Ideas for End-of-the-School-Year Celebrations

By Andrew Hawk

Ideas for End-of-the-School-Year CelebrationsIt’s hard to believe, but another school year is nearing its conclusion. The weather is finally turning warm again after what was a brutal winter in many states. Practices for warm weather sports have resumed. This time of year puts teachers through a gauntlet of emotions. Teachers will feel pride when they step back and see the growth they have facilitated in their students. Teachers may also feel regret when they remember a lesson they wanted to teach but didn’t or a concept their classes didn’t quite master. Happiness comes to teachers when they consider a break to recharge their batteries. Of course, no matter what challenges a teacher has faced with a class, there is always sadness when saying goodbye to a group of students.

Many schools, my own included, like to hold a celebration at the end of the year. It’s a fun way to end the year on a positive note and add to students’ happy memories of the year. Here are a few ideas that I hope you will try if your school is looking for a fun way to celebrate the end of the school year.

Class Party
This is the old standard for an end-of-the-year celebration. I can still remember having end-of-the-year parties when I was an elementary student. It is these happy memories that, at least for me, keep this idea relevant. A party doesn’t have to be about passing out sweets and watching a movie, although students enjoy both of those things. Plan fun activities that will get students up and moving. A colleague of mine likes to do end-of-the-year parties where teams of her students compete in a range of activities to earn points. An example is making a mummy. One student has to stand still while teammates completely cover the student with toilet paper. This colleague’s students always really enjoy her parties.

Class Awards
These can be serious or fun. They can be awarded by class or schoolwide. It is really easy to download a certificate template. The awards can then be printed on cardstock. Whatever your beliefs are regarding the number of awards that are handed out, this activity can be adapted to meet your needs.

School Sleepover
I have only heard of one school trying this, but the students really enjoyed it. The challenge is getting staff and parents on board. The concept is simple: On a Friday evening, students arrive with sleeping bags, pajamas, snacks, and so on. They take part in traditional sleepover activities such as telling scary stories or even having pillow fights. I recommend asking a couple of parents per classroom to attend to help supervise.

School Picnic
This is a favorite end-of-the-year celebration at my school. Several teachers bring grills from home. Our school supplies burgers and hot dogs. Parents come and bring side dishes. We host our picnic on our playground. Since we are a larger school, our picnic takes place throughout the afternoon with two grade levels participating at a time. The feedback that we have received from our families regarding this event has all been very positive.

Local Trip
I know funding is not always easy to come by, but I am not saying that your school needs to provide another field trip. I have in mind something within walking distance from your school. Even if it is just a trip to a nearby park where your class can have recess, your students will love the change of scenery.

School Dance
At my school, we host a school dance at the end of the year for fifth graders only. The dance takes place after school. It is one of the ways we celebrate sending our graduating class on to the next step in their education. A local DJ volunteers his services. Parents and teachers chaperone. Even though we do this only for fifth grade at my school, I think all grades would enjoy this activity. Teachers could lead younger grades in group dances.

Field Day
All four schools at which I have taught have ended the year with field day on the last day of school. Mornings are spent cleaning out desks and such. Field day activities take place after lunch. This makes for a tiring afternoon for school staff, but the students really enjoy it. You can host athletic events as well as games and activities. Here are some examples. The best thing about field day is that you can adapt the activities to match the equipment you have available and the interests of your students.

Theme Day
Choose a fun theme and conduct the school day accordingly. Students and teachers can dress up and participate in themed activities. For example, my fourth-grade class celebrated the end of the school year with what we called “Pioneer Day.” All the students and teachers dressed as pioneers. We played pioneer-style games at recess, and class was held in a manner similar to the pioneer schools. We enjoyed the novelty of this day. Any theme would work, so this activity can be changed to match the interests of the students and teachers at your school.

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for 16 years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher, and for the past five years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. Andrew earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University, and in 2016, he completed a second master’s degree in educational leadership, also from WGU. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.

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Un-Cliqueing the Preschool Clique

By Molly Breen

Un-Cliqueing the Preschool CliqueSay the word clique, and it generally conjures a not-so-favorable image of “mean girls” (or boys, or kids) in the throes of middle school identity woes. It may surprise you to know that clique power dynamics emerge much earlier than the preteen and teenage social politics of middle and high school. Preschool cliques are a thing, and they aren’t necessarily a bad thing! Cliques can prove positive if we can manage to avoid—or learn from—some of the negative clique hallmarks. As educators, we can approach clique mentality less as a social structure to dismantle and more as fertile soil ready for some social and emotional planting.

