Jason Flom

Mission Control to 5th Graders: All Systems Are Go

T minus 10, 9, 8 ...

Puberty, the final frontier. Er. Puberty, the inevitable and unavoidable frontier.

As a 5th grade teacher, I think of myself as a NASA flight coordinator, preparing students for their intergalactic journey from childhood to adulthood—a journey in which they abandon the laws of physics for the laws of adolescence. At the beginning of 5th grade they arrive as children; at the end they disembark, rocketing for the middle years. What happens in the months between can play a vital role in helping them navigate the strange and wondrous worlds they encounter in the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades.

At our school, we have a two-part plan to ensure that students leave elementary school with some basic communication and leadership life-support systems. The first piece addresses the needs of the whole class through weekly "People Puzzles," in which students work together to solve a challenge put before them. Often known as "initiatives," these problems test the mettle and collective creativity of the class or group. Afterward, we debrief the experience, unpacking the highs and lows of their efforts, addressing the what-worked versus the what-didn't-work, and establishing lessons learned and how they can be applied back in the classroom and in life beyond the school.

This effort builds solidarity and leadership within the group, helping establish and cultivate a culture of support, trust, and compassion within the peer set. Over the years, we have found that these foundational group norms continue into middle school. However, groups are made up of individuals, and it is in the communication among students that things can go either wonderfully right or horribly wrong.

7, 6, 5 ...

Boys' communication is often overt and obvious and can even be overpowering. Consequently it can be easier to identify and address. However, the subtle language between girls can more profoundly affect the tone and tenor of a group, class, or grade, while simultaneously staying below the radar of adults. When this communication goes wrong, the penetrating effect of what's known as "relational aggression" can undermine even the best whole child program and effort. As a result, it is in the best interests of schools, teachers, and most important the well-being of our young ladies to help girls understand these subtleties before the middle years.

Toward this end, the second piece of our plan addresses the unique needs of our female students. We work with a local nonprofit center for women and girls, Oasis, that provides a program tailored to build girls' communication and leadership skills while also developing their self-esteem. The 10-week, 10-hour program proves worth its time almost immediately. Students quickly demonstrate an increased capacity for solving their own problems and communicating more effectively. Jargon aside, they are happier, have fewer social issues, and display greater confidence.

When it comes to equipping students with skills for future success, the earlier the better. This is especially true in a whole child context. Preparing students for the alien world of middle school and adolescence begins before they launch from elementary school. Opportunities to develop communication skills in an engaging and safe environment helps train them for not just surviving, but also thriving during an exciting period of independence, development, and exploration.

4, 3, 2, 1 ... Blast off!

Jason Flom is a 5th grade teacher at Cornerstone Learning Community in Tallahassee, Fla. He founded Ecology of Education as a collaborative, multiauthor blog in March 2009 to give voice to a range of professionals working in the field of education. He is also the moderator for Edutopia's Green Schools Group and is a member of ASCD's Emerging Leaders Class of 2010. Follow Flom on Twitter @JasonFlom.

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