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As summer nears, schools and parents try to keep kids interested

CHICAGO — The end of the school year began two weeks ago for 8-year-old Abby Cavelle, who has arrived at River View Elementary in Plainfield, Ill., wearing her pajamas, or armed with a beach towel for outdoor reading.

Or dressed up for a class picture, or prepared to sign yearbooks in a countdown to the third grade.

“I think they’re trying to make it fun and interesting,” said Abby’s mother, Sunny Masek, who tracks the many end-of-year “theme days” with a calendar sent home by her daughter’s teacher.

“All she has left at school is an extra pair of gym shoes.”

With summer vacation mere days — or even hours — away for many U.S. students, educators are creatively trying to burn up remaining class time. Students are dressing up for Superhero Days, running obstacle courses, and attending assemblies like the one where Abby and her schoolmates belted out Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”

Today’s version of the age-old school year wrap-up may raise the eyebrows of parents who question the educational value. Even some educators readily acknowledge that no new learning takes place in the waning days.

But teachers and education experts say it’s often a matter of survival for instructors — sometimes in buildings without air conditioning — as they try to hold the interest of students used to watching television and playing video games.

Elementary school teachers, meanwhile, may feel especially ready to relax, given that most of the standardized tests have been completed since March.

And at high schools, the school year usually tapers off with review sessions for final exams, and a chance for students to tackle some fun projects. Teachers say they enjoy a break after their students complete their Advanced Placement college-level exams from early to mid-May.

“It’s really like the last six weeks of school, you feel like you can do the kind of teaching that you want to do,” said Rena Shifflet, a former elementary school teacher and now professor of education at Illinois State University.

“You can be more creative and do those things that maybe have meaning but aren’t tested.”

Parents such as Emily Ruby take a different view. The mother of three in River Forest, Ill., spent a recent Thursday morning frantically searching her 9-year-old daughter’s closet for red clothing.

Red, it turned out, was the color that Madeline’s third-grade class had been assigned to wear at the Lincoln Elementary School “Field Day,” featuring outdoor exercises and games.

Ruby said she understood the school’s desire to connect with students at a difficult time of year. In recent weeks, she has had to battle with her daughter over completing homework.

But with the last school day of school scheduled for June 14, Ruby wondered how teachers would keep her daughter and other students occupied.

“It is a bit of a bittersweet time, but I’m amazed at how long the bittersweet time is lasting this year,” Ruby said. “It’s going to be a bittersweet two weeks instead of a bittersweet day.”

Educators acknowledge that concepts such as “Blackhawks Day” (when students wear team colors or logos) or “Hat Day” (when they show up in hats) or “Backward Day” (when their class schedules are executed in reverse order) may seem frivolous. But many contend that they go a long way in keeping them excited about school.

“It could be a distraction, you would think, but I actually think it keeps them more focused,” said Joe Simpkins, principal at River View in Plainfield. “It’s just to keep them engaged so that they are still coming to school, learning, and doing all the things we need to do.”

In Arlington Heights, Ill., Tricia Fuglestad, an elementary school art teacher, said she realized several years ago that lecturing to students in the last few weeks was pointless. She grew tired of the blank stares.

So Fuglestad developed a computer game that allows her students to review lessons with videos organized in the style of the game show “Jeopardy!”

“If we can turn it into a game and have them watch a movie, it’s a lot more engaging,” Fuglestad said. “You turn things into a little bit more hands-on, engaging, using the tools, the Internet, the iPads.”

At Naper Elementary School in Naperville, principal Julie Beehler encourages teachers to use projects, plays and other activities to celebrate the learning students have done during the year.

On the last day of school, students gather for an assembly where each grade takes a turn standing in line, doing a countdown of their top 10 highlights of the year. The payoff is the applause from the all-school audience.

“If you are really strategic about what you want to accomplish on these last few days, it provides an important sense of closure,” Beehler said. “People need that, especially kids.”

Brian Curtin, an English teacher at Schaumburg High School, is 2013 Illinois Teacher of the Year. He noted that “as you move toward the last week or so of school, the focus becomes more on review and support … You are certainly not introducing any new skills or new lessons.”

At Waukegan High School, which has no air conditioning, history teacher Joshua Bill says he felt liberated when, for the two weeks after the AP exams, he could teach more about the 1960s. He allowed students to do projects of their choosing, with one studying the Communist Manifesto and another researching the history of her own house.

“It is kind of a hallelujah moment that I can actually do what I’d like to do,” Bill said.

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