MS Head's Blog
In the Middle of It All
Middle School Musings by Trevor O’Driscoll, Bancroft's Head of Middle School
Most weeks, MS Head Trevor O’Driscoll writes a short note to parents and faculty about middle school, education, parenting, and other topics relevant to our community. We share these Middle School Musings here for the benefit and enjoyment of all who are interested. Read recent entries, browse the archives, and delight in Mr. O’Driscoll’s take on our Middle School and the amazing people who inhabit it.
Last week my new Communications Intern, sixth grader Nora G., finished this video titled “A Day in the Life of a 6th Grader.” What’s a sixth grade "Communications Intern” you ask? The short answer is I made up the position because I realized I’d be a fool not to capitalize on the multimedia talents of Nora to help share stories from Middle School. And I’m not alone in my pursuit of creating opportunities for students through make-believe.
It may surprise you to learn that the best teachers, in an effort to meaningfully prepare their students for the real world, often play versions of make-believe. This may seem like a counterintuitive way to prepare kids, particularly those who have moved on from Lower School, for what they will encounter beyond Bancroft. But employing the art of make-believe, particularly in the form of authentic assessment, a term coined in the late ’80s by folks at the Coalition for Essential Schools, is a powerful way to engage kids in meaningful and sticky learning.
Authentic vs. Traditional Assessment
You may have previously heard the term authentic assessment in connection with teaching and learning and wondered what it really meant. Authors and educational leaders Grant Wiggins and Jay McTyghe, in their impactful book Understanding by Design, describe authentic assessment as being based upon “engaging and worthy problems or questions of importance, in which students must use knowledge to fashion performances effectively and creatively.” The authors assert that such assessments should mirror the kinds of problems faced by adults in their work and lives. The road test that’s part of a driver’s exam is an authentic assessment.
Traditional assessments, a term used to describe the kinds of content-driven tests and quizzes that likely are very familiar to anyone reading this, evaluate a student’s knowledge base and potential gaps in understanding that need to be remedied in the march to mastery. Mastery, in turn, is most engagingly evidenced by an authentic application of the knowledge or skill learned. With traditional assessments, like a multiple choice test, knowledge and skills can be demonstrated by a student within a context that oftentimes is detached from the real-world application of the knowledge or skill being measured. The written portion of a driving exam is a traditional assessment.
While there is no doubt that well-designed authentic assessment opportunities must be a prominent and increasingly dominant driver of what happens in our classrooms, there is very much a place for traditional assessments in our modern curricula. Talented teachers use a mix of both, relying on authentic assessment not only to engage students, but also to drive curriculum. Designed well, an authentic assessment should be the thing that propels what students learn. When Bancroft middle schoolers were designing our still under-construction outdoor classroom, which is carved into a hill, they needed to understand the principles behind and formulas that can determine the slope of the hill’s incline. A quiz about slope can tell a teacher which students know the formula for slope, and this knowledge is a key ingredient in the work. Ultimately it’s the actual building of a usable classroom — and how it is judged by the public via its functionality, aesthetic qualities, rate of use, and more — that are the true, real-world stakes that drive the learning. In this example the understanding of slope serves a larger, real-world purpose.
Next time you see a student preparing for a criminal trial in English, solving the budgetary woes of a fictional city in math, or collecting and analyzing DNA as a scientific researcher, imagine all the learning that led up to the authentic assessment. And consider how the art of make-believe often can create the most valuable learning experiences for our kids.
Spanish teacher Jody Stephenson reflects on lessons she learned from her 6th and 7th grade students during their community service afternoon at an eldercare residence:
My students inspire me to take risks every day. Each time I witness them share an insightful idea, lend a hand to someone who is struggling, come out of their comfort zone to speak or perform at assembly, or sit with a new classmate at lunch, I am amazed by their courage, creativity, curiosity, and compassion. My recent community service outing to Summit eldercare reaffirmed this.
Although I have participated in Bancroft Community Service afternoons on more than thirty occasions, I, unlike many of the students in my group, had never before volunteered at an eldercare facility, and I was unsure of what to expect from the experience and what we would be asked to do. The activities coordinator greeted us enthusiastically and led us to a room with the Alzheimer's patients we'd be visiting and working with. She explained that we would first play some games with them to strengthen their motor skills and then help them work on artistic and creative projects.
Out of my own comfort zone, I was admittedly hesitant to initiate conversation with the residents. But my small group of Bancroft sixth and seventh graders dove right in, introducing themselves warmly and leading their particular part of the game confidently. One student, who had been there last year, walked straight over to a patient, saying that he remembered meeting and playing with her last year. Another encouraged a shy woman to play a round of ring toss with her, cheering her on, while another sat right down with a woman and immediately engaged in conversation about family. Following their lead, I began to circulate amongst the crowd, emboldened by my students' ease and comfort in this unfamiliar territory.
During the next two hours, I observed examples that demonstrated qualities inherent to our Bancroft Middle School community:
- I saw compassion and inclusivity as students coaxed some of the quieter patients into conversations.
- I saw creativity and resourcefulness as a student quickly thought of different ways to approach a situation that was becoming challenging.
- I saw playfulness and humor as students laughed while enjoying the good-natured teasing of one of the patients.
Above all, though, each interaction was filled with kindness and compassion, from a Bancroft student sitting attentively and patiently with an elderly woman who became emotional as she sifted through old photos, to another student who several times reassured an anxious patient that she was getting picked up and going home at the end of the day.
