Don’t ask me where September went. It’s hard to believe we’re already discussing parent-teacher conferences and looking at the end of first quarter. Many things have happened over the last month to warrant a blog post, but because time has gotten the better of me, I’ll do my best to sum it all up.
September came and went, and with it came a whirlwind of beginning-of-the-year experiences. Our 6th graders attended their annual overnight trip to Camp Manitou in New Auburn where they spent the day outside hiking, kayaking, cooking over a campfire, and playing games. Attempting to sleep in bunks with a group of their peers is always sure to enhance the bond between students. Another camp success!
Our first quarter project, The Green Project, is well on its way. We have students organizing highway cleanups, tree-planting programs, a composting program for our school, and some even looking into what it would take to get solar panels. Some are working on eliminating the plastic bottles of water being sold in our school vending machines, while others are looking into the invasive species of plants and animals that exist locally.
Overall, the thing most evident to me so far this year is the positive impact blending grade levels has had on our students. It is by no means our first year blending students of varying grade levels, however it has been the first year we have begun with a large amount of consistency overlapping from the previous year. In our first three years, we were continuously changing our project process, classroom protocols, and schedules to accommodate our new ideas and the addition of grade levels from year to year. Though we continue to tweak and refine our methods as we see a need, many of our practices and processes have remained close to the same since last year. With some consistency in place, our 7th and 8th graders have been able to model appropriate expectations and lead with comfort and confidence in a way I have not seen before.
I have seen it most evident during my Humanities classes during activities like the Concentration Challenge, Cooperation Challenge, and our Friday Design Challenges. For example, the Cooperation Challenge is a grouping challenge that is taught in two parts. It challenges students to form groups of various sizes in a very short amount of time. The class is not successful unless ALL members of the class are in appropriate groupings. It forces individuals to think beyond their own success. When reflecting about group failures, students are required to use “I” statements regarding what happened and what could have been done differently. They are challenged to accept responsibility for the entire group.
When attempting this challenge for the first time as a class last year, it took a long time for the “we versus me” mentally to take hold. Fingers were pointed at others and statements would slip out about why someone else screwed things up for everyone. It took us weeks to successfully complete part one of the challenge and more to complete part two. However, when the challenge was reintroduced this year, students from last year took ownership of their actions and were voicing things they could be doing differently to help out their classmates right from the start. The modeling of this accountability and dedication to the success of their class created an immediate ripple, causing our new students to think about the challenge through a group-focused lens. It shouldn’t be surprising that part one of the challenge was successfully completed within two days or less for each class this year.
The benefits of blending grade levels are at least three-fold. I say “at least” because there are likely more than what I’m about to describe. First, our 6th graders have peer models helping them to begin their time in a unique setting with supports built in all around them. Second, the peer modeling from our older students helps us manage our time and our expectations as we set the pace for a new school year. We are able to rely on them in ways other teachers are not, as they begin fresh with a brand new batch of students each year. Finally, the boost of confidence is very visible in our older students as we hand over our trust in them to explain procedures and to model appropriately. They are handed an unexpected leadership role within their classes every day which causes a visible difference in so many of them. I’ll mention a fourth benefit … friendships blossoming across grade levels break through invisible barriers that might otherwise exist between them.
This year has been the smoothest start for us yet, and I attribute that to our blended grade levels matched with a level of consistency from last year to now that we have been able to sustain. I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to experiment with practices not traditionally used in classrooms. This is just one of many wonders I get to experience every day.