Middle School Relationships

Head of Middle School Susan Palmer writes about the importance of the student-teacher relationship in Middle School.

“Mrs. Woody, how do fish mate?

This query from two seventh graders, fielded by Head Librarian Donna Woody, sums up many of the qualities we value in the Middle School. Humor and curiosity immediately come to mind, because, after all, it makes you laugh to hear such a funny question. Also, they really wanted to know the answer!

Underlying this question and many others is a comfort level and connection that plays out every day here in the Middle School. Students like and respect their teachers. Conversely, teachers like and respect their students. They connect both personally and academically across all grade levels, and these connections forge greater learning and growth opportunities for all students.

Monday mornings are filled with news of what happened over the weekend. Did you see a movie? Did you have a game? What did you think about that news story? Teachers and students develop relationships based on the details of their lives. One fifth grader loves white chocolate. An eighth grader is designing a green initiative to promote responsible use of our earth’s resources. Another group of teachers and students loves a certain television show. And what about those Rangers? Everybody has something to share, and the teachers consistently engage with each student, solidifying relationships that emphasize inclusion.

At an age when students seek to know themselves, teachers model respectful and friendly interactions. They are non-judgmental and demonstrate a wide tolerance for a variety of personal preferences. Often, one result of these informal interactions is that students want to work hard for the teachers with whom they feel connected. Although we wish for all students to develop inner motivation and drive, the first step may be to seek approval through hard work.

In the Middle School, all learning begins with relationships, and we consciously seek to initiate and maintain positive ones. But what about the mating fish above? After Mrs. Woody answered the question, first saying that the answer wasn’t very exciting, she said, “Okay, now you two can go back to work!” And they did, productively and happily. That’s life in the Middle School.

Encouraging Students to Become Independent Language Learners

Mary Tapia, Upper School Modern Languages Teacher, writes about independent language learning enriches the classroom experience.

One of the greatest challenges a teacher faces on a day to day basis in the classroom is how to meet the needs of students who come with a wide variety of skill and maturity levels. In a single class I may have 9th or 12th graders, and their language experience varies from exposure since Kindergarten to a single year of high school instruction. Thus, like virtually all my colleagues in Modern Languages, I must be creative in order to find ways to engage these students and help them along the path to developing fluency in the target language. Additionally, I myself am a life long learner, and I try to keep abreast of the ways in which the classroom is changing in the 21st century. As a result of all the above, I have been exploring strategies to make my classroom less teacher centered and more effective in meeting the needs of my diverse groups of learners. While I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject of differentiated learning, in this brief article, I would like to share some of the ideas I have implemented to help my students become more independent learners.

First of all, like most Modern Language teachers I already use plenty of group and pair-work in order to increase the opportunity for participation of each student in class. This is an obvious first step in encouraging students to work independently. Also, I have experimented with requiring students to collaborate more often outside of class. By using free online tools such as http://www.googledocs.com or chat rooms, students can interact online and present their work to the teacher on the next day. Of course, the teacher must provide clear instructions and a realistic task for such an assignment, but my experience has been that students are happier to practice their interpersonal skills in this manner than they would be to simply write a traditional composition for the teacher.

Another way I encourage my students to work independently is to schedule regular visits to our language lab. During these visits, I make certain that we are not simply doing the same things we could do as a group in class such as group listening to a recorded document. I plan the lesson carefully, post the written instructions on Blackboard, and expect that when the students come to class they will log on and stay focused for the entire period. Each set of instructions is tailored for the level and language, but I do my best to provide a variety of activities which will provide an opportunity to practice interpretative, interpersonal, and presentational skills. Also, I make certain that in addition to the required tasks, there are optional activities at the end so that no one can sit idle. These optional activities include (but are not limited to) visiting the http://www.bbcmundo.com website for Spanish or http://www.tv5.org for French. While my students are working independently, I have time to spend a few minutes with each one individually. These brief but regular conversations help me build a strong relationship with my students and enable each one to ask questions without worrying about what their peers might think.

In my AP Spanish class, I have experimented with letting my students choose some of their own homework assignments. This is a structured project which requires students to reflect on their individual strengths and weaknesses, formulate a goal, and develop a list of tasks specific to chosen specifically to help achieve their objective. My role is simply to mentor them at the beginning, give them feedback along the way, and hold them accountable for what they have proposed to do. Probably the most powerful part of this project is the fact that students have choice about which tasks to perform and considerable flexibility about when to hand them in. There is plenty of research to show that motivation to complete a task increases when a person has had a say in choosing it. Also, the motivation to complete the task increases when there is a clear goal in mind. Too often the student’s goal is to earn a grade, but in this case, I do my best to encourage students to focus on improving a skill, not on a earning a grade.

I implemented a somewhat similar project in my French class last trimester. After completing a couple of free online diagnostic tests for the first homework assignments, each student chose a series of tasks to complete as homework for each lab day. Then, at the beginning of each lab period, I asked each student to write in their journal about what he or she had done the night before and provide some “proof” of what they had done. The journals could be in either English or French, and the proof could be a recording, a written document, or even a screenshot of work done with an online tool such as http://www.conjuguemos.com At the end of the trimester, each student made an oral presentation to the class about what their work had been and what they had learned.

