Summer and Fall School Planning
It is with gratitude and hope that we proceed through the final push of this most unusual 2020-2021 school year. The rules of the road have changed continuously since the start of the pandemic with each week bringing new surprises; announcements from schools, colleges, and publishers along with local, state, and federal government agencies have made surviving this school year a real test of flexibility, tenacity, and creative problem solving. The resilience of our families, faculty, and professional colleagues is inspiring, and we’re grateful for our close partnerships with everyone, including school teams and related service professionals across the country. Together we’ve mastered new technologies to support continuous, high quality instruction; we’ve successfully navigated admissions and school planning for day schools, boarding schools, and colleges entirely virtually; we’ve speculated and hedged with plans A through Z to address learning and emotional challenges in a way that takes executive functions and our “future glasses” to a new extreme. Despite all the challenges, our students have come out on top, and we’ve delighted in their incredible successes!
With the 4th quarter of this school year now coming to a close, we look ahead to the summer 2021 and next school year with hope and anticipation of a return to more normal operations. Realistically, we expect next school year will have continued challenges as schools manage shifting policies, social distancing, and safety protocols, but it’s our hope that everyone will have a chance to recover and rejoice this summer by safely reuniting with family and friends in person, enjoying camp and summer travels, and breaking some of the difficult routines that have been so necessary to manage the past 14 months. Last summer was spent in nonstop speculation and school planning mode, and we hope this summer will provide some much needed relief from the constant feeling of uncertainty.
In order to make the most of summer 2021 and truly enjoy some respite from a wild school year, we strongly encourage families to make the most of May and June with regard to school planning for the fall and addressing any significant academic concerns as a result of the past 14 months. Remediation works best when the pressure is dialed down, and there’s no question that slow and steady wins the race. Moreover, test preparation for independent school admissions and college admissions works best when it’s structured and mapped out over a reasonably long runway to avoid cramming and unnecessary stress ahead of early decision and regular decision deadlines spanning November, December and January. Test-optional policies create a lot of confusion about what’s expected to be a competitive candidate, and now is the time to organize these planning conversations to avoid a fall blitz.
Whatever planning support you may need, we’re here for you, and we look forward to our continued partnership with your family.
Below you’ll find more information about: 1) benchmarking your child’s progress this school year, 2) summer enrichment teaching opportunities, 3) standardized testing in this climate, and 4) starting the common application essay.
Benchmarking Student Progress
The 2020-21 school year was more organized than the 4th quarter of the 2019-2020 school year, but it was a very challenging year nonetheless. For September 2021, all classroom teachers and schools are going to need to adjust their typical expectations to some degree because of Covid disruptions. Our lower school students — and particularly our students in the primary grades — are likely going to be reading, writing, and completing math work below typical benchmarks as a result of missed instruction. Despite a school’s best efforts, pivoting to distance learning and online learning so quickly was a Herculean effort, and there was simply no way to perfectly optimize it under these circumstances. Moreover, there’s simply no replacement for in-person instruction and live classroom discourse. Digitals tools provide lots of opportunities and accessibility, but we typically prefer to use them as a complement to in-person instruction, especially with our younger students.
Many parents have inquired about benchmarking and making sense of report cards in this climate for school planning purposes. They aren’t sure if their child is meeting grade level expectations or not. It’s surely not a guessing game, and parents don’t really need to wonder. The Common Core State Standards provide an excellent starting point for benchmarking, and while private schools don’t strictly follow these standards, many of them use these standards to guide their own curriculum mapping. For competitive NYC private schools, parents should look at typical grade level standards and reading benchmarks and then skew up a grade level. Keep in mind that standards aren’t “one and done” but rather build over time and across grade levels.
Since the Common Core website can be overwhelming for many parents to navigate, we like this alternative format developed by Jill McEldowney and Cathy Henry at The Curriculum Corner. For Kindergarten through 8th grades, they have created parent-friendly checklists based on CCSS in the form of “I Can…” statements available as both Excel and PDF formats.
We also make use of the Teachers College Columbia University Reading and Writing Project independent reading level quarterly benchmarking. It’s best not to get hung up on a single exit level for June but rather to think about reading levels in bands of two to three alpha letters. Performance with fiction and nonfiction texts may differ, and writing response work needs to be factored into benchmarking, particularly as students move into grades 2, 3, 4, and 5.
So while benchmarking doesn’t need to be a guessing game, it’s also not simple and quick. Ideally a portfolio of work from the entire school year is available to help guide benchmarking and school planning in addition to a variety of data points, including classroom work, homework, projects, grade level achievement testing (e.g. CTP testing), and informal classroom assessments (e.g. running records and spelling inventories). As for typing skills, typing.com offers typing speed guidelines for grades K-5.
Summer Enrichment Opportunities
Because this was such a strange school year, and because many camp and summer programs are modified, there’s an opportunity to use the summer season as an extended school year term, thus helping to avoid the summer slide. But summer learning can and should look different from academic year learning. Kids need to feel like they’re getting a break. They need to feel like the instructional time is something different. Summer learning, without school parameters in place, allows for more targeted instruction as well as project-based, interdisciplinary learning. The summer is a good time to close gaps, build expertise, or expand a passion. Ideally, the learning goals are driven by each student, which we can help to scaffold depending on age. With the help of creative and nimble educators — and the mindset that learning happens all the time and everywhere — the sky’s the limit with summer planning and school planning at large, and we welcome any special requests.
