Grade 6: Fostering Student Engagement
+ Transitioning to Middle School
It’s widely recognized that the “middle school years” can create rocky terrain for students and educators alike, so having admired, well-liked teachers is an essential aspect of any successful middle school. At the ages of 11, 12 and 13, “tweens” are undergoing countless changes — physical, hormonal, emotional, intellectual, social and more. As part of its long-standing tradition throughout the lower grades (K-5), MSC’s upper grades (6, 7 and 8) seeks to provide a warm and nurturing environment where students can grow surrounded by teachers who truly care about their success. And just as it is in lower grades, MSC maintains an open door for students and their families in 6th, 7th and 8th grades, enabling all stakeholders to work together to address any issue that may come up.
As a way to transition to 7th/8th grade, 6th graders have Advisory in small groups three times per week. In lieu of “morning meeting”, this provides a forum for students and teachers to get to know each other, build social skills and transition into the learning day. It not only provides a structured opportunity for all individuals to feel welcome and visible in the classroom but meets adolescent needs for autonomy, competence and relationships. The meeting provides a natural forum for students to raise and discuss academic, social or classroom issues that may be on their mind, so that their peers can discuss them as a group.
+ Schedule, “SMART” Goals, and Percentage Grades
Compared to the lower grades, students in 6th grade are given much more responsibility in terms of managing complex, daily schedules that are not necessarily identical to those of their classmates, and learning better time-management skills to help them keep track of both short-term and long-term homework assignments — skills that become critical during 7th and 8th grade and beyond.
And throughout all of their academic initiatives and efforts related to fostering social-emotional development, MSC’s 6th grade teaching team focuses on helping students to set and achieve so-called “SMART” goals — specifically, goals that are “Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely” — and to push themselves further, going for the deeper dive on anything they attempt.
During the 6th grade year, MSC students transition to percentage grades, nightly assignments and staggered long-term projects over the course of the year, to prepare them for their experiences in 7th and 8th grade and beyond. In addition, student may redo certain assignments (Mastery assignments) to improve their grade with certain restrictions and limitations and in discussion with the teachers.
+ Rubrics and Homework
In all cases, MSC’s 6th grade teachers stress that their goal with homework is to focus on quality — not necessarily on quantity — and to make sure that all assignments are thoughtful and purposeful and not gratuitous. In addition, students will have homework to complete that is incomplete classwork. Students learn that focus and efficiency in school leads to less work at home!
In recognition of the fact that that different students learn in different ways, and as a way to foster student engagement, MSC’s 6th grade teachers try to give students choices when possible, across all of the core curriculum areas. For instance, for a specific work assignment students may be given the choice to work alone or in partnership and they may be given the freedom to present the results of their assignment in a variety of ways: as a written report, Powerpoint presentation, video segment, oral presentation, etc. The teachers have found that when given the choice of how to present their findings, students become much more engaged in — and excited about — the process.
Meanwhile, to ensure fair and consistent grading for any given assignment (considering the final projects may be handed in using different presentation styles or formats), each assignment comes with a thoughtful, highly detailed “rubric,” which spells out exactly what is required for successful completion of the assignment, and details out how points will be earned, according to different required deliverables. This allows the grading of complex projects to be done fairly and transparently, from student to student, based on whether the individual’s work does, or does not, meet all of the requirements and expectations that were explicitly spelled out in the rubric.
+ Google Classroom
The 6th grade teaching teams uses Google Classroom as it’s learning management system. It is where weekly teaching goals are presented along with homework assignments; where students can manage and submit their homework and collaborate with their peers; and where students and families can check progress and grades. Teachers also use it to provide additional resources and reference materials along with their email contact information.
+ Curriculum Highlights
Overview Across all of the core subject areas, MSC’s upper grades place enormous emphasis on strengthening students’ communication capabilities — in terms of augmenting their fiction and non-fiction writing capabilities and their confidence in public speaking. MSC’s upper grade teachers pride themselves on the broad use of assignments that require thoughtful reflection on behalf of the student to promote the development of lasting intellectual capabilities.
