and begin the debate.

If you have so many students in class that not everyone gets to be on a team, allow the “spectators” to suggest points, questions, or rebuttal at appropriate times during each team’s presentation.

After the debate, choose a winner (or not … it’s up to you).

The Well-Planned Improv

This takes a little pre-planning, but the prep could be your class’s activity for the day before.

  1. On 3 x 5 index cards (or random scraps of paper), write (or have students write) the names of characters from a chosen piece of literature (preferably one studied this year in class)—one character per card. You might want to plan for one or two narrators.
  2. Assemble appropriate props and costume pieces (keep it simple—a scarf or shawl for Juliet’s nurse, plastic swords or swords cut from cardboard and wrapped in aluminum foil for the rowdy male characters, etc.)
  3. Place all the cards in a box, hat, tin can, etc.
  4. Have each student draw a card from the box. This is his/her character.
  5. Give students a few minutes to assemble their costumes and props.
  6. With the narrators’ help, act out the story. Extra points to characters who can actually quote anything close to their actual dialogue.

NOTE: This activity works with novels and short stories as well as plays. It’s especially effective if you don’t have the students do the prep work; as they come into class on “performance day,” they have no idea what’s going to be going on.

Board Erase

This simplified version of The Well-Planned Improv is especially appropriate if you’ve taught Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, or another (most likely Shakespeare) work with a high body count at the end.

  1. Write the names of all the characters on the board.
  2. Assign students roles (or let them choose).
  3. Select one or two narrators.
  4. Review the plot of the literature. At appropriate points in the narrative, you may want to allow the eraser-holding characters to recite something approaching the relevant dialogue from a key scene.
  5. At the point that one of the characters gets killed, have the student who plays that character’s killer erase the name from the board.

Literary Charades

This one also requires a little pre-planning, but again, you can have whatever students are in attendance the day before do the prep work.

  1. On 3 x 5 index cards (or random scraps of paper), write (or have students write):
    • the title of a novel, play, essay, short story, etc., studied in class
    • a character’s name
    • a famous tagline, one-liner, or quotable-quote from something studied in class (e.g., To be or not to be; Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, etc.)
  2. Appoint a timekeeper (if you want one).
  3. Appoint a scorekeeper (if you want one).
  4. Select teams.
  5. (If you want to …) review or establish some basic rules and hand signals (like the person acting out the charade can’t call out the answer).
  6. Play charades.

Charades was so popular with a few of my classes that we kept boxes of index cards always ready (kids could add to the boxes as they thought of “good ones”). It became our filler of choice if a day was killed due to snow, power outage, fire drill, pep rally (you know how fragile the bell schedule is …)

Last Smart-Aleck Standing

This one can be really fun, or it can be really dangerous. You know your kids, so only you can judge whether they can handle this without getting themselves suspended and you fired.

It’s really simple; students either write a brand-new joke, or they re-cast an already-existing joke with characters and situations drawn from the material studied this year in class.

  1. You can pass out index cards (or random scraps of paper) if you want.
  2. Give students a few minutes to write 2 or 3 jokes. Tell them they get extra points if:
    • their joke is original,
    • their joke is funny,
    • the characters and situations are particularly well suited to each other.
  3. Of course, it almost goes without saying that these jokes need to be clean, not personally directed toward anyone else in the class, school, district, etc., not personally offensive, and/or racist, sexist, ageist … you get the idea.
  4. Have students take turns telling their jokes to the other students in class.

You can select a “winner” if you want (or winners in a whole host of categories). Maybe you’ll have a piece of chalk or a dry-erase marker lying around to give as a prize. The point is, quite simply, that the kids get to think about the literature they studied that year, but they also have the opportunity to have fun with what may have seemed … uh … not fun only a few short months ago.

Here’s a sample of the type of joke your students might write:

The Weird Sisters [from Macbeth] are walking across the heath near Forres.
“Sisters, it be windy today,” quoth the First Witch.
“Nay,” saith the Second Witch, “ ’tis Thursday.”
“Aye me too,” agreeth the Third Witch, “let’s to our cave and brew ourselves a drink.”

Here’s one more (just because they’re so much fun to write):

Q: Why did Daisy drive Gatsby’s car home from New York the night Myrtle was killed?
A: Because it was too far to walk!

Okay … one more because you’ve been such a great crowd:

So Roger Chillingworth walks into a seafood restaurant and sits at a table.
“Do you serve crabs?” he asks the waitress.
The waitress responds, “Oh we serve, everyone sir.”

Y’all have a good summer. Enjoy those last days of school, as well.