October 04, 2019

Mini-Musings: Kehilah Crews

by Mike DiBiasio

If you peek into our Middle School classrooms at noon on Mondays, you might be surprised to see students tying knots, using a power drill, analyzing photos of LeBron James, or clipping their nails. No, the teachers haven’t been abducted. Don’t panic. This is normal. It’s just middle school… at McGillis.

In fact, these seemingly random activities are all quite intentional, and they make up the curriculum of our new Kehilah Crew and Life Skills programs in the Middle School.

Kehilah Crew
Think of it as a Kehilah within a Kehilah. Or as a Sixth Grader recently described it to me, “It’s the community connecting.”

Twice a week, groups of 10 to 12 students meet with their Kehilah Crew Mentors to check-in, play, and connect. It’s in these small groups where we take time to return to the small simple practices that develop a sense of belonging — saying hello to each person, sharing something about ourselves, and listening as others share.

The program is based on the Responsive Classroom Advisory model which was designed to support students’ academic and social-emotional growth. That sounds very serious and it is important work, however we keep things engaging by being playful.

One popular game is Thumball. The game is played with a soccer ball, on which small questions are written on the ball’s stitched hexagons, questions like: “Sweet snack or a salty snack?”, “Who do you admire?”, “High fives or hugs?”, and “What scares you?” The ball is tossed across the circle, and when it’s caught, that person reads and answers the question their right thumb is touching. In my Kehilah Crew, this game is particularly popular. One of my Kehilah Crew members recently told me, “I love learning stuff about people that I didn’t know.” All in one, the game mixes action, chance, speed, and connection into something the students love to play.

Perhaps most importantly, each Middle School student receives the same Kehilah curriculum. So if we need to discuss current events, celebrate or problem-solve the culture of our Middle School Kehilah, we can do that in a more intimate, grade-level-appropriate setting where everyone can share with people that know them well.

Life Skills
After spending 30 minutes with their Kehilah Crew Mentors, each Kehilah Crew attends a one-time Life Skills lesson together. These lessons run the gamut: tying a necktie, folding clothes and packing a suitcase, fixing a flat tire, using a kitchen knife, writing a thank-you note, cleaning a wound, making a basic knitting stitch, and more. You could call it a Limud L’shma field day — learning for the sake of learning.

The students come to these lessons excited. Ms. Mallory, in particular, has noticed.

“Students are jazzed about learning how to fold their clothes into burrito babies and put an entire outfit into a small roll. After the first class, several students asked for a link to the video of packing hacks that we watched. Some parents and siblings may get a packing lesson from their Middle School student in the future,” she said.

Beyond simply picking up a new skill, these lessons provide yet another opportunity for students and teachers to connect with each other. They may have never known that their science teacher is an accomplished knitter, or that their math teacher is a trained culinary artist, but now they do.

McGillis is Different
When people ask me what I do for work, I sometimes balk in response. Should I just say I teach 6th Grade English? That’s not really the whole picture. I also teach 8th Grade Outdoor and Environmental Education, executive functioning skills, and how to use a power drill. The truth is, I’ve never been able to quickly explain the variety of what I do at work.

I was talking with a Middle School colleague recently who was comparing her experience teaching in a high school to teaching in our Middle School.

“I don’t remember what it’s like to just teach academics,” she remarked, and I remember feeling so grateful that I work at a school where the learning outside the classroom is valued equally with the learning that happens in the hallway, in the cafeteria, and in a circle of students listening to each other.

Maybe I should just get over the need to explain what I do quickly. At the beginning of the school year, our Head of School Jim Brewer reminded the faculty that sometimes important things take time to explain. This is just as true about the nature of our Middle School as it is about our larger school Kehilah.