Unlike the lower grades, by 6th grade, the length of individual class periods for certain core subjects (such as math and English language arts) is expanded. This serves two purposes — it gives the teachers much more time to get into detailed lessons and discussions with the students, and it helps to build their stamina for the types of longer classes that they will encounter in the upper grades.
English Language Arts (ELA).
Under the ELA umbrella, the teachers work to foster passionate readers and writers who have a rich reading and writing life. In accordance with the Common Core Standards, MSC’s 6th graders will cover ELA units related to the Personal Narrative, the Persuasive Essay, Literary Essay, Fantasy Writing and Research-Based Information Writing.
Students follow a consistent writing process. They are guided through brainstorming and organizing, then through a series of “flash drafts,” until a strong piece emerges. Finally, students select a draft to revise, edit and publish. Throughout the process, students receive feedback from peers and in one-on-one writing conferences. They also learn independence by evaluating their own writing with checklists.
There is an increased emphasis on building comprehension skills related to non-fiction reading and writing, since these skills are so important in adult life. This goal encourages students to generate deeper inquiry on their own, without the teachers telling them what to think.
Mathematics The Math Curriculum follows the Connected Math 3 Curriculum. MSC’s focus in math is to create a community of mathematicians who can debate each other and articulate their positions and their inquiries of others.
The 6th grade math curriculum at MSC covers a lot of ground — including algebra, ratio and rate, geometry and measurement (including area, perimeter, volume and surface area), percent, multiplying and dividing fractions, coordinate geometry, statistics and introduction to integers.
Students get used to grappling with complicated problems over the course of a few days, to develop the perseverance that is needed to become problem solvers. Students are encouraged to think again about what they did, to look for new ideas or relationships, or try another method.
To support this process, all students think about mathematical concepts, draw, write and show examples of their thinking and ask questions. And these capabilities connect directly to the state-level testing: MSC students have the confidence and the capabilities to have an internal debate to make sense of problems they might feel they’ve never seen before and break down the problems into steps they recognize
History. The 6th grade history curriculum covers aspects of early man, focused on ancient activities in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece. Emphasis is on inquiry- and research-based units to help students develop the skills needed to be ready for both college and careers, and to help them to understand the differences between primary and secondary sources. Students are charged with becoming experts in a given area of their choice, and then they must present their findings to the class.
Time is spent exploring concepts of social advocacy and what is required to advocate for oneself, to help students become well-informed adults. Students are encouraged to formulate their own research questions related to the history curriculum, and to seek answers through guided research rather than just relying on the lessons the teachers may present.
Within the context of history, students develop their own legitimate research questions in the classroom, and carry out research using laptop computers that are available in the classroom. With teacher supervision, the students are taught how to carry out comprehensive, guided research, and how to understand and synthesize their findings and put them into their own words. It is important for students to build an awareness of bias or inconsistencies in research, and to remind them to be critical thinkers and not just believe everything they read.
Science Modules The 6th grade science curriculum is taught in two modules: Building Sustainable Cities and “Risky Business” (a module that explores how all of the choices we make impact health and the human body). Both have a unifying theme of looking at ‘systems’ and discovering the impact of changes and choices on various systems.
In Building Sustainable Cities students work together in groups to design a model of a sustainable building to present to a panel. Students are tasked with researching current systems (energy, water, waste, building materials, open space and design) within buildings. Once the current systems are understood, along with their limitations, students are expected to investigate and design solutions so that their assigned models will be as sustainable and environmentally responsible as possible. Students will synthesize this knowledge into a coherent presentation that will inform their clients about the importance of creating sustainable solutions for sustainable cities.
In Risky Business students work together to educate the school and local communities by designing and implementing a campaign to promote sustainable and healthy living choices. Students will be tasked with researching the systems of the body, impacts of a variety of choices on the body, connections between the human body system, and the Greenhouse Classroom system and other impacted systems, and designing effective campaign elements. As a final challenge, students will share their campaign within the school community and with the larger New York City community using different forms of media.
As in math, in science the teachers work hard to teach kids to become critical, independent thinkers and to become confident in themselves and their abilities and to retain a healthy dose of skepticism of others.
