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Variety Abounds in the Middle School

Andy Wright
Mission Principles: Compelling & Connected Academic Program, Community's Inclusivity & Diversity, Connection to Local & Global Communities, Integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Mathematics, Pursuit of the Balance of Rigor & Joy, Small Harkness Experience, Understanding of Social Justice & Global System
It’s no surprise to parents that adolescents experience a pronounced and rapid period of growth. It can be quite shocking, really. During this time they can undergo significant changes in physical, intellectual, moral and psychological, and socio-emotional development. As part of this process they are hungry - for movement, change, social opportunities, challenges, new experiences and variety in their lives.

As educators we strive to take advantage of this unique period of development by providing a wide range of experiences in Middle School. Exposing students to new and different activities and ways of thinking accomplishes several important goals. It gives them skills and potentially new interests that they can carry into high school. It helps them get comfortable with the uncomfortable. And, it builds the confidence that comes from accepting challenges and overcoming obstacles at an age when building confidence is critical. In short, 7th and 8th grade is an ideal time for exposure.

Seven ways we encourage our Middle School students to stretch:

  1. Academics: In the classroom we stretch our students in ways that they haven’t before. They are asked to develop clear arguments and adopt varying points of view in history and English, while speaking coherently and frequently to teachers and classmates during Harkness discussions. They explore in detail, perhaps for the first time, their personal identities and biases in 7th grade SOCCOM classes. In Mathematics classes they move from concrete to more abstract ways of thinking. They learn about current events around the world in languages they couldn’t begin to speak just a short time ago.
  1. Service Learning: Students stretch themselves in new and sometimes uncomfortable situations during Service Learning, rapidly building competency working with aging adults, young children or developmentally disabled individuals on a weekly basis over an eleven week cycle. Patience and empathy, two qualities that adolescents are not generally known for, become more and more apparent as the service learning groups head out on their visits.
  1. Arts and STEAM: We put students in choirs, theater and the dance studio, or computer animation and digital film recording. While they may have preconceptions of these activities based on gender and experience, we know knowing that trying as many as possible is what they need.
  1. Athletics: Sports options give some students their first exposures to new pursuits - from volleyball and flag football to basketball and lacrosse. While a few students enter the Middle School as experienced players, the majority of our students have had little to no experience in some of these sports. Our no-cut policy enables students to learn basic skills and challenge themselves as athletes, often for the first time.
  1. Clubs: Students have the opportunity to program robots, learn Tai-chi, engage in role playing games, plan and lead student activities and build useful items using power tools during our clubs program. This is another area that can provide “a-ha” moments of accomplishment and interest.
  1. Skills: in our Skills rotation, students are exposed to six different programs of learning over two years. These are designed to help students explore inside and outside of themselves while learning about brain science, mental and physical health, computer coding, and DIME (diversity, inclusivity, multiculturalism and equity) skills. These programs help students handle the more complex expectations of Middle School and high school while furthering their self-awareness.
  1. Travel: Finally, we wrap up each year with a travel program - 7th graders head to the Santa Monica Mountains for field research and 8th graders further their study of American history during a trip to Washington, DC. Outside of the academic aims of these trips, the experience of travel - for some students the first time they have traveled far from home, and for most the first time they have traveled without their families - is a powerful growth opportunity.

In order to answer the ongoing question of “who am I in this world?” we engage our students in a purposeful and rapid process of exposure and exploration. Like a party-goer trying on different identities for an upcoming masquerade ball, our students take on and try out new ways of looking, thinking, speaking, acting and listening. Some stick, some don’t. This is normal, healthy and expected. The process, however, increases their self-awareness and confidence, setting them up to take full advantage of high school and beyond.

Andy Wright
Middle School Head & Science