Down in her room on the first floor at Benjamin Banneker Middle School, Clara McDonald might be speedily tossing a bean bag around with her sixth-graders over the next few weeks. And they’ll probably be shouting out author names and parts of speech.
Over the 19 years she’s been teaching reading, McDonald, who is known as “Pete” at the Burtonsville, Md., school, has learned a few important lessons about how spring visits her classroom: Sometimes students need to learn in a different way.
McDonald might start class at this time of year with “silent speed ball/bean bag” (questions about past lessons are tossed out to each student, too) if she senses they might struggle to sit down and start reading in her windowless classroom.
“It helps them burn some of that excess energy and review some of what we’ve covered,” she says. “Sometimes you have to do something a little different toward the end of the year.”
The only thing as potent as the first-day excitement that bubbles through schools in the fall is the malaise and distraction and general goofiness that can set in during the warm days of spring, typically attributed to students and teachers weary from a busy year together and a span of brain-numbing spring testing and prep.
Jacquelynne Eccles, an educational psychologist at the University of California at Irvine and one of the leading researchers in student motivation, says the end-of-year slump probably isn’t from mental or physical fatigue.
“I doubt there is strong evidence of a significant spring dip in motivation of school personnel or students,” she says. “If so, it likely reflects our social clocks. School is organized around a calendar with summers off, so a spring dip would be like a seventh-inning slump, and a social, not biological, phenomenon. It’s in our heads.”
She and other experts say there is a lot of energy as the year ends and three initiatives can tap into it: Teachers – and especially parents – might help children revisit material they have learned and prepare for the coming transition that can often throw them off course. And they can make sure valuable insight from these teachers is collected and passed on.
Some spring zing
The end-of-the-year experience can affect how students view school on the whole, according to Larry Ferlazzo, an English teacher in Sacramento and the author of three books about teaching and student motivation. He cites research showing that the last impression of an experience often sticks.
“What occurs in the final weeks of classes may have a huge influence on how students feel about – and make future decisions related to – learning, schooling and the subjects they are studying,” he says. Twelve school years shouldn’t end uninspiringly.
He supports McDonald’s idea of making learning interesting or fun or different in the spring and having students reinforce understanding of material they have covered. One high school teacher offers his older students TED talks on related social studies subjects, and a middle school science teacher visits a nearby forest and pond with students, clipboards in hand, to spot evidence of subjects they’ve covered and recall what they can.
Parents might ask students to talk about things they’ve studied or find a museum or historic spot that revisits a Civil War history lesson, or a performance that retells or relates to a piece of fiction they’ve read. It’s a good time to find out about their kids’ interests and support them.
“Everyone is a bit burnt out, and sometimes support for kids isn’t there,” says child psychologist and former teacher Kate Roberts, who has written about the end-of-year slump. “So it may be crunchtime for parents who can make that final push to help children get through that last month more successfully.” She believes students should have a lively pace and familiar structure, and is concerned that it won’t help if they are whipsawed between unrestricted tech time or video games and consuming school work, especially during testing.
Eccles warns, however, that students are sometimes overloaded, excited about the end of the year and surrounded by peers and educators who may be winding down, so parents should be reasonable in expectations. “Pushing too much might backfire,” she says.
Eccles also has done some of the leading research on transition years for students, and she and other experts repeatedly have shown movement between grades can dramatically affect students emotionally and academically, particularly when they move on to a new school. The transition to middle school, where their schedule, course work and various other patterns change dramatically, is among the most critical.
“We have data showing that middle school teachers are quite bad at knowing who is struggling with transition. Parents should work with prior-year teachers who could probably predict who will need extra support.”
Parents and teachers can prepare students by debunking myths about the next grade, providing good, accurate information and building excitement about the change, Eccles says.
“Parents know much better when their child is struggling and they are uniquely qualified to support them through this transition,” she says. “But they should be aware that it can be difficult.”
Get the scoop
Schools traditionally make a connection with parents at the start of the year with back-to-school nights, conferences and backpacks full of handouts.
However, Christy Tirrell-Corbin, an education professor at the University of Maryland who has written about student engagement, says there should be more communication at the end of the year with teachers who often have a different understanding of a student’s academic and personal strengths and weaknesses – and their interests. It might help parents get support, choose appropriate class levels and encourage future exploration where a student has an interest or knack.
“Most schools have a system for sharing information about student performance from one grade level to the next, but they often only involve record sharing and not discussions about the students as individuals,” she says.
While she is reluctant to suggest parents further burden busy teachers this time of year, she says teachers can summarize a student’s performance with a particular emphasis on strengths. She says students can also detail what they have learned and discovered about themselves.
Ferlazzo suggests parents ask teachers for just “three key pieces of information that would benefit a future teacher,” but more for a struggling student, especially if at some point they might need special support.
Anne Henderson, an educational consultant who has written frequently about parent engagement, says in spring parents can get any student support where needed while information is fresh, and seek ways stir newly discovered interests.
“Parents should consider ways to keep kids reading, thinking and exploring the world in the summer,” she says. “Schools can help.”
James Paterson is a freelance writer and illustrator, and a former school counselor. You can find more of his work at otherperplexity.com.