Electives and “Reading Buddies” With Electives, MSC 6th graders not only get a range of enrichment courses but also get the opportunity for mixing and socializing among the entire 6th grade class. Electives offered may include: Art Studio, Dance, Drama, Power Play, Cooking, Beginning Band, Storytelling, Mini Musical, and My Music Video. Each 6th grade student gets 4 of these Electives in the course of the year. The Elective classes also include 5th graders to provide mentoring opportunities and strengthen the community.
And in keeping with another longstanding MSC tradition, this year’s 6th grade students also have “Reading Buddies” in the younger grades. MSC’s Reading Buddy relationships that pair older and younger children for reading and conversation benefit both parties — the time together provides priceless opportunities for both mentoring and ‘hero worship’ between older and younger students, and gives the 6th graders a chance to both practice their own tutorial skills, and to model good behavior such as patience, empathy and friendship.
+ Frost Valley Trip
In keeping with a much-beloved tradition, every year MSC’s 6th grade students participate in the annual “Frost Valley trip” in February. This three-day, snow-filled extravaganza — filled with outdoor and indoor sports, survival courses and community-building activities takes kids out of their comfort zones and gives them opportunities to struggle and succeed in news ways that they never imagined.
Grade 7&8: Encouraging Independent Thinkers
+ Preparing for High School
In 7th and 8th Grade at MSC, the teachers across all subject areas work to help students to become more accountable for themselves and their work. The goal is not to cram their heads full of facts — it’s to develop the critical skills they will need to succeed in high school, college and beyond. These critical capabilities include the ability to develop good time-management skills and study habits, the ability to take detailed notes, to know your assignments and due dates, to conduct meaningful research, formulate a solid argument and articulate it appropriately in both written and spoken format. Equally important, all of the academic offerings stress the ability to read and understand complex materials and concepts, and to use rigorous evidence to demonstrate your understanding and support your arguments.
Throughout the upper grades at MSC, there is an emphasis on pushing students to internalize a greater sense of self-reliance and responsibility, to become independent thinkers who can synthesize information and concepts and carry out deeper analysis in the quest for knowledge. All of MSC’s middle school teachers work to have students really embrace the concept that the drive for education must come from within.
Thanks to the relatively small size of MSC’s Middle School (two classes per grade), the 7th and 8th Grade teachers are able to create a safe, supportive learning environment, and foster a real sense of community and cohesion among classmates. This helps students to feel more comfortable taking risks, exploring different ways in which they might learn best, refining their characters as they mature, and being accountable for their education and behavior.
Several times each week, MSC’s 7th and 8th Graders meet in small groups (roughly a dozen students) for Advisory with one designated educator. Advisory gives MSC’s upper grade students a small, intimate group setting where they can discuss anything that’s on their minds — academic issues, social, emotional or personal concerns or observations. The Advisor not only facilitates the discussions, but serves as a single point of contact for parents and can help students initiate tough conversations with other students, teachers or school administrators, as needed.
+ Google Classroom
The 7th and 8th grade teaching teams uses Google Classroom as it’s learning management system. It is where weekly teaching goals are presented along with homework assignments; where students can manage and submit their homework and collaborate with their peers; and where students and families can check progress and grades. Teachers also use it to provide additional resources and reference materials along with their email contact information.
+ Curriculum Highlights
English Language Arts (ELA). 7th and 8th Grade ELA teachers follow the Teachers College curriculum and augment that with additional offerings to draw the students in. The consistent goal of ELA across both grades is to help students to become more passionate readers and stronger writers. Units include Investigative Journalism, Fantasy and Dystopian Fiction, Literary Essay, Critical Nonfiction, Poetry, Position Papers, and Reading for High School. With regard to writing, the primary goal is to help students become familiar with the structures and features of different genres, so that they are able to flexibly and thoughtfully write for varying purposes.
Students work on perfecting their note-taking skills, strengthening their reading and analysis capabilities, and honing their powers of conceptualization, articulation and persuasion – all skills that carry over into history, science and math, as well. A primary goal is to help students create authentic, individualized reading lives that they can sustain beyond 8th Grade. Students are taught to be able to navigate, analyze, learn from, and enjoy a spectrum of texts, including books, digital texts, newspapers and magazines. Teachers are aware that it is easier for students to become voracious readers and build stamina when they are able to find books they really love, so they make available many genres that students may not naturally reach for.
