Middle School News

Part 2 of Student-centered Learning: How Teachers Ensure Students Are Meeting Learning Objectives
Rachel Freeman, communications and website manager

One of the ways Nueva faculty members help students meet their potential is through assessments. Just as our approach to learning keeps our gifted students at the center, so too does the process for how teachers assess—and then communicate—how students are meeting the learning objectives and where they have opportunities for growth. With projects that are responsive to students’ curiosity and creativity, our faculty ensures that assessments are both standards-based and flexible so that students feel most engaged.

Last week, we highlighted how two of our lower school faculty members approach assessments and keep an open feedback loop. This week, we invite you to read how a few of our middle school faculty members are doing so; check back next week for the final installment about upper school. 


Cristina Veresan and Sabrina Garcia, Middle School Science Teachers
Fifth grade science

We recently wrapped up our cell biology unit, and our learning goals related to plant and animal cell organelles—tiny structures—and their functions. We taught students how to properly use a microscope to observe actual cells. A more traditional assessment might have asked students to label a cell diagram and then maybe define functions. However, we were excited to assess student knowledge of the content in a way that allowed for more creativity and that challenged students to synthesize information while practicing essential science skills. 

For this Cell Analogy Project, we asked students to generate an analogy comparing a cell to an object, community, or other system of their choice—as long as, like a cell, it had many parts doing specific jobs. There was a wide variety of systems represented. Some students compared a cell to a museum—such as the Exploratorium and California Academy of Sciences. Another student compared a cell to the Golden State Warriors basketball team. We had everything from In-N-Out Burger to an Apple computer to Despicable Me!

Students then needed to illustrate their system on a mini-poster with original artwork or a photo collage. They had to label at least ten different parts and compare them to corresponding cell organelles based on their functions. So, for one student’s “If Disneyland were a cell” analogy, the park gate was labeled, “cell membrane: it protects the park and controls what comes in and out.” 

When we evaluated student work, we were looking for a polished presentation, a visual representation of each part, and, most importantly, a solid understanding of cell organelle functions reflected by thoughtful and accurate comparisons. 

We provided students formative feedback as they were developing their analogies to ensure that they were successful; we didn't want to wait until they turned in their final project to comment on their work. In addition to a project overview and checklist, we provided each student with a planning sheet that was a template for developing all the organelle comparisons in their analogy. 

While we regularly share written feedback in Google Classroom, face-to-face feedback was most influential during this project. In order to begin their mini-poster, students conferenced with us about their planning sheet during class and needed our approval before moving forward. If a student was struggling, we would talk through it together: “Well, what does this organelle do for the cell? Ok, what part of your system has a job like that?”

This project highlights a few of our core values in assessing science learning. First, the imaginative project allows for student choice. They could select anything they wanted to compare to a cell, so they could tap into their interests and passions. A skier, for example, compared the cell to a ski resort and another student used Boba Guys for inspiration because she loves their teas. 

Second, it focuses on skills—in this case, developing models—rather than just the acquisition of content. Sometimes scientific models are physical or mathematical, but a lot of people don’t realize that they can also be analogies—and generating original analogies can really help conceptual understanding stick! Communicating science is another skill on display in the mini-posters. The skills addressed in this project are two of the eight transferable science skills developed by Nueva middle school science faculty that spiral throughout our science curricula.

To us, teacher feedback must be timely and specific to be meaningful for students. Throughout a unit, our students have many opportunities to receive feedback in order to help them grow and apply their learning to the next assessment.


Sam Arndtsen, Middle School Humanities Teacher
Sixth grade humanities

I am very excited to talk about assessments as it has been top of mind for me all year. At the most systemic level, the middle school is adopting a single-point rubric as our way of providing feedback for midterm and final evaluations. Rather than a multipoint rubric, which prescriptively describes exceeding, meeting expectations, and not meeting expectations look like, a single-point rubric lists the individual learning objectives and names the expectations around those objectives without listing what it has to look like in order to exceed them or what an opportunity for growth might look like for each objective. The key difference between this new rubric and a more traditional one is that the single-point gives students a clear understanding of what the learning objectives are without limiting them to succeeding in one specific way.

