It was a year at Bennet Middle School of roof leaks, collapsing ceilings, and new leadership, but also one of student metamorphosis, with new-self discipline, sweeter dispositions, and a blossoming commitment to learning. Included: A review of a seventh grade team's strategies.
This was an uneven school year for Bennet Middle School, full of disruptions and uncertainties. There were the roof leaks that displaced classes for days. The death of a former student early in the year. The departure of a much-respected principal, and the anxiety of who was to follow. And then, finally, around March, with a new principal, the school settled into a routine. "The second half was better. We got our groove," as one teacher puts it.
The Royal 7 seventh grade team teachers weathered the bumps and stalls along with everyone else, and continued to focus on what mattered most to them: their students' needs. As the year neared its end, the teachers looked back at what they handled over the year, which students turned around behaviorally and academically, reflected on what worked, and speculated on what they might do differently next year.
"It was a more positive year than a negative year," said language arts teacher Brandon Kienle.
The team teachers spent time trying to accommodate their students, shifting some to different classes to get the right "mix." At the same time, they were dealing with students with medical conditions (three students on the team were diabetic), students with anorexia, students who cut themselves, were neglected, or lived in unsanitary conditions.
"We dealt with a lot of serious personal issues," says special education teacher Jack Crockwell. "A lot of personal relationships [between students and teachers] developed over the year. There's a teacher on this team for every kid."
And the trust level was high. One girl approached Mr. Kienle because she needed feminine hygiene products, and he tracked some down.
Still, not everyone responded to the teachers' efforts. "Apathy is the hardest thing," said math teacher Taryn Kutniewski. "There are so many students who just don't care."MIDDLE SCHOOL METAMORPHOSIS
But teachers also saw students who others had given up on refocus themselves. "We made some changes," social studies teacher Gary Tracey said. "But the kids made the biggest changes."
Yasmine, for example, cared about nothing at the beginning of the school year, perhaps because she carried with her the negative perceptions her sixth grade teachers had of her. She saw no reason to try or to brush the chip from her shoulder.
But as the school year ended, her interest in school increased and she wanted to make the honor roll. "I liked the team because my friends are on it," Yasmine said later, and suggested that her quest for better grades was partly tied to a reward from home.
Simon also hit the books hard in the last two quarters of the year, his teachers said. He learned to control himself better, is more involved in class discussions, and is less likely to be part of mischief.
"This year, I was a better student," said Simon, who aspires to be a basketball player. "I learned something in every class. I do most of the homework. I didn't want to get in trouble; I wanted to do right this year. Last year I was suspended a lot.
"This year, I have a good time. I almost always come in happy."
The Royal 7's homework club, Simon said, helped him to catch up on his work and bring his grades up. "The beginning of the year, I fooled around a lot. Now I try to work hard."
Maggie, a consistently strong student, who made the honor roll every quarter, said the Royal 7 teachers helped her to succeed. "If you needed help, they were always willing to help you with stuff," whether it was academic or personal. "I had kind of a stressful year."
She learned a lot in all her courses, Maggie continued, saying she enjoyed debating the war in Iraq with her social studies classmates and learned to express herself better in her essays. "I'm a better writer."
"I write more, too," Simon added.
Maggie, who hopes to be a teacher someday, already set her goals for next year. "I want to learn to be more organized, procrastinate less, and learn to keep my mouth shut."SEVENTH GRADE HIGH POINTS
High points for the whole team include the team days, which brought students together for small group activities to bond and learn new things on certain Friday afternoons.
The Royal 7 teachers expected to be together the following year, and were considering doing more team-bonding activities earlier in the year.
Both Jenna Brohinsky, the team leader and Bennet's teacher of the year, and Mr. Kienle's classes participated in literature circles near the end of the year, and they wanted to start them earlier the following year. Ms. Kutniewski wanted to spend less time on review at the beginning of the year, start with higher-order critical thinking skills, and then do mini-lessons for kids who need help with some skills.
Rotating students, so teachers wouldn't see the same teachers at the same time every day, also could help break up the schedule, said science teacher David Sutherland.
Constantly reviewing team decisions and actions helped teachers find effective strategies this year, Ms. Brohinsky said. "We talk about things," she added. "What worked, what didn't work."
Administrators also took note of the team's efforts. "I just think they are an exceptional team," assistant principal Scott Gagnon said. "You talk about how some teams are student-centered -- they really are. They really do go the extra mile. They handle most of their issues themselves, so they are self-sufficient." Every month, according to Mr. Gagnon, he noticed a special project the Royal 7 students had done.
The cohesion of the team makes doing their jobs easier, Ms. Brohinsky said. "There is just an energy and enthusiasm on this team, and everyone is willing to back each other up."
Mr. Crockwell agreed. "We just have the best personalities on this team. This team really jells."
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © 2005 Education World