As the winter term winds to a close today at my wonderful school, I find myself reflecting and pondering grading, assessment, and our overall academic program. What makes an effective academic program? What allows a school to function in a meaningful and relevant manner? This then led me to contemplate the sixth grade program that I’ve been working on developing over the past 11 years or so…
Going through the adolescent stage of development is like being on a roller coaster without a seat belt. When you flip upside down, you fall out of your seat unless you are holding on with everything you’ve got. Each benchmark within adolescence brings new turns, curves, and loops. Working with adolescent boys is like trying to dodge raindrops. You can’t avoid the inevitable. Craziness and chaos will ensue. But heck, that’s why middle school teachers work with this age group. We’re a little crazy too because we remember what it was like to be this age.
At Cardigan, we make it our mission to mold young boys into compassionate and mindful young men. It’s a wild and sometimes frustrating journey, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Boys who attend sixth grade at Cardigan begin this adventure earlier than most as it is the youngest and smallest grade at our school. Because of this, we have created a very unique program that will help our boys foster a family spirit and connection that they carry with them throughout their time at Cardigan; to help provide them with some safety features on the bumpy roller coaster of adolescence.
Brain-based research on how learning really happens reveals that students learn best when they are engaged, motivated, feel safe, are challenged and supported. The sixth grade program has greatly evolved over the years due to this research and, as sixth grade teachers, we are always trying to find new and innovative ways to inspire and effectively educate and prepare our boys for meaningful lives in a global society.
Our Philosophy: We’re a family, and families take care of each other
The first ten weeks of the academic year are focused on building a strong family atmosphere amongst the students. One of our biggest goals in the sixth grade is to foster a sense of family within the boys. We want the students to understand and be able to effectively coexist with one another in a way that celebrates their differences. First, as teachers, we model the behavior we expect to see from the students. Second, we spend time each week talking about what makes an effective community. We have the students share personal information about themselves including interests, hobbies, sports, and social identifiers. We help the boys examine all parts of their personality that remain hidden to most of the world. In exploring this, the students begin to think deeply and critically about themselves and how they fit into the world. They also have a chance to share this information with their peers. While making them vulnerable, it helps the boys make deep connections with each other. We provide the students with specific strategies on how to communicate with their peers effectively, how to solve problems amongst themselves, and how to work together as a team to accomplish tasks. We utilize numerous team building activities as catalysts for these mini-lessons: The boys build spaghetti towers in small groups, create a scavenger hunt with a partner, and solve various tasks that provide opportunities to practice and learn how to be effective teammates. We want the boys to understand what it takes to be Cardigan community member.
During the first month of school, we take the boys on an overnight trip to our school’s CORE cabin to help build a sense of family and community within the boys. While the location of the cabin is on our campus, it feels very like it could be miles away. We build a fire together and then roast marshmallows. We tell stories, play games, and interact as a family. If problems arise, we take the time to help the students learn how to work together to solve them. It’s an amazing experience that helps lay the groundwork for future whole-class experiences we will provide the boys with throughout our year together.
During the first term of the academic year, we spend time helping the students learn how to be present and mindful in the moment. We teach the students many different mindful practices and strategies including deep breathing, visualization, yoga, and meditation. The boys learn how to self-soothe and calm themselves during moments of intense emotion so that they are able to get the most out of each learning experience in the sixth grade. We revisit and review these strategies periodically throughout the year as well so that the boys don’t forget them and are able to see the power they hold in helping them stay focused and in the present moment during class.
In order to help foster a sense of engagement in the classroom and to allow our students to feel as though they can focus on the lesson or activity at hand, our classroom is organized in a very specific manner.
We have a reading nook area for small group work, independent reading, and movie viewing when appropriate. The boys can sit or lie on the carpet squares in any way that allows them to feel engaged and focused. We also have a small group work table for those students who need to be sitting to work and stay focused. The desk table area is towards the front of the classroom near our interactive board and projector. We use whiteboard tables to allow the students the opportunity to take notes, brainstorm, solve math problems, or just doodle upon them while working or listening. We also use rocking style chairs at the desk work area to allow those students who need to move and stay focused. These chairs help create a sense of calm and focus in the classroom during full group instruction lessons. While every student is rocking, they are able to pay attention and listen intently.
These classroom organizational choices are based on the neuroscience of learning. Students are able to genuinely learn the concepts and skills covered when they feel safe, engaged, and motivated. The classroom furniture we use and the spaces we’ve created help our students to learn in a meaningful way.
