Upper Division (Grades 7-8)


Our 7th and 8th graders follow a block schedule that rotates over a two-week period, with both short and long blocks of time for core subjects, daily world language and PE classes, a broad selection of electives, and time for social-emotional development with their mentor groups. Students learn to manage their time and take initiative in their studies, and they graduate very well prepared for the road ahead in high school and beyond.


English

Identity and voice: They are at the heart of our Upper Division English program, as our students absorb and respond to the world through literature and language.

Readings reflect a broad-minded approach: novels and short fiction from Sherman Alexie, John Steinbeck, Carl Hiassen, Roald Dahl, Ellen Klage, Flannery O'Connor, and Shirley Jackson, among others; Shakespeare; journalism; essays; and poetry. In addition, works chosen are often relevant to other curriculum areas, such as history (Alexie's The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian) or ecological literacy (Hoot by Hiassen and Klage's The Green Glass Sea). The works are discussed in small groups, which facilitates understanding and fosters lively discussion. All students keep a journal recording their responses to the week's reading and bring these journals with them to literature group to spark conversation.

The 7th grade year in writing begins with refining the fundamentals—lead, setting, plot, narrative structure—and moves quickly into developing students' sophistication as writers. They are encouraged to find their own voice, and while both 7th and 8th grades write personal narratives, short stories, poetry, and essays, they also branch out into other means of expression. They start learning blogging and response skills in 7th grade, and in 8th grade they create blogs and Twitter accounts that they will maintain throughout the year. Prior to launching their blogs, the students engage in discussion around digital citizenship and self-expression on such a large stage. "Blogging and tweeting—writing for a really big audience, but with thought—hones their skills in a way that traditional instruction doesn't," says Upper Division English teacher Jen Wood.

Throughout, grammar and vocabulary are exponentially developed in the context of literature study and the act of writing; the curriculum develops organically each year based on the particular needs of the class. The 8th graders spend part of the spring semester working on the personal statements they will each read at graduation.

History

Students reach the Upper Division ready to take on the historian’s mindset. Our program encourages inquiry, skepticism, and debate. The teachers like to say that history is an activity, not a thing. This philosophy is lived in our program.

The territory covered in 7th grade roams broadly in a survey of world civilizations. Each unit is built around a multidisciplinary project to engage students in the learning experience. Over time, students develop skills in asking creative questions and researching the answers; from there, they make strong arguments by using a variety of sources and corroborating what they learn. The Upper Division years are also a time when the skills to demonstrate one’s knowledge deepen considerably. Students must be able to express themselves in a variety of formats—verbally and in writing, but also in video or other media. They must present information clearly, convincingly, and in an organized manner.

The 8th grade curriculum focuses on U.S. government and history, but the learning now shifts further from nuts and bolts to higher-order thinking skills; students start developing a lens through which to understand historical events and figures. Participation is key, as the learning shifts away from teacher-centered lessons to student-led discussion.

Students are challenged to think deeply, not only about "what’s happened" but also about what it means. They leave for high school well prepared to engage in all facets of the discipline of history.

Math

The goal of Upper Division math is to ensure students have the concepts of Algebra 1 in hand as they enter high school, and between marble ramps, puzzles, and game design, learning is kept active. The teaching encourages multiple solutions to problems as well as peer-to-peer learning, with students working together, discussing strategies and process, and the teacher acting as a guide.

The 7th grade year is spent primarily on linear equations, patterns, probability, and data analysis, all illustrated through hands-on projects. A toy-car collision derby, done in conjunction with the enriched-math class, has students applying the formula of distance equals rate times time: All the cars are supposed to collide at the same point, so each team has to figure out the distance their car needs to travel and how fast. Designing a series of ramps for a marble to travel helps convey the concepts of slope: How fast does the marble travel at different slopes? How can they adjust each ramp to ensure the marble stops on its own at a specified point?

Eighth grade covers nonlinear equations—quadratic, exponential, rational, and radical, including the Pythagorean theorem. Again, hands-on projects challenge students to dig deep into the material: Students make their own puzzles to prove the Pythagorean theorem, using the tools available in our Open Lab. And modeling—with food coloring and water—how medicines are filtered out of the bloodstream over time illustrates another real-world application of exponential equations.

ENRICHED MATH

Full-season Little League team roster creation, toy car crash testing, and snowflake making? Enriched math students at Mark Day School do the hard work of problem solving but also engage with concepts in deep, interesting, and novel ways.

Some of the core topics covered in 7th grade include visualizing and modeling patterns, distance equals rate times time; multiple aspects of solving and modeling linear equations; data analysis, representation, and presentation; and probability and expected value. Eighth graders get well prepared for rigorous high school math through exploring and modeling exponential expressions and relationships; quadratic functions and polynomials; and both radical and rational expressions and equations.