What I have learned from these experiments is that the shift to a student centered classroom can be rewarding for both teacher and students. With creativity and use of readily available technology, my students can and do work well independently. I do not have hard data to prove the degree to which their fluency has increased, but I have plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the fact that they were more actively engaged than they would have been if I had been standing at the front of a classroom controlling every step of their journey. As I continue to explore ways to encourage independent learning, I have started a blog about my experiences. If you would like details, rubrics, or handouts from these or future projects, please visit http://tapiaclassroom.wordpress.com/.

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.

Capstones: the Culmination of a Pre-k – 12 Experience

Director of Curricular Programs Natalia Hernandez writes about her role at Greenhill and about Greenhill’s Senior Capstone Program.

Arriving at Greenhill School this year as the new Director of Curricular Programs has been incredibly rewarding both personally and professionally. Personally, I am honored to be part of this amazing school that holds itself to the highest standards and deliberately asks difficult questions to ensure continuous improvement. I have spent twenty years in education hoping to find a place like this. Coming back to Texas after living abroad and in Florida feels like coming home. Coming to Greenhill School feels like coming home to a loving family. Professionally, I sought a role that would allow me to have a broader perspective of the academic program of a school. While I loved being an elementary principal, I was eager to acquire a PK – 12 understanding of a student’s experience. This role does exactly that. I am fortunate to be involved in teaching and learning at all levels at Greenhill School.

One program that demonstrates the culmination of our K-12 experience, and one that I am especially excited about, is the senior capstone. The senior capstone project provides outstanding seniors with time for in-depth exploration and study in a self-selected area of interest. This student driven project requires advanced, independent and interdisciplinary study that culminates in an exhibition of a final product. This year’s capstone projects represent a wide range of topics:

    • Writing, directing, and producing a sitcom
    • Researching areas of dark matter
    • Scientific research on the molecular mechanisms behind higher cognitive functions in humans
    • Writing and directing a short film
    • Detection methods for metastatic breast cancer
    • Designing and creating a low cost prosthetic arm
    • Marketing and producing a fashion museum
    • Writing a bill that would make shark finning and the consumption of shark fin illegal

The outstanding students who have recently presented their first trimester projects to committees of faculty and peers have a wide range of interests and reflect the diversity of our school. However, some aspects of their progress are constant among them. All of these students love learning; they are deeply passionate about their work and enjoy being immersed in their projects. They all see relevance and practical application in complex and abstract concepts. They all have the necessary preparation they need to deal with the barriers, missteps, and challenges that they will face in the project phase of their capstones. Their ability, no – desire, to receive constructive feedback demonstrates an academic maturity well beyond their years. Above all, they are prepared for so much more than their next four years of college. The skills they are honing throughout the preparation and development of their capstones will serve them well throughout their careers.

While student initiative fuels these projects, faculty relationships also play a key role in project outcome. The capstone mentors who support these students strike a careful balance between pushing their mentees to excellence and allowing them to struggle through the ongoing trials of yearlong study. They have truly mastered the art of guidance.

The capstone experience is one I hope to grow each year. I recently spoke to the junior class about the possibility of entering into capstone study as a senior. Many have already approached me with inspired and unique topics of study. The exciting thing about being at Greenhill School is that our potential is as limitless as the ideas of our students.

Michael Simpson, Head of Lower School, shares his thoughts on Monday mornings.

I love Mondays! Every Monday morning we kick off our week in Lower School with an assembly. The whole Lower School community gathers under the bird mobile in the Lower School atrium. 3rd and 4th graders sit on the stairs, and Primer, 1st, and 2nd graders are on the floor facing the south doors. Occasionally some peacocks join us, hanging out just on the other side of the glass. I welcome everyone and Mrs. Holmes leads the children in song, (e.g. The Star Spangled Banner). She also leads a concluding song (e.g. Hail to Greenhill). Other than that, the assembly is led by fourth graders.

Every Friday, four 4th grade students—new ones every week— meet with me to plan what will happen on Monday. We decide what community news to share and if there need to be any public service announcements. This past week they wanted to remind Lower Schoolers not to throw mulch or sticks on the playground. They also offer a “thought provoking question” to the community. One recent one was, “Is it possible to take action, if no one knows you’re doing it?” (Yes parents of first graders, deep thinking is not far off for your little ones!). We also take the time to recognize community members who have modeled our core principles of respect, honor, and compassion, or anyone who has taken action to make a difference. How do we do this? Students or adults may submit a story about anyone they feel should be recognized; they drop it in the shoebox outside my office door. We can’t read them all at each assembly, so the fourth grade leaders decide which ones to read each week. At the assembly they ask the student to stand as the story is read, and this is always followed by wild applause. It’s a great moment.

There are specific reasons for having these assemblies—public speaking and leadership opportunities for fourth graders, adding to our community song list, public reminders, highlighting exemplary behavior, to name a few. But I have to tell you that there is hardly a more pleasant way to start your day. Everything comes together to make it a very uplifting 15 minutes: the bright sunlight, the fresh feeling of a new week, all our students together, the artwork around us, 350 children singing, and four 10 year olds confidently addressing the audience. It doesn’t get much better than that!