You know the signs: annual state testing is done, spring break is a distant memory and the weather is noticeably warmer. As if that isn’t enough to send students into a summer-is-almost-here frenzy, the school starts announcing yearbook arrivals and promotion events. It’s enough to break the best of us. The last month of the school year can be the toughest, as these milestones might signal to students that the work that matters most is done.
How can we keep our students engaged in meaningful work when everything around them screams “You’re almost done! Hello summer, goodbye school!”? A mini-project that offers students creative and meaningful work can make the final month not just productive, but pleasurable for all of us. And if the project culminates in some kind of publication, students will be more invested in the quality of their work. Digital portfolios, video PSAs and Tips for Success brochures engage students in creative work while also reinforcing lessons learned during the year through meaningful reflection.
Even if your students haven’t archived their work in portfolios this year, it’s not too late to start. In fact, digital portfolios are so quick and easy to create, your students could put together quite an impressive website in just a couple weeks. Plus, they’ll benefit from taking time to look back through what they’ve learned this year, share their proudest moments, and reflect on their growth.
There are many online choices for creating digital portfolios that are pretty simple, yet can result in slick, professional looking sites. This year my eighth graders started using the new Google Sites, and they love how easy it is to insert their work directly from their Google Drive. In previous years, we have also found Weebly, Wix, and WordPress to be easy platforms for creating personal websites. Google Slides and SeeSaw work well for younger student portfolios. One year I let my students choose which platform to use, and thanks to online help pages for all the options, they were able to work on their own and get help when they needed it, even if their classmates were using a variety of different sites.
As guidance, I give my students a list of pieces to add to their portfolios, such as their best expository writing, poem, literary analysis, etc. But besides just dropping their work into a website, my students also write introductions to each piece, which include reflections on why each work was meaningful to them. And that’s where I see the power of portfolios: Because students are sorting through their work from the year, they are reminded of the literary analysis that helped them see themes that link different texts to their own lives, and they remember and more fully appreciate the poem they wrote earlier in the year that introduced them to the bittersweet emotions of nostalgia. Reflection is a powerful tool for learning, but even more powerful is the polishing and publication of those reflections. (See Rebecca Girard’s post about incorporating and managing digital portfolios in the classroom.)
We’ve been assessing our students all year on content, but what about other skills, like how to succeed in school (and life)? Video PSAs give students a chance to show what they know in an engaging, hands-on way, while also providing us with resources for future students. I give my students a menu of life skill options, along with suggestions from staff members for school-wide reminders, such as doing your homework, respecting off-limits areas and not chewing gum or tossing water bottles around campus. Adults may find the videos a bit silly, but we know that students are far more likely to hear a message about respect when their peers are behind and in front of the camera. Added bonus: Students gain valuable film production and publication skills while reinforcing lessons learned during the year.
My school is in a 1:1 iPad district, so our students can use their iPads to film and edit. But many students’ films have been made with personal phones and then edited in iMovie on a Mac or with WeVideo on any computer. One of my favorite student PSAs was made by just one student with the camera on his teacher’s Mac laptop. Your students can probably show you how easy it is for them to produce films with whatever device they have available!
Tips for Success Brochures
This year I’m trying a new end-of-year project. Although my students are finished with their state testing in English, over the next couple weeks there will be math and make-up testing taking place across campus. That means we can’t let students work outside, which makes video production more difficult. So this year my students will be making Tips for Success brochures for future students at our school. I’m letting them each choose a focus for their brochure: how to succeed in a certain teacher’s class, how to earn good grades while also competing in a sport, how to be smart and safe on social media, how to stay out of trouble at school, etc. My experience says that letting them choose will result in greater enthusiasm for their work.
And now that Google Docs finally allows us to add columns, it is a great tool for students to create their brochures. They could also use Microsoft Word or Apple’s Pages. While pre-made templates make it easy, your students could learn a lot more about digital publications if they have to figure out the formatting themselves. And again, this project will not only reinforce their own understanding of how to be successful students, but it will build their writing, graphic design and digital skills at the same time.
I love to wrap up the school year with some kind of publication or sharing of student work. And when students create digital content, it is simple to offer them ways to publish it. Students can post the links to their portfolios in a Google Form, and the spreadsheet can be made available to the class via Google Classroom. Reading or watching each other’s work is as simple as clicking on portfolios links.
Students could also share their work via Padlet, or in a shared Google Drive folder. If they vote for the best brochures, those could then be printed and/or embedded in the school website for next year’s students. And if your students create video PSAs, a mini film festival is definitely in order. Roll out the red carpet, pop some popcorn and let your students vote for Best Picture!
Don’t let spring fever and school’s-almost-out distractions keep your students off-task and unproductive. Get them engaged in a hands-on digital project and they won’t even notice that final bell.