A wide range of projects reinforce learning, such as having students create fractal-based art pieces (like the von Koch snowflake) through applying concepts associated with sequences and series, design and produce probability-based games, and study carpooling patterns at our own school! Further, students engage with and experience many real-world applications of the mathematical and analytic concepts they explore in class. Students have even visited a professional car racing company to learn about the mathematics behind optimizing race car performance, and annually visit the renowned local firm of Fair Isaac (creators of the FICO score) to learn about predictive modeling and data analysis in the financial services industry.

Finally, all students who enjoy math are encouraged to participate on our Mathletes team, for which there are no tryouts.

Science

Upper Division science is a hands-on process of achieving scientific literacy and proficiency with the scientific method through an understanding of biology, chemistry, the environment, and the principles of physics. The curriculum rotates, with physical sciences as the focus one year and life sciences the next. Through a variety of in-class experiments and longer-term projects, students become confident in their abilities to design and carry out investigations, do research, build working models, present their findings, and evaluate the work of others.

Students usually work in pairs on class projects, including building roller coasters in their study of force and motion and presenting analysis about the many aspects of plastics—how they're made, their disposal or lack thereof, why they don't biodegrade. They also analyze the subject of plastics from social, environmental, and economic perspectives, create an educational campaign, and write letters to government officials. Seventh graders start with small areas of research, such as the basic needs of plants and the impact of pollution on their space, water, light, and air.

All 7th graders participate in the Marin County Science Fair, and the results are always impressive, in both topics and awards: Projects have examined the use of biogases as alternative energy sources, the possibilities for state-changing materials in solar energy design, and the effects of chemicals in Marin County streams on aquatic insects.

Several interdisciplinary projects are carried out each year: In conjunction with the math department, students learn about data analysis and presentation. A collaboration with Upper Division English has students extensively researching different endangered species and the causes and solutions that science can offer; they then create public service announcements to educate the school community about these animals, raise money to donate to organizations working on behalf of the animals, and again wrote to relevant government officials about their concerns.

Students have also become inspired to investigate ways that our campus and community can improve our ecological footprint: They organize our annual EcoFest, a day of environmental education and art, and they have analyzed campus energy use and made suggestions for improving it.

Mandarin

Upper Division Mandarin exposes students to more Chinese culture and history, and it brings them past basic expression into more complex use of the language. In 7th grade, they will do a research project on Chinese New Year, write a story, and create a project on a day in the life of someone they know, for which they can choose their own means of expression—a video, manga, or a song. Before writing their own story, they read a story in Mandarin to use as a guide.

In 8th grade, projects encourage big thinking: They will describe the layout of their own home and then design a dream home, learning and using the vocabulary for buildings and measurements. They will write an opinion essay—for example on the pros and cons of the Internet's influence—and they will design a dream trip, choosing an itinerary, shopping for airfare, describing what they would see, and making a budget. In addition, they keep a weekly journal, learn to write proper e-mail, and learn how to write an invitation.

Our teachers work to inspire their students to continue their study of Mandarin into the future and to further their knowledge and appreciation of Chinese culture.

Spanish

Spanish in the Upper Division delves further into historical and cultural topics, while students make great progress toward conversational proficiency. Themes during the 7th and 8th grades include travel, clothing, home and family, friends and pastimes, and, most deliciously, foods and preparation of authentic dishes. Topics such as Spain's Siglo de Oro (Golden Age); the Spanish Civil War; and the countries of Latin America—with a particular focus on modern-day Costa Rica, where we have a partner school—help students gain real cultural perspective and global competencies that support their emerging fluency.

Goals for the end of the 8th grade year include comprehending spoken language, using correct pronunciation, as well as overall competence and confidence in conversation, discussions, and interviews. They learn several verb tenses and further develop their writing by addressing topics in greater detail using their ever-growing vocabulary and facility with grammar. Spanish-language dialogue, poetry, and novellas expose students to reading material that is varied in both style and content.

The Upper Division block schedule allots daily time for language study, and with students hearing and speaking primarily Spanish in class, they graduate with a desire to continue their engagement with world languages. Many of our graduates go on to study and travel in Spanish-speaking countries.

Electives

Our 7th and 8th grade students have the opportunity to pursue many interests outside of their core classes: visual art, rock band, African drumming, choral singing, string ensemble, drama and improv, iOS game programming, graphic novels, line dancing, Web design, slam poetry—and new classes are designed frequently. We offer many possibilities for learning something new and following a passion.

The elective schedule rotates three times each year, and students can take two classes per session.