Pictured above is the single-point rubric Sam used for the most recent sixth-grade humanities unit

At the end of each unit, I fill out the rubric for each student. In areas where students are meeting expectations, I simply highlight the skill and learning objectives. If a student is exceeding expectations, I write in celebrations and if I student is not yet meeting expectations I write in opportunities for growth.

This single-point rubric allows me to be reflective and reflexive and customize my feedback to each student. At the same time, it has the benefit of a rubric, which names for students what I’m assessing and what our expectations are. It has the benefits of a rubric without the constrictions of a rubric. 

This year I am using this rubric not just for the official evaluation periods, but also for each unit in the class. While all of our units culminate with a project—because our curriculum is so project-based—the new rubric assesses the students’ learning across the unit as a whole, rather than just the project. This allows students to really see where they are, and it also gets them used to this format. 

For my single-point rubric, there are three sections for approaches to learning that I want students to focus on: independence, demonstration of engagement, and organization. These are broad skills they use throughout the unit. Then there are humanities-specific skills: research and documentation, claims, use of evidence, and analysis of evidence, plus research and documentation, claims, evidence, and analysis of evidence as they relate specifically to their final project. Finally, the rubric includes project-specific objectives: communication skills, writing skills, verbal presentation skills, and visual presentation skills. 

The key to all of this is that I take data throughout the whole unit so that I have qualitative and quantitative information to help me fill out the rubric for each student. In my class, I include the same skills for every single unit. My hope is that they can put each of their rubrics next to each other and look horizontally across and ask, “How is my independence growing over time?” It allows students to holistically see where they are growing. 

Right now, I am giving feedback on our second unit, where we looked at the Christopher Columbus statue in Columbus Circle in New York City. Students created videos directed to New York City Mayor Eric Adams providing suggestions about what to do with the statue. For the specific project skills, I am looking at the script they wrote, the video they created, and the research they did to come up with their solution. (Click here to view a video by student Evan C. and click here for view Nicholas V.'s video.)

Overall, what I really like about this single-point rubric is that it gives students clear metrics for what the expectations are without limiting them in a convergent way, where they are only allowed to succeed in certain ways. For example, there are many different ways students can demonstrate engagement that are inclusive of different learning styles and personality types. For one student, it may be participating in class discussions, while for another student, who is quieter, it may look like engaging in partner conversations and active class journaling. Both indicate student engagement, and there are multiple entry points for students to demonstrate engagement. 

In addition, my job is not to just teach history or humanities, and the related skills. Rather, as part of a school that touts ourselves as one that centers the whole child, my job is to also teach social and emotional skills. This is why the rubric includes transferable skills that students will use across disciplines and at every stage of their lives. 

Read More

Starting from Scratch: Nueva Computer Science Program Builds Confidence and Creativity

From fourth grade through eighth grade, every student takes classes in the Hillsborough campus I-Lab, where they practice hands-on prototyping, use tools and machinery, and learn coding and computer science—all within the framework of design thinking.

“Our guiding principle,” said I-Lab Director Angi Chau, “is that the core computer science curriculum is meant to be accessible to everybody, whether or not they have done a lot of coding before.” 

Catching Up with . . . Emily Goldberg

Emily Goldberg began at Nueva in March, joining our community as the middle school counselor. We chatted with Emily about her hopes and goals in her new role, her path to Nueva, and what she loves about working with middle school students.

Middle Schoolers Calculate Carbon Impact of Hillsborough Campus

Stepping into Tim Varga’s middle school biogeochemistry class feels like entering into a graduate-level course. For months, these middle school students have been working to quantify the carbon cycle for the Hillsborough campus, with different students responsible for different parts of the project to help create the whole picture.

Catching Up with . . . Cliff Burke

Cliff Burke joined Nueva at the start of the 2020–2021 school year and teaches writing in the middle school. We sat down with Cliff to discuss his teaching practice, collaboration with his teammates, and the experience of joining the community at such a unique and challenging time to be a student and educator.