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.
When we think about children and their learning, we may find ourselves falling into a common trap that tricks us into believing learning only happens in a classroom. We can start to believe that this learning can neatly be categorized and sorted into silos which we name English and Math and History. Yet of course we know that many of our own sticky memories, life skills, and aha moments came to us far from the confines of a classroom or school.
One of this week's Eighth Grade Forums was by Anna M. who talked about her passion for soccer, some of the non-athletic skills it has taught her, and a seemingly devastating injury that sidelined her but ultimately gave her more than it took away. Here are some of Anna's words:
"One major thing that soccer has helped me learn to deal with is rejection. I aspired to make the highest teams possible, but did not always succeed. When I hurt my knee especially I was put in a position to have to start over again and earn my coaches' trust, I learned to fight for what I want. This has become something that I do daily in school or in other sports. Working on projects in small groups to doing something as big as the eighth grade play has all been affected by this part of my life. I work better in groups, am a better leader, and can take on many tasks that are asked of me.
"This is all part of my growth mindset. I have to be able to learn from my mistakes to become better. Basically at all times I have to think positively. If I do poorly in a game I have to think I will do better next time. That applies to grades as well. If I get a bad grade on a test I have to work even harder for me to achieve a better grade."
Anna reminds us that true and important learning can happen almost anywhere, and often comes only after living through discomfort. Like Anna makes clear, sometimes it's when we don't immediately achieve our goals that we can reap the most enduring wisdom.
I had a lightbulb moment last week when my third-grade daughter sat down at our kitchen table after dinner to do homework. As she pulled out her folder and papers, I sat down next to her and cracked open my laptop to do my own work. What followed was mostly silence, but I think both of us felt more relaxed and efficient than we would have working alone. For Oona, I imagined my presence allowed her to see that engaging in homework outside of school/the office is something many people have to do, not just kids. My proximity not only made the occasional question easier for her to ask when she had one (I avoided the mistake of peppering her with questions, and instead let her decide when or if she needed advice), but also seemed to make both of us less susceptible to distractions. Our individual focus resulted in a kind of “library effect” where our studious behaviors reinforced each other. Most importantly, from my perspective anyway, the parallel working environment gave me more time with my daughter, time being a precious commodity that feels especially in short supply for many of us busy parents.
Have some work you need to bring home? I encourage you to set yourself up alongside your child and see how it goes. In the meantime, here are some more homework tips to consider…
- Establish a consistent, distraction-free homework space.
Having an area for work in a public space, such as a kitchen, can be especially helpful when it comes to students who are still figuring out how to be more independent and efficient.
- Schedule a regular time for homework completion.
A routine can work wonders when it comes to reducing stress over starting work.
- Help with time management, if your child needs it.
Ask your child how long they think their homework should take to complete. Using a timer can help children become more aware of how long they are spending on work vs. being distracted.
- Encourage short breaks.
We all need them.
- Encourage your child to do the “hard” homework in school.
Many kids put off the hardest work until last. Flip the script and encourage them to tackle the most challenging work in school, where lots of help is available. Have a conversation with your child about how s/he is using Halftime and/or X-block to do work.
- When your child asks for help, provide guidance and not answers.
Answer questions with questions (not to frustrate them, but to drill down and help them access relevant knowledge that may lead them to an answer). If your child asks you to check their work, point out areas they may want to re-check rather than fixing the mistakes.
- Don’t do their work for them.
Your child’s teachers want to see where your child truly is. Revising writing, correcting problems, and generally having a heavy hand might result in “perfect” looking work, but can mask misunderstanding while sending your child a signal that they are not capable of independence.
- If you see something, say something.
If homework is taking a very long time and stress is consistently high, reach out to your child’s advisor and/or teacher. We want to know.
- Sleep trumps everything.
Pull the plug and send them to bed when it’s late and the returns are diminishing. Then see the bullet above.
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?
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