Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Last Day of School

As any of you know who have been following this blog or giving it the occasional visit, I have not posted anything new since last August. How ironic, to have my last post be on current events!

But as you can read in my bio, I went back to full-time teaching this year. And so I have been BUSY.

I have learned so much, and I hope to put some of that back into this blog over the summer, and on, where I will be writing as well.  

Like most of you, I have summer on the brain and am counting down 'til the last day of school.  During these last few days, I have been challenged by students who come into class saying, "Ms. Brown, can we just do nothing today?" "Ms. Brown, are we REALLY starting another unit?! School is almost over." "Ms. Brown, it's Friday...can't we just play a game?"

I hear them, loud and clear.  And I share their exhaustion and eagerness for a change in the routine.  So I am doing the best that I can, trying to shake things up a little.  Offer the occasional element of fun and surprise.  Find ways to get them up and moving.  Stuff like that.

But, still...this is school. This is U.S. history class. And we are going to LEARN stuff. Even on the very last day of school.

A recent conversation I had with a high schooler who had just finished his last day of school before finals mentioned that on his last day, "we did nothing."  A few parties, a little review for finals, and then "have a nice summer."

We owe our students a more thoughtful way to close out a year of study and reflection.  Sometimes I think I spend half of August planning my first day of school.  First impressions are important and set the tone.  But aren't final impressions important too? Shouldn't we provide some sort of closure? If all good lessons should have a beginning, middle, end and a point, shouldn't our school year have that too?

I like to end each class--when I can--with a zinger, or a "tune in tomorrow, when we will learn how the Freedmen's Bureau will solve these very problems that you've just identified" or some kind of cliff-hanger, such as "now that we've gone through the Declaration of Independence, tomorrow we will look at the very provocative passage that Thomas Jefferson left out of the final version." (See idea #5 in this post).

I want my class to end with a flourish, too.  Larry Ferlazzo offers a thoughtful analysis on the problem of what to do on the last day in this post in Education Week Teacher.

One of the things he does, which I like to do also, is to turn the table and have students evaluate the teacher.  If you set it up right, students can offer you feedback that will help you become a better teacher.  Remind them to grade you as you have tried to grade them: with helpful feedback.  Give them room to write comments, but ask multiple choice questions as well.  I signed up to to have the computer carts in my room, so I can do this using Google Forms.  But paper works, too.  

After that, I like to "wrap up" the class by reminding them of some things we've studied throughout the school year.  I like to remind students of themes we've studied throughout the year, harking back to some of the quotations I use on the first day of class

I always share with them the story about one of my American history professors in college. The one that made me shift from an English major to an American Studies major at the end of my freshman year.  In his last lesson, he compared U.S. history to a rose. It is beautiful, but has thorns.  I like to discuss this imagery with students. You could even have students write about this.  If you do, you can save the more thoughtful responses to read aloud to students next year.  Have students reflect about all the injustices of the past--slavery, discrimination, the mistakes in the Philippines and Vietnam.  But also have students consider the efforts to do better as a nation--the abolition of slavery, women's rights, the reforms of the Progressives and the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement. You could ask, is the glass half full? Or half empty? Have we as a nation lived up to our highest ideals?

When I taught the Revolution through Reagan in U.S. history, I liked to conclude the last day with one of my favorite quotations from Robert Kennedy:

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.

Students often come to like RFK and so I find him a good choice to offer some last thoughts about the positive impact they can have on the world.  I wanted to leave them with a positive thought.

But this year I taught just the "first half" of U.S. history, through Reconstruction.  So I thought I would end with something more relevant to that half of history.

At the front of my classroom, flanking the left and right sides of my white board, are large posters of Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglass.  Each has a quotation. The one by Thomas Jefferson is from the Declaration of Independence.  It's the famous part: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

I chose it, I will explain to students, because it is our national creed.  It represents our nation's highest ideals.  As Lincoln noted in February, 1861:
I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this [nation] so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men. (See here for source).
After the Emancipation Proclamation, this is what the Civil War became about.

But my students have learned that Thomas Jefferson was--and remains--a complicated historical figure.  He is a man of high ideals, but also a slaveowner.  And they are learning right now about the shortcomings of Reconstruction.  Before the last day of school, they will have learned that while black men technically got the right to vote with the passage of the 15th Amendment, the Women's Suffrage movement was not successful (yet), and that Jim Crow and other racist legislation undermined true equality, including suffrage.  And we will have had discussions about the long way we still have to go as a nation to insure that all men--and women--really do have equal rights.  This is where we come to the Douglass quotation.  It is from October 22, 1847. (Full speech here.)

So long as my voice can be heard on this or the other side of the Atlantic, I will hold up America to the lightning scorn of moral indignation.  In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of a true patriot; for he is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins.

I will read them this quotation that has been on the wall all year.  I will tell them I hope they will emulate Douglass, by being critical and not excusing nor tolerating injustice.  I will tell them that I hope my class has helped mold them into the kind of citizens who will do right by their country and, like Douglass, put pressure on our nation's leaders and themselves to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.   

And then I will wish them a good summer.