Lower School Leveled Library

By Michael Simpson, Head of Lower School

You may have noticed, between the insect exo-skeletons in Mrs. Barnes’ window and the array of trophies in my window, a roomful of cluttered bookcases. This is the leveled library, and we are in the process of organizing and sorting the books by level and into sets. It’s a long process and we’ve had the help of some great volunteers. Although when you peer in the window it doesn’t look so organized, it is already being used by our teachers.

What is a leveled library? A leveled library is an “instructional library.” The books in this library are chosen by the teachers, not students, to be used for teaching purposes, mostly in guided reading groups. The books are sorted by instructional reading level and come in sets of 6. They are also in the process of being indexed for supporting instruction in specific reading skills. Some of the books are “trade books” books created specifically for instruction, and others are children’s literature written by well known children’s authors. The other libraries—classroom libraries and the Montgomery Library —are for student choice books. Books in those libraries are not organized by level, and the students can pick the books they want to read for pleasure.

The leveled library is extremely useful to our teachers in selecting books to use that will spur growth in reading skills. For that growth to occur, the text must be in a zone for the individual student that is not too high, or the student will be working too hard to comprehend to execute a reading strategy, and not too low, or the text will be too easy for that student to apply skills to build comprehension. Learning to read is more than decoding words only. Students must learn a wide array of strategies to comprehend and analyze texts, and in order to practice new skills and build on previous skills they need to be working with the right material and in the proper context. It’s a little bit like sports practice. I might move a talented soccer player to practice and play with a slightly older group that pushes her growth, but if I put her too high up the expectations will be beyond her and she will not be able to execute—she’ll be overwhelmed by the ability of the others or the sophistication of the drill. Similarly, if she continues to play at a level where she can totally dominate, she is not going to be challenged to grow and develop new skills.

A guided reading group, with peers working on similar skills, using a text that is in the right zone, is what a student needs for surges in reading skill growth. The leveled library provides the teachers with good resources to meet the needs of their students. But it takes a while to organize and index the library!

Resilience: Also Known as Grit

By Susan Palmer, Head of Middle School

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” – James Joyce

“Failure is not the opposite of success. It is part of success.” – Arianna Huffington

These quotes and more grace the entry to Don Myers’ Idea Lab, the spot in the Middle School where making mistakes (and bouncing back from them) is on display each and every day. As students employ engineering design thinking, they often encounter setbacks and challenges on their way to creating a workable robot or building an effective phone charger. Resilience is the ingredient that permits our students to revise and retool, leading eventually to a finished product of which they can be proud.

Students who demonstrate resilience finish what they begin and try very hard, even after experiencing failure. They work diligently and independently, seeing setbacks as temporary. They have effective coping skills and a positive self-concept. They cope in the face of adversity, and resilience is often related to perseverance. Strongly correlated with academic achievement, resilience also has value in the workplace, in personal relationships, and in managing life’s challenges.

Suggested reading on grit, perseverance, and resilience includes Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed and Angela Duckworth’s work at the University of Pennsylvania. On the Mission Skills Assessment administered at Greenhill, boys score higher on resilience than girls, and there is a strong correlation between resilience and life satisfaction. Our own Middle School Exemplars lists ”Reacts resolutely to setbacks” as a specific behavior to encourage and teach in our young people.

When Middle School teachers observe students who seek assistance after a disappointing grade, who learn from their errors in judgment, or who move through disappointment to yet another attempt, they know that they are seeing the emergence of a resilient and positive self-concept. The data provided us by the MSA and the sharing of programs with other schools like Greenhill are allowing us to learn new ways to coach and encourage resilience. Although defined often as bouncing back from failure, I see resilience more as the ability to move on, select another path, or firmly problem-solve in the face of disappointment. Middle School is the perfect place to develop resilience, a skill that has far-reaching benefits.

Developing Cultural Competency by Addressing Micro-aggressions

By Laura Ross, Head of Upper School

We spend a lot of time at Greenhill talking about what it means to develop cultural competency, both in our faculty and staff and in our students.  One of my favorite definitions of cultural competency comes from the Teaching Tolerance website (tolerance.org) and it is as follows: “Cultural competency is the ability to work effectively— and sensitively—across cultural contexts. It involves learning, communicating and connecting respectfully with others regardless of differences. Culture can refer to an individual’s race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, immigration status and age, among other things. All these factors strongly influence people’s lives and experiences.”

On the day after the Winter Break all of our faculty and staff came together for a full day of professional development work around this idea.  We ended the afternoon with an incredible exercise called “the iceberg.”  We broke up into groups of around 40 people and each person drew their own iceberg – listing the visible identifiers each of us had that others could easily see, and then underneath sharing those things we carry that are unseen but that impact us every day.  We all then posted those icebergs anonymously around the room.  I will never forget how it felt to walk around the library and read what people shared.  We all have things that make us feel like we aren’t part of the majority, or that we are the “other”, in some contexts.  Greenhill School is, as our Mission Statement emphasizes right in the first line, “a diverse community of learners.”  The cultures represented on this campus are myriad and it’s essential that we understand how to learn, grow and work together, harnessing the strength of the different perspectives we all bring. I might even say that such work is not only critical, but imperative, if we are going to prepare our students successfully for college and beyond.

We are also doing this work with our students.  We have plenty of clubs in the Upper School that do ongoing work around issues of diversity such as Another Perspective and True Colors and the Social Justice club, but we’ve spent the fall in the Upper School trying to broaden that conversation to all Upper School students.  Just as we saw with faculty in the iceberg exercise, we know that our students are incredibly diverse in their backgrounds, ideas, family structures, value systems, etc.  It’s essential in our jobs as educators that we help students learn how to respect, understand and find pride and value in the different perspectives they and their peers bring to our campus and community.

To that end, we have spent the last month having conversations in advance of a screening of the film Dear White People for Upper School students, followed by a visit from the director of that film, Justin Simien.  It’s a provocative title, to be sure, but as the director himself has said, the point of the film is about identity development, and how hard it can be to develop one’s own individual identity when young, especially when other people can put you in a box based on visual identifiers (race, ethnicity, gender, etc.)

Dr. Karen Bradberry, our Director of Equity and Inclusion, has been leading workshops for Upper School faculty and students on “micro-aggressions” – a term popularized by Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a psychology professor at Columbia University.  He defines them as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.”  They are generally unintended slights; in schools they often take the form of “jokes” or casual exchanges that may go unrecognized as slights by a person hearing them who does not feel “other” in that context, but that can have harmful effects on members of our community.  This sort of thing goes on in schools, offices, and organizations all the time; we are no different as we are intentionally and foundationally a diverse community.  However, what I hope makes us different is that we decided to approach this head-on rather than pretend its effects don’t exist.deargreenhill2

After the groundwork was laid by our faculty, the seniors decided that they wanted to do something further to bring this issue to the attention of our broader community.  At this week’s C Day Meeting, an all-Upper School assembly, the students made signs detailing micro-aggressions they had heard or had experienced directly.  They each came to the front of the assembly and spoke into the microphone in front of all of their peers.  It was a moving and extremely powerful display of honesty, bravery and leadership by our students.  I am always proud to be a member of this community, but this was something special.

Here is a link to the assembly itself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtixLNdBcg0&feature=youtu.be and to a gallery of photos of some of the students taken by senior Ariana Zhang after the assembly: http://imgur.com/a/Yf47C.