The word clique can actually refer to any social group or group of friends. Neutralizing the meaning of the word to more of a friend group than an inner-circle provides a better shared context as a starting point. On the positive side, cliques can provide a sense of belonging to a peer group with similar interests and, in the case of preschoolers, similar skill levels. This group of friends may help build confidence in the individual members through positive and prosocial play and learning: “You like what I like and can do what I can do.” In addition to the sense of belonging and increased confidence, friend-group cliques can also provide an emerging awareness of social structures that can serve children well in the future. For educators, differentiating our approach to friend groups depending on the group’s accompanying behaviors is a great guidance skill. This means that we try to approach friend groups with a neutral mindset and then observe behaviors to determine if there is a darker side to the clique.

Dark side behaviors in cliques are easily identifiable and are closely related to that mean-girls reference. Cliques can be exclusive, can be controlled by a group mentality, and can create a sense of inadequacy in the individual: “I’m not enough without my friends.” Further, there might be evidence of the inflexible exit. Every teacher has heard a version of these words spoken from one bestie to another: “If you play with him, then you can’t be on our team anymore.” In its worst iteration, the clique will chronically bully the weakest members and even create its own social hierarchy. How do we best respond to this type of exclusion and treat it as an opportunity to evolve and grow rather than simply shutting it down?

Identifying the social structure you are observing as a clique (with all of the negative connotations) or as a friend group with some complexity is the first step to developing an appropriate intervention. If the group is a positive and prosocial friend group, it is appropriate to address any challenges on an individual level. For example, if one child is regularly cast in a supporting role in play or is often playing the role of peacemaker in the group, it would be helpful to draw the group’s attention to these patterns and attempt to create equity in turn-taking or encourage the group to ask a teacher for help with settling disagreements. If the social structure is a clique with painful and exclusive practices, it will be appropriate to address the whole group with observations about the patterns in a class meeting. One well-researched method for building empathy around exclusionary play and other forms of bullying is role playing. Yes, this can seem tedious and even silly, but it is truly an effective way to help students see how their actions affect others.

Depending on the age of your students, teachers can perform the role play or you can ask for help from your students. Use true-to-life scenarios such as picking teams and excluding or singling out one child who “can’t play” for an arbitrary reason (such as being too young, wearing the wrong colors, or only liking to play “baby” games), talking loudly about who will be invited to a birthday party and specifically excluding someone within earshot, or making statements about someone’s appearance being “weird” or “funny.” These are all simple suggestions, but it is likely your real-life clique dramas will provide a richer narrative.

If you feel stumped about how to use role playing for social and emotional learning, there are dozens of online resources that can help point you in the right direction. (Check out this great resource!) Be bold in trying out something new if you’ve never done a role play with your students! Follow up with questions like: “What do you notice happening here? How could this go differently? Have you ever felt like ___________? What did you do? Who did you tell? How could we ‘rewrite the script’ to avoid hurt feelings and practice kindness with our friends?”

Again, these are basic starting points, and I predict your conversation will inevitably move in the direction of developing empathy.

While I believe wholeheartedly in helping children develop skills for self-advocacy and do not practice “helicoptering” in my teaching and learning with kids, I believe we sometimes must intervene to help kids get unstuck or, in this case, un-cliqued and moving in the direction of positive development. If we can remember that friend groups and cliques are not necessarily bad, and if we can seize those painful moments of exclusion and peer pressure and turn them into opportunities for growth, we just might be able to build empathy as a capacity and a life skill. And when children are armed with this kind of character, we can feel assured that our little learners will have what they need—and know who they are—in elementary school, middle school, and beyond.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.

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Advocating for Small-Group Discussions at Your School

By Jean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., author of How (and Why) to Get Students Talking: 78 Ready-to-Use Group Discussions About Anxiety, Self-Esteem, Relationships, and More (Grades 6–12)

Advocating for Small-Group Discussions at Your SchoolIt was just a hunch. When I was tasked with creating a program for gifted students in a large high school, I decided to include small-group discussion as an option. Previously as a teacher, I had observed and heard about anxiety, depression, self-harm, stress from high expectations, social tensions, and other common struggles in gifted students. I wondered if these bright students would be open to discussing such concerns with peers—essentially talking together about growing up.

I also wondered if school administrators would be open to this. I credit strategic advocacy for small-group discussion becoming an important part of these gifted students’ school life and, eventually, of the school life of general population students in many middle and high schools and high-risk students in alternative schools.

