I teach sixth grade in an elementary, self-contained classroom. I know, it's weird, right? In most places, 6th graders are already in middle school and staring down the most embarrassing and awkward years of their life. (I'm not speaking from personal experience, of course. Ahem. Purple glasses.) But for the small number of us who are lucky (yes, lucky) enough to have an entire group of 11/12 year olds in a self-contained classroom, things are a little bit different.
Last year, at one of our early 'Back to School' staff meetings, one of the presenters talked about moving away from the 'silo' approach to teaching. What she meant was that we no longer just teach reading during 'Reading' or writing during 'Writing', where each subject exists in its own 'silo'. Nowadays, rather than simply teach content, Science teachers are expected to use informational text in their lessons and Social Studies teachers are incorporating argument essays into their work.
As an elementary teacher, this philosophy isn't new. We're used to planning cross-curricular lessons that spark interest and engage. But for middle school students? It doesn't sound so easy. Yes, having a middle school agenda in an elementary school building certainly has its challenges. But there are a few reasons why I love it anyway.
My schedule is flexible.This is a benefit teachers usually have in elementary school, but not with a class of middle school sixth graders. But in a self-contained classroom, we enjoy it! Some days, my writing lesson goes long and I have to cut into my reading time. Other days, I need a big chunk of time for math. And sometimes, I'm doing some kind of project that takes almost the whole day. And you know what? I can! I dictate my whole schedule without worrying about the bell. I get to plan lessons that I want without having just 50 minutes to do it.
I get to teach ALL the cool content.
Okay, seriously. Ancient Civilizations? It really doesn't get more interesting than that. That's real history, friends! We get to talk about Confucius, Ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece. Plus, literature and poetry. It's amazing. Math? I actually really like teaching 6th grade math! And because we're in elementary school, I get total freedom to do wacky games and projects in terms of time. I can take 1.5 hours if I need to go outside and measure the field for a perimeter lesson. I can spend an entire morning on Writing Workshop if my students are in the groove. I've got freedom to change things last minute and adjust whenever I need to.
6th graders can think deeply (and they are still kids!)
This is one of the reasons I was so excited to move to 6th - the conversations we have in class about everything. I just love how sixth graders are beginning to look beyond themselves, and how they start to have a deep understanding of complex literature. We can talk about different philosophies of Ancient China and I'm genuinely intellectually stimulated. I'm sure this happens in a lot of middle school classrooms, too! But for me, it's cool that it lasts all day and can continue to build across subject areas. Then, because we're still in elementary school, doing Mother's Day art projects is still cool! So we have deep conversations and then we paint. Something about being in elementary school keeps the 6th graders just a *little* bit younger, in a good way.
CommunityThe bonds a self-contained class forms are strong. Since the class is completely mixed, students bring to the table all sorts of strengths, talents, and abilities and those differences really do bring us together. We have inside jokes, know each other extremely well, and we become like a little school family. Being in one room for the whole school day definitely encourages students to work in harmony with different people who aren't their closest friends. They also learn how to collaborate with students who have strengths that are different from their own. That's pretty powerful in 6th grade, where kids are inclined to believe more in 'birds of a feather flock together'. I love to see students who usually learn things quickly slow down and show patience toward others. I love that more advanced English Learners stop to translate for a classmate who recently moved into the country. The mixed bag creates a strong community.
When I left second grade, I had no idea what to expect. I was terrified of math, and terrified of sixth graders! But now, after three years, I've come to love it. And I think being self-contained is a huge reason I do.
Are your sixth grade classes self-contained? Or do your 6th graders go to middle school?