As the school year winds to a close, Prairie teachers seek creative ways to keep students engaged.

By Rachel Shuster | Middle School, Student Life

With mere days left in the school year, Alison Wojahn’s 6th grade students are getting — as she describes it — “squirrelly.”

“There are only two more Mondays left in the school year!” one student exclaims.

“What time do we leave for the track meet?” another asks.

“What’s for lunch?” comes a small voice from the back of the classroom.

This restlessness is to be expected come spring, Wojahn says. The forecast has improved considerably after a long stretch of winter weather. Students have been working hard all year, and the mental vacation afforded by summer break is within reach.

“Everybody is ready to go!” Wojahn laughs. “I still need them to focus, but it’s difficult at the end of the year.”

Despite the countdown clock, there is still work to be done. As the school year winds to a close, Prairie teachers like Wojahn seek creative ways to keep students engaged.

That’s why today, the sounds coming from her 6th Grade Mandarin class aren’t just pencils scratching paper.

Alison Wojahn helps two of her 6th Grade Mandarin students align their robot to its maze during class.

Students stand in pairs, back to back. One holds an iPad; the other looks over a large plastic tarp spread out on the classroom floor, marked up with tape to look like a Pac-Man-style maze. The goal: for the students to work together, using Mandarin terms they’ve learned relating to directions, to guide a small robot through the maze.

The activity tests students’ reading comprehension and verbal skills in a different way — through rehearsed conversations, or by answering questions at their desks that Wojahn poses from the front of the room.

“When we do the straightforward oral stuff back and forth, it’s very formal,” Wojahn reflects. “It’s fun to watch them have that productive struggle, because you can see the wheels turning. You can see that they are thinking things through.”

And the students say this kind of activity is fun.

“We can get up on our feet for this!” says 6th Grader Garrett Ford. “You learn something by doing something.”

“It’s more interactive,” adds Zachary Behrends, another 6th Grader. “You remember these lessons because you remember the fun thing you did to learn them.”

The boys and their classmates have already completed several other “get up and move” activities in Mandarin class, including a school-wide scavenger hunt and mock archaeological dig. And before the year ends, they’ll take part in an “escape room” activity that Wojahn organizes as a way to check in on students’ language skill development.

Other Prairie MS teachers have their own end-of-year lessons to keep kids’ heads in their work:

  • Social Studies teacher Meagan Moore and Science teacher Joy Aragones took students off-campus to participate in an archaeological dig at the beach — a follow-up to separate lessons about layers of the earth and archaeology.
  • How about a soda bottle rocket launch? That’s what Science teacher Jim Broetzmann does with his 8th Grade students toward the end of the year, to wrap up their Force and Motion unit: “Many of the concepts from the unit are directly related to this rocket,” Broetzmann says. “After the launch, students calculate their rocket’s velocity, acceleration, force, and momentum.”
  • MS English teacher Jenny Cobb has a few tricks up her sleeve, too. One of her 8th Grade students’ final assignments involves completing a visual art project to accompany poetry they’ve written. As for the 7th Graders, they compete in a Stomp-style competition on the last day of school.
  • Students taking English class with Mrs. Ali Gasser create movie trailers based on novels they’ve read.

All of these physical lessons take teachers extra time and effort to plan — not to mention, anytime that students are moving about the building, it involves a different level of classroom management for the teacher.

But Alison Wojahn says the reward is worth the work.

“You can see that they’re enjoying it,” she says with a smile. “When they watch a movie, they don’t leave the classroom talking about it. They don’t ask to come back during Flex and continue, like they do with these types of activities. This is way more fun.”

Did You Know: Research shows active children perform better academically. In addition to math, science, reading, and writing, PS and MS students participate in physical education every day.