Celebrating Student Achievement

Brief Description: Skip Downing provides a series of lesson plans that help end the semester with a student celebration of writing, speaking, and eating. This article, originally published in the Academic.Writing Teaching Exchange, is reproduced here in its entirety. The original article can be found at http://wac.colostate.edu/aw/teaching/downing2000.htm.

Contributed by Skip Downing, Professor of English and Coordinator of Learning Communities, Baltimore City Community College
Email: skipdown@erols.com

I like to end my courses with reflections on lessons learned and a celebration of student achievement.

One of my favorite courses to teach is our College Success Seminar, a writing-intensive, three-credit orientation course which exposes students to the wise choices of successful students, including behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes. Throughout the course, students reflect on their discoveries by keeping an extensive guided journal and by completing a final writing project in which they personalize what they have learned in the course. The most popular option for this final project is "Write a letter to someone you love and tell that person three or more strategies for success that you have learned in this course; explain how you have used each strategy to enhance your own success." Students have written these letters to every imaginable relative and friend, and most letters are a testimony to both what the students have learned and how much they want to share their new knowledge with those who matter in their lives. For a particularly wonderful example, Edwina Dorsey shares her reflection, a letter written to her husband, Ronald.

As the course nears an end, reflection and celebration intertwine. During the last week of the semester, a number of activities have become traditions. The following activities are spread over the 3 hours that the course meets that final week:

  1. As a course review, I ask students to recall the success strategies we have covered during the semester (e.g., using the language of responsibility, setting goals, studying effectively, creating support groups, etc.), and I record the list on the blackboard while students write them in their journal books.
  2. Students now discuss with a partner which topics were the most valuable for them personally and why. Time allowing, I have them switch partners and continue discussing their choices for personally valuable topics.
  3. Next, as feedback for me and to help indelibly imprint the course review in their memories, students write and I collect their responses to two sentence stems: "My most valuable discoveries/rediscoveries in this course include. . ." "Changes I would recommend for improving this course include. . ."
  4. I now invite students to come to the front of the class and speak from the heart (not from notes) about their most valuable discoveries/rediscoveries in this course. I ask each volunteer to take personal ownership of their discoveries with "I" language ("I learned . . ." rather than "What you learn in this class is . . ."). I video-tape their short, extemporaneous presentations which are often incredibly insightful. I play the tape back after class, and students who want to see themselves presenting to the group can stay to watch it. (Sometimes I show selected portions of the video at the beginning of the next semester's class for a quick and motivating demonstration of what the new students can look forward to learning.)
  5. Students and I bring food to share for a potluck meal.
  6. When the meal is underway, students read their final written projects to the class, and we applaud each presentation.
  7. As the final activity, each student has an opportunity to acknowledge classmates for contributions they have made to the speaker during the semester. This activity creates laughter and sometimes tears when someone learns what a positive impact his or her actions have had on a classmate.

I believe these culminating activities of reflection and celebration collectively create the following impact for my students: They create a lasting memory of the course information, classmates, and the personal lessons learned. The activities also intertwine in their memories the valuable social aspect of a learning community. Finally, these activities encourage students to remember their power as an individual to impact others' lives, as well as their own, by the quality of the choices they make on a daily basis. I want them to leave believing that who they are, what they know, and what they choose to do matters.

Copyright © 2000 Skip Downing. Used with Permission.