Don’t forget to scroll down to the bottom of this post to download the Ten Creative Ways to End the Semester Resource Pack. This is a post I first wrote a decade ago, when I was teaching
middle school. Each year, I have revised it and updated it.
Let’s just put it out there. December is exhausting for teachers. The days are shorter. The weather grows colder and (at least here in Oregon) wetter. Students are anxious — whether it’s a buzzing excitement for vacation or a sense of dread that some kids feel in homes that are unsafe during the holidays.
And teachers are tired. They’re tired of redirecting behaviors and tired of the mid-year pressure of the test and simply tired of the sheer energy it takes to be a teacher.
It’s no wonder that so many teachers begin playing holiday movies around this time of year. They want to create a sense of fun and escape and enjoyment, and a motion picture promises exactly that. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s a part of creating a culture of joy. So, please don’t read this post as a slam on teachers showing movies before the break. If this is a part of a positive classroom culture, keep doing it. This isn’t meant to be a guilt trip or a rant or a “you’re doing this wrong” post. This is meant to be a yes/and post offering other options.
For my first few years of teaching, I showed a movie the day before the winter break. However, within minutes, kids were disengaged. They were passive. It wasn’t special. My students could go home and watch a movie whenever they felt like it. It had me wondering . . . was there something that they could do in my class that they couldn’t do anywhere else? Was this actually the chance to do something epic and make something memorable?
Over the years, I’ve learned that kids don’t grow tired of learning. They grow tired of school. This is the chance to tap into wonder and curiosity and creativity.
Ten Creative Ways to End the Semester
Here are a few creative ways you can spend the last few weeks before the winter break. I realize that teachers have curriculum maps and expectations, so you’ll notice that these ideas are all things that still include the standards and still require critical thinking. We also experience the time crunch, so I want to note that some of these are single day activities and some of these cover an entire week.
#1: Genius Hour
Time Required: 1-5 Days
Materials Required: This works best when you have devices.
Description: Genius Hour (also called 20% Time) is a chance for students to engage in an inquiry-driven, independent project. They own the entire learning process, from the concept to the questions, to the research, to the project management to the ultimate final product. Here’s a quick video description of what Genius Hour looks like:
Here’s a video you can use with your students. Note that you can get a free copy of both videos (in case YouTube is blocked at your school) in the Ten Creative Ways to End the Semester Resource Pack at the bottom of this post.
#2: Scratch Video Game Projects
Time Required: Full Week
Materials Required: This project works best when you have one-to-one devices
Description: If you haven’t checked it out before, go take a look at Scratch. It’s a way to teach logic and programming through the use of blocks that students use to manipulate objects. Students can start out small by following the directions to create a Pong game. Afterward, you can encourage them to move on to a place where they hack the game and make it their own. Then, you can have them set up their own games that they truly design.
If you’re interested in launching a Scratch video game, check out the site and start with the Pong game. I also have instructions on how I taught Scratch (the three phases) with middle school as well as a list of 8 lessons I learned along the way. You can find those in the Ten Creative Ways to End the Semester Resource Pack at the bottom of this post.
#3: Design Thinking Project
Time Required: Full Week
Materials Required: Design thinking can work well with technology or with low-tech options
Description: Design thinking is a flexible process for getting the most out of the creative process. It is used in the arts, in engineering, in the corporate world, at universities, and in social and civic spaces. You can use it in every subject with every age group. It works when creating digital content or when building things with duct tape and cardboard. It can even be used in planning events or in designing services. So, the idea here is that you are providing a meaningful structure to help students design a product that they will launch to an authentic audience. The following video helps explain the process:
This is the perfect time of year to test out design thinking. While other classes are watching Frosty the Snowman, your students can engage in inquiry, research, ideating, and prototyping. They will do something creative — and they’ll remember it forever. If you’re interested in trying design thinking, I have included the Create a Sport Challenge and the Tiny House Project (math-related) in the Ten Creative Ways to End the Semester Resource Pack at the bottom of this post. Both projects include lesson plans, student notebooks, slideshows, and the videos.
