Faculty Voice: Amy Kirkaldy

amy_kirkcaldyI can predict the cycles of the moon based on how my sixth graders are behaving. Usually, right on cue, two days in advance of a full moon, their energy becomes palpable, their questions urgent, their need to move and squirm amplified. For a long time, I planned my classes based on the time of day and the day of the week (Friday before lunch demanding a much more high energy class than Monday mornings, for example). Now, I pull out a lunar calendar as well.

Sixth graders are lovely. Behind the raging hormones, endless questions, and relative innocence, there is a real desire to learn and a willingness to engage wholeheartedly in whatever task is put before them. They are light, free, able to transition easily. Rarely embarrassed, they enjoy singing, dancing, and spontaneous conga lines around the classroom.  They love to share their work, especially if it’s written about themselves, and they are kind enough to work with whatever group or partner assigned to them. Curious, open-minded, and sometimes just plain silly, sixth graders are a nearly perfect combination in my opinion.  

But…the questions! They have many doubts! There are so many details, so much minutia that stands in the way of attacking the task at hand. Overall, the biggest challenge I have with sixth graders is not with teaching Spanish concepts—they pick those up relatively skillfully—it’s with executive functioning, with how to learn what they are learning.

Although I was initially surprised by their apprehension around how to learn, I shouldn’t have been—I see it all day long in every context. In a typical day, I go from getting my five-year-old twin boys up and ready for pre-school, to teaching sixth graders Spanish, to counseling juniors and seniors through my role as a college counselor at the Upper School. I see the full range of childhood and adolescent emotions in all their drama-filled glory. Whether it’s not knowing which shoe to put on each foot, apprehension about the best way to memorize Spanish verb conjugations, or feeling overwhelmed by the idea of applying to college, the question at the root of the stress is always the same: how do I do this? And, perhaps more importantly, can I do this myself? What support do I need? Who will help me on my journey?

Hopefully the answer is obvious: we ALL will. Milton will. The best thing about Milton, in my opinion, is that we aim to meet students where they are. There is plenty of support available, but we also allow and encourage students to take control of their learning process. As advisors, faculty, staff, coaches, etc. our goal is to help students use this community’s wide variety of resources to discover what they like, what they are good at, what brings them joy.  

So as a sixth-grade Spanish teacher, of course I teach the Spanish language. But more than anything, I hope to instill in my students a sense of joy in discovering the power of speaking another language. My goals are to help them do the following:

  1. Find the relevance in learning Spanish, or another language, to their own lives.   Eventually, they can use it to travel and see amazing, beautiful, and curious things; to eat incredible food; to learn about different ways of thinking and approaching problems.  
  2. Enjoy the beauty of the language. There is nothing better than a Spanish “rr” rolling off a tongue. I hope my students will enjoy the challenge of learning to roll their “rr”s so much that they repeat tongue twisters to themselves when they are alone!
  3. Love expressing their thoughts in Spanish so much that they are willing to make mistakes and embarrass themselves—because it’s inevitable. They need to understand that it’s OK when learning a language to return to toddler-level of expression (temporarily).  
  4. Trust that as tedious as it can be, it’s worth it to sit and memorize vocab words and verb conjugations because ultimately, those simple words and structures are the foundation for much more sophisticated conversations. It’s amazing when you have that first conversation with someone who doesn’t speak a word of English!  
  5. Develop a strong enough love of Spanish that they will stick with it for at least 5-6 more years, and hopefully in college as well. The power of language learning is life-changing.

I speak about that life-changing power from personal experience. A decision I made when I was in seventh grade affects my life on a daily basis: I chose to break with family tradition and study Spanish instead of French. I was intuitively intrigued by Spanish, and my middle school teacher helped me fall in love with the language. In high school, my family hosted a Spanish exchange student, and then I became one. While studying abroad junior year of college, I met a Mexican man, whom I later married, and after two years living in Mexico, we came here to raise our children. None of this would have happened if that middle school teacher had not gotten me off to a good start.

So, in the three, 45-minute periods a week I have with your children, I’m thinking about cycles of the moon, hormones, teaching study skills, and providing enough practice with messy irregular verbs. But most of all, I’m looking for ways to cultivate joy and teach the self-efficacy and life skills necessary to go out and pursue whatever it is—Spanish or not—that brings them happiness. Your sixth graders are genuine and true to who they are and what they love. I hope that when I see them again in a few short years at the Upper School they will be well on their way to being responsible, thoughtful, mature, self-confident, independent young adults. But I will be most fulfilled if I see them mix that long-cultivated seriousness of purpose and focus with the sense of fun and lightheartedness that they have right now. I’ll be waiting, lunar calendar in hand.