Making it Real: Bringing Learning to Life in the Middle School

Hackley Review Winter 2019-20 By Cyndy Jean, Director of the Middle School

When I first accepted my new role as the Director of the Middle School, many colleagues and mentors offered me great insight and advice into the new career path I had chosen. Although I felt a tug at my heart knowing I was preparing to step out of the classroom and away from consistent, direct interaction with students, I was heartened by the first early interactions I had with the middle school faculty.

I feel now what I felt in only a few short months working with the teachers: a thrill when witnessing the excitement of the faculty so engaged in their own learning. At Hackley, teachers are learners; and because they are thoughtful educators, their own learning experiences immediately trigger the many questions related to how they can bring the content to life for their students. They ask: “How will my students approach this topic?” “If I were a student in the class, what questions would I be asking?” “How can this formula/equation/rule/chapter be as exciting for my students as it is for me?” These questions guide our teachers to frame their lesson plans in a way that will bring learning to life in the classroom and often motivate our faculty to lead the learning beyond boundaries.
Increasingly, we see extraordinary learning opportunities arise from our teachers’ individual passions and discoveries. Such teachers don’t stop thinking at the boundaries of their academic disciplines. Melissa Boviero was Hackley’s first Regeneron Fellow, and she brings her own learning back to her students daily. Melissa represents that special breed of teacher to whom Middle School students flock with electricity - she simply gets middle schoolers. In large part due to her talents and gifts as an educator, her impeccable sense of humor, and most importantly, her interest in, and devotion to, pedagogical practices that address the needs of middle schoolers - capturing their energy, curiosity, and creativity as often as possible.

Melissa is deeply interested in eliciting more student small group interaction when designing her lessons. Though she was no stranger to designing unique assessments (asking students to create music videos to explain classroom expectations around lab safety, for example), the Regeneron Fellowship would mean greater access to resources and like-minded colleagues curious about related learning experiences for their students. Having served as a dean for four years and as a Diversity Coordinator previous to that, Melissa was committed to and fully aware of the importance of drawing out student voice. In fact, in many of the Middle School’s Dean Team deliberations, Melissa pushed the team’s thinking around programming to center the work on the student experience. It is rare to meet a Hackley middle schooler who doesn’t appreciate the choice Melissa offers to her students when designing lessons. Rarer still are the lessons where students sit behind a desk taking notes as the teacher presents a lecture. Perhaps it’s Melissa’s unique approach to teaching in the classroom or her own interests in actively engaging with the world as a scientist, either way it’s evident that middle schoolers thrive when learning in her care.

One of the most exciting partnerships that has evolved over the last two years is an effort led by History teacher Steve Fitzpatrick and Science teacher Emma Olsen which is focused on expanding Hackley’s relationship with the Tamagawa School in Japan. It turns out Emma, along with her work in science, also studied Japanese for many years. Steve, who has traveled to Japan, further developed his interest in Asian studies through his work with the eighth grade history course which introduces students to Eastern Religions and Culture. This area of shared passion then found a natural point of connection with the annual visit from students and faculty from Tamagawa. Steve and Emma have developed a well-rounded Hackley experience for the Tamagawa visitors who come to Hackley, including exploration of Hackley’s forest and discussions on American history and culture, and this year are expanding this effort further to lead 19 Hackley Middle School students on a Casten Trip to Japan for 10 days in June 2020. Steve and Emma are also designing a series of mini-courses for the trip participants--- in language studies, history, cultural connections with their homestay hosts in Tokyo -- assuring a strong educational platform that will make the trip all the more enriching. Simply put, two faculty members took an area of personal interest and have built it into a life changing experience for Middle School students.

In the English department, members of the eighth grade team (Trevor Ogden, Jessica DiFalco, and Brad Walters) have been working to build out real-life experiences with the literature they teach. It begins with careful selections of texts that can support this level of engagement. For example, all eighth graders read To Kill a Mockingbird, and then travel to NYC to see the production on Broadway. We have also invited visiting authors to the classroom. And recently, the team launched a focus on Memoirs, a personal narrative writing project that students will carry on with them into Upper School.

Health Education Department Chair Renee Pabst is working with the health teachers to create cross-divisional experiences, challenging seventh graders to teach what they’ve learned to younger students. Completing the nutrition unit, the students taught the first grade about “MyPlate,” the current nutrition guide published by the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Using the service learning model, our students become teachers, which brings the learning to life.

