A Carousel of Languages

Head of Middle School Susan Palmer writes about Greenhill’s fifth grade language program.

In mid-November just before Thanksgiving, I observed a fifth grade class conducted solely in Mandarin Chinese. This week, those students are acting out skits in Spanish as they play the parts of various animals. And later in the spring, those very same students will begin to master Latin vocabulary connected to the lives of Roman gods and goddesses.

Welcome to the wonderful world of the Fifth Grade Language Carousel! At Greenhill, fifth grade students learn what it means to learn a language. They receive one trimester each of Mandarin Chinese, Latin, and Spanish instruction, and they have the opportunity to develop a practical understanding of the linguistic and cultural elements of each. They develop learning strategies that will allow them to be successful language students no matter what language they choose to pursue after fifth grade.

When I talk to the fifth graders, I hear comments such as, “I never dreamed I could learn so much Chinese in only a trimester!” and “We made a video all in Spanish, and I was the tiger,” and “Latin is so organized. It really makes sense to me.” Our students are enthusiastic about the Carousel. They like the variety across the three trimesters, and they respond to the novelty of a fresh start three different times. They are amazed at their own ability to quickly become immersed into the culture of the languages, and they are uniformly proud of their ability to rise to three distinct challenges.

By the third trimester, our students are able to make connections between languages and language learning – they find similarities and identify differences. Their minds are open to connections across cultures, and they are thinking on an abstract and sophisticated level. Study skills take the forefront, too, as the students can now identify strategies appropriate for specific language learning.

Near the end of the fifth grade year, students and their parents choose Latin, Chinese, or Spanish as their language of choice for sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. Three solid years of language learning in Middle School then allows the students the option of taking two languages in Upper School – the language they chose after the Carousel year and a new language as a high school student. An additional benefit is that, after fifth grade, the students know and understand what their peers in other language classes are doing.

The Fifth Grade Language Carousel is just one element of the positive learning environment in the strong fifth grade program. The language choice at the end of fifth grade is an educated choice that leads to great motivation and excitement about language learning. All of this rationale aside, though, I must stress that the most common descriptor used by students and teachers to describe the Fifth Grade Language Carousel is “fun.” That says it all.

Step into Middle School

Greenhill’s Head of Middle School Susan Palmer writes about the transition to Middle School in fifth grade.

Middle School is a big step. All over the community, you can hear parents discussing their doubts and fears. They share their own middle school experiences like they were yesterday, and they are fearful that their children won’t be able to cope with increased independence or expectations. Leaving the cozy confines of Lower School is cause for concern in many parents’ eyes.

But the students are ready. All of a sudden, they need a wider world full of new challenges and experiences. Their faces glow with the excitement of their own locker, independently traversing the campus, and a whole new set of privileges. Two weeks ago, our Greenhill fifth graders began the year with enthusiasm and wonder – a gift for their teachers in the Middle School. In turn, the fifth grade faculty gave to the students an intentional and well-considered transition program – one that engaged the students in a variety of ways and sent them home with a million stories to tell.

Leaving nothing to chance, the fifth grade team determined to transition their new students by purposeful activities that connected them to their new environment. They have created a First Steps program and have challenged the fifth graders with the question, “What will be your footprint on the Middle School?” In the fifth grade hallway, there is a Wall of Fifth Grade Wisdom packed with snippets of advice from past fifth graders. Team building and getting-to-know-you activities have abounded in the first weeks of school – everything from advisory trivia to personal quilts to scavenger hunts. The team planned a Day in the Park at Lake Lewisville around activities to strengthen connections and to learn about each other. They have even taken this year’s theme, “Action. Make a difference. Be the difference.”, to new heights as they identified their own personal action heroes who have eased their transition into Middle School.

In the fifth grade, advisors teach each of their advisees in an academic class, ensuring that they connect on at least two levels. As grades are gradually introduced for the first time, teachers are spending extra time examining the action behind the grade, focusing on classroom protocols, best study habits for each students, and standards of assessment. “Do overs” accompanied by reflection are common in the beginning weeks, so that students begin to take ownership of their own learning and to understand how to deepen comprehension.

Our teachers are building confidence along with competence. As students learn the ropes, they also feel a sense of inclusion – both of which are essential to a successful Middle School experience. In their first middle school year, fifth graders feel strong and excited about their future as learners – just exactly what the fifth grade team hopes to see.