Here are some ideas from our teachers:
- Physics Lab at Home combines the rigor of an in-person lab while using the constraints imposed by remote learning to foster creativity and stimulate critical thinking. Students perform experiments at home with whatever materials they have at hand. They make measurements with both simple instruments they may have and with their cellphones. Students explore mechanics, electromagnetism, optics and thermodynamics in one-on-one sessions designed to illustrate a simple, profound truth: the world around us is governed by the laws of science.
- Book Groups for a few friends who haven’t been able to see each other in person. A group of cousins or other family members who usually gather during the summer at the family vacation house might also want to “meet” to discuss a high-interest book of their choosing. Mixed age groups can discuss a book that focuses on topics relevant to all or that might illuminate different perspectives. A group of students from the same school can read their assigned summer book together. Our teachers can help groups choose books, come to the meeting with ideas to share, and engage in a friendly, dynamic conversation. This can be a one-time activity or a group may choose to meet a few times over the summer.
- Journal Writing Circles for teens interested in using writing to explore feelings and ideas that might be difficult to talk about or that might normally be shared with friends in more normal times. Budding writers and all students would be encouraged to write informally without worrying about judgment or “correctness,” rather focusing on recalling memories, capturing fleeting thoughts or ideas and expressing themselves through writing. Prompts would be provided either between meetings or at the beginning of the sessions to help students write about a range of experiences. Sharing would be optional.
- Family History Interviews of older relatives with stories to tell! With more time on their hands, students can prepare generative questions to elicit grandparents or other family members’ stories. Working with a supportive teacher, individual students or a small group of students can prepare questions, practice interviewing, read profiles written in different formats and eventually write their own pieces that capture the experiences of their favorite relatives. Photos can be used to enhance the final stories, creating high-quality photo-journalistic pieces.
- Comedy writing is a fun and creative way for kids to learn the conventions of writing and producing content while expressing themselves. My Learning Springboard is offering lessons from TV writing/screenwriting to improv comedy to expository writing and more to keep students’ writing skills sharp in a fun, relaxed setting where they can write pieces that are true to their experiences and personalities. Looking for portfolio pieces to include in art school applications? Our team of teachers have won screenwriting competitions, been nominated for Sports Emmys and more, and they are happy to help hone your student’s voice as a writer and content creator.
- Super-Hero stories is a collaborative course in which students explore the traits and challenges of their favorite superheroes, including Thor, Moana, the Incredibles, and Studio Ghibli’s Chihiro. We will watch video clips and read stories to better understand how superheroes are created (their “origin stories”) and how they change over time. We will also discuss villains and whether so-called “evil” characters such as the Joker, Syndrome, and Disney’s Evil Stepmothers are born “bad” or become this way due to misfortune. Students will get a chance to present their own favorite superheroes from books and film. Then, inspired by the wide world of superheroes, students will get a chance to start thinking of their “superpowers” and how they might use their own special traits to deal with challenges and difficulties. Then, they will create their own unique superhero characters and send them off on missions and adventures. Their superhero stories will be workshopped and we will develop them using imaginative writing prompts. At the end of the course, students are invited to dress up as their characters and share their special superhero stories.
- Real-Life Math and Writing Connections for elementary and middle school students means searching for ways to take fundamental skills that the students need to practice, and repackaging them into activities that target the students’ interests. For example, when practicing mean, median, range, and mode, we might analyze statistics from a student’s favorite sports team. To facilitate teaching writing skills, we pick articles on topics that are interesting to the student. Music, movies, and sports can all provide opportunities for practicing skills. We’re able to push our students to read higher level discussions of the topics that interest them and are intrinsically motivating.
Standardized Test Preparation
The summer season is also an excellent time to get a jump start on standardized test preparation at every level from lower school through college. Given the pandemic, many schools adopted a test-optional policy, which has been confusing for families to navigate and factor into their school planning. The large majority of our students stayed the course with standardized test preparation, which proved to be advantageous. Competitive independent schools and colleges saw huge surges in admissions activity, and it was arguably the most competitive year ever. A solid to strong performance on a standardized measure provides advantageous data for schools to review as part of the process, particularly when the spring term of 2020 and this school year was so unusual. And truly the ISEE or SSAT is just a vehicle for middle or high school readiness. Going through the process closes any gaps and advances reading, writing, and math skills. We typically see huge growth for our students between now and December.
For now, it seems the only age groups that are surely saved from standardized testing are our rising kindergartners and first graders. ERB has officially phased out use of the AABL, and they are not planning to resurrect the ECAA. Schools have created their own assessment protocols for kindergarten and first grade admissions.
The Common Application Essay
Each year, the Common Application itself “resets” in early August, so we advise rising seniors to wait until then to fill out its typable forms; similarly, colleges tend to post their individual supplemental essay prompts in August or early September. But the Common Application has already released its essay prompts for the upcoming application cycle, making spring and summer an ideal time to begin the writing process—particularly this year. Focusing on this effort over the summer gives students some control while challenging themselves creatively, with no pressing deadlines. It is one of the concrete steps that they can take in shaping their future and actively managing their school planning; it’s an opportunity to reflect on where they’ve been—such as a nook on a living-room floor, a treacherous rock wall, or a thumping concert arena—where they are, and where they will go.
By Brad Hoffman, Faya Hoffman, and Laurie Gross
My Learning Springboard Leadership Team