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5 Ways to Say Goodbye to Your Graduating Students

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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I remember the first batch of seniors I said goodbye to. I was a brand new teacher and had just spent the last nine months, an hour and a half a day, talking, reading, and writing with them in a creative writing class.

Then came that final class period. They shuffled in laughing and excited about the ceremony and parties to come. I, too, felt joy and a celebratory spirit -- more so for some who having enough credits to graduate had proved a close call. Nevertheless, the mood was a festive one.

Some of the things we teachers say to graduating seniors that last day: "Of course I'll sign your yearbook! What are your plans after graduation? Okay, goodbye! Good luck and take care! Keep in touch!"

And then they walk out the door.

I recall at the close of my rookie year, following that last day, I lamented, "Argh, I should have done something!" So the following June I came up with a last-minute idea to write an individual note to each student and attach it to a ballpoint pen as a gift. They enjoyed receiving the note and gift. And the following year, I got better at it because I'd collect in my notebook little tidbits of information about each one of them starting in September: Demitre loves to draw and wants to be a commercial artist. Marisol hopes to be a journalist. Nicole's laugh could bring levity to any situation. Jose enjoys heartfelt books, like Tuesdays with Morrie.

I found from my own years teaching seniors and in my discussions with twelfth-grade teachers: There is no activity or gesture too small when it comes to saying goodbye to graduating students.

From those experiences, here are five suggestions for you to consider for sending off seniors:

#1. Give Individual Notes or Cards

Write an individual note to each student acknowledging or celebrating something specific and unique about her or him. Include a tiny gift -- a ballpoint pen, a lollipop, a carnation. You'll be surprised how delighted they'll be.

#2. Make an Advice Wall

This is modeled after the "Guide to Life for Graduates" commencement speech written by Mary Schmich (commonly referred to as the "Wear Sunscreen" speech. Remember that one? Someone even made a song out of it.)

Read the speech together then give each student a large sticky note or half sheet of paper to place on the wall over the next few days. Tell them to really think about it. Once they've done this, ask a volunteer to type them all up and print it out on pretty paper, giving each student a copy. Then do a class reading: while dramatic instrumental music plays softly in the background, ask each student to read aloud her/his own. Conclude with a standing ovation for all the wisdom shared. (Don't forget to write one yourself!)

#3. Create a "Photo Booth"

In the corner of your classroom have students design a fun backdrop (for science teachers, space, for example) and you and your students bring in some props. Create a banner for each class that indicates something like the following, "Ms. Johnson's Journalism Class, Period 3, 2013-14." Take photos with each of your students and allow them to take photos in groups, too (with their phones or cameras). Print two copies of you with each of your students giving one copy to the child and you keep the other. (Four-by-six, glossy prints are only fifteen cents each on

#4. Craft a Class Appreciation Poem

Collect one line from each student about someone else in the classroom. It can be a positive memory of something the other student did or said, for example. Then pass out a strip of paper for each student to write the one line. Collect them. Mix them up and lay them out, up to down. Read it aloud to the class. This will probably be followed by some reminiscing, some laughter, some nostalgia. Be sure to type it up and either give each student a hard copy, publish it on the class blog, or email it to them.

#5 Give an Admiration Speech and Cookies

For each class period, write a sincere speech and read it aloud. Speak to the collective group ("Period three, how you have entertained me...!"). Speak to the individuals ("Jessica, you asked the tough questions that inspired so many great class discussions"). Speak to the challenges ("the research project proved a struggle for most"). Speak to the triumphs ("that first class debate in October, though there were heated moments, it really brought us together as a group"). Conclude your speech by passing around the celebratory treats and while eating, informally chat and reminisce about the year.

In these precious last days, what are ways -- grand or small -- you will celebrate the departing graduates you teach? Please share in the comments section below.

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Melissa's picture
11 and 12th grade English teacher

Great ideas!

I create certificates with senior superlatives that I've come up with for each student. Things like "Most likely to sleep through a zombie apocalypse" or "Most restroom passes ever". You could also do some more meaningful ones, too. Then, I present them on one of the last days of class and the students come up one at a time to receive their certificate. It takes a lot of time, but they really love it and it's very inexpensive.

Jennifer Mabry's picture

I love the photo booth idea, as well as the advice wall. We have two more class meetings, but I will definitely do the advice wall this year. I've changed my final to become something along the lines of your end of the year activities. I gave them David Foster Wallace's commencement speech, "This is Water". Then they must choose two more of their favorite commencement speeches from Youtube and write a short essay explaining which one is best and why. They have a rubric for effective commencement speeches that they will use to evaluate their chose three. It's been fun because there are so many great speeches out there, and the advice each speaker gives is poignant to my students right now, one week before graduation. Thanks for your ideas!

Cal Burnham's picture
Cal Burnham
12th Grade Government and Economics/ 11th-12th Entrepreneurship

I use twitter for my class and the students are eager for shout outs. For seniors, at the end, I give each one a tailored shout out on the class twitter account.
They are on the edge of their seats waiting for it!
Good Stuff!

