Distance Learning Weeks 10 & 11: We’ve Reached the Finish Line, Now What?

Looking back on the start of this current school year, I never could have, in a billion light years, imagined that it would end in a virtual environment.  I mean, seriously, pandemics are the subject of sci-fi and horror movies, and virtual learning is for homeschooled or international students looking for a special kind of learning experience.  I knew that distance learning existed, as I read articles about its effectiveness; however, I always thought that virtual school was just not something of which I would ever be a part.

I had dreams for what I wanted my academic year to look like.  I was excited to implement a new project-based learning unit on space that would incorporate Edison Robots.  I couldn’t wait to introduce my students to computer coding, as they built and programmed space rovers.  I also had hopes for how my year would end.  I envisioned my students planting lots of milkweed plants, as part of the new Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary at our school.  I never thought I’d have to completely rethink the end of the year because a pandemic would force schools to close.  But, I did.

Schools across the globe shutdown, forcing students and teachers into a virtual, remote learning environment.  The magnificent mental blueprint I had devised for how my academic year would end was suddenly crumpled into a tiny ball and tossed onto the side of a road like a discarded face mask.  I was, in the blink of an eye, teaching my students from a distance.  The engaging, hands-on projects I had planned, had to be cancelled.  Instead, I was looking at my students on a computer screen, wondering when this terrible dream would end.

I get it, as I’m all about safety first.  Countries shutdown to keep their citizens safe and to further prevent the spread of COVID-19.  We needed to quarantine during these past few months to save lives, and if I could rewind time and deputize myself as overlord in charge of the world, I would have done the same thing, locking down countries to help flatten the curve of the virus.  For the most part, the lockdown and stay-at-home orders that states and countries issued, worked.  The number of infected people and casualties would be exponentially higher had we gone about life as usual and not closed schools and businesses.  However, the reality in which we were forced into meant that the hopes and dreams people had prior to the spread of this horrible virus, had to be put on hold and shelved away for a different, safer time.  Teachers and students quickly got used to distance learning and accepted that the final months of school would be conducted virtually.

As the end of this bizarre and surreal school year was coming to a close, I wondered how I might provide my students with some sort of effective and meaningful closing experience.  How could I end the year in a way that didn’t feel stale and glitchy like a bad virtual conference?  Would it be possible for me to get parting gifts to my students?  Would I still make use of similar activities that I would utilize during a normal, on-site school year?  I had lots of choices to make as the final three weeks of remote learning approached.

Here’s how I chose to bring closure to the 2019-2020 academic year for my fifth grade class:

