Classroom of the Week: Reid Middle School sixth-grade ELA and history classes get real-time education

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PITTSFIELD — There's a sign resting on the whiteboard tray of Jesse McMillan's sixth-grade classroom which reads, "In this class, learning is not about being better than someone else; it is about being better than you used to be."

And while McMillan's tasked with teaching the core subjects of English language arts and social studies, his students say they're investing just as much time in class learning about life skills, from study strategies and college planning to how to have a good sense of humor about things.

A parent of a student, who asked to remain anonymous, nominated the classroom because they said that their student, "always comes home excited" to tell the family about what they had learned that day.

The nominating parent described how classroom activities this year have included watching CNN Student News and using a Scholastic magazine called "Scope" to take in current events. The students also organized a mock election for the whole school, a project led by McMillan and his co-teacher Lynn Taylor, based on the Massachusetts ballot.

"He teaches and talks to them about topics that directly relate to their futures," the parent observed.

"My belief is for them to become lifelong learners and for them to be engaged with these things," said McMillan, a Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts graduate who is now in his third year of teaching. He and Taylor collaboratively teach the sixth-grade "Blue Team" of 37 students.

Each day, students come into class with the invitation to openly discuss what McMillan calls "essential questions." So far they have included complex issues like racism and immigration.

"I think it allows them the opportunity to then go home and have a discussion with their families," he said.

Asked to name one thing that he discusses more because of the class, sixth-grader Matt Lee raised his hand and said, "Politics. I definitely feel like I've learned a lot more and feel like I know more to be able to talk about it."

"I think I've learned about college and what we have to know and what it takes to get there," said classmate Ciana Bennett.

"We also talk about real-life situations a lot and how to work together," said sixth-grader, Camdyn McKillop. He and a few others recalled a school year opening activity where, in a small group, students had to think and rank the top 10 most useful items they'd look for if they were survivors in a airplane crash and then had to talk about why those items were important.

"It was really an exercise in communication and how to express your thoughts," McMillan said.

The students spend a lot of time exploring and talking about global communities and the challenges and opportunities they face, especially through the use of a website, 100people.org, and the book, "If the World Were a Village," by David J. Smith and Shelagh Armstrong.

McMillan said one of the best learning experiences his classes have had this year is by incorporating an approach called the student-led "Do Now," a sort of classroom warm up. In his approach, McMillan asks each student to teach on a topic of his or her choosing for 10 minutes at the top of a class. The presenter has to turn in a lesson plan, develop a presentation, and then is evaluated by their peers on the content and delivery.

"I think it's interesting," said student Armani Bedford. "The presentations show your creativity and help you for when you get older and have to do more presentations."

"They teach me new things all the time," McMillan said. "I think it's invaluable for them to learn from each others' experiences and what they're interested in. It also proves to me that they can take charge."

With each class comes a new challenge, but students said the challenges are easier to tackle due to the calming classroom environment. McMillan's room is painted a softer sage green. Shelves and book cases are topped with green plants; a DonorsChoose.org-funded project outfitted the classroom with small library of 100 new books and two comfy reading chairs; the walls have hanging on them posters of empowering messages and colorful animal decorations.

"Mr. McMillan makes us laugh and he's funny," Bedford said. "I think that really helps us remember what we're doing."

"He also talks to us like we're having a conversation. It's not just him doing all the talking," said student Lily Powell.

The students are also regularly asked to discuss issues and classwork with each other, to help each other think things through.

For example, on Monday morning, McMillan's classes began exploring the history and current events regarding Titanic. They were asked to get up and stand on one side of the room if they were against recovering the historic shipwreck, or the opposite side if they were for it, or they could sit in the middle to ponder the issue more. Then, they had to defend their stance and talk about the position they chose. Those for recovering the ship cited its historic value and educational purposes; those against it cited environmental concerns and how it might be disrespectful to disturb the resting place of the deceased passengers.

