Fitting-In in Middle School

By Susan Palmer, Head of Middle School

One of the aspects of the Middle School that I love is that students who have attended Greenhill since Lower School are intermingled with students fresh to our campus. The range of backgrounds brings richness to our classrooms that extends learning beyond what the teacher offers.

That said, we know that being the new kid in a sea of unfamiliar faces can be challenging. As a result, we try to check in with our new Middle Schoolers a few weeks into the year. Last week Mike Jenks, Assistant Head of Middle School, and I had one of our check-in lunches with these new Middle School students. Seeing Greenhill through their one month of experience was refreshing and caused us both to stop and think about elements and qualities of school that we see as inherent to the Greenhill experience. When we asked the students to share their favorite things about Greenhill, we got everything from the food to “nature and the peacocks.” We also got the following:

• Too many good things to share just one!
• Teachers teach differently than at other schools.
• You can play your instrument right here at school.
• There’s a mixture of “girl and boy” teachers.
• The Idea Lab!
• Making new friends.
• The homework isn’t busy work.
• The teachers are nice and willing to help.
• The grade level meetings in the pods.
• The groups mingle.
• The schedule and having classes with lots of different people..
• We are learning how to be independent.
• Discussion-based classes with lots of different teachers.
• Projects
• Recess
• The lay-out of the building.
• All the people.

These students were nervous about making new friends, grades, being on time, and homework, but they said that their fears quickly evaporated. And, being Greenhill students, they had suggestions for us about how to make Greenhill even better – ranging from more keyboarding practice to a drama class for sixth graders. These talented and lively newcomers have smoothed their own transitions with their willingness to embrace new experiences, and we are delighted to welcome them into the Middle School and I am excited to hear about their journey throughout the year.

Think of a Teacher that had an Impact on You

By Michael Simpson, Head of Lower School

I can’t tell you how many times in the last 22 years I have participated in a school meeting that starts with “think of a teacher that had an impact on you.” It happens a lot. Take a moment and do it yourself, now. Why did that teacher have an impact on you?*

It seems that when people talk about teachers who influenced them, they talk about teachers who were tough, or held high standards, or showed them special compassion, or demonstrated a passion and joy for their subject area. They don’t talk about the teachers who very efficiently taught them long division or helped them master the spelling of digraphs.

Maybe this is the year a particular child will learn long division, or finally master spelling of digraphs. Students will learn reading strategies, memorize basic facts, read maps, string together sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into compositions, hypothesize, write computer code, and learn the double clef. There are so many technical aspects of education to be learned over the years. It takes a long time (14 or 15 years!) to get it all. Those are the easy lessons, most of the time.

Yet our expectation is that our students get to have some hard lessons, too. Our teachers hope to make an impact on each child in an area of their life and growth that will benefit them profoundly. Maybe it’s by holding a child accountable for something that the teacher knows can be done better. Perhaps it’s helping a student discover and celebrate a special skill or ability. It might be encouraging an eight year old to take on a fear of public speaking, or helping her confront and change a way she interacts with others. We are dedicated to partnering with parents to teach these lessons.

Discourse between school and family is planned to share information and create a healthy communication between family and teachers so that the children can get all the lessons they need to learn, easy or hard.

* A gratitude exercise: Google that teacher. Find him or her and write a thank you note. It doesn’t take long, really and it’s just an awesome thing to do.

Short Snapshots of Time

By Kim Barnes, Head of Early Childhood

Like our Director of Academics, I am gifted daily with times to observe children. Through these short snapshots of time, I learn so much about individual children and children’s behaviors.

Last Friday was no different as I watched a few children on the Explorer Dome. Two children piqued my interest as they seemed to be very purposeful with their play on the climbing net. There, indeed, seemed to be a plan unfolding as each seemed to be questioning the other as they pointed down to the moon swing just under the middle of the net area. About the time I realized there was a plan, one of the girls dropped down on the swing. It seemed their plan was to climb far enough above the swing that they could easily drop down between the ropes to safely land on the swing. The first kindergartner dropped down easily and confidently, the second it took a bit more time and she moved a bit more gingerly as she continued to talk with the child on the swing. But, hooray, she landed well and they swung happily together for a few minutes!