#4a: Thematic Blogs (High-Tech)
Time Required: 1-5 days
Materials Required: Blogging works best with desktops or laptops but can still be accomplished with smartophones or tablets
Description: In keeping with the theme of student ownership, thematic blogs are blogs based on a student’s interests, passions, and ideas. It could be a foodie blog, a sports blog, a fashion blog, a science blog, or a history blog. They choose the topic and the audience. It’s a great way for students to practice writing in different genres (persuasive, functional, informational/expository, narrative) with specific blog topics they choose. They can also add multimedia components, like slideshows, pictures, videos, and audio.
Think of all the blogs out there that people actually make outside of school. That’s what you want students to create. It’s their chance to participate in the global blogging community by tapping into their own expertise and interests. If you’re interested in getting started, I have included things like sentence stems and other student handouts that might be helpful as you begin the process. You can find it all in the Ten Creative Ways to End the Semester Resource Pack at the bottom of this post.
#4b: Video Writing Prompts (Low-Tech Alternative)
Time Required: 1 class period
Materials Required: You can go low-tech with this and do visual writing prompts on a screen (projector or interactive whiteboard) and have students use composition books
Description: If you don’t have the best technology in your classroom, but you do have a projector or interactive whiteboard, consider doing visual writing prompts with a picture or a video. The idea here is to choose high-interest ideas that get students excited about writing. I have included a free set of video prompts in the Ten Creative Ways to End the Semester Resource Pack at the bottom of this post.
Here’s an example of a writing prompt you could do to get students excited about writing.
If you like that, would you consider subscribing to the channel at videoprompts.com?
#5: Sketchnote Videos
Time Required: 25 minutes (easiest version) to a full week (most challenging version)
Materials Required: This can be mostly low-tech, with paper, pencils, markers, whiteboards, etc. But the video portion will require a video camera or smartphone.
Description: I love the idea of making ideas visual and sketchnoting is one of the strategies you can use to help students take complex ideas and convey them in a way that is visual and concrete. But I also love taking it to the next level by having students craft short sketchnote videos that convey an idea, concept, or process. So, it might be something like life cycles or how a bill becomes a law. There are four layers of sketchnote videos that work well, ranging from easiest to hardest.
Level One: Flipbook Style (Very Easy)
Here, students create multiple pages with a sketch and a core idea. Afterward, one student flips the pages as another student videotapes the pages and a third student reads the script. This is essentially a picture book on video. But if you want to get more complicated and show any kind of movement, check out level two.
Level Two: Stop Motion (Fairly Easy)
This is the stop animation approach. Students sketch out their ideas and then cut them out. They can then maneuver these ideas with their hands in a video. When they go to film it, one student uses a smartphone while a second student moves the items around. A third student reads a script. Afterward, they can post it online or share it with their teacher.
Level Three: Whiteboard Videos (Moderately Difficult)
Students start out by storyboarding a concept they’ve learned throughout the quarter. They then record one member of their group sketching out the ideas in an RSA Animate style with the whiteboard. Next, they speed up the whiteboard drawing, edit out any mistakes, and add an audio layer that they record in iMovie or Movie Maker. It doesn’t require a ton of technology, but it does require some creative risk-taking. What I love about this is that you can have multiple students making the videos in small groups and then rotate who edits it on the computer. So, if you have limited student computers, it can still work.
Level Four: Animated Videos (Very Difficult)
These are the types of videos I enjoy making. They can take hours to make and they require Photoshop. If you’re interested in the process, here’s a detailed description in a blog post I created after my son spent a full day making his video. This is the video he created. I think it’s pretty awesome. Then again, I’m his dad, so that’s par for the course, right?
If you’re interested in doing sketchnote videos, you can find more detailed instructions in the Ten Creative Ways to End the Semester Resource Pack at the bottom of this post.
#6: Maker Projects
Time Required: One class period
Materials Required: Maker projects can work well with technology or with low-tech options. Note that the two examples I am giving are both low-tech.
Description: There are a few ways to approach maker projects. The first uses design thinking to go through the entire design process (see the design thinking option listed in #3. The second involves less research and planning and gets students into rapid prototyping as soon as possible. The idea here is that students make something with physical products that they are upcycling — often duct tape, cardboard, and plastic.
