End of Year Plays: an end of year activity that keeps students busy and engaged

If you’re looking for an end of year activity that keeps students busy and engaged, then look no further than end of year plays.

After all the steps, procedures, outlines, pacing guides, and rigor of the school year, those last couple of weeks of school can feel a little like the Wild West where rules and routine fly out the window and anything goes.

Some teachers fear this time of the year and spend their time simply trying to hold onto the reins while students get antsy and a little silly as the end of the year, and summer vacation, looms.

Other teachers love the freedom and flexibility of this last month of school, because they get to loosen the reins and have a little fun with the students.

No matter if you’re trying to hold on tight or loosen the reins, class plays may be the perfect end of year activity to keep your students busy and engaged right up to the last day of school. 

Why Plays?

Throughout the year, the curriculum restricts us from activities that involve creative thinking, artistic expression, and theatrics, but the last couple of weeks of school provide more flexibility and an opportunity to step away from the traditional textbooks and workbooks. This allows more time to embrace and enjoy the classroom community we’ve spent so much of the year fostering.

Some teachers would stray away from plays because they are afraid of students feeling self-conscious or reserved, but in my experience, the end of the year is the perfect time for role-play activities like plays because students are so much more comfortable with their peers and the classroom environment. Even my most reserved students have been known to let loose at this time of the year.

Plays are also great because they have a process and a product. This means that there are a series of steps that need to be completed before the final product (the performance) can take place. These steps give students structure but don’t necessarily require a lot of direct or explicit instruction from the teacher. 

In fact, I have found that once the students get going, they rarely need much help. At this point in the year, I prefer to let them take charge. I monitor and act as a coach throughout the process. I also give suggestions if I can see that a group is getting off track, but otherwise, I let them take control of the process.

Connecting Plays to the Classroom

Although classroom plays could be based on any topic, I like to work with previous classroom content during our end of year play unit. Rather than asking students to create plays on any topic, we use stories that we’ve read together as the inspiration for our class plays. 

To begin our unit, we make a list of some of the most memorable stories from our anthologies or even some of the stories from class read-alouds and then choose our plays from there.

Although students could act out the play as written in the text, I always encouraged my students to write their own plays based off of the stories from our lists, because it allows them a little more creativity and expression.

If you want to encourage more structure, ask students to use their writing to demonstrate previously learned skills like those related to characterization or figurative language or ask them to weave in another class topic in an interesting way. (If you are interested in weaving some figurative language into your plays, this envelope book is a great classroom resource to have available for students for reference or to use earlier in the year and reference again during this unit.) Students can be incredibly creative when given the right inspiration or task. If you ask them to find a way to incorporate what they’ve learned about measurement and cause/effect into their play…you better believe they will find a way that you never would have considered.

This unit can be as structured or as relaxed as you want it to be, so if this is your first year trying end of year plays, then just do what feels most natural for you.

A Proven Process

Now, I am certainly not a professional playwright or all-seeing wizard of acting, but I can tell you what has worked best with my students throughout this unit. Over the years of working on end of year plays with several classes, I definitely picked up on a process that worked well with my students. I recommend starting with my system, but I know that as you do this project with your own students in your classroom, you’ll find a system that works best for you!

Step #1 | Pick Your Stories

Take a stroll down memory lane by recalling the titles of the stories you’ve read together as a class throughout the school year. As students recall titles, write them on the board or a piece of chart paper to display in the room.

Step #2 | Select Student Groups

I like to allow students to select their own groups for this activity, but I keep my eyes open for students who need support joining a group. I’m flexible with the number of students per group. The groups usually range from 4-6 students. At this point in the year, I want the kids to enjoy the company of friends. I have found that they are more invested in putting on a great play with self-selected peers. 

Step #3 | Distribute Stories

Give students time to review the stories from the list and pick the one that they are most excited about. 

I usually don’t like groups to choose the same story to work from, but you can decide your own rules for this part.

Step #4 | Select Roles

At this point, students will select character roles. Typically, one group member will be the narrator, but if your students choose to develop a play without a narrator, that is fine as well (albeit a little more difficult). Sometimes it is necessary for students to take on more than one role in the play in order to fulfill all the roles, and that is perfectly fine. 