I am proud to say that so many Middle School faculty members pursue similar paths; they find ways to further their understanding of both content and pedagogical practices by spending their limited free and personal time on professional development opportunities. Faculty collaborate over the summer months on projects focused on bringing more service learning to the classroom or to expand on their knowledge of diversity, equity, and inclusivity work. Adrianne Pierce, current Middle School Diversity Coordinator, received a coveted spot in JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity Institute), a NYSAIS program drawing educators from schools throughout New York for a comprehensive and rigorous program “enabling participants to build the capacity to lead change” within their schools. Others, whether veteran teachers, like Anthony Maisonet, or teachers, like Damon Hall, who are brand new to the Hackley community, spend significant portions of their summer designing and (re)learning the curriculum while attending conferences such as the CSEE Teaching Religions Conference, Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking, or the Experienced Teachers Institute.

There are also the faculty who draw in students and learn alongside of them while sharing mutual interests such as the development and growth of our debate program with Steve Fitzpatrick, Jared Fishman’s Gaming Club, Trevor Ogden’s Anglers Club or Tuo Liu’s Geo Club. The learning becomes boundless and sometimes there is no set blueprint. Instead, the work takes on a life of its own, surprising even the teachers as to how the program takes shape and gives new meaning and identity to working with middle schoolers.

Dan Lipin, fifth and sixth grade science teacher, has devoted his career to bringing activities and lessons around the STEM sciences to many of his classes. His interest in these programs began several years ago when he began to take note of the positive effects of student collaboration and the power of engaging students in more hands-on activities. As the Community Council Coordinator for the Middle School, and camp leader at Camp Dudley in the summers, Dan was an expert in designing complex and intricate activities for large and small group interaction. It’s just what he does.

Perhaps Dan is so well suited to teaching Middle School students because he sees student learning opportunities through the lens of discovery, adventure, and yes, sometimes, fun. Applying backwards design, he understands how to move from the ultimate goal of the lesson to create the interactions among his students that will get them to make the most out of their classroom experience while not losing sight of the intended goal. He immersed his students in experimental design by challenging them to make an optimal bubble solution using a variety of ingredients. They determined the quantities of each ingredient in each test solution, which exposed them to the challenges of experimentation with multiple variables. The bubble project culminated with the creation of giant bubbles on Akin Common using homemade bubble wands.

In addition, he understands the critical role technology can play in students’ learning. One of the first to integrate Google classroom into his science classes, and one of the early adopters of Flipped Classroom and Chromebooks, Dan understood what it meant to manage a class with these devices and modified the lessons to get the most out of the technological tools. Dan has also evolved a thriving extracurricular LEGO Robotics initiative. In November 2019, Hackley hosted four other local schools for a LEGO Robotics tournament at Hackley’s Performing Arts Center. Sixty-nine students competed with 41 robots, where each robot had to try and push or flip their opponent out of the battle zone. Hackley’s team of 14 students performed well in the tournament. Sure, LEGO feels a lot like “play,” yet building and piloting a successful robot requires engineering skills.

When Dan Lipin learned that he would be the next fifth grade science teacher, he decided to apply for the Regeneron Fellowship, which would afford him the opportunity to investigate a variety of tools and pedagogical approaches to support more STEM related lessons in the classroom. The Regeneron Fellowship was also instrumental in providing Dan with even more resources and tricks for integrating technology in the classroom. His learnings from the program permitted Dan to return to Hackley to lead a professional development workshop with all Middle School faculty members last spring. Dan designed a session whereby faculty could better understand how to maximize their use of the new Chromebooks in the classroom - a program that was just recently launched across the Middle School - while also leaving room to solicit feedback and direction from faculty about proper classroom management of these new devices. A forward thinking educator, Dan is creative in the classroom and thoughtful about what it means to create a learning experience for his middle schoolers. His commitment to this work, coupled with his interest and pursuit for greater learning, has helped him to remain flexible as an educator and to continue to draw out of his students an excitement for learning.

How do I know what learning looks like in the Middle School? Or perhaps better said, how do I know that students are learning? It begins with the relationships. I first look for the conversations. I want to see that students are engaged in asking questions of one another and of their teachers. I want to see them zooming down the hallway because they have made a discovery or a new connection in the text. I note how often a student is willing to trace back their artwork or rethink their finger positioning or their choice on the stage given the teacher’s feedback. I want to see students advocate for what they need in order to better understand the material. When our faculty adopt the mindset of the learner, as many of them do, then they can better understand how to enter into these conversations and develop constructive relationships with their students. Then the magic happens. Faculty ask deeper questions, and they aren’t afraid to adopt a new approach to their teaching. Students begin to see themselves reflected in their teachers and are empowered to succeed. The learning becomes kinetic, dynamic, and real. The products take on a new shape and a life of their own. Teaching and learning develop a symbiotic loop, and that’s when you know deep learning has to come to life in our Middle School.

(Read about Hackley’s Partnership with Regeneron.)