The importance of teaching children to plan out their movements and even to help them break down what a task requires stood out. How often do I do this for children? Am I missing any tasks or jobs or skills that require a plan and would provide a model for future endeavors? In early childhood education, this type of planning is often called scaffolding and is probably most frequently used in social and literacy development. (Have a few stationary minutes in carpool? Google Lev Vygotsky.) However, scaffolding can be used in all aspects of a young child’s life and, frankly, in adult life as well. Take time to think about something that is difficult for you or that you might be afraid to try that you can break down into steps, which can be shared with your child, and then have the plan unfold step by step. Modeling this type of behavior will help a child accomplish things in small chunks and provide personal gratification as she/he moves forward with a skill.

Note – The operative phrase in the last paragraph is difficult for you. With any new endeavor, the gift of patience on the part of all parties is important as there is always struggle, even though that struggle may be short-lived. Scaffolding walks hand in hand with struggle as does the feeling of satisfaction and gratitude (hence the word gratification). Struggle is normal, healthy, and important to the development of each human being. Take time to embrace the struggle and scaffold what struggle in a particular instance might look like.

I’m Out Learning

By Jason Yaffe, Director of Academics

In my new role as Greenhill’s Director of Academics, I am fortunate to spend part of my school day visiting classes across our beautiful campus. I recently created a sign to hang outside my office door that reads “I’m out learning.” Class visits present endless opportunities to learn about Greenhill, observe best practices in action, and see our curriculum come alive. Through it all, it’s abundantly clear that students are engaged, love learning, and enter amazing collaborations with each other and their teachers. Here is just a sampling of what I witnessed during the first few weeks of school::

• Our Lower School Counselor reading to a group of pre-kindergarteners about filling other people’s “buckets” with kind, respectful, and compassionate deeds. When the students struggled to move beyond how their own buckets get filled, the teacher encouraged the students to consider how they might fill a friend’s bucket that day.

• A “First Day Jitters” chart for a kindergarten class where students wrote their name on a post-it note before placing it in one of five categories. The two classroom teachers modeled this informal assessment by posting their own first day concerns (both were tired!).

• Middle School English students building Legos, some with directions and others in free play, as an activity linked to structured and creative writing in their classroom.

• Several Middle School Science classroom walls plastered with posters that asked students, “Our class should be ___________everyday” and “what should students in our class be doing to make sure class runs smoothly?”

• A student-driven exploration and discussion about standards based grading in an Upper School Latin class. Talk about assessments centered around words such as competency and mastery instead of quizzes, tests, essays.

Across these diverse experiences, a couple of common threads emerged. First, in the wake of the all-employee summer reading (Breaking into the Heart of Character by David Streight), it was inspiring to see what learning unfolds in a climate where students feel empowered. As Streight reasons in his book, “The more choices teachers can offer – in areas where choice is appropriate, of course – the more autonomy students feel, the higher quality of work they produce, and the longer they remember what they have learned.” The first days of class are typically filled with setting the rhythm of the school year and establishing expectations. In my eyes, this is very much a collaborative process for our students that will lead to engagement and excitement throughout the year.

Secondly, I marveled at the deep relationships between teachers and students. Returning to Streight’s thoughts, he believes that “the closer we get to the heart of the person, the more meaningful is what emerges from the person’s thoughts, intentions, and actions.” Our students feel cared for, a sense of belonging, and inclusion as partners in learning. My classroom visits reaffirmed Greenhill’s commitment to the power of relationships.

I look forward to meeting and getting to know our new families, as well as our existing families, so I encourage all of you come by my office, but if you see that I’m away from my office, it’s likely I’m out learning.