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December 6, 2019 | Abby Hall Choi
As 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students swing from childhood to adulthood, their minds are growing deep. Each day they begin –
The brain of an 11, 12, and 13 year old is growing very rapidly, developing synapses as it never has before or ever will again. These are the years in which habits of mind develop and set – as students begin to read and write in high volumes, learn the language of Algebra, and develop complex presentations that cross disciplines. In the same way that adolescent bodies go through awkward phases, so, too, do adolescent minds, which can become suddenly tired, disorganized, or distracted. (Growing is a somewhat bumpy process.) Still, when properly pushed and challenged, the adolescent mind can grow in huge strides every week and month and year.
In school, these 6th, 7th, and 8th grade minds need good balance between individual challenges and collaborative work, as well as a sense of how academic work adds up to relevance and meaning. It is essential that students learn in situations that combine meaningful relationships with interdisciplinary learning. This is why our 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students work in academic teams to study science, history, PE, art, and music. In each team (a mix of 6th, 7th, & 8th graders) students will consistently engage new points of view, take on leadership roles, and communicate with new audiences as they experiment, research, and create together.
Older students learn best when they experience varied learning structures, varied audiences, and varied peers. They truly need the close community of a “homeroom.” At the same time, they also need the stretch of working with classmates of varied levels of experience. Emerging adolescents, when given such varied experiences, learn to express themselves in multiple ways, relate to new individuals, and take on new roles. In the process, they come to realize that there are important things to be learned from each person in the group. Still more, they realize that they each have something to teach.
When there is a goodness of relationship, this affects learning. In multi-age teams, in particular, diversity is celebrated, community ties become wider, and individual gifts and strengths become more prized. Collaboration within the teams increases learning for all. As students, while working together, take on cooperative engagement, real world connection, debate, investigation, and problem solving, they interact in meaningful ways that continually increase learning. Each child takes changing roles – learning to contribute, lead, follow, record, question, and reflect while working with others on common goals.
Practically speaking, students spend their mornings participating in Academic Teams. In art, music, physical education, science, and history, students work in groups that include 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students. Each group is small (about 15) and students have opportunities to work both individually and in cooperative groups. In the mornings, faculty serve as team leaders who ensure that students are learning effectively, while in the afternoons, students study language arts, Spanish, and Mathematics with specialists in their homerooms. All these faculty work closely together (as a team) in order to know children well and in order to collectively challenge and encourage each one.
When students reach their early adolescent years, it is especially important that they have frequent connection with adults who know them well. As students prepare portfolios (grade 6 & 7), academic exhibitions (grades 7 & 8), high school applications (grade 8), and other projects, adult advisors check in with them frequently to help students work through difficult and exciting challenges. In grades 6, 7, & 8, students also meet with Advisors every Friday morning. It is in this group, that students share book talks and push one another onward in the challenge of reading well and reading high volumes (a book a week).