Michelle Modlin, a fourth grade teacher at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Newton, never takes the last day of school for granted, especially when her students’ last day the year before was unceremoniously cut short two months by the COVID-19 pandemic. It wasn’t the goodbye she wanted.
Normally, the faculty in the Newton Community School District celebrate the last day of school with a bevy of activities for students. With pandemic restrictions easing up, teachers and volunteers were able to give kids a proper sendoff this past Friday by way of a grill out, water games and other outdoor activities.
“We get to have a last day of school, unlike last year,” Modlin told Newton News Friday, June 4. “We are absolutely honored to have a last day of school this year. I think it will never ever have the same meaning to me again.”
Modlin’s students also sketched an image on the elementary school’s sidewalk using chalk: it was a massive chicken wearing a red cape. This kids have named it “The Wonder Chicken,” she said. Many won’t know what this chicken is, but this classroom mascot holds a lot of significance to Modlin.
“This has been going on since probably mid-year,” Modlin said, noting The Wonder Chicken has its own backstory and comics created by her students. “In a year that’s been a lot of ‘you have to do this’ and ‘you have to do this,’ The Wonder Chicken’s been something they’ve had total control over. It’s been nice!”
The fourth graders, who will be going to Berg Middle School next year, have put a lot of effort into The Wonder Chicken. Modlin said they created individual committees dedicated to this imaginative creation, including a design team and publishing team. It brought a much-needed lightheartedness to the classroom.
“It’s been a tough year for teachers, kids and families,” Modlin said. “Lots of communication, and lots of people have had to re-learn. Life is all about learning and re-learning, and this year has been nothing but that. But I think we’ve done a great job of getting kids learning and keeping life as normal as we can.”
The 2020-2021 school year was challenging. Modlin said so much good learning happens in groups, which was difficult to do with the always prevalent pandemic regulations and Return to Learn rules. The day before the last day of school, Thomas Jefferson students had their first and final gym assembly of the year.
The last day of school can be especially difficult for fourth grade and eighth grade teachers in the district, since their students will be moved to a completely different campus the following year. Modlin said the last day celebrations are always bitter sweet for those teachers.
“You’ve coached and built and cheered and encouraged and prepped — and then next year they’re not there,” Modlin said. “You don’t get to see them grow anymore until they’re checking your groceries out in the Hy-Vee or Fareway.”
Rachelle Hyde, a fourth grade teacher at Thomas Jefferson, said it’s nice to enjoy the end of the school year with a full day of activities, but it is also sad to see them go to Berg. The outdoor games and festivities help make the day more fun. Plus, it’s a tradition to celebrate the last day, even more so after this year.
“(We’re) celebrating making it through the crazy year,” Hyde said. “Last year was hard not having a last day, especially as a fourth grade teacher. We didn’t get to say goodbye to the kids. So it’s nice to have a final conclusion to the year. I’m relieved we made it through all the changes.”
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