After setting a goal at the start of the year to document the sixth grade program that I’ve created over the years, I finally completed a working draft of the piece. I would love any and all feedback on the document below as I know it’s far from finished. I do feel as though it encapsulates what we do in the sixth grade at my school.
Going through the adolescent stage of development is like being on a roller coaster without a seat belt. When you flip upside down, you will fall out of your seat unless you are holding on with everything you’ve got. Each benchmark within adolescence brings new turns, curves, and flips. 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 a teenager or pre-teen.
At Cardigan, we make it our mission to help 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 can 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, and feel safe, challenged, and supported. The sixth grade program has greatly evolved over the years due to this research. 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.
We’re a family, and families take care of each other
One of our biggest goals in the sixth grade is to foster a sense of community 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. The first ten weeks of the academic year are focused on building a strong family atmosphere amongst the students. 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 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 different 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 to provide the students with opportunities to practice and learn how to be effective teammates and community members. 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 a cabin to help build a sense of family and community within the boys. While the location is on our campus, it feels very secluded. We build a fire together as a community and then roast marshmallows. We tell stories, play games, and interact together. 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 the future whole-class experiences we will provide the boys with throughout our year together.
Towards the end of the first term, we put our teamwork and family to the test with a longer field trip to an outdoor center in southern New Hampshire. The focus of the trip is teamwork. The students work together to solve problems, accomplish tasks, and have fun learning about how to survive in the wilderness. It’s almost always one of the big highlights for our boys. They will never forget how they overcame their fears and learned to help and support their classmates in new and fun ways.
While our class size fluctuates from one year to the next, in recent years we’ve had smaller sixth grade classes. Although one teacher could easily run the sixth grade program, we’ve found that having a tight-knit team of two lead teachers is the most effective method for our program. We plan, grade, and teach together. Having another person to bounce ideas off of allows for more ideas to come to fruition. As units are developed, we work together to generate engaging lessons. With two people working together to complete this process, ideas can be built upon and added to. Good ideas become great ideas. Grading together allows for conversations about objectives and work. How can we create objective objectives that don’t allow room for interpretation? Having two teachers in the room for classes allows the students to be supported and challenged. Those students who need one-on-one time have the opportunity to receive it with two teachers in the classroom. We can conference with students more effectively during humanities class and the boys are able to safely conduct investigations in STEM class. We constantly model effective teamwork skills for the boys so that they see what we expect them to show us. Co-teaching has fostered a sense of compassion in the classroom. In order to create a family atmosphere amongst the students, we need to be able to effectively care for them. With two trained educators in the room, we can more effectively challenge, support, care for, and ensure the safety of each and every sixth grade student in our class.
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 of varying sizes 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.
Our goal, year after year, 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. Thus, we are constantly revising and updating what we do and how we do it in the sixth grade. Our curriculum is a living and breathing entity because of that.
In our humanities class, the students practice using and developing 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 the students 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. Once this foundation has been laid, everything else we work on throughout the year in humanities class builds upon this strong base we create at the start of the year.
The humanities class occupies a double block, daily that covers both the history and English curriculum for the sixth grade. This integrated approach allows students to easily 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 (grade-level and reading-level appropriate and engaging) 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, because the boys can choose books, novels, texts, and e-books that interest and engage them, they grow to become voracious and excited readers. 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, 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 learn 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.
If an enjoyment of reading and writing can be manifested in the sixth grade, by the time they reach grades where they have to read particular or assigned texts and write essays about topics reminiscent of watching paint dry, they are equipped with the skills and strategies to tackle any type of book, work of literature, or form of writing.
One easy way to bring science to life for students is to create a Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) class that bridges the understanding gap for the students. Students have difficulty seeing how the different math and science puzzle pieces fit together. They also struggle with the math concepts when they aren’t applied in realistic ways that make sense to them. Helping the students build neurological connections between prior knowledge and what they learn in our classroom is one of the many ways we make our program meaningful for our students.
Our STEM class teaches students to be resilient and 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. Like Angela Lee Duckworth stated in her TED Talk, we need to teach our students how to be gritty. Our boys 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 STEM 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 STEM units challenge students to think creatively and solve problems in innovative ways. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Common Core Math Standards (CCSS) are the foundation of our STEM curriculum. The standards promote rigor and problem solving in fun and engaging ways.
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 course: 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. Through self-inventories and mini-lessons on learning styles and the multiple intelligences at the start of the year, the boys begin to become self-aware of their learning styles and preferences. During the winter term, the students learn about brain plasticity and how their working memory functions as a way to build upon their self-awareness and genuinely own their learning. The course supports and challenges each and every student where and when they need it.
To help our students realize the importance of the 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.
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, 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 graduating at the close of their ninth grade year, receive a meaningful and rich experience. They grow 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, especially when some of our students come from other countries, our inclusive program helps the boys feel safe and connected, like a family.