July 14, 2024
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July 14, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Forever Is Comprised of Nows

People who have known me since middle school or initiated friendships throughout my teaching career may be aware of my infatuation with poetry, especially the work of Emily Dickinson. Over the past several years, as I have transitioned to an administrative role, I have continued to seek both solace and inspiration in the oeuvre of Emily Dickinson by interpreting her poetry through a metacognitive educational lens.

This past week, Dickinson’s line, “Forever is composed of nows” struck me in its truth for those of us who are blessed to interact with children on a daily basis. Every interaction is a learning opportunity, whether it is for a positive social transaction or academic scaffolding. At RPRY, we are always seeking those teachable moments, large and small, from emphasizing greeting each other with a smile and a good morning in the month of Adar, to respectfully greeting the mayors of Highland Park and Edison, respectively, when they came to read to classes in our school for Read Across America Day.

In fact, we recently inaugurated a Middle School Step Up Night, a current “now” during enrollment season, for our very excited fourth graders in preparation for fifth grade. I heard eager third graders asking the fourth graders about their display of their projects they had completed in their makerspace during the Step Up Night. The fourth graders replied kindly, explaining their projects and telling them, “You are going to get to do this next year!” The importance of “nows” is also in our consistency. Adults who deal with children know that the key to promoting a positive and secure environment is in the consistency of the adults’ “nows.” Fourth grade teachers who are always serene and model kindness, patience and consistent expectations have students who then display those traits to fellow students.

The middle school transition needs to be done thoughtfully and with careful intentionality. First and foremost, the emotional component must be acknowledged and explicitly labeled. Studies have continuously demonstrated the importance of teachers having positive relationships with students and the impact that emotional safety and security has on children’s learning, well into 10th grade! We strive to keep that in mind as we schedule young children and assist in the transition to multiple teachers with expertise in their subject areas. Each aspect of navigation for multiple teachers, organizational skills for locker usage and time management/planning/study skills is systematically weaved into middle school instruction.

I particularly think of this Emily Dickinson poem in reference to the middle school transition. In eloquent language, it captures the mixed emotions that children and parents feel about the beauty and challenge of this next step in life. She writes, “Me, change! Me, alter!” For some children, change can be intimidating and their initial reaction may be to shy away.

“Then I will, when on the Everlasting Hill/A Smaller Purple grows—.” Perspectives may shift. Some children may view fifth grade as a beginning of a great change but a small hill. For others, it can loom like an everlasting hill. Nonetheless, it is the time where a “small purple” will begin the growth process with careful social and emotional scaffolding. “At sunset, or a lesser glow/Flickers upon Cordillera-/At Day’s superior close!” Of course, our goal, by “day’s superior close,” by the end of eighth grade, is for the children to have scaled these great mountains of development, emotionally, socially and academically.

Students transition to greater academic independence as they set learning goals in conjunction with their classroom teachers. They use technology to meaningfully support their individual growth. Students begin to better understand the purpose of their learning, self-monitor their progress and reflect upon their growth, as it is scaffolded by their teachers, in anticipation of the coming years.

Let’s reflect for a few moments on the tremendous skill transition that occurs in middle school. In general, all students are on their individual journeys in the pacing of their development. Nonetheless, younger students are solidifying foundations in decoding, fluency and number sense. Students explore and apply in a developmentally appropriate manner. In middle school, students will still continue to concurrently build their foundational skills, but the overall thrust of instruction becomes more evaluative and analytical.

In middle school, students understand. They interpret, summarize, paraphrase, classify and explain. Students ask, “How does changing a variable affect the outcome of our pendulum experiment?”

In middle school, students analyze. They compare and contrast, deconstruct, categorize and investigate. They write across subject areas, explaining a math procedure like keep, change, flip for dividing fractions or using evidence to support characterization. We ask, “Can you compare the quote from Sacks to the quote from de Botton?”

In middle school, students create. They generate new ideas, plan, construct and invent. In our three-part science and engineering program, students combine labs, informational text and digital lessons. We ask, “Can you design an item where the principles of friction are beneficial?” “Can you write and publish your own story in the spirit and style of Roger Hargreaves?”

In middle school, students evaluate. They check, hypothesize, critique, experiment and judge. We imagine and debate, “How would you feel if you had been a colonist? What are the pros and cons of being one of the Sons of Liberty?”

In middle school, students apply. They demonstrate, model, illustrate, sequence and connect. Students bridge between both their different learning domains and how classroom content connects to their real lives. When a student compares one of the ways to build a strong body paragraph in an essay to the development of a page of Gemara, what learning exultation! As a student reads about technological advances and shares her inner dialogue as she responds to the author, she expresses the nuances she feels the author misses from the spaces in her own life. By eighth grade, providing students with these metacognitive tools prepares them to navigate this world.

By Chana Luchins

Chana Luchins is the assistant principal of general studies at Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva.

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