  • During the final three weeks of school, I had the students complete an interdisciplinary project to help keep them engaged and motivated.  Our normal routine of classes was suspended during the final weeks of school to allow students time to dig into the meaningful and relevant Betterment Project.  The students loved this very differentiated and individualized project that allowed them to work at their own pace, as they designed and built, cleaned and organized, and planted various flora specimens.  CLICK HERE to check out the projects the students completed.
  • As the students finished working on their Betterment Projects, I had them spend some time reflecting on their academic year and their individual progress and growth.  As we focused on metacognition, growth mindset, and reflection throughout the school year, it felt fitting to have the students close out their year in the fifth grade by looking back on how they have changed as students, thinkers, readers, writers, scientists, mathematicians, and teammates.  CLICK HERE to view the reflection format my students used.  Here are some excerpts from their reflections:
    • I’m a fifth grade student at The Beech Hill School.  I was nervous to shadow at Beech Hill.  I had all these thoughts going through my head. My biggest fear was:  What if I do something wrong? Then I realized you can’t do anything wrong at The Beech Hill School. You may get Behavioral reflections, but that will only teach you more. When I got accepted I was slightly happy, because I know I am a good student. I know I was trying pretty hard, and I had to think the best. My first few weeks I was still getting in the swing of things. I didn’t know what the routine was, what Prodigy was, or what Forest Fridays are. Through the course of the year I knew so much more. Most everything was familiar to me, At the end of the year everything was too familiar. In a way that I knew what I was doing, the schedule was very clear. I also had the best friends ever. We had our fights, but we always figured it out. For example, I was rolling down a hill with a student.  We hit heads and there was a small pause. We started to laugh, we kept asking each other if you were ok. I wanted school to last forever, but it has to take a pause sometime. In the beginning ( Fall Trimester.)  My grades were: A-’s and A’s. In the middle of the year ( Winter Trimester.) My Grades were: B,A,A+, and A-. At the end of the year ( Spring Trimester.) My Grades were: A’s, A-’s, and A+’s. I started strong, and ended strong. In the middle I had a bump, but that didn’t stop me. Now I feel I have become a better student in so many different ways.
    • Okay, honestly I am not the most organized person in the world.  Shocker right? But I can say my organization skills got 1% or 2% better, a little. When I came in I was actually more of a slob then I am now. My desk was kind of gross. Like I found a corn chip, a granola bar, and a little pack of Nutella in there, gross. I was not used to having a cubby or not having a desk. My cubby organization never got better. I really tried to keep it clean, but it never stayed that way. I was one of the people who finished cubby cleaning last, and it didn’t really help that I shared a cubby with another messy person. 1 messy person + another messy person = DISASTER. My shared cubby is another story. It was a MESS. We had a lego tractor, a sled, a brick named Brickey, diplomas, and even a bag of Cheez Doodles. My binder was okay organized, not super clean, but not a big mess. My skills got a little better, but not a lot. I still struggle with that and always have struggled with that. Just to tell you how not organized I am, I don’t even know how to spell organized, I’m copying it and pasting it. So on an ending note this only got around 1 ½ % better.
    • My critical thinking skill improved throughout the year. It started as a reasonable skill that I possessed and used sometimes. But in the 5th grade middle semester I had already used it more than ever. I had begun to build it by working on our shelter,  building my go cart and doing my community project. An example is I was able to answer current events questions that I had no idea about or did not know existed. Also I was able to answer khan academy questions I did not know, by process of elimination and other strategies. These strategies have improve my critical thinking skills.
  • To help make the time my students spend at our wonderful school even more memorable and special, I like to have them write a letter to their older, hopefully more mature, selves that I will then give back to them upon their graduation from our school.  I call it, Letter to your Eighth Grade Self.  They write a letter to themselves that they will open in a few years.  While I provide them with guiding prompts and questions for how to craft their letter, I tell them that this letter is solely intended for them.  It should be something special and fun.  “Make it something that you will be able to laugh at and enjoy when you open it in three years,” I tell them.  To help wrap up this crazy COVID year, I had the students craft these special letters that I will keep locked away in the closet in my classroom.  Many of the students had much fun writing these letters.  Some of the students wrote several pages to their future selves.
  • Being a bit of a sappy, emotional person, I love to provide my students with lots of opportunities to reflect on their year in the fifth grade in a nostalgic manner.  I wrote a poem that I shared with the students during the last week of school.  By the time I finished reading it aloud to my class, we were all on the verge of tears.  I also created a slideshow with pictures and music that I shared with the students.  They thoroughly enjoyed this virtual walk down memory lane.  I like closing the year with experiences like these, as they help the students head into summer vacation on a positive note, thinking about all of the wonderful experiences from the school year.  It also helps to get them excited to return to school in the fall.
  • As I like to provide my students with some special mementos from their year in my class, I put together gift bags for my students.  After receiving permission from my headmaster, I arranged for the families of my students to come to campus during the final week of school.  I had the parents make it a surprise for the students, as I had told the students, the day before, that I would not be at school when they came to pick up paperwork for next year.  Practicing proper social distancing techniques while wearing face masks, we were able to gather together, in person, to close out the school year in a meaningful way.  I shared some final remarks with the students, handed out the gift bags, and allowed the students and their families to chat with one another, from a distance.  The students enjoyed this final moment together, as a fifth grade class.

Although this academic year was far different from the expectations I had formulated last summer, I found a way to end it in a meaningful and relevant manner for me and my students.  We all left our final class gathering feeling happy, sad, and excited, the perfect balance of emotions for this strange and weird time in which we are living.  While we may not soon awaken from this crazy dreamworld in which we are currently living, we will survive and make it through together, as one big, messy family.  I wish you all a wonderful summer vacation.

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