In addition, Common Core Standards across all subject areas also place great emphasis on being able to read and understand non-fiction texts, so the 7th and 8th Grade English teachers help their students to analyze the different parts of the text, to understand the point of view of the author, and to compare that to their own point of view.
Mathematics and Regents Algebra
The math curriculum in 7th and 8th Grade includes Geometry and Algebra, focusing on problem solving and critical thinking that enables an in-depth exploration of all topics at hand. Throughout 7th and 8th Grade, the curriculum moves through concepts of integrated algebra and geometry, including number systems, equations and expressions (with linear graphing), geometry, statistics and probability (to handle bivariate data). By 8th Grade, MSC students use a 9th Grade level Integrated Algebra textbook.
At MSC, 8th Grade students take the Regents Integrated Algebra class and are eligible to take the New York State Common Core Algebra I Regents Exam in June. Over the past several years, nearly 100% of the MSC 8th Graders who opted to take the voluntary Algebra Regents exam at the end of their 8th Grade year passed the test.
Math teachers in all of MSC’s upper grades place great emphasis on group work, so that students learn not just how to solve math problems, but how to articulate the process they used to get the results, and how to troubleshoot any difficulties that may emerge. MSC is able to accomplish two equally important goals — to help students to prepare for the state-level Math test and Algebra Regents exam, but still cultivate a really engaging, progressive environment that allows us to bring more creativity to the teaching process.
All of the math teachers at MSC work hard to interject writing into the math classroom and projects, as students’ ability to explain where your answers came from, and how you got there, is essential to truly demonstrating their mastery of the subject.
The history curriculum in MSC’s 7th Grade covers pre-exploration America up to the Civil War and 8th Grade history covers from the Reconstruction after the Civil War, to 1877 (the Gilded Age) and then up to the present day, covering World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the cultural wars (including, for instance, the impact of the Beatniks, feminism, and the counterculture movement during the 1960s). Students work to analyze and interpret not just key world events, but the cultural trends that accompanied them.
While they work on written tests and test-taking skills, the hands-on, project-based assignments help to bring the subjects to life and let students demonstrate their mastery of other skills. Class discussions are an essential part of the History curriculum and many methods of discussion are used such as “Fishbowl Activities” and “Popcorn Debates” where student will call on one another to respond to a question that are presented or build upon what their classmates have said. Students are encouraged to clarify their thinking and challenge each other to think more critically. Meaningful questions lift everyone’s level of understanding.
Science and Living Environment Regents
In Science, the 7th Grade curriculum starts with a unit of Earth science (covering various geology concepts), and then moves on to a unit of physical science (covering forces and motion on Earth), a chemistry unit (which looks at the interactions between matter and energy), and a weather-related unit (which satisfies the earth science component of the Core Standards).
In 8th Grade, students get the Living Environment Regents Science curriculum. It covers concepts of Ecology, Cells, Genetics, Evolution, The Human Body, and Microorganisms, plants and animals. Students get more than 12-14 labs (to meet the Regents mandate for 1,200 minutes of lab time) and take the New York State Living Environment Regents exam in June, having had lots of mock exam practice leading up to it.
Throughout all of the science lessons, MSC stresses inquiry-based lessons, assignments and labs, and teachers work to bring the outside world into the classroom as much as possible, to really engage the students and give them a hands-on feeling for science. Similarly, MSC stresses the importance of building science literacy through a combination of traditional and progressive methods (mini-lessons, workshops, labs, and more) and learning how to write solid, scientific lab reports — so that students are able to adequately demonstrate their understanding and articulate their findings (a skill that is essential throughout high school, college and adult life).
Among the many hallmarks of MSC’s Middle School program are the elective academic courses known as Modules. These multi-disciplinary, college-style academic courses address real-world challenges that have broad global and local implications. Each Module class lasts for a quarter. Each student takes 4 Modules per year in 7th and 8th Grade.