One key element of advocating for these groups was the curriculum I developed. The curriculum helped inform adult school personnel and parents about the groups. The introduction to each session included background information for group leaders about the topic. The materials also provided clear focus and a good level of control, while offering flexibility for pursuing new strands of interest. The curriculum developed over time as new developmental concerns came to light during discussions. Session details soon became the first edition of How (and Why) to Get Students Talking, which was originally published as two volumes and has continued to be revised and retitled through the years. Today any edition of the book can help veteran or novice leaders guide discussions safely and skillfully.

Objectives for these discussion groups are about supporting social and emotional development:

  • to develop listening skills, expressive language, self-advocacy skills, and skills in articulating concerns
  • to discover common ground related to growing up
  • to learn how to deal with anger, stress, fear, anxiety, worry, and perfectionism
  • to understand and interact effectively with authority
  • to understand difficulties related to developmental and other personal transitions
  • to gain perspective about peers, teachers, administrators, siblings, and parents
  • to develop compassion
  • to learn how to give and receive compliments and other feedback
  • to develop coping skills
  • to learn how to ask for help
  • to develop trust
  • to improve self-esteem and self-confidence
  • to gain insights about self and others
  • to challenge thinking only in stereotypes
  • to normalize developmental challenges (related to identity, direction, relationships, autonomy)
  • to reduce the stigma of counseling
  • to gain communication skills for employment, romantic relationships, parenting, leadership, and school and family interaction

All children and teens, regardless of ability level and circumstances, can benefit from this kind of small-group discussion. When I eventually became an educator of counselors in my second career, I emphasized using small-group discussion—but not for intervention, which is typically emphasized during counselor preparation. That kind of discussion addresses an existing problem such as bullying, disruptive behavior, self-harm, low morale, poor attendance, poor peer relations, or poor self-care.

The groups I emphasized were for prevention—ideally helping students avoid problems or at least prevent problems from becoming worse. I believe school counselors should focus mostly on this latter kind of discussion. When counselors meet with 10 or more weekly groups for six to eight weeks, with multiple six- to eight-week-long series occurring over the course of a year, potentially several hundred students can have that rare experience during a school year. School climate can be positively affected with this kind of systemic approach. The secret seems to be in helping kids “be known.” Social aggression is less likely when peers are known beyond first impressions.

Generating Support
Small-group discussion was new at that school where I first led these groups. The three principals were receptive after I presented a carefully constructed proposal.

I applied the same small-group approach later in alternative schools and elementary and middle schools. I used the same advocacy strategies for gaining administrators’ and teachers’ support:

  • I made sure they understood what small-group discussion was and was not.
  • I communicated clear objectives, just as I would have done for any school curriculum.
  • I emphasized potential benefits to school climate: fewer behavior problems, a sense of safety and security because of new connections to other group members, and positive cross-cultural and cross-socioeconomic communication.
  • After approval, I prepared information for the parents of the students I had invited to join a group—and for the prospective group members as well.
  • I explained legal and ethical concerns, such as respect for student and family privacy and mandatory reporting of suspected sexual or other physical abuse, neglect, or danger.
  • I explained why a layperson (not a credentialed counselor) could lead this kind of group—because of the curriculum used and because of the focus on developmental topics, both of which help the leader stay within appropriate boundaries.
  • I explained that the curriculum included detailed guidelines for group leaders, including actual open-ended questions to generate discussion.
  • I explained that, ideally, each group’s members would be at the same grade level because of developmental similarities.

Setting up small-group discussion usually involves logistical challenges, which should also be addressed when advocating for the groups:

  • finding an enclosed meeting space that does not have student or teacher traffic
  • scheduling meetings so that they do not interfere with classroom activities
  • routinely sending reminders about meetings to group members, because students forget
  • ensuring that each group is sufficiently heterogeneous to challenge common cultural, economic, and ability stereotypes
  • planning how members can get their food if the meeting is held during a lunch period
  • communicating with teachers who might object to the hassle of students leaving even a study period
  • problem-solving about how to recruit group members, including how to provide information meaningfully, efficiently, and appropriately
  • making sure administrators, including school board members, are adequately informed, ideally face to face

Group Members
In the school where I first organized small-group discussion, the invited students were open to the idea, but not immediately. They wondered about this program option. Would it be comfortable? Would their friends be involved?