You can also incorporate the idea of creative constraint by doing a divergent thinking challenge:
Here’s one that’s a little more math and science related:
If you’re interested in doing a maker project, you can find a free maker project in the Ten Creative Ways to End the Semester Resource Pack at the bottom of this post.
#7: Wonder Day / Wonder Week
Time Required: Single Day or Full Week
Materials Required: This project works best when they can do online research.
Description: This is a fun, easy way to get students engaged in non-fiction reading. I use it as a high-interest way to help students learn the research process. Students begin with the sentence stem, “I’m wondering why/what would/how/if __________” and from there they ask tons of questions. This ultimately leads to research and finally a place where they share what they learned.
For more ideas on how to bring wonder back into the classroom, check out this post.
If you’re interested in doing a Wonder Day project, you can find more detailed instructions in the Ten Creative Ways to End the Semester Resource Pack at the bottom of this post. I also include a video showing a simple approach to teaching students how to engage in media literacy.
#8: Hands-On Simulations
Time Required: Single Class Period
Materials Required: Simulations work really well when they are low-tech
Description: Simulations are a powerful way to push critical thinking. You don’t need a maker space or fancy gadgets or anything like that.
They work with any subject where you are trying to get students to think about a complex, abstract idea or system. Simulations bridge the abstract and the concrete. They are fully immersive. You are moving around, physically maneuvering your environment to make sense of the information. In the process, the information sticks after a simulation. Simulations become mental models that students go back to in order to make sense out of what they have learned.
Student engagement skyrockets. Most simulations have a goal in mind and students are actively making decisions that allow them to process the information in real-time. They go beyond what Schlecty calls “strategic compliance” (high attention but low commitment) and into a place where they have full buy-in. Moreover, students at any ability level can access the information in a simulation. It is not necessarily reading-dependent or writing-dependent.
Note that simulations work best when dealing with abstract ideas and complex systems. A predator and prey version of tag can help students think about the food chain, but a simulation showing how stanzas work will tank. A simulation factory is a great way to make sense out of the industrial revolution but it’s probably not the best way to show how phonics work.
With students feeling antsy, these hands-on, movement-oriented simulations can provide the perfect outlet while also reinforcing concepts they have been learning in any subject. I have a quick guide for designing simulations inside the Ten Creative Ways to End the Semester Resource Pack at the bottom of this post.
Time Required: Single Day (or Multiple Days)
Materials Required: Smartphones or microphones, and computers (optional)
Description: I love having students create videos. However, videos can take time and it’s more of a challenge to deal with props, lighting, staging, etc. This is why I love podcasts. They can work individually, with partners, or in small groups. It can be more scripted or more open. If you want, you can have students edit the podcasts and add music by using Garage Band or Audacity. But you can also do a simple recording with smartphones.
If this seems interesting to you, I created a quick sheet called 20 Ideas for Student Podcasting that you can find in the Ten Creative Ways to End the Semester Resource Pack at the bottom of this post.
#10: History Mystery
Time Required: 1-2 Days
Materials Required: This can be low-tech or high-tech
Description: This is a way to get students to create a theory about why something exists within history. For example, why are there ships buried under the city of San Francisco? You start with the key question (often a visual to go with it) and then you ask students to formulate a hypothesis and defend it. They then form groups and agree on a key idea. Afterward, the whole class debates the core reason. Then, you introduce them to an informational text about it. I have a specific lesson on this connected to a great episode of the 99% Invisible podcast. You can find the slideshow for the lesson in the Ten Creative Ways to End the Semester Resource Pack at the bottom of this post.
Call to Action
These last few weeks before the quarter are a chance to be different. They are an opportunity to innovate and try something new. It might not work. Mistakes are bound to happen — and that can feel daunting when you’re already exhausted. But I’ve found that piloting something new is often the very thing I get re-energized and to increase student engagement. Ultimately, this is a chance to make something meaningful — something that your students will remember forever.
So, if you are thinking about doing something creative or innovative, please leave a comment below sharing what creative thing you plan to pilot in the upcoming weeks. Also, you might want to check out the free resource below.
Ten Creative Ways to End the Semester Resource Pack
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