A Different Kind of Conversation at My Parent/Teacher Conferences

by Devon Davidson, Grade 5 Teacher

This week, I’ll have the pleasure of meeting with the fifth-grade parents to discuss their children’s progress during parent/teacher conferences. Spring conferences are my favorite discussions, as they’re focused on the progress each student has made, and my hopes for their sixth-grade transition. The conferences also kick off the emotional unwinding of the end of a school year. Every school year is a fluctuation of progress, but teachers, students, and families begin to see the overall linear line of growth toward the end of the year. This is why at conferences I’ll be focusing on growth of character, independence, and resiliency, as opposed to growth in grades. Over the past month, my fifth-graders embarked on their greatest challenge of the year — an inquiry-based project on Egypt from our social studies class — and their success was not marked by a grade, but rather by an empowered sense of self.

Taking the First Step Toward Growth
I started our inquiry project by telling the students they might feel uncomfortable and frustrated, but that we needed to learn to embrace frustration in order to grow and build our problem-solving skills. From the perspective of a fifth-grader, an inquiry project can feel unsupported, unguided, and as if their teacher has abandoned them. Breaking from the structures of detailed rubrics, graphic organizers, and step-by-step directions can be overwhelming and scary.

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Third-Graders Discover the “Real” America by Mail

by Shari Bozorgzad, Grade 3 Teacher

In February, we asked our third-grade students, “How can we research the unique qualities of each state in our nation?” We got the typical responses such as, “We could check out books from the library or look up information on the Internet.” I love that our students know where to find information, but I was looking for something a little more unusual.

Before coming to Langley, I had witnessed a project that I thought would be perfect for our third-graders. I explained to our students that the best way to learn about a city, town, or state is to get firsthand information from the residents. In order to solicit this firsthand feedback, our third-graders sent letters to several small-town newspapers in each state, asking residents to help them learn more about their state by sending postcards, maps, photos, souvenirs, and other useful information.

 Just one week later, I returned to my classroom after lunch to find my chair full of packages.

We received various items from across the country, including an original painting from an 83-year-old Mississippi man that depicted the Natchez Trace Parkway and a sample of cotton from a Mississippi woman’s family farm with a note telling of the fond memories she had of picking cotton as a little girl.

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“Planning” Ahead for 2017

By Amy Jones, Director of Resource at The Langley School

I love the comics. Here’s a strip from Luann by Greg Evans. The girl exclaims, “This is great!  No homework!!”  Her classmate stares at her in disbelief, “What about that huge science project that’s due in two days?  You haven’t even started it!”  She replies with delight, “I mean no homework TONIGHT!”

Executive functions, the thinking which takes place primarily in the pre-frontal cortex, are the functions responsible for planning — or lack thereof as we see in Luann. Many refer to these brain functions as an air traffic controller or the conductor of an orchestra. Students and adults alike use these functions not only to plan, but also to prioritize, organize, remember, reflect, and shift attention from one task to another. These functions help regulate emotions, inhibit desires, and attend to tasks. These capacities don’t mature until the mid 20s, but can be strengthened with practice — and it’s a perfect time to practice with a new year ahead!

Here at The Langley School, we are teaching these skills from an early age. In the Primary School, children are learning about time management and planning as they discuss the “before and after” as well as the present. During morning meeting, the children and their teachers review the calendar. “Today is Tuesday, December 20, yesterday was Monday, and tomorrow will be Wednesday.” In Lower School, the work continues. Schedules are on the board and teachers help students break down long-term assignments. Teachers give students more opportunities for reflection, allowing them to develop their metacognitive skills. In some grades, students keep track of their goals on their desks as well as use checklists for important routines.

Executive functions Skills Building

Middle School often presents challenges and opportunities for students, as they are changing classes and keeping track of homework in at least five different subjects. During sixth-grade orientation in the fall, teachers explicitly work with students to understand planning, time management, studying, and metacognition. In advisory at the beginning of the year, students “map” their week so they have a better understanding of the time that they have to manage. Self-reflection is built into many assignments, and students prepare to lead parent-teacher conferences by spending time in advisory thinking of their strengths and areas for improvement.

You can help your children develop better executive functioning at home. To learn more about executive functioning, and executive dysfunction, click here to view a recent PALS talk given to Langley parents by Kathy Essig of The StudyPro and to access other resources.

You Don’t Have to Choose: Why True Success Depends on Academic Achievement and Social and Emotional Competence

By Dr. Elinor Scully, Head of School

The summer months usually afford educators an opportunity to catch up on their reading, both for pleasure and professionally. This summer was no exception for me, and one of the most gratifying aspects of my summer reading was to see the proliferation of more research supporting some of the major goals and objectives of Langley’s next strategic plan. Educators have long known about the benefits of social and emotional learning for students of all ages, but particularly young children. However, the research supporting the long-term interpersonal and academic outcomes for students who develop these vital capacities is becoming clearer.

Research related to The Fast Track Project, administered in schools in North Carolina, Tennessee, Washington, and Pennsylvania, reveals that the development of specific social and emotional skills can be tied to success in later life. (Brown, The Washington Post) Particularly, skills related to problem solving, successful peer relationships, empathy, cooperation, collaboration, listening skills, assertiveness, and kindness are linked with positive school affiliation, achievement, resisting negative social behaviors, and ultimately finding stable full-time employment in young adulthood.

“These findings add to a growing body of evidence—including long-term studies drawn from data in New Zealand and Britain—that have profound implications for educators. These studies suggest that if we want many more children to lead fulfilling and productive lives, it’s not enough for schools to focus exclusively on academics. Indeed, one of the most powerful and cost-effective interventions is to help children develop core social and emotional strengths like self-management, self-awareness and social awareness—strengths that are necessary for students to fully benefit from their education, and succeed in many other areas of life.” (Bornstein, The New York Times)

The Langley School has long been committed to developing these capacities in our students. Our new strategic plan, however, seeks to take our expertise in this area further and to develop a more comprehensive program to target these well-researched skills. I am often surprised when these skills are referred to as “soft skills” or “non-cognitive,” suggesting that they are somehow less important and even easily achieved. In point of fact, being able to regulate negative emotions, to deeply appreciate the perspective of others, and to simultaneously balance the ability to assert oneself and work collaboratively and effectively with others are not simple, “non-cognitive” tasks. They are essential, and most successful adults I know continuously work at perfecting the art of these so-called “soft skills.”

We are in the fortunate position at Langley to start building these skills with our youngest students on day one. Research supports that this is when to do it, by kindergarten for sure. We have a mission that sees the mutually reinforcing and equally essential dependence of academic and social and emotional skills. And we have parents who share in a commitment to raise academically sophisticated students, who act with heart and mind in equal measure. Schools should not privilege academic achievement over social/emotional competence and moral goodness. My summer reading, whether from The Huffington Post or The Washington Post, The New York Times or Kim Marshall’s excellent Educational Digest, reinforced once again that that is a false choice. And this new research reminded me that our mission at Langley to raise students who can lead lives of self-defined meaning and purpose requires we attend to these skills deliberately and comprehensively as soon as students arrive on our campus.