"Their willingness to learn is really remarkable," McMillan said of his students. "Anything I put out By Jenn Smith

jsmith@berkshireeagle.com

PITTSFIELD — There's a sign resting on the whiteboard tray of Jesse McMillan's sixth-grade classroom which reads, "In this class, learning is not about being better than someone else; it is about being better than you used to be."

And while McMillan's tasked with teaching the core subjects of English language arts and social studies, his students say they're investing just as much time in class learning about life skills, from study strategies and college planning to how to have a good sense of humor about things.

A parent of a student, who asked to remain anonymous, nominated the classroom because they said that their student, "always comes home excited" to tell the family about what they had learned that day.

The nominating parent described how classroom activities this year have included watching CNN Student News and using a Scholastic magazine called "Scope" to take in current events. The students also organized a mock election for the whole school, a project led by McMillan and his co-teacher Lynn Taylor, based on the Massachusetts ballot.

"He teaches and talks to them about topics that directly relate to their futures," the parent observed.

"My belief is for them to become lifelong learners and for them to be engaged with these things," said McMillan, a Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts graduate who is now in his third year of teaching. He and Taylor collaboratively teach the sixth-grade "Blue Team" of 37 students.

Each day, students come into class with the invitation to openly discuss what McMillan calls "essential questions." So far they have included complex issues like racism and immigration.

"I think it allows them the opportunity to then go home and have a discussion with their families," he said.

Asked to name one thing that he discusses more because of the class, sixth-grader Matt Lee raised his hand and said, "Politics. I definitely feel like I've learned a lot more and feel like I know more to be able to talk about it."

"I think I've learned about college and what we have to know and what it takes to get there," said classmate Ciana Bennett.

"We also talk about real-life situations a lot and how to work together," said sixth-grader, Camdyn McKillop. He and a few others recalled a school year opening activity where, in a small group, students had to think and rank the top 10 most useful items they'd look for if they were survivors in a airplane crash and then had to talk about why those items were important.

"It was really an exercise in communication and how to express your thoughts," McMillan said.

The students spend a lot of time exploring and talking about global communities and the challenges and opportunities they face, especially through the use of a website, 100people.org, and the book, "If the World Were a Village," by David J. Smith and Shelagh Armstrong.

McMillan said one of the best learning experiences his classes have had this year is by incorporating an approach called the student-led "Do Now," a sort of classroom warm up. In his approach, McMillan asks each student to teach on a topic of his or her choosing for 10 minutes at the top of a class. The presenter has to turn in a lesson plan, develop a presentation, and then is evaluated by their peers on the content and delivery.

"I think it's interesting," said student Armani Bedford. "The presentations show your creativity and help you for when you get older and have to do more presentations."

"They teach me new things all the time," McMillan said. "I think it's invaluable for them to learn from each others' experiences and what they're interested in. It also proves to me that they can take charge."

With each class comes a new challenge, but students said the challenges are easier to tackle due to the calming classroom environment. McMillan's room is painted a softer sage green. Shelves and book cases are topped with green plants; a DonorsChoose.org-funded project outfitted the classroom with small library of 100 new books and two comfy reading chairs; the walls have hanging on them posters of empowering messages and colorful animal decorations.

"Mr. McMillan makes us laugh and he's funny," Bedford said. "I think that really helps us remember what we're doing."

"He also talks to us like we're having a conversation. It's not just him doing all the talking," said student Lily Powell.

The students are also regularly asked to discuss issues and classwork with each other, to help each other think things through.

For example, on Monday morning, McMillan's classes began exploring the history and current events regarding Titanic. They were asked to get up and stand on one side of the room if they were against recovering the historic shipwreck, or the opposite side if they were for it, or they could sit in the middle to ponder the issue more. Then, they had to defend their stance and talk about the position they chose. Those for recovering the ship cited its historic value and educational purposes; those against it cited environmental concerns and how it might be disrespectful to disturb the resting place of the deceased passengers.

"Their willingness to learn is really remarkable," McMillan said of his students. "Anything I put out there, they

embrace it."

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