Our goal is for our boys to feel connected to and engaged with the curriculum we employ in the sixth grade. We want the students to enjoy coming to classes because they are excited and interested in what is happening. We are constantly revising and updating what we do and how we do it, and because of this, our curriculum is a living and breathing entity.
In our humanities class, the students develop their critical thinking skills to become community-minded young men with an awareness of the world around them. We begin the year with a unit on community so that they learn to accept and appreciate differences in others. Through completing various activities during the first two weeks of the academic year, the students begin to understand how they fit into our sixth grade family as well as the greater Cardigan community. The boys also learn much about their peers through this first unit. Everything else we work on throughout the year in humanities class builds upon this foundation we create at the start of the year.
The humanities class occupies a double block period that covers both the history and English curriculum for the sixth grade. This integrated approach allows students to see how the big ideas in History and English go hand in hand. We cover various communities and cultures from around the world so that we can provide the students with a macro view of the world in a micro manner. Our goal is to help the students understand perspective and how it can change based on many different factors. We utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction so that a love of reading and writing is fostered within the boys throughout the year.
For Reader’s Workshop, the students choose just-right (engaging, grade-level and reading-level appropriate) books so that they are interested in what they are reading. While at the start of the year, several students often seem uninterested in reading, they grow to become voracious and excited readers because the boys can choose books, novels, texts, and e-books that interest and engage them.
For Writer’s Workshop, the students choose the topics about which they write within the confines of the genre requirements. The vignette form of writing is the first genre covered in the sixth grade. Rather than mandate that it be a personal narrative vignette, we allow the students to choose the topic. This choice and freedom empowers the students. “I can write a short story about anything?” we often hear our students exclaim. For boys, writing is generally not something they enjoy doing. They would much rather go outside and play or explore instead of writing. We want our students to see writing as something that can be fun and hands-on. If we allow our students to write about topics that engage them, a sense of excitement develops within them.
As math tends to be a loathsome topic for many, we have made it our mission in the sixth grade, to help students see math as fun and meaningful. We want our students to see how vital the skills they are learning in our math class are to their everyday lives. While we do follow a book series, we supplement it with projects and activities that allow the students to see the relevance in what they are learning. For example, to help the students understand the importance in learning how to solve basic computational problems, we complete a unit on the Stock Market, in which the students, working in small groups, invest in the stock market as they learn financial literacy skills. In order to buy, trade, or sell stocks, bonds, or funds, they need to accurately calculate the costs associated with their particular transaction. Through this project, the students learn the value of accuracy in solving various computational problems.
We utilize the Math in Focus: Singapore Math series of books in our sixth grade math course. We chose this particular math program because of the options it provides students when introducing new skills. Students can choose one of three ways to solve problems using skills covered. This versatility and choice leads to better engagement amongst the students as they pick the method that is most relevant to them. As we often have a wide range of ability in terms of math skills in the sixth grade class each year, we have the flexibility to greatly differentiate our math instruction. We challenge each student where they are at the start of the academic year. We have the ability to help students work through a sixth grade, seventh grade, or eighth grade Singapore Math program based on their math capabilities. This flexibility allows for the students to be actively engaged in the math curriculum as they are being appropriately challenged.
Our science class teaches students to persevere. They learn how to overcome adversity, think differently, see problems from numerous perspectives, communicate effectively, and be curious. We teach students what to do when faced with a new problem. As Angela Lee Duckworth stated in her well-received TED Talk, we need to teach our students how to be gritty. Our sixth graders are provided with opportunities to explore, try new things, fail, try again, talk with their peers, sketch out new ideas, and then do it all over again.
Our science curriculum holds the bar high for our students. Rigor doesn’t mean that we require more work to be done for the sake of doing it, it means that the standards and objectives we are teaching are challenging, specific, and relevant. Our science units challenge students to think creatively and solve problems in innovative ways. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are the foundation of our curriculum. These standards promote rigor and problem solving in fun and engaging ways.
In past years, we have completed units on astronomy, geology, Earth science, weather, ecology, and chemistry. Every unit incorporates some sort of project or group activity that challenges the students to think critically to creatively solve problems by applying the content information learned. For example, in our astronomy unit, we had the students work together to solve a problem facing Earth that originated outside of our planet’s atmosphere. The students then created a space vehicle, using Little Bits, that allowed them to apply their unique solution to the problem. Teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity are some of the skills learned and practiced throughout the completion of this project.