By the end of the first semester, after many one-on-one conversations to present the group idea, 30 students had signed up, and the groups quickly became popular. By the third year, 90 to 100 students were spread among 10 groups each week, with two groups meeting each day during the two lunch hours. Students stayed in their assigned group, becoming increasingly skilled and comfortable with one another. Each meeting had a new topic, making more than 30 topics related to social and emotional development available per year.

By the end of the first year, administrators were receiving positive feedback from parents about the effects of the groups. The support of both continued.

The following are general suggestions for negotiating with administrators:

  • Assume an undemanding, collaborative posture.
  • Be prepared to articulate purpose, objectives, and logistics clearly.
  • Be prepared to explain whether and why there will be several series per year or only full-year groups.
  • Express gratitude for approval and any accommodations.
  • Make sure parents and teachers are well informed.
  • Say that you will be patient when recruiting students (after all, it’s something new for them, and they are likely concerned about social repercussions).
  • Promise that administration will be kept informed about plans, curriculum changes, successes, and challenges along the way.

Jean PetersonJean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., is professor emerita and former director of school counselor preparation at Purdue University. A licensed mental health counselor with considerable clinical experience with children and families, she conducts workshops on academic underachievement, high-ability students’ social and emotional development, prevention- and development-oriented group work with children and adolescents, bullying, listening skills for teachers and parents, and more. Dr. Peterson has authored more than 130 books, journal articles, and invited chapters, and her articles have appeared in journals such as Journal of Counseling & Development, Gifted Child Quarterly, Professional School Counseling, and International Journal of Educational Reform. She has received 10 national awards for scholarship, as well as numerous awards at Purdue for teaching, research, or service, and was a state teacher of the year in her first career as a classroom teacher. She lives in Indiana.

how and why to get students talkingEssential Guide To Talking With Gifted TeensJean is the author of How (and Why) to Get Students Talking and The Essential Guide for Talking with Gifted Teens.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2019 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

Posted in Counselor's Corner, Teaching Strategies | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Weathering the Storm of Teacher Layoffs

By Liz Bergren

Weathering the Storm of Teacher LayoffsThe teaching profession can have its share of instability. When the economy is struggling, budget cuts are bound to happen. Public schools and teachers inevitably are targets when money is tight. Private schools are affected as well: When student enrollment is down and there are not enough families paying tuition, teachers and programs suffer.

Who Stays and Who Goes?
This question is answered in different ways. While seniority is still one of the main criteria for layoffs (least senior teachers are laid off first) in districts around the United States, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, there has been progress in layoff policies. About 45 percent of the largest districts in the country now use performance as the primary factor in layoffs, with another 20 percent using performance as one of the factors. However, the author points out, “In spite of this progress, a full third of large districts still rely on seniority as the primary factor for deciding which teachers are laid off.”

Of course, objectively measuring teacher performance is tricky, with the most obvious evaluation category being student learning and growth. With some subjects such as math, where there are clear right and wrong answers, using testing data can be indicative of teacher effectiveness. For other subjects such as art, music, health, and physical education, the data of effectiveness is not so clear.

In 2009, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project to determine the best way to identify and promote effective teaching. The project narrowed down effective teaching into three measures: classroom observations, student surveys, and student achievement gains. According to the Foundation, partners in the project—which included 3,000 teacher volunteers in six districts, 20,000 videotaped lessons, student surveys, and student performance on state and supplemental higher-order thinking skills tests—identified nine guiding principles to help guide districts and schools to design systems to improve quality of instruction.

Amidst growing pressure to improve academic progress and school success, it seems wrong to rely just on seniority to make decisions about layoffs. For the sake of our students, I’m hopeful that we will continue to move toward a policy of using performance.

Dealing with a Layoff
In the spring of 2007, I found myself laid off due to budget cuts. I had been teaching for eight years in a school, and my job was given to someone my senior. Students and parents advocated for me, yet teachers who hadn’t taught my subject in 20 years were given my job. I was beside myself with sadness over this loss. I recovered and found a new job for the following school year, only to find myself in the exact same situation again! In both circumstances, I lost my job in the early spring, leaving me with months left to teach knowing that I was leaving.

