This time of the year has us thinking about two things in particular: summer and what you’ll be teaching next school year. The end of one school year always seems to flow right into the beginning of the next one. This is not just because the summers fly by (although that’s also true). It’s because the preparation work we do at the end of the school year has a direct impact on the way we feel about our first day back. If you’re like me, you know that a little foresight in the final days helps to put your mind at ease over those summer months. And let’s be honest, our minds haven’t been at ease for a while. Teachers deserve a break. I’ll show you my favorite end-of-the-year activity that will allow you to be prepared on the first day by having students write a letter to next year’s students!
If you could go back and speak to yourself in the past, what advice would you give to your former self? I reflect on this question myself from time to time. But lately, I’ve been thinking about this with regard to my students. I wondered what they would change about this past year in my class if they could go back and do it over again. I always arrive on the first day of school with a lot to say about how they can succeed. I’m straightforward with my students about my expectations, and I provide insight into how they can avoid the common pitfalls of my previous classes.
But eventually, I started to realize that I’m just one of several teachers giving them this exact talk while going over the syllabus on the first day of school. To be more precise, I am just one of several authority figures telling them what they need to do to succeed.
Look closely: many students’ eyes glaze over during these discussions. They’re being overwhelmed with advice, and it’s not their fault. I started thinking that it would be better if some of this advice came from someone else.
And who better than the students from the previous year?
Before getting them to write a letter to next year’s students, I usually like to just ask a general question to the class. I’ve found that asking them something like “What are some things you can do to be successful in this class?” is a good place to begin. In the past, I’ve used the Think-Pair-Share strategy for this. Getting students to go through the process of thinking about the subject themselves, discussing their thoughts with a partner, and then sharing it with the class gets students thinking before they dive into the letter-writing process.
Ok, now we need to address the possibility that this all goes awry! I mean there’s always the chance that one student writes less of a letter than a warning, right? “GET OUT OF THIS CLASS RIGHT AWAY. SHE’S MEAN.” To make sure this is really a productive writing experience (and not just an opportunity for students to air their grievances about school), it’s essential to provide a structure for writing the letter. Below, I’ve included a list of the questions I give my students to help them organize their thoughts.
Ask your current students to think about whether there were any materials that were particularly helpful for them in your class. Were there any school supplies they wished they had with them sooner? What was the benefit of having these particular learning tools at their disposal?
We don’t want students evaluating the difficulty of the course with one-word answers. Hard. Easy. This question encourages them to give their peers practical tips for how they can meet your expectations as a teacher.
By the end of the year, many of your students will know how to excel in your class. Whether they did is another question. Some students might wish they could have another try at your class. These students, in particular, might have a lot to say here!
Sometimes it’s not all about what you do, but also what you don’t do. Answers to this question will help clarify certain basic class standards for incoming students.
Students don’t need to go into extreme detail here, but the process of doing this will help both groups of students understand the bigger picture.
This question will give students who are just leaving your classroom an opportunity to reflect on their positive experiences in your class. I always encourage students to end the letter with these. Each of these questions is also included in the brainstorming worksheet that comes with the resource!
Once they have all this information, they will be ready to write a letter to next year’s students!
What makes this activity so beneficial is that it provides informed insights on how next year’s students can succeed which you can share with students on the first day of school the following year. It’s mutually beneficial for your current students and for next year’s students. For your current students, this will serve as a unique exercise in self-reflection that will help them moving forward. And your next group will benefit by hearing directly from their peers on how to succeed in your class. This is sure to leave a lasting impact on both groups.
I like to actually try and hand out all the letters from the previous year if I can. This way, each new student will have a connection with an individual who has already gone through the class. You might instead choose to make copies of a handful of letters with the most poignant advice to give to each student. Or you might divide the class into small groups, assigning each group a single letter. In any case, I suggest giving the students the letters to actually hold and read themselves (instead of you reading these to the class).
Best of luck with the end of the year, and I hope you have a fantastic summer!
From having students write a letter to next year’s students, I’ve been able to find small ways to improve the class experience year after year. If this idea interests you, you should also check out the 2 types of questions I ask my students at the end of the year.
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