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The Year at Bennet Draws to a Close

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.

Stop, Drop, and Write

The fact that a whole school can come to a halt so everyone can work on a writing assignment at the same time shows how much emphasis Bennet teachers put on writing.

As part of the "Stop, Drop and Write" program, students are given a prompt in their second period class and have 45 minutes to write about it.

"Think, plan, re-read, make changes," read the instructions on top of the prompt.

The assignment: A budget crunch is forcing the Manchester schools to cut funding for field trips. Write a letter to the principal expressing your opinion on the matter.

"Stop, Drop and Write" days are in addition to the quarterly assessment of student writing, said principal Dr. Ann Richardson. "We have six opportunities to measure student growth in writing."

All teachers will grade the assignment. All of Bennet's teachers were trained in wholistic writing, and how to score these types of assignments, Dr. Richardson said.

"Our goal of writing across the curriculum has helped improve scores," she said.

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."


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.

Virtual Tour of Bennet Middle School

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"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."

What's Next For Bennet?

Bennet Middle School's aging buildings and student make-up could be changing over the next few years. Agreement is unanimous in Manchester that the school's five aging buildings need repair. A town referendum scheduled for June asks voters to approve spending money to renovate Bennet, and expand the other middle school, Illing. Discussions are underway as to whether one school should become an academy for sixth or eighth graders, and the second school enroll all of the town's students in the other two grades.

Concern also is rising about the resurgence of gang activity in town, and the influence of gang members on young adolescents with lots of time on their hands during the summer.

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."

Education World Goes Back to School

Education World news editor Ellen R. Delisio is spending several days a month this school year with the Royal 7's, a seventh grade team at Bennet Middle School, a grade 6 to 8 school in Manchester, Connecticut. She is observing and participating in students' learning, and talking with staff about their strategies and perspectives on improving student performance. She is a graduate of W. Tresper Clarke Junior-Senior High School in Westbury, N.Y.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
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