It was hard to stifle my anger and grief, but I coped by focusing on what I could control in the moment and what new possibilities were ahead for me:

  • What helped me most during this time was to focus as much of my energy as I could on what my students needed from me. I wanted them to have the best experience with me they possibly could, so that when they looked back on their sixth-grade year, they’d remember a teacher who supported and encouraged them. Though it can be difficult, keep students’ needs at the forefront.
  • I also created an action plan for my future. At first I could see very few benefits to my layoff, but as weeks passed, I started to consider different career possibilities. How could I use my teaching experience to work in a completely different profession? I also considered future teaching jobs. I started to think about the benefits of potentially teaching in a school that had more support and a better professional learning community than where I was. This might also be a time to go back to school to advance your degree. In education, there are significant benefits to having advanced degrees. Becoming a substitute teacher is always an option, too, and schools are in desperate need of substitutes. It can even become a full-time job. Very often, one door closing can mean a new, and better, door opens.

Being an educator is an amazing profession. It has its unique challenges that people in other industries don’t have to face. If you’ve been laid off from a teaching position in the past and have additional advice, please leave a comment.

Liz BergrenLiz Bergren is Free Spirit’s education resource specialist. She is a former teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. In addition to being a teacher, she spent five years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.

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FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2019 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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3 Ways to Ignite a Sense of Purpose in Children

By Allison Wedell Schumacher

3 Ways to Ignite a Sense of Purpose in ChildrenIf I could, I would raise my daughter in a world without hatred, bigotry, or cruelty. A world where poverty doesn’t exist and all people are equal and respected regardless of gender, sexuality, race, or religion. A world that isn’t polluted or overcrowded, where animal species aren’t going extinct by the dozen and the polar ice caps aren’t shrinking by the day.

But I can’t. I don’t live in that world, and I certainly can’t raise her there. And she knows it.

So instead I work to make the world we have a better place—and she works with me. Gone are the days of “When I grow up, I’m going to fix . . .” I see her generation fixing things right now. She’s a member of the gay-straight alliance at her middle school. I need hardly tell you there wasn’t such a thing when I was in sixth grade. But she has already seen injustices toward the LGBTQ community, and instead of depending on adults to correct injustice, she and her friends are doing it themselves.

A friend recently asked me how I ignited such a sense of purpose in my daughter. My answer was a frank and rather surprised “I didn’t.” That drive, that sense of social justice, that’s all her. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it came down to three things: empathy, modeling, and interest.

A loose definition of empathy is feeling or understanding how someone else is feeling. Walking a mile in their shoes, as it were. That involves observation skills: If your child doesn’t notice that a friend is sad, he can’t start thinking about why that friend might be sad and what he can do to help.

We moved to Minnesota when my daughter was eight. She was, unfortunately, no stranger to the sight of homeless people, but to see them out in Minnesota’s winters distressed her very much. She could vividly imagine what it might be like to be without adequate food or shelter during those frigid days and nights. Which was how we ended up putting together “goody bags” with socks, tampons, food, water, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and toilet paper. Every time we would see someone with a cardboard sign on an interstate overpass, my daughter would insist on stopping, and she took great pride in handing over the goody bag herself.

I’m pretty sure I’ve never told my daughter that she has a responsibility as a global citizen to leave the world a better place than she found it. But she’s a smart kid. Just as she picked up on the less-than-savory words her dad and I let slip when she was learning to talk (whoops!), she sees the adults around her—parents, teachers, extended family, friends—doing things to make the world a better place. And because she sees that behavior modeled for her, she wants to do it too.

People’s sense of purpose tends to be tightly tied to their interests. You might participate in an AIDS walk because you know someone who is HIV positive; perhaps you volunteer with a wetlands cleanup group because you grew up near one and remember how beautiful it was. So if you’re looking to ignite a sense of purpose in children, a good way to do it is to find a charity or cause that aligns with something they’re already passionate about.

My friend Jenny and her husband Rick did this with both their kids when they were little. Vaughan and Rheya both loved animals, so for their birthday parties, Jenny would ask the guests to bring animal shelter donations instead of gifts. After the traditional cake and games, the party would migrate to the local animal shelter so that the birthday child could present their donations—blankets and food, leashes and toys. Vaughan and Rheya got to see the direct result of their generosity, and it shows in the photos Jenny took of them handing over their treasure trove to the grateful shelter volunteers—their pride makes them look about ten feet tall.

So if you really want to see your child’s passion have an impact on the world, remember those three things: empathy, modeling, and interest. Next thing you know, your little social activist will be rolling up his sleeves, working alongside you to make the world a better place.

Allison Amy WedellAllison Amy Wedell is a writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on sexual abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, public safety, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at,, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.

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FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2019 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

Posted in Service Learning & Volunteerism | Tagged , | 1 Comment