Ending Well

Head of Middle School Susan Palmer writes about the end of the school year, both how to approach the end, and what happens in the last few days before the summer.

I have often counseled my own two children about ending well – no slammed doors, no demonstrated loss of interest, no placing one foot out the door before the current responsibility has officially ended. It’s a good life lesson for our students to continue to give 100% even in the waning days of the school year, or a job, or a project. In schools, we often use culminating assemblies as formal acknowledgements of “ending well.” Of course all of the ceremonial recognition of the end of one stage of learning and the beginning of another are treasured moments, ones commemorated across the educational community at all levels.

In fact, “ending well” can be seen in the Middle School on a much smaller, but arguably more effective, level. Created by our teachers to promote a synthesis of knowledge and skills, these activities are fun, positive, and upbeat. Last week, sixth graders participated in the Amazing Race, where they raced across campus to stations that required them to recall some key piece of history knowledge from their year. Fifth graders planned and designed poetry cafés, hugely successful gatherings for parents where students highlighted their own poetry in the midst of a café complete with food, decorations, programs, and more. Seventh graders presented “happiness projects” – culminating activities stemming from advisory study of positive psychology. And eighth graders ended their year with scenes from Shakespeare, student-created videos, a one-act play, final musical concerts, and more.

All of these final events represent high levels of student engagement. Their teachers have created opportunities for them to stay the course until the very end. Our students end the year proud of their accumulation of knowledge and skills, active participants all. Built-in reflection is a critical element of learning, and students who can look back at how far they have come will be ready for the next set of challenges.

Last August, we challenged the students in the Middle School to take action, to find a way to make a difference and to be the difference. In ways big and small, they have met this challenge. They and their teachers have come to the final few days able to look back and assess all that they have learned. It’s been a wonderful year and it is definitely ending well!

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.

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.

Wellness in Middle School

Susan Palmer, Head of Middle School, writes about the importance of teaching wellness to students.

Last week, sixth graders returned home to report that they did yoga in English class. Imagine the confusion as their parents tried hard to connect downward facing dog to the latest sixth grade novel. In fact, there was a very compelling reason for the excellent yoga instruction (provided by parent Amy Harberg): the Middle School Wellness curriculum.

In grades 5-8, social and emotional growth proceeds along with intellectual and brain development. Research tells us that parents and educators must teach and reinforce social and emotional skills in order to ensure appropriate and healthy physical, mental, and social growth throughout the teen years. Much of the adolescent behavior that drives adults crazy can be mitigated through intentionally addressing strategies, setting boundaries, and empowering young people to respond to the challenges they face each day. Our goal in the Middle School is that our students will develop habits that will lead to a lifetime of smart choices and overall wellness in all areas of life. To meet these learning objectives, five times during the year and rotating through each of the academic desciplines, each grade participates in Wellness classes designed by Middle School Counselor Ginna Johnson.

So that takes us back to yoga. One of the five Middle School Wellness topics is “Locus of Control,” developing personal physical and emotional awareness. Yoga, through deep breathing and relaxation, can calm overly emotional reactions by slowing things down and allowing the brain to refocus. Taking care from the inside out strengthens the belief that we are actually in charge of our own actions and responses, a powerful concept for early teens.

Additional Wellness topics include Healthy Relationships, Physical Wellness and Nutrition, Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs, and Problem Solving – both individual and in a group. A number of outside experts join Ms. Johnson in presenting to grade level sessions throughout the year. These concepts are reinforced through Character Education activities as well.

We are charged to help young people navigate early adolescence, and we take that charge seriously. Just as we talk about students becoming self-advocates for their own academic needs, we also want to help them develop the sense that they can manage social challenges, societal demands, and constant change. Including Wellness as a critical component of the Middle School program demonstrates our commitment to the whole child and to our hopes for a healthy, meaningful adulthood.

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.