Nobles Parents' E-Newsletter

April 2015

Nobles Parents' Newsletter April 2015

7 Essential Skills, by Assistant Head of School and Head of Middle School John Gifford

Parents and guardians who have slogged their way through previous newsletter pieces of mine know that academic skill development is a favorite topic.  I wonder if it is because there is so much variance in development during the early teen years that middle schoolers are so desperate to not seem different.  In any case,  because puberty can strike at any point within a large band of years, students are undergoing vast physical, emotional and intellectual change. Brain researchers continue to realize all of the ways in which sexual maturity also impact brain functioning and this comes as no surprise to middle school teachers.

A student’s own brain development is one, but not the only reason why, in a class of 50+ students, there is a vast range in students’ understanding and ability to employ vital academic skills.  All students who are accepted to Nobles have done exceedingly well in their previous schools and many have not yet needed to use sound academic skills. Some students previous academic programs have not been intentional in skill work and therefore it slipped by unnoticed.

For some time the Nobles Middle School has believed that it is “all about skills.” We have a stimulating, inventive curriculum, but in the end  if it does not practice and instill academic skill development, it is useless.

This fall, a group of middle school faculty continued our interminable discussions about academic skill development by asking the following question: Can we whittle down all the skills that we work to instill in students – across disciplines into an essential few?  Is there a manageable selection of skills that, if practiced, will serve students well no matter the class?

The initial list hit 58, if memory serves, and over a period of months the team whittled it down.  All the initial skills were valid and certain teachers, at one point or another, practice them all.  But we were after those skills that supported all classes, be it Pre-Algebra or English via Latin. We wanted to be able to say to students, ‘if you can consistently employ these following skills, academic success will follow’.

Because we were coming up with something so universal, the final list is not the least bit earth shattering.  The skills are the basic components of being a thorough student (or adult professional, for that matter). They are:

The student consistently:

  • turns in assignments when due
  • maintains all course materials in an organized way
  • advocates for him/herself proactively
  • uses a planner to keep track of assignments and obligations on a daily basis
  • follows written and oral directions
  • takes organized and effective notes in class
  • engages actively in class while resisting distractions

See?  No surprises here. The next step was to take these established skills and make sure that students were consistently being evaluated about their ability to employ them.   We have done that by adding them to the form that teachers use to write their grading period comments. Asking teachers to evaluate each student’s success will provide the discipline to always evaluate these skills in the comment that is read to the student and goes home to parents.

In my own set of comments it was heartening to see the clear correlation between students who developed these salutary academic habits and the students who were seeing the most success in my class. We are on the right track!

We have to remember that while middle school students often can act like informed adults, they are only just starting to practice adult strategies that enable efficient and effective productivity. We need to teach, and model these skills. We need to focus on the skill development rather than the otherwise mystifying results. It has long been an understood priority of the Nobles Middle School faculty, now we have another tool to help make it happen.

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If you have questions, comments or suggestions for this newsletter, email Kim Neal at