At Cardigan, while we weave study skills into every course that we teach, we have one class devoted to supplementing and supporting every other core subject: Personalized Education for the Acquisition of Knowledge and Skills (PEAKS). The true purpose of the course is to help the students understand how they best learn, metacognition. We begin the year with a unit on the brain and its amazing plasticity as a way to help the students learn to become self-aware and genuinely own their learning. The students learn how to change their thinking in the classroom so that they can approach every new task with a growth mindset. Throughout the rest of the year, the PEAKS class works to provide the students with the vital academic and study skills they need to be successful learners, thinkers, and problem solvers. If the students are working on a research project in Humanities class, they will learn how to effectively take notes from their sources and practice doing it in PEAKS class. This course supports and challenges each and every student where and when they need it.
Student engagement isn’t confined within the walls of the classroom. What the students do or don’t do outside of the classroom can be equally important. If students aren’t seeing the relevance or value in their homework assignments, then we’ve lost them. In the sixth grade, we approach homework in the same manner we approach everything. It’s all about choice and engagement. We want the students to further practice the skills learned in the classroom in a captivating way that allows them to continue learning and growing as a student. Homework is not graded and assessed purely for effort. If we want our students to practice, fail, try again, and continue to practice, then we must not grade this practice work. Plus, since the students are completing the work outside of the classroom, it is difficult to know who is doing the work and how it is being done. Are the boys getting assistance from peers, teachers, or parents to complete the work? While we promote this self-help approach, grading the individual students on work when we don’t know exactly how the work was completed. Most of the homework assigned is a continuation of what was worked on in class.
For example, in humanities class, we do much writing and reading. So, a typical homework assignment is to read from their Reader’s Workshop book for 30 minutes. As they choose their Reader’s Workshop books based on ability and interest level, the engagement is already there. Plus, this practice allows them to increase their reading stamina so that they are prepared for the reading demands of seventh grade. Homework assignments shouldn’t be separate, stand-alone tasks that overly challenge the students. Developmentally, by the time the sixth graders get to evening study hall at 7:30 p.m. they are exhausted and unable to focus for a long period of time in order to effectively process information and solve problems. You might say that our homework assignments complement the classroom curriculum the way a beautiful brooch can bring out the colors of a flowing dress.
To prepare students for lives in the global society in which they will live and work, we teach our students how to effectively work in groups to solve open-ended problems with no right or wrong answer. Students need to know how to delegate tasks, lead groups of their peers, follow instructions, ask questions, and solve problems. Project Based Learning ties all of the aforementioned skills together with ribbons of the required curriculum. While the students are engaged with the content and hands-on aspects of the project, they are also learning crucial life skills that will help them persevere and learn to overcome adversity.
To help our students adopt learning skills necessary to grow and develop as critical thinkers and problem solvers, we use a standards-based system of grading. The focus is on the standard or objective being assessed. If our curriculum is set up according to the standards, why should we grade the students on anything other than what the curriculum asks? If we are teaching paragraph structure and the standard is, students will be able to craft an original, properly formatted, and complete paragraph, then we should only be grading student work on that one standard using a scale that aligns with the school’s grading criteria? Points must not be taken away for spelling, grammar, or other reasons unless the paragraph is being assessed regarding those standards as well. Rick Wormeli and other leading educational reform leaders have been talking about standards-based grading for years. It is the only way to accurately grade students on what is essential.
In this vein, we also want the students to understand that learning is a process. Education is like a living organism. Our students will grow, change, regress, and evolve throughout the year. As we expect and want our students to meet or exceed all of the objectives covered so that we know they will be fully prepared for seventh grade, we allow students to redo work that doesn’t meet the graded objectives. The boys are allowed to redo all and any work for a unit until the unit has finished. They can seek help from the teachers and utilize any feedback we provide to them in order to showcase their ability to meet or exceed the objectives. This grading system is dynamic and can be changed to allow for the students to employ a growth mindset and truly own their learning.
At Cardigan, we prepare students for an unknown future in a world that will inevitably be very different from its current state. Because of this, in the sixth grade, we have devised over many years of data collection, research, and practice, to develop a strong and creative academic and social program that engages students in an applicable curriculum that teaches problem solving, critical thinking, coexistence, and how to manifest and utilize a growth mindset. Students who attend Cardigan Mountain School starting in the sixth grade and then go onto graduate at the close of their ninth grade year receive a meaningful and rich experience. They grow up together, and, in turn, a family atmosphere and spirit is created within that group of four-year boys. While it can be challenging at times to be a sixth grade student at Cardigan, our inclusive program helps the boys feel safe and connected within a special family known as the sixth grade.