MAHOPAC, N.Y. -A well-rounded student is often considered to have an overall understanding of the world, along with the ability to write well and calculate. But students who haven’t grasped basic life skills, such as managing time, being organized or knowing how to care for their social and emotional well-being, may graduate from high school but will also face challenges entering adulthood.
This is largely why the Mahopac School District has created a required course for middle school sixth grade and high school freshman curriculum that focuses on helping students build and master skills for holistic success in and outside of the classroom. This also aligns with both the district’s strategic plan for supporting students in becoming caring, collaborative and compassionate life-long learners.
The sixth grade and freshman classes were selected to participate in this credited course because they are in transition to a higher level of learning with a new (larger) school and culture. The goal of this “skills” course is to prepare each student for college and career readiness and to educate all students to be responsible and productive members of the community.
The need to prepare students beyond academics is not unique to Mahopac. Recently, the Pew Research Center released an analysis of Census Bureau data revealing findings that most Americans say parents are doing too much for their young adult children.
“We believe incorporating real-life learning for our middle school sixth graders and high school freshmen will help set them up for success and overall independence in school and beyond,” said Anthony DiCarlo, school superintendent.
Mahopac High School Life Class
Led by Mahopac High School assistant principal April Ljumic, the MHS Life curriculum’s creation was a collaborative effort of the High School Climate Committee, in addition to feedback from a consortium of stakeholders including students, teachers, teacher leaders, clinicians, counselors and administrators. It is rooted in the high school’s core values (risk-taking, compassion, resilience and problem-solving) and the STRIVE initiative, which stands for Be Safe, Take Responsibility, Be Respectful, Act with Integrity and Value Excellence.
“The overarching conceptual framework behind MHS Life was born from research on organizational wellness, which is near and dear to my heart,” said Dr. Matthew Lawrence, Mahopac High School principal. “One of the key factors to wellness is ‘personalization,’ meaning the level to which an individual or groups of individuals feel connected to each other and the organization. MHS Life is an overt mediation to increase our sense of personalization among staff and students.”
“This is designed to be a high-impact, low-stress class,” Ljumic added.
The goal is to introduce freshmen to the expectations and rigor of high school life and beyond, including activities and conversations centered on boosting social, emotional, non-cognitive, executive functioning and academic skills growth.
With tactics such as social media education, digital citizenship, meditation, practicing a growth mindset and civic responsibility, the class structure varies forms of introspection work, small group activities, guest speakers and project-based learning. Instruction is innovative, interactive, multimedia-rich, and learner-centered.
“The organization of MHS Life provides the opportunity for high school resources that are important for freshmen to get to know, such as counselors, clinicians, and our SRO (School Resource Officer) to give instruction in a small student setting. Also, this benefits us logistically since we do not have to take students out of class for an assembly which was how this type of instruction was previously shared,” said Dr. Lawrence.
Throughout the school year, the curriculum is divided into three modules:
• #WeEngage: Creating a supportive learning community
• #WeEffect: Developing self-awareness and self-management
• #WeUnite: Building relationships and resolving conflicts
Perhaps the most poignant component to the class is the student self-reflection and teacher-student check-in/check-out. Students complete an individual self-reflection which allows their MHS LIFE teachers to get a pulse on how students are doing socially, emotionally and academically. Surveys include self-reflection, goal setting and an exchange on how teachers can help their students be set for all-around success.
With the real-time data from students’ surveys, teachers not only are able to have a timely check-in individually but also measure curriculum impact.
“The teacher-student check-in/check-out is our opportunity to connect, build positive relationships, and trust with students on a one-on-one basis and respond to individual student needs to support success,” Ljumic said. “We’ve been blown away by the honesty and openness of the students’ self-reflections, and it has really made a positive effect on how we can effectively support them to meet their individual goals and the MHS LIFE curriculum therein.”
This also allows teachers to thoughtfully prepare lesson plans that are data-driven based on the needs of students.
On any given school day, you’ll find no two MHS Life lessons are alike. For instance, Kelley Posch, an MHS algebra teacher, begins her class with a guided meditation that leads to a discussion about the growth mindset principle. The class does an exercise of matching famous people who have learned from failures and risen to success. Some of her examples include Walt Disney, who was fired from a newspaper for “lacking imagination,” and “Harry Potter” author JK Rowling, who was rejected by 12 publishers for her first book. The students then share their learnings via a shared virtual Google Classroom with fifth graders in Austin Road Elementary School.
Down the hall, Christine Honohan, MHS history teacher, is leading a discussion about effective study techniques. Upstairs, Amy Mahoney, an MHS English teacher, and Dominic DeMatteo, an MHS physical education teacher, and varsity football coach, have combined classes and are discussing paradigm shifts. Leveraging text from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens” by Sean Covey, the class is discussing methods for shifting perception with real-life scenarios that range from interacting with teachers to peers. They work in small groups and then share with the class ways to broaden their interpretation of the way they view day-to-day situations and the world.
“There are kids on all social and academic levels in the class and this gives each one tools for success in the next level of their education and then adult world,” DeMatteo said.
Mahopac Middle School Success
Like MHS Life, the middle school curriculum, MMS Success, emphasizes strategies for personal growth and development to help sixth graders figure out their place as good citizens in their community and the world. The half-credit MMS Success class is comprised of four components: technology (including topics such as keyboarding skills, Chromebook care, and responsible media usage); organization (time management, collaborating for project-based learning and making reading selections); character building/social and emotional wellness (mindfulness and positive peer interactions); and middle school logistics/safety (ranging classroom expectations to safety procedures in and out of the classroom, including the use of social media).
“Middle school is a big change for sixth-grade students, no matter where they are academically,” said Tom Cozzocrea, Mahopac Middle School principal. “Some students are adept in coursework but lacking the skills of navigating life as a new middle-schooler.”
With full class discussions, small groups and individual reflections submitted via Google Classroom, teachers work with students on learning and understanding different learning styles. From there, students can self-identify what type of learner they are and establish the study habits and time management techniques that work best for them. Teachers then weave in strategies for students to explore, such as note-taking methods, establishing a study routine to accommodate their busy schedules and how to access help for emotional self-care.
A recent lesson in teacher Paula Frey’s class focused on the importance of morning routines. She encouraged the students to share their routines with each other in detail, including the time their alarm goes off, morning hygiene regimes, eating breakfast and getting to school. With no right or wrong answers, she skillfully pointed out examples of growth mindset in the discussion. For example, one student commented on wanting to get up a little earlier after listening to another student talk about waking up early, so he doesn’t have to rush.
Digital citizenship is another major focus for MMS Success.
“We see a big disparity among sixth-graders on this issue. Some sixth-grade students have had a cellphone for a while and are very adept with social media and others do not yet have a phone,” Cozzocrea said. “Our goal is for MMS Success to help build a foundation for our students with responsible digital citizenship for years to come.”
As the sixth graders learn how to set themselves up for success in and out of the classroom, the teachers also tie in the importance of community. Embracing the core value of giving back to those in need, the sixth graders chose to collect food, toys, leashes, blankets, towels and assorted other items for the Putnam Humane Society:
As these freshmen and sixth graders continue their education at Mahopac, it will be interesting to follow their progress.
Something magical is going on here,” Ljumic said.