Irrespective of the topic area, each of MSC’s Module courses has been designed to provide a multi-modality learning experience that blends concepts and skills related to history and ELA (in terms of articulation and communication), math (for data presentation) and science (in terms of analysis and reasoning). And the curriculum for each Module has been designed to help students to develop solid research skills, push their capabilities for intellectual synthesis, strengthen their writing and oral presentation skills, foster collaboration and teamwork, and leverage multi-media technologies. Some examples of Modules are:
“We the Pupils”: This module helps students to understand how government systems and the democratic process work in the U.S. Students explore and debate various aspects of local and federal government systems, analyze what it means to be a citizen, and learn how to make their voices heard in a democratic society.
“Hydroponic Games”: This Module helps students to understand the concepts of vertical hydroponic gardening processes (working in MSC’s rooftop Greenhouse). Working in teams, the students design and build their own working hydroponics system, growing fruit and vegetable plants in demonstration-sized system designs they build and operate inside of various MSC classrooms, as a way to demonstrate whether their novel, proposed models will work as a viable method for producing food in an urban setting.
“Mission Sociology: Changing Nation”: This Module examines society four different sociological perspectives, and is designed to help students to become much more aware and sophisticated, socially and culturally. Throughout the course, students engage in lively discussions and debates as a group, taking a critical look at our society, celebrating its triumphs and examining its flaws.
“Ethics”: This module focuses on how philosophers make decisions, interpret societal phenomenon, and justify actions (or not).
High School Application Process
Many sought-after high schools have rigorous application requirements, involving essays and interviews, among other things. MSC 8th Grade teachers support students in their application process in several ways.
One Module, “Writing the High School Application Essay” supports students in their effort to develop compelling application essays. The essential question for this Module is: How can we tell our stories in such a way that we convey something important about ourselves (both explicitly and implicitly), and tailor our narratives for specific audiences and purposes.
Also, students applying to performing arts high school work with specialists in their Electives such as Art, Drama, Music and Instrument, to prepare their portfolios and ready themselves for the audition process.
In addition, in each Fall semester, several Advisory periods are set aside for intensive Mock Interview Workshops, which are carried out to help all 8th Graders to feel more prepared for potential high school interviews. Parent volunteers from MSC’s entire K-8 school community, who bring a huge range of professional experience and different perspectives, support these small-group, hands-on, workshops.
Electives and “Reading Buddies”
With Electives, MSC 7th and 8th graders not only get a range of enrichment courses but also get the opportunity for mixing and socializing between both grades. Electives offered may include: Foreign Language, Art Studio, Dance, Drama, Power Play, Cooking, Beginning Band, Storytelling, Mini Musical, and My Music Video. Each student gets 4 of these Electives in the course of the year.
And in keeping with another longstanding MSC tradition, 7TH and 8th grade students also have “Reading Buddies” in the younger grades. MSC’s Reading Buddy relationships that pair older and younger children for reading and conversation benefit both parties — the time together provides priceless opportunities for both mentoring and ‘hero worship’ between older and younger students, and gives the 6th graders a chance to both practice their own tutorial skills, and to model good behavior such as patience, empathy and friendship.
+ National Junior Honor Society and Junior International Thespian Society
At the end of each school year, 7th and 8th Graders who have met certain national criteria — related to scholarship, service, citizenship and character — are eligible to be inducted into the nationwide National Junior Honor Society (NJHS; Washington, D.C.).
Similarly, MSC’s 6th, 7th and 8th Graders are also eligible to join a theater honor society — Junior International Thespian Society (the middle school equivalent of the International Thespian Society for high schoolers). Students earn points participating in different theatrical activities, from acting in a scene in class to running sound for MSC’s annual Spring Musical theater production, to writing a play. Participants in the Thespian Society are invited to a conference with high school students and theatrical professionals, to take workshops, do a tech challenges and perform for a panel of professionals to get feedback.
+ Lunch Privileges
In 7th and 8th Grade, students are also given the privilege of eating lunch off- campus (if they meet the stated MSC criteria), as another way to foster independence and bring some fun and freedom to the school day.