Friday afternoon, I was bustling around my classroom rushing to get everything ready to go so that I could meet up with my friends to celebrate my birthday over dinner and a play. Anxiously, I glanced up at the clock when a coworker called me over to her room to help her with technology. Now, I was in an even bigger hurry, but stopped on a dime when I reentered my classroom. Standing in front of me was the adult version of a former student with a big grin on his face. Immediately, everything else was set to the side as I listened to updates on his life. Everything else could wait, because these are the moments that make teaching at Sennett Middle School so precious to me. I have a lifelong commitment to learning and lifelong relationships with my students.
I have taught at Sennett Middle School for eleven years, but I never tire of telling people about our amazing, multi-age model. Sennett Middle School has six teaching teams that we call “houses.” Sixth, seventh, and eighth graders make up each homeroom class and they stay with that class for most of their academic classes. Math continues to be taught by grade level, as each year builds on the skills from previous years. Every year in my homeroom, we say goodbye to our eighth graders and welcome in sixth graders to take their place. Building relationships with these sixth graders is the most important part of my job, because it is a relationship that will be the foundation for the next three years of their learning with me. Sennett continues to be a diverse, rigorous environment where relationships are the key to success.
The first question that people generally have upon hearing about Sennett’s model is, “How does that work?” This is generally followed by a lengthy question and answer session. The basic idea is that students belong to one of six “houses” within the school. Each house has four (or sometimes five) homerooms. The students tend to identify themselves by what house or homeroom they are in, because this is the smaller group that they travel with from class to class. Each homeroom is made up of about 9 sixth graders, 9 seventh graders, and 9 eighth graders. That group stays together for three years, with the exception of the 8th graders moving on to high school and the 6th graders arriving. Once people get over the logistics, the more important question arises. “Why?” In answering this question, I remind myself of why I have chosen to spend my career at Sennett.
Stability. Ask anyone who teaches or is the parent of a middle school age child. Middle school is a special age, because it is a time of transitions. This is true for all students, but even more so for students who are experiencing other types of changes in their lives, such as homelessness or the separation of their family.
Sennett’s multi-age model provides students with continuity. They have an established peer group in their homeroom that stays consistent for three years. Their teaching team also provides them with a sense of stability. Teachers make a strong effort to get to know students as sixth graders and these efforts continue for the three-year period. Neither student nor teacher has to start over every year. Each year builds on the previous year. Students with disabilities also experience a continuity of service, as they not only keep the same teaching team each year, they also have the same case manager.
For students who have challenges learning routines or building relationships, this can have a serious impact. For example, from my experience, a student with autism may take four to six weeks to really feel comfortable with adults or programming as a sixth grader. This same student entering seventh grade will fall right back into the routine of learning from week one.
Relationships. With so much talk of the achievement gap in the school district and larger community, there is a renewed interest in parental involvement. Many parents of struggling students have grown skeptical of the school system. Building relationships with parents takes time and means establishing trust. This too is an effort that teachers at Sennett do not have to start over fresh with each year. In fact, many parents request to have their students in classrooms where they have already defined their relationships with the staff when siblings attended Sennett. In my own classroom, this was evident when more than ten parents made requests last summer to be placed on our teaching team. Once a relationship is formed, it becomes an asset in communicating around even the most difficult situations. Teachers
Inclusion. For students to learn, they must feel safety and belonging. Learning means taking risks, especially if it isn’t coming easy to a student. A multi-age model makes inclusion work. When you have the diversity that exists between sixth graders and eighth graders, differentiation is a necessity. A classroom teacher must look at each individual student, assess their knowledge, and plan their lessons accordingly.
This is very different from a traditional model, where teachers often aim for the middle of the class in hopes of reaching the majority. In these traditional settings, a wide range of abilities still exists, but it is often treated differently, because it isn’t owned as part of the classroom culture. When listening in on curriculum planning at Sennett, you are likely to hear, “But how will Bobby make meaning of this lesson?” or “How will Clarissa be challenged?” In planning for a wider variety of learners, students are less likely to fall through the cracks.
As a part of this inclusive model, where students are able to experience successes and find a place among their diverse peer group, a stronger sense of self-concept is fostered. This may not always be evident from test scores or report card data, but it is obvious in the classroom climate and the daily successes witnessed by the teaching team.
Student Leaders. Prior coming to Sennett, I taught for one year in a traditional middle school. In this setting, eighth graders were at the top of the ladder and the sixth graders clearly at the bottom. Issues of harassment and hazing frequently came from “the top down.” One of the first differences I noticed between this environment and Sennett was the lack of this type of hierarchy. Instead, eighth graders are seen as student leaders and mentors to the sixth graders. Fostering this type of nurturing environment works for kids.
In my classroom, at the end of each year, students write letters to the incoming sixth grade students. Their letters introduce themselves to the incoming students and contain tips to being successful at Sennett. The letters get mailed in the summertime when existing eighth grade students are paired up with an incoming sixth grade “buddy.” Their role with their buddy is to show them around the school, acclimate them to Sennett, and even make sure that they have someone to eat with in the lunchroom. These types of relationships are definitely symbiotic. As the sixth grader gains their footing in the school, the eighth graders gain confidence and leadership skills.
Another example of this can be viewed in my Reading Enrichment course. Currently, seventh and eighth graders are paired up with a sixth grade students to do a book project. As I sit and listen to the students read books around the theme of “Struggles for Justice.” I hear seventh and eighth graders trying to put their own views into context for the sixth grade students. As the sixth graders reflect and question, the seventh and eighth graders are challenged to defend or modify their own ideas. Because of their engagement level in this multi-age project, discipline is not an issue and I find myself free to have meaningful discussions with students and am able to assess their individual comprehension skills.
Teams. Due to the rigor of teaching in a diverse multi-age environment, our team is in a continuous state of collaboration. Our whole team meets once a week to do generally planning and problem-solving. We also meet every other week to problem-solve around individual student needs. In addition, we meet weekly on our various curricular teams. This is a huge time investment, but it pays off in how we work with each other and how we meet the needs of our students. Collaboration is essential to success, because our ideas change and grow as we work together. My teaching team has put in an incredible amount of work to meet the needs of our students and to push ourselves as educators. This type of team-teaching is not possible in systems where educators are separated out by department specialties. Instead, we become specialists in our children and serve up a curriculum to meet their individual needs.
Effectiveness. With a move toward the Common Core State Standards and a plethora of district initiatives, the effectiveness of Sennett’s multi-age model is again under scrutiny. Unfortunately, not all of our strengths can be measured on standardized tests. Currently, the data shows we are neither better nor worse than other Madison middle schools with similar demographics. In fact, when the school report cards are plotted according to poverty level, the relationship is nearly linear.
What we do have is a strongly knit community that is dedicated to our students. We have teachers who advocate for a small group of students whom they get to know well over the course of three years. Even more telling is that we have teachers at Sennett who once attended the school. They were so strongly connected to the model that they could not imagine going on to teach anywhere else. “I think it really does foster that sense of family,” said former Sennett Principal, Colleen Lodholz in a Madison.com article. It is an effort to maintain a small learning environment within an increasingly large and complex school district.
“Dear Ms. Vieth, I wish you the best birthday you could ever have, and that you spend it with the people that love and care about you. I think that our class is really lucky to have a teacher like you. You’re one of the best teachers I’ve had. You always know how to make something fun, even if it is, say a test. I also love the fact that you give us time to be with groups or to be independent. Well, I hope you have a great birthday!”
The time is right to make our schools more community based and student-centered. I believe that Sennett Middle School’s multi-age model was 37 years ahead of its time.