Though I was moved by witnessing all these qualities, I was not surprised. I have come to expect nothing less from these exceptional students, and I am always learning from them. These students led me, by their own examples, to take risks and connect with a population that had so much love, wisdom, and humor to share.
For this and for the students I am grateful.
No, these eighth graders aren’t in trouble – they’re just acting! A moment from the 8th Grade Play, “Scared Silly.”
One thing I love about Bancroft’s Middle School is the fact that we don’t force kids to make binary choices about their emerging identities. Questions like, “Are you a jock or an actor?” or “Are you a musician or a math team star?” aren’t ones we ask of the students here, as we find ways to provide opportunities for all middle schoolers to try new things. Every eighth grader plays several roles in the production of the 8th Grade Play, from the behind-the-scenes stuff you won’t see to the scenes they steal on stage. We know that acting may not end up to be your child’s calling. But who knows until they try?
For much of last week I was in New Hampshire chairing the reaccreditation team that immersed itself in a gem of a school in Nashua that serves infants through eighth grade. Our team of seven volunteer educators, which had collectively racked up 20 New England Association of Schools & Colleges (NEASC) visiting team appearances and 165 years of school experience, spent time digesting the school’s 200-page self-study report and hundreds of accompanying documents before our arrival. We then spent four days meeting with every employee and many students as we watched the place in action. Our own report that evaluates the school against NEASC’s 15 accreditation standards will soon be finalized, and it will serve to validate the school’s strengths and highlight its opportunities for growth and evolution. It was a fun, grueling, intense, and rewarding process that was enriching on many levels.
Here at Bancroft our faculty and staff have been deep in the reflective process (including on Friday when your children didn’t have school) that will result in our own self-study and visiting team arrival in October 2018. From my various experiences on both sides of this process, I can tell you it is incredibly valuable to every school that undertakes it, and most schools see benefits for their students and community long before the visiting team arrives.
Despite any visiting committee’s best efforts, what is hard to capture in these visits and reports is the spirit of a place. How does one measure faculty commitment to its students? How does one quantify student happiness, or those unseen moments when a student succeeds at something for the first time due to the behind-the-scenes help of a teacher? While the culture of a school may be hard to capture in a report, I do know it’s easy to identify when you see it.
With advisor/parent conferences coming up on Friday, what I see tells me so much about Bancroft’s Middle School and its faculty. Though the sheer amount of time our faculty is devoting to talking and sharing information about your children is impressive, it’s the quality and substance of these conversations that really strike me. These teachers know your children. Think about how special it is to be a young adolescent who is known so well by so many caring adults. Outside of closest family members and dearest friends, who, at this moment in time, knows your child better than his or her Bancroft teachers? Based on the conversations I have been part of and witnessed, I think you’d be hard pressed to find more people in one place who know your whole child better.
When you have your conference, we trust you will find your child’s advisor has a very good sense of how your son or daughter is doing across many facets of school life, and is able to talk about patterns, strengths, and areas ripe for growth. We look forward to continuing and strengthening our school/family partnerships.
In addition to the philosophical approach that drives our goals in these advisor/parent meetings, we’ve organized this conference day with these logistics in mind:
- Maximize the time you spend with your child’s advisor;
- Be mindful of the amount of time you need to be on campus while recognizing you lead busy lives; and
- Align the conference day across all divisions with awareness that child care arrangements can often be burdensome to arrange.
Of course, as is always the case, any and all of your child’s teachers are only an email or phone call away should you need to follow up with any of them.
Just two days ago, after school got out at 2:45 for the weekend, I had the honor of heading to the lobby of McDonough and sitting in tech teacher Kevin Briggs’s low slung blue beach chair, a typical Friday afternoon fixture in the fall. Fridays after school are when our robotics team and Mr. Briggs voluntarily gather to build, tinker, program, fail, refine, fail, rebuild, reprogram, tinker, reprogram, and sometimes succeed before moving on to the next problem.
Watching the kids as I filled in for Kevin, I saw that students were serious about the robots, some of them working through programming issues that stymied them for weeks. But they were also having lots of fun with each other. There was laughing and socializing. A dance move was busted. This atmosphere naturally led to a spirit of communal experience, and in turn that spirit engendered examples of empathy and care. On three separate occasions I saw three different eighth graders help sixth graders solve problems, not because they were asked but because they noticed the need. By 5:00 the area was totally cleaned up and the last student headed home.
It’s probably a good idea to be crystal clear about my role filling in for Mr. Briggs on Friday. My role was to sit in the low slung blue beach chair. That’s what I agreed to do, and, amazingly, that’s all I had to do.
I sat while the students were completely self directed, from setup (including unfolding said chair for me), to collective problem solving, to cleanup. To be sure, Mr. Briggs deserves all the credit for coaching these students and having the skills necessary to work with this technology. More importantly, he’s also responsible for creating the climate I sat amongst, one that’s a mix of chilled out curiosity and a dogged determination to make crazy ideas work. Like all of our Middle School educators, Kevin brings an original style and expertise to a community of teachers who love working with Bancroft middle schoolers, helping them become self-sustained learners. Of course the kids deserve credit for their work ethic, attitude, and commitment on yet another Friday after school. And me? I was asked to sit in a chair.
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