Beginnings and endings.

It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

-Herman Melville

Most people probably don’t recognize that line but it’s the last sentence from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I’ve included the sentence to demonstrate a point. While many people can recite the beginning to that book, few recognize the ending.  I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings and endings over the last few weeks.  We’re nearing the end of another semester at the institution in which I teach.  Since my institution also has a winter term, like me, many instructors are also thinking about starting a new class in just a few days.  This overlap creates an interesting confluence of emotions and provides fodder for reflection.  In many cases, students enter the last day of class to take a final exam and then leave expressionless and withdrawn after rehearsing and rehashing a semester’s worth of content.  I wonder how memorable these moments will be for students.  Like the ending of Melville’s tome, I wonder whether those moments will be as easily forgotten.

In this week’s post, I thought I’d share some of the ways I’ve ended some of my classes.  While I often struggle to create effective closures to manuscripts, lessons and activities, I thought these might provide some ideas for people who are considering how to end the semester.

1.  Celebrate!  In quite a few classes, I’ve held a semester-end celebration.  While these are often paired with some curricular activity that wraps up the content from the course, I find that the celebration acts to provide a distinct closure to the semester and a way to effectively rejoice from the semester long journey.

2.  I’m going to sit right down and write myself a letter.  In some classes, I have brought paper and envelopes and asked the students to write letters to their future selves. I directed the students to consider how the content from the course would translate to their future careers.  In one of the first graduate classes I taught, I held onto the letters for almost a year before sending them out.  Quite a few students contacted me after receiving their letters to explain how meaningful the experience was.

3.  Share the stage.  I’m not a big believer of final exams as closing activities.  Often, I’ll build a culminating student presentation as the last activity in the course.  For instance, in one of final classes tomorrow, the students will be giving formal presentations to teachers from a neighboring district to report on the collaborative projects we completed in their classrooms.  A final presentation can serve as an effective celebration and academic closure without all the fanfare.

4. Collect data. I try to be evidence-based with my decision-making as I plan new iterations for courses.  To do this, I’ll use the last class to administer a survey to examine how the course content and instruction impacts student learning.  For instance, in my instructional technology courses, I’ll use a short survey based on a larger TPACK survey.  I’ll give the survey at the start of the semester and again at the end of the semester.  After a class ends, I’ll review the anonymous scores from the students and examine how the course impacted their development.  While student evaluation data can be useful, using a survey that examines other developmental areas can be tremendously insightful.

5.  Post a reflection.  In my online classes, I typically post a long rambling reflection that reviews some of the highlights from the course.  I identify specific posts from students that were memorable or things I learned from some of the projects that students had created.   In addition to reviewing the course activities, I channel NPR’s Garrison Keillor and invite students to reach out in the future if they need assistance. The final sentence of the post always ends with Keillor’s classic ending…

“Be well, do good work and keep in touch.”

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