State of the Middle School

Meredith deChabert, Middle School Principal

Now that we are a little more than midway through the year, we can take a moment to step back and appreciate the positive effects of many of the changes we recently made to the Middle School program: a shift to trimesters and a new schedule, to name but two. The rhythm of trimesters has proven to take the pressure off students after winter break, a time when they would be returning from vacation while faced with an assessment crunch as teachers prepared to close their grade books for the first semester. The longer grading periods also allow students to experience the natural fluctuations of performance without panic about any single grade's impact on their overall achievement scores. The new schedule, which brought all students and teachers into the same "time zone," allows for greater flexibility among teachers and students, as well as better coordination of common times for community building. The students and teachers also seem to have figured out how to negotiate passing from one class to the next without official passing time, and that paradigm shift continues to take hold. A longer Flex time is allowing students greater access to their teachers for extra help, time for clubs and other activities, or just necessary down time to be a growing middle schooler.

We also continue to focus a great deal on balance and wellness, both for students and employees. Teachers have been taking advantage of Parents Association professional development grants to learn more about mindfulness and other types of stress reduction techniques, and they immediately put them into practice in their classrooms with their students. On any given day, one might see a group of students leading adults or each other in breathing exercises during snack or recess, or students taking a mindful minute to breathe or color and re-center. Breathing, being present, and putting things in perspective are rapidly becoming a core part of our division's culture, and we will continue to foster the wellness that such an environment engenders.

All in all, our Middle School continues to succeed in its unique mission to help students face new challenges, take on new responsibilities, learn to manage new freedoms, and explore their strengths, their passions, and their world. We will always focus on excellence in curriculum and pedagogy as we support our students' cognitive growth, and we are proud of our evolving programs that do an excellent job supporting our students' physical and socio-emotional growth. Below are some more of this year's highlights!

Service Learning Program
Service learning offers many important benefits, including helping students to understand compassion, empathy, and what it takes to really make a difference in someone else's life; learning about the community we live in and its needs; allowing students to take ownership of their learning; teaching them to work collaboratively; strengthening partnerships that we have built with various organizations; and celebrating the accomplishments of students and