Keith Civin: Building Connections, Building Trust with Students

by | Nov 22, 2021 | Community, Learning, Our Stories

When did you start at Rashi?

I started in 2002. Over the years I have taught all grades from 5th to 8th. I originally taught 5th and 8th grade. I probably taught 5th grade for 3 or 4 years, along with one of the Middle School grades, and I’ve been in the Middle School since then. I’ve always taught social studies, except for one year when I also taught math.

 

Tell me about your background

I went to Syracuse for undergrad. I was in various forms of retail management after that…but it wasn’t how I wanted to spend my life. I went back to school. I did the Shady Hill Teacher Training Center (TTC) (a graduate-level teacher-preparation program) apprentice program. It’s a one-year hands-on program with Lesley University. There was a group of 16 of us. I got my accelerated master’s degree in education. You are in the classroom, going to Lesley University, learning from teachers [all at once]. I got my master’s and came here to Rashi!

 

I grew up in Central Massachusetts in a Jewish though not at all religious family. I remember Glenda Speyer, who later became the Head of the Rashi Middle School, called me on the phone one night and interviewed me. My wife at the time said ‘what do they want with you at a ‘Boston Jewish school?’ I said: “They need a teacher, and I need a job.” And 19 years later I’m still here.

 

Tell me about your role

My main role is I teach 6th and 7th grade social studies. I’m also a 7th grade advisor. I’m on the Technology Committee. I was on the Tamchui Committee for years. I have also served on the Social Studies Curriculum Committee and various other committees throughout my years at Rashi.

 

What’s a special unit you teach?

In 7th grade we do an immigration unit about turn of the century immigration. We focus on Jewish immigration of the 1900-1920s period. For the assessment for this unit the students write a 10-14 page memoir where they take on a persona of a person, coming from a shtetl in Russia, going through Ellis Island, and settling on the Lower East Side. I like it for a lot of reasons: it tells you a lot of information about the development of their writing. When they start off in the 6th grade, most students would have difficulty completing a writing assignment of this magnitude, however by 7th grade, there is so much growth in their writing that they are able to take it on and excel. They have fun with it. It gives them pride in seeing their finished product.

By 7th grade, there is so much growth in their writing that they are able to take it on and excel.

 

 

Who is a teacher that inspired you?

Glenda Speyer.  She had a way with the kids that I found really inspiring. She had a saying when we would be talking as a faculty to speak about the kids as if they’re in the room. It said a lot about the way she was. She was very centered on the kids, and I try to do that as well.

 

On the transition to Middle School

I say to the parents on Back to School Night: this adjustment is about so much more than going up another flight of stairs. It’s about having different teachers, different classrooms, learning what’s expected in each class, staying organized, managing your time, and more. It’s a big undertaking for an 11 or 12 year old.

 

One of the things that is important is establishing that relationship in and outside the classroom–they feel they have someone to support them by being available.

 

Describe your approach to teaching

I think the main thing I try to keep in mind has to do with balance. I try to balance everything. Sometimes class needs to be fun, sometimes it needs to be serious. Sometimes I want them to struggle with an assignment. Sometimes calm. Sometimes hard, sometimes something where everyone should succeed. In my mind it’s all about keeping these things balanced.

 

 Another part of my philosophy is that teaching them habits of mind is more important than the curriculum I’m teaching so they are motivated, organized, and think about perspective. That they do things that are uncomfortable for them.

 

What do you do to encourage habits of mind?

I focus on making them [habits of mind] a topic of discussion. On the first day of class we don’t talk about curriculum–instead I have inspirational sayings around the room. Some are sayings about history, and we discuss those. I alternate the others each year. They are about motivation or success or excellence: I want them to understand that it’s not only about the skills you have–it’s about how hard you work at those skills. When we did it this year, a student offered one that I think it’s the best saying ever: ‘Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard.’

 

How do you connect with middle school students so well?

By being myself, by thinking about how hard it is to be a middle school student.

 I understand that life is hard and being 13 is hard, I think they value that and want to work hard for me. By being available to them.

By modeling that there is time to have fun and there’s time to be serious. I think letting them see my vulnerabilities, and things I haven’t been successful at, and that you have to bounce back in life, I understand that life is hard and being 13 is hard, I think they value that and want to work hard for me. By being available to them.

 

How has your curriculum evolved?

Both the 6th and 7th grade social studies curriculum have had additions focused on DEI instruction.  For example, over the last three months, I have begun both of my  6th and 7th-grade classes with a spotlight series. In March each class began with a spotlight on someone who contributed to Women’s History. In April it was for someone of color and in May each day began with a spotlight on someone who contributed to the LGBTQ+ community. In 7th grade, we also added an integrated unit along with LA, Art and Jewish Studies which focused on the question Racial Justice in America: Where do we go from here? Throughout the year the students also took part in assignments on whether or not students thought Confederate statues should be removed or not, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and needed changes on policing. 

 Throughout the year the students also took part in assignments on whether or not students thought Confederate statues should be removed or not, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and needed changes on policing. 

A favorite Middle School activity/tradition

The 7th grade class trip which in the past has been to Washington DC. I started doing it my second or third year here, we’ve gone every year except last year because of COVID. We will now be doing a civil rights trip of the South. The most valuable thing is not what they learn in the museums or the capital, it’s what they learn about navigating a foreign place without their parents there. We took the metro all the time-I say to the kids all the time, stay to the right! Stay to the right! And finally at the end of the trip, I look and they are all to the right. Being brave to get on the metro. It’s dealing with the meal you don’t really like but have to eat. It’s the life skills.

 

What do you find rewarding about your job?

The biggest [reward] is when I see what alums are doing.

The biggest one is when I see what alums are doing. The success that the alums have and I think about: I remember when that kid couldn’t figure out latitude and longitude and now they’re a geographer.