Our faculty is currently involved in a brainstorming exercise in which, without practical constraints, we suggest how the school could or should change programmatically to better address our students' needs. Certainly I'm hearing some excellent ideas (though some of them are only excellent in the absence of friction and air resistance, so to speak).
A large number of these ideas suggest sweeping changes to the structure of the senior year. I've many times heard our faculty -- and other faculties -- hold forth on the moral deficiencies of late-season seniors. Amongst all the kvetching and suggestions for change, I wonder... are we trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist? Or, at least, are we trying to solve a problem that could better be prevented than solved?
A number of teachers have quite positive in-class experiences with late-season seniors, without internships, final projects, field trips, or any other major gimmickry.* If a class is truly important and useful, it should sustain students' interest regardless of whether those students need a good grade to ensure college admission. To a very large extent it's the teacher's job to structure the class so as to keep students -- seniors included -- invested.
* MINOR gimmickry is abundant among the best senior teachers.
So how do successful teachers of seniors sustain interest, even though all seniors (to one extent or the other) have one foot out the door in the spring? Here are some tips. Some are from my own experience; many are from observation of and discussions with the best teachers of seniors that I know. Please submit your thoughts in the comments.
* Deal with seniors are they are, not as we wish they were. Seniors always prioritize things other than your class; as the spring advances, my class drops down the list. I may not agree with their priorities, but it would be silly not to acknowledge them. I set in my mind from the beginning that I am not going to take personal offense at seniors' attitudes, nor am I ever going to lecture them about their senior slide. I vow to treat students with respect, even when their decisions don't command respect.
* Front-load your course. We know the senior slide is going to happen; conversely, we know that seniors are heavily invested early in the year, when their grades "matter." So push, push, push the pace. I cover at least half of my material in the first trimester.
* Don't let one or two obnoxious seniors poison your mindset. Even the best teachers of seniors don't have a 100% success rate. When a student is being irrationally obstinate, do your best to patiently ignore him. Don't let him rile you up. If he's bringing the whole class down, dispassionately remove him from the situation (i.e. boot his arse out of class without drama); but whatever you do, don't engage or argue. It's not going to help. Think about how the rest of the class feels -- they're probably embarrassed about their obnoxious peer, but he's still a peer. They don't want him disrupting class, but neither do they want the teacher to become angry or aggressive. Be the welcome bringer of peace, not the fearsome champion of war.
* Develop positive relationships with the class early on. While you are not expected to be best buddies with your students, they need to know that you care about them. Expect the highest level of effort and performance, yes. But in everything you do, from your words to your body language to your actions, show your students that you're doing it for them. When someone screws up BEFORE the senior slide, treat him firmly, fairly, and compassionately. Know that everyone is watching you, all the time. If you react hostilely to one student, even if he deserves your hostile reaction, the rest of your class feels like you've reacted hostilely to them, too. Don't underestimate the teenager's desire for vengeance against those who, in their view, take their authority too seriously.
Conversely, don't underestimate teenagers' positive ethical underpinning. If you are seen to be fair, patient, and on their side, the silent majority of your class will support you. When that one bastard starts being a jerk to you in March, you want someone to take him aside and tell him "not cool, man, back off." That does, in fact, happen... if you do the front-end work to earn such quiet support.
* Make even more effort to do something different every few days. There's no cure-all for times when students would rather be cavorting in beautiful spring weather than sitting in your class. Certainly the physics teaching literature, this blog, and shop talk will yield numerous suggestions of productive but different styles of class: whiteboarding, socrative, the physics walk, lab challenges, test corrections, and more are excellent ways to add variety. Whatever the specific activities, it's that variety that's critical for seniors. Freshman need routine; spring seniors need to break out of their routine.
* Taper. You might reasonably expect 45 minutes of work per night early in the year; by April, that expectation should be down to about 15 minutes. It's a bad idea to stop giving homework altogether, or even to reduce the frequency with which assignments are due; however, each assignment can become smaller in scope. Swimming and track coaches are familiar with this idea of "tapering" toward a championship meet. The physics brain muscles are already strong from the hard work students have done early in the year. In the spring, daily work is more about maintaining muscle memory, about remembering and cementing things students already know, rather than about learning new things and developing new ideas.
* Be creative in holding students accountable. Any assignment is useless if it's not taken seriously; any assignment, no matter how small, is useful if done with care. Along with tapering comes the responsibility to ensure that students do the required work, and do it well. Second semester seniors generally don't give a rip about their grades, especially if grades are used as negative incentive. Use as many different positive incentives as possible. I give exemptions from future work for particularly strong efforts. I might announce an exciting activity like a physics walk, with the reminder that a complete assignment is required to go along. Even small things like in-class music when everyone turns in the homework can help.
Whatever the incentives, though, be sure they are backed up with the inviolable requirement that all assigned work must be completed eventually and correctly. Use every trick in your book to enforce this requirement, such that students recognize that it's easier and more fun to get the work done right and on time than to slack off.
* At some point, acknowledge the year is over. Where that point begins is your judgement call. But it's important, I think, to end the year on a high note. I've had the class solder AM radio or robot kits; had them inventory and organize the lab; done the bridge building or egg drop contests... anything that requires no out-of-class effort.
In late May, you're not teaching anything further to this year's seniors. Instead, you're laying groundwork for the future. Think about what you want this year's class to say to next year's. Students talk to each other, and it's usually straight talk. You want a reputation right in between "pushover" and "arsehole." After a couple of years, that reputation will by itself minimize hostile relationships with seniors, as they will come to your course from the start with the expectation that the spring will be serious yet fun.