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 Shutterfly.com.)
#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.