Mandy Hardan's picture

English Language Arts 9-12

I have spent the past four years teaching in a school where I've had kids from 9th grade until they leave me after 12th grade. It's a very small school-the smallest graduating class was 20, and the largest was 27.

Many of my students have also been in multiple elective classes, etc. My first year, I gave them a movie party and a batch of cookies, but after the first year, I had much deeper relationships with the kids, so I started serving breakfast and giving them a movie day, (luckily most of my English 12 classes were in the morning). This year was my first group of kids that I saw from 9th all the way through, so it was a little different. I should have done more, but I simply didn't plan more.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

I love these tips, Rebecca. I remember very few days from elementary school, but I do remember teachers who took the time to send us off with a little ritual. Notes were always appreciated.

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

I teach seniors and one activity that I love is doing a "What I've Learned." It is based on Esquire magazine section of the same name. In it, the magazine profiles a celebrity or someone famous in their field -- Paris Hilton, Clint Eastwood, Muhammad Ali, etc -- and asks them for the wisdom they've accumulated from their years walking the earth. The bullet-point responses are funny, enlightening, blunt, and always, truthful to that person. I ask my seniors to do the same thing after we look at some samples from the magazine. The question I pose is: What have you learned in your four years of high school? What have you learned from 13 years of schooling? The answers range from the humorous, "The longer you stay at the high school, the smaller the cafeteria cookies become," to the sober as students write about self-esteem issues.

They really enjoy this assignment because they can be reflective, state their discoveries, and do it in their own voice. I This can be adapted to many grade levels and could provide a chance for students to reflect academically or personally. It could also be something that the class crafts together or even something the teacher does for each class to highlight the class personality.

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


After all the end-of-the year awards were given out, and after all the speeches were made at the end-of-the year ceremony, Lamar's mother bopped up to me while I had a huge amount of free food in my mouth. Lamar bopped up to me, too.

Lamar's mother, Monique, asked with a big, pleading smile if I'd be willing to come to their home this summer and tutor Lamar on study skills and manners! I looked around for a second to see if she was in on a joke or something.

Lamar was smiling and bopping his head up and down, too. He was all for it.

And then Lamar introduced me to his brother. Lamar's brother seemed a little dangerous, too. Lamar's brother said he didn't need any more manners. Lamar's brother said that's why he doesn't have to come to this school, because he's okay on the manners, man.

Lamar asked me, with that special grin on his red face, if he needed to learn any more manners! Head still bopping. How much do you charge!

I told Lamar that my time would be complimentary. I said that means free.

Ohhhh...he said. I can afford that!

I told him I liked to think I might have a hand in saving the world from untold evil and agitation and I could see that our work together might result in me receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

Lamar said...Hell yeah!

I said to Lamar that I've always wanted to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Lamar asked if he could have some of the money.

I said I think the award is a gold medal or something. A big gold coin sort of affair. With a fellow's head on it.

Lamar said he'd help me melt it.

I looked deep into Lamar's manic eyes, just to confirm, maybe, hopefully, why I live to teach--just through Lamar, as a stand-in, standing there for every student I've ever had and will have. They're looking at me for answers, but they don't even know they're asking.


Todd's memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave," will be published this fall by Stairway Press.

Rosemary Schmid's picture
Rosemary Schmid
ESL teacher, academic program college level, Charlotte, NC

I create a Memory Sheet for each student, with the name of the class, the term, and the student's name at the top and the institution and mailing / emailing addresses at the bottom in the footer. It's easy to make a template and just change the student's name. I often use their passport names with their nickname in quotes in the middle: Mohammed "Mo" AlShamar or Ting "Tina" Chin.

"Guidelines" (these are college students) Remember this might be read by parents and friends. No "bad" words. Everything must be in English (we do these during class time and they need to show off what they know!) If you have a private joke, remember that your friend might be asked to explain. I ask that they print their first and family name and country after their message.
I write some vocabulary words that might be needed, and encourage people to ask me about spelling. I add those words to the board, too. I also put some "typical" phrases, and ask them for ideas. (While they're writing, I sometimes ask someone if I can use what they've written as an example, but more often, I use examples from earlier semesters.)
I ask that if they want to write something "longer than two lines" or something "big" they write on the reverse of the paper.
I have several memory sheets from students who didn't come to graduation or to my "office" to get them, so I show them as visual suggestions, not for content.
After several terms, I came up with a checklist of their classmates' names so that they could call out "Who has Ulan's paper?" or go to a clearinghouse table to look for papers that someone had finished and laid there. (I used the Table function in Word so I could have 6 or 8 checksheets per page and then print fewer sheets.)
AFTER the students have finished all the sheets, I add my one-two liner, with a comment about something special from class, a prediction for their future, ALWAYS positive, of course.
Each Memory Sheet goes into a clear page protector so that both sides can be seen and they're returned to their owners either at the last class, or at graduation, or after if they come for them.
(I come from the days of "autograph" books. Just sayin')


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