A group of four 11-year-old boys sprawled out around a large blank sheet of paper on the floor in Cara Renzi’s sixth-grade class at Oneida Middle School.
The students, who went to four different schools last year and had never met before Thursday, bantered back and forth as they spelled out examples of ways to follow their class’ three core rules: Be safe. Be respectful. Be responsible.
“It’s fun," Nasir George said of sixth grade. "You get to do fun activities, make a project, have a pizza party."
“No one said anything about a pizza party,” Jaeden Ruiz interjected.
Pizza parties aside — and pizza was on the menu for lunch — the students looked ahead with optimism to sixth grade. They said they were excited to gain more independence and freedom.
“There’s no drama,” Nasir said.
No drama? In middle school? They hadn’t even had their first lunch of the year yet.
“Maybe a little drama,” he added after giving it a second thought.
“I don’t think there will be as much drama because we are more mature this year,” Jaeden said.
More mature is what Schenectady sixth-grade teachers are hoping for. On Thursday morning, they welcomed a new group of students and started to roll out the rules and expectations of the coming year.
With a major redistricting completed last year, all Schenectady sixth-graders found themselves in the same place Thursday: in a new school and back at the bottom of the totem pole. Sixth grade is a major year of transition for students, who for the first time have lockers and switch rooms for different subjects.
But the transition to middle school isn’t total: sixth-graders ease into middle school with small teams of two teachers — one handles math and science while the other covers English language arts and social studies. But the students stay in the same class throughout the day.
“We are kind of at middle school but still a little in elementary,” said Leanne Vacca, who teaches sixth grade at Central Park Middle School.
Vacca on Thursday introduced her students — part of Team Union, like other Central Park teams named for a college — to their lockers and their new classmates. But the students were shy and quiet throughout the morning as they answered questions about “Mrs. Vacca’s Rules and Procedures.”
“I would like some more talking,” Vacca said as she roamed the room. “I like organized chaos.”
After spending most of the morning in Vacca’s room, their home room, the class moved to Tiara Dietz’s room next door. Dietz plays the math and science teacher to Vacca’s English and social studies. As the year grinds on, Team Union students will carve a well-worn path between the two rooms and to their lockers nearby.
Lockers are new too and a common first-day challenge. Vacca said it was a “little eye-opening” to some of the students that they would have their very own lockers. Throughout the day, at both Oneida and Central Park, stragglers could be seen fiddling with locks as they stressed over an unopened locker.
With just 30 minutes before the class headed off to gym, Dietz ran down her classroom rules and previewed the year ahead in math and science. In science they will start learning about rocks and end up learning about the entire solar system, she told the students.
“We do a lot of labs, a lot of edible labs,” Dietz said. “What does edible mean?”
“You can eat it,” a handful of students answered.
“Does anyone in here not like to eat? Raise your hand," Dietz asked.
No one raised their hand. Most everyone giggled.
At Oneida Middle School, a similar dance unfolded in sixth-grade rooms. Mary Barnett and Renzi, who both taught fifth grade at Van Corlaer Elementary last year and are teaching on the sixth-grade team at Oneida this year, squeezed their two classes into one room to run down shared expectations. The pair, who also work with a special education teacher, will meet for 30 minutes each day to discuss students and make plans that connect the science and math curriculum in Barnett’s room to the reading and writing work in Renzi’s room.
“So they will get it from two teachers instead of just one,” Renzi said. “Maybe some way I say it just sticks, maybe some way she says it sticks.”
Barnett sympathized with the students’ transition from fifth to sixth grade, because she was in the same place. At one point she accidentally asked if there was anything to add “fifth-graders.”
“That’s the third time she’s called us fifth-graders,” one of the students said.
“I apologize,” Barnett said, jumping at a chance to drive home another classroom lesson — apologize for mistakes and move on. “I called you fifth-graders and I will probably do it again. If you make a mistake just admit it; we’ll try not to do it again and move on.”