“Am I Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”
-Dan Miller, Dean of CCS Middle School
If you know me, you know I am very proud of designing programs that the CCS Middle School students love. Throughout my years as a Dean, I have always been able to design and implement successful programs because of my ability to empathize with a middle schooler – or so I thought. I have conducted focus groups, surveys, school visits and trainings to ensure Charleston Collegiate’s Middle School has phenomenal programs that fit our mission, vision, and values – not to mention I was a middle schooler myself some time ago! From my viewpoint as the Dean, I believe our students are happy and learning a great deal of content and skills. However, the only way I could truly find out how our students experience a typical CCS day would be to walk in the shoes of a middle schooler – so I did.
On October 4, 2016, I enrolled in CCS as a new fifth grade student. The night prior to my experiment, I was so excited to be a student – but at the same time, I was a bit nervous to discover if the Middle School program is as amazing as I’ve been preaching. After a late night of nerves, I eagerly awoke to put on my CCS uniform – fully equipped with a blue polo shirt with our oak tree logo. Unlike most fifth graders, I drove myself to school and didn’t worry too much about being late because I knew I wasn’t going to give myself a detention. I arrived at school at 7:30am and double-checked with the teachers that I had all of the materials to be successful for my day: binder, paper, pens, pencils, and a fully loaded iPad- oh, and my morning coffee.
I started my day in Humanities with Mrs. Speights. I have observed Mrs. Speights’ classes several times so I already knew she was amazing and fun, but I had no idea just how challenging her class was for a student. It is a good thing I was early for class, because the work started before the bell even rang with a “bell ringer drill” to get us thinking outside of the box. The remainder of class flew by with personifying vocabulary, mapping coordinates, brain breaks, creating maps, and sharing stories. If you had the chance to know me as fifth grader, you would know I was a chubby, shy kid that did not like to read. So when I first went into Mrs. Speights’ class, I was quickly reminded of my childhood anxieties. However, after just a few minutes, Mrs. Speights’ relaxed and loving attitude quickly transformed my childhood anxiety into a passion to perform; so much so that I spent my 10-minute break that morning finishing my vocabulary story about Mr. Considerate.
After my break, I was eager to go to S.T.E.M. class. Math and science have always been my strongest subjects, so I thought it would be a cake walk! With instrumental classic rock playing, Mr. Fischer started the class with a warm-up drill of four word problems. “Fifth grade math, I’ve got this handled,” I thought. I tackled those four problems with confidence until Mr. Fischer kindly suggested I review my last problem for accuracy. I was slightly embarrassed. I took two calculus classes in college, how could I get a fifth grade math problem wrong? Then I remembered the importance of taking my time, showing all of my work, and not worrying about being the first one finished. Throughout the class, Mr. Fischer did an excellent job coaching students on their individual Judo Math goals, conducting brain breaks, and introducing our “Think like an Engineer” project. This intense project requires students to identify a real life problem, research said problem, brainstorm possible solutions, plan for an original solution, and build a working prototype.
Mentally exhausted from a morning of fast-paced and challenging academics, I was overly excited for lunch and recess. Our chefs had prepared a delicious lunch, something of which I was already well aware. But what surprised me was how eager my new friends were to eat with me: their new classmate, Daniel. They bombarded me with questions like, “Daniel, what did you write about in class?”, “Daniel, who was your favorite teacher today?” (I am not telling), and “Daniel, will you play tag with us at recess?” Enthralled in conversation, time flew by and I found myself shoveling my food in during the last few minutes of lunch. I didn’t mind because I was delighted to have a break from my normal lunch duties as Dean, and I was also excited to fully immerse myself in middle school recess. I did play tag for a bit, but was thrilled at my chance to be the King of Four Square. Although I wasn’t as quick and agile as I once was, I like to think that I held my own during the game.
When the recess whistle blew, I was a little disheartened that it was time to go back to class. At the same time, I was enthusiastic to get to my next class, Animation with Ms. Howell. My classmates were kind enough to fill me in on the current class project – stop motion animation. I may be dating myself, but growing up I was huge fan of Gumby – but I had no idea how to create my own “Claymation” movie. Ms. Howell did a fantastic job showing me how to use the iPad app, and provided me with written and visual directions on how to get started. By the end of the class, I was able to create three short Claymation films. Now, my films may not be “A Gumby Adventure,” but I was so proud of my films that I shared them with my classmates – and my wife when I got home!
Finally, I ended my day back with Mrs. Speights and Mr. Fischer for Flex period. It was a special day because each fifth grader was paired with a preschooler to practice reading aloud. Charlie, my classmate, and I were paired with an adorable preschooler named Sam. Sam was so excited to read with the “big kids” that when we walked into the room he started reading the book he chose to a different group of kids. Charlie and I took turns reading Sam’s book to him, and after reading we all walked away with a sense of pride.
At the conclusion of my exhausting day, I took some time to digest and reflect on my amazing experience. Was the middle school program as wonderful as I had thought? No, it was better! I originally hoped to walk away with a list of critiques to improve our program; instead, I walked away with a huge sense of CCS pride and appreciation for our amazing teachers. Although I have a list of goals and enhancements to keep CCS at the top its game, I am going to take this time to savor the outstanding program we have created. It was a day well spent, and I thank all of the teachers and students that made it so delightful.