A school year ends and we ask ourselves, "What can we do to make next year the best year ever?"
Every spring, our K–8 school staff meets to discuss what we would like to do to make our school a better place to teach and learn. We set some goals—a more comfy teacher lounge, new books, better communication with parents. A few years ago, looping stood out on the list. The K–4 teachers were looping students and loved it. Why not try it in the middle school?
Some of us like a challenge, so when principal Gayle Alaimo asked our team of three to loop with 53 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, we eagerly accepted. Looping would give us an opportunity to be innovative and creative with our students while building connections.
Warren Kidder, Betsy Evans, and I sat down together and created a schedule for the following year that included science, social studies, language arts, and math. Warren was the social studies and technology guru, Betsy was the science and math whiz, and I was the reading and language arts specialist. In addition to scheduling our students' core classes, we also scheduled French, art, physical education, guidance, and music.
Before the end of the school year, we met with the fifth graders and asked them about their expectations for sixth grade. They expressed the typical middle school fears: getting lost in the halls and having too much homework.
To help alleviate their fears, right before the beginning of the school year, we invited our rising sixth graders and their families to a picnic. We handed out locker combinations, schedules, the school handbook, emergency contact papers, e-mail addresses, and recommended supply lists. Parents were grateful for the time with us and we were happy to make our first positive contact with them. Several students took advantage of having our e-mail addresses to get last-minute questions answered before school started.
Middle school students change drastically between sixth grade and eighth grade. On the first day of their sixth grade year, we took close-up candid photos of each student. We hung the pictures in the hall close to the ceiling, leaving spaces in between for their seventh and eighth grade portraits.
The Wall of Fame became a symbol of belonging to our team, our school family. New students were quickly added so they would feel welcome and part of the class. During the seventh grade Holocaust unit, students wrote their hopes and dreams on a yellow star and placed it just below their seventh grade photo. We used the pictures to line the gymnasium walls for their eighth grade graduation.
After a particularly rough morning about two weeks into that first year, Warren sighed, "What have we done? We committed ourselves to three years of this?"
We, who taught seventh and eighth graders until now, shared our frustrations that the students "don't get it" and "know so little." Betsy, on the other hand, assured us that they were exactly where all of the sixth grade students should be, according to her many years of experience teaching sixth graders.
Warren and I realized that we needed to change our teaching strategies. We were the ones "who didn't get it" and who "know so little" about sixth grade students. It wasn't long before we were all on the same path, working together and making progress.
We used our common planning time to brainstorm ideas or search the Internet or books for ideas to engage students and make learning fun. Common planning time also allowed us to address any student issues or meet with parents. Discussions about scheduling changes, compiling a packet for a new unit, and meetings with the principal to discuss our field trips or guest speakers took place during this time.
Communication was key! We used every minute to make sure students, teachers, parents, and administrators were all on the same page. Together, we created newsletters, notifications, and permission slips. We each had our strengths and knew what had to be done to make the team work.
Getting students excited about the curriculum is vital during the first year of looping. We spent the first four months following a regular schedule; all students attended all their classes. It wasn't until December that we were ready to tackle our first thematic unit: the Iditarod.
Students used regularly scheduled core class times to work on their product(s) for the unit. Some students worked in groups, others found a quiet corner. Allowing students to work at their own pace helped them take responsibility for their education. Often students delved deeper into a subject that peaked their curiosity.
Reading and writing were assessed across all subjects. The reading refined their inquiry/researching skills. English language conventions were included in all rubrics. Students used writing tools on their laptops while creating PowerPoint or Keynote presentations as a final product. On presentation day, students practiced effective listening and speaking skills.
Educator Nancy Doda observes that "kids work harder for teachers they have a relationship with." We noticed that there were more students working harder and longer on their standardized tests because they knew that we had high expectations for them.
Student scores in reading and writing improved dramatically between fourth and eighth grade. We believe these increases can be traced to the amount of reading and writing required in the thematic units as well as our close relationship with the students and their families.
At their eighth grade graduation ceremony, 10 students achieved the Presidential Award of Excellence by maintaining at least a 90% average for grades six, seven, and eight. Ten of 53 students applied and were accepted to a private college preparatory high school. Twelve of the remaining students applied to and were accepted into the honors program.
Giving Our Hearts
Looping is a lot of work both during and outside the school day, but the pay off is tremendous. Knowing that we are an integral part of the students' lives during the most crucial time of their young adolescence is rewarding.
We encouraged students throughout the three years to take responsibility for their learning and set high goals for themselves. We hope that will help them become life-long learners.
We are watching these students as they progress through high school and college, encouraging them every step of the way. The relationship that we built over the three years will last a lifetime. They may have moved on, but our hearts will always be with them.
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, February 2009
UPDATE - 2017
A lot has happened since our looping experience eight years ago. Just like any other class, our students went on to become engineers, retailers, lawyers, mechanics, writers, nurses, veterinarians, social workers, mothers and fathers. What made these students who they are today? It is their determination to strive for the best that they could be. Did their middle school experience help them? I'd like to think that we helped them get the foundation needed to be successful in high school and beyond. Realistically we couldn't reach everyone. Some students became lost in their high school experience and didn't make good choices. If we only could've looped with them through high school, they would've had some support.
Unfortunately, the principal who supported looping left our school the next year, so we were forced to go back to teaching one grade level. New administrators, superintendents and principals, did not support looping no matter how hard we tried to win their approval. Adjusting to our annual turnover of administrators made larger, more pressing demands. High stakes state assessments in reading and math became the priority. Having a highly qualified teacher in math and reading at each grade level in our small school of 320 students, kindergarten - eighth grade, became an issue. Looping was no longer justified in their eyes.
I retired a year ago. One of the best and biggest surprises was a retirement party / reunion of the looping class. One third of the class attended! It didn't take long to catch up on the rest of the classmates. Those present requested a tour of The Wall of Fame, newspaper clippings of themselves and other former students, and the classrooms in which they spent their middle school years. We chuckled as most expressed how small everything appeared that day.
Overall my partner and I are thankful that we experienced looping.To this day we refer to those three years as the best of our career! We would've looped again in a heartbeat. It was truly a special time and we are thankful to have had the experience. -KV
Kay Voyer is a language arts and reading teacher at Dr. Lewis S. Libby School in Milford, Maine. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org