Step #5 | Write, Print, and Practice

Once students know which roles they will play, they need to write or type their script out in full. You can ask students to follow specific guidelines for formatting, or you can just let them do whatever works best for them. Encourage students to read through the script a few times before finalizing it to determine whether or not there is anything that could be added to enhance the script.

Once the script is finalized by the group, print it, make copies for each student in the group, and encourage them to highlight their parts for practice.

Step #6 | Technical Elements

Although writing and performing the script is fine, it is really the technical elements that bring the show to life. At this stage in the process, students need to begin brainstorming ideas for costumes, props, and sound effects. I let them work independently on this task. Although you may have a few resources in the classroom that students can use, typically they are able to bring in some items from home or borrow items from the classroom. I always help out as needed, but try to encourage students to work as independently as possible.

Another technical part of the show to consider is the backdrop or setting. I provide large sheets of bulletin board paper for students to paint a backdrop for their play. We roll these out around the room or in the hallway. They always LOVE this part of the process, and I love encouraging their creativity and getting to see their other talents.

Step #7 | Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

They say ‘Practice makes perfect,’ and although perfection is not our goal, we do want students to present performances they are proud of…which means that rehearsal is an important step that cannot be skipped. 

Once students have all their technical elements ready to go, encourage them to run through their performance over and over. Then, start encouraging rounds of feedback to help students fine-tune their performances.

There are certain points in a performance rehearsal period when feedback is most helpful. It is not beneficial for students to receive a bunch of feedback before they’ve ever had a chance to work through the play on their own, so I like spending short bursts of time with students at which time they drive the conversation. 

Move to each group and ask if they have any questions or ask which section of their performance they would like your input on. Don’t let them show you the whole show yet, just small sections that they feel need work. Don’t worry, the next time you come around, they can show you a different part, but only help in short bursts. This is truly best for everyone involved. Don’t be tempted to micromanage their process. Allowing them to show you one part for feedback is both for their protection and your own. As teachers we are way too good at trying to take control, and this whole process needs to be as hands-off as possible.

If you want, you can also run peer feedback rotations by pairing two groups up and letting them give feedback to each other as well.

Step #8 | Performances

The final performances usually take place a few weeks after the project is introduced. I always plan about 2-3 weeks for students to fully develop their plays and create their costumes, props, and backdrops.

When the performance day finally rolls around, we move the desks and tables around to create a performance space at one end of the classroom. Another option is to actually use a performance space, but I’ve always preferred my classroom.

Lastly, you can decide on whether or not to have an audience. Audiences could include parents either present or through a live stream, students from other classes, other adults (such as the Principal or Guidance Counselor) or just the other students in the classroom. No matter what you choose, your students will still get a great experience.

Some pros of having an outside audience like another group of students or parents is that it adds another layer of importance to the performances and can help students to stay motivated and focused on improvement throughout the process. Having an outside audience also makes the performances feel like a celebration, especially if they take place within the last couple days of school.

Cons…there are definitely a few. First, organizing other people is never going to be as easy as organizing the students in your classroom. You’ll have to find a way to deal with parents arriving early, arranging your schedule with another teacher’s schedule, or finding a time that works best for everyone involved. Another con comes in the form of extra pressure on you to meet the expectations of the people coming into the classroom. If parents are coming, should you have refreshments or snacks? Should you make a program? Can everyone still fit in your room, or do you need to find a bigger space? The more people involved, the more pressure on you to perform…if you catch my drift.

If including an outside audience is not something you are interested in, don’t worry! Keeping the performances as a small celebration and bonding experience for just the students in your class can be just as special!

Get out your camera!

As a final suggestion for your end of year plays, I strongly encourage that you get out your camera. Carry your camera around and snap pictures and record students as much as possible throughout this process. Not only are recordings a perfect way to give feedback, but they are also a fun way to share the experience with parents or other teachers, and the photos are great for printing out and sending home with students on the last day of school as a final reminder of the fun you had with them.

end of year activity that keeps students busy and engaged

An end of year activity that keeps students busy and engaged

All in all, plays give our students permission to use all their silly energy for good at the end of the year. Plays help keep them engaged at a time of the year when it’s really easy for them to disconnect. When my students return to see me (even 20 years later), I always ask them what they remember from our time spent together. They almost always mention the end of year plays.

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