This post originally appeared on the blog Gil Teach.
The best piece of advice that I ever got as a teacher was from a principal way back in 2004. He told me that at the end of the day, my students should be more tired than I was. I took that as permission to give myself a break, not martyr myself for the kids, and get them to do the work, not me. The second best piece of advice I ever got as a teacher was from a freshman in my worst behaved class that same year. She flipped her hair, applied another layer of lip gloss, and said, “Why don’t you just give us some work and leave us alone?”
Of course, in spite of those two gems of advice, I work hard to teach my classes the best that I can — I enthusiastically lead my students through discussions of challenging poems, I push them to write one more draft of their second body paragraph, and I get them to read and analyze primary source documents in order to create original creative pieces.
I just don’t do all of that during the last few months of the school year.
When it comes to end-of-the-year activities, I am exhausted and frankly pretty averse to lectures of any kind. On the other hand, students have come a long way in their skills and adherence to classroom routines and expectations. They don’t really need hand holding the way that they did back in September, and they aren’t very excited about doing the same sorts of questions that they’ve been completing all year long. They are ready for new challenges. They want to take it to the next level.
Along with the warm weather and countdown to summer, all of this makes for the perfect storm of conditions for one thing: independent projects. If there is a better time than now to give them some work and leave them alone, I don’t know when that is.
Here are four ideas to get students working independently:
Get them to find their own subject matter. I have had great success with ending a Spring poetry unit by tasking students with finding their own favorite poems and writing them up in a project of some sort. I have also loved ending the year with independent reading and presentations on that reading — when students recommend their choices to each other, you can really see them take notice of their peers’ advice. Creating mini anthologies, reading their own choices, or even getting students to choose a poem or story from the textbook are all great ways to get kids to find their own subject matter.
Assign a long-term interview based project. I started doing I-Search papers in my classes long before project based learning or genius hour were even invented. Not only are they a great way to get kids out of the class and working independently, the end of the year is the perfect time for some real-world connections. The I-Search paper is a long-term interview-based paper in which students answer their own questions and then write up their search as a story. Interviewing family members or neighbors about historical topics or town officials about local environmental issues are also great ideas to get kids looking at research in new ways and working independently without a hovering teacher micromanaging every step of the way. Completing a project that involves going out and talking to people for a while is also a big challenge for the current generation and helps them gain some valuable and often missing skills.
Have them teach a few classes. By the time May rolls around, my students know the routine so well that they could teach the class themselves. So sometimes, I let them. They pick the story, they write the discussion questions, they even make the quiz to check for reading comprehension. What’s the point of working so hard to get them used to the daily tasks if I can’t take it as an opportunity to put my feet up? At least for a few minutes. Kids also need to learn to respect anyone who has the stage, whether that person is a paid adult or a peer. So getting them to teach each other is a great way to get students to work a little harder than you do.
Turn your classroom into a workshop. Letting students come up with their own projects, papers, or problems to solve and then giving them class time and space to work through those pieces is lots of fun. In my experience, by this time of year, students know whether they’d like to try their hand at more research or personal essays or poetry writing — or maybe they’d like to combine two or more into an original piece. For an English teacher, this means it’s a good time to do writing workshop, but the workshop model could be adapted for any subject area. Just giving students the spaciousness to work through their own projects is lots of fun for everyone.
The ultimate irony of all this independent work is that teachers aren’t really leaving the students alone at all. We get the chance to move through the classroom, talking individually to students in a way that we might not have been able to do during the year.
It’s one more great way to connect with students, which is really the best part of teaching.
Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for 16 years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She blogs about empowering students to find their own answers at GilTeach.com.
She believes that analyzing a poem with 20 17-year-olds is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, that teenagers should celebrate the epic battles of their lives, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects.
When she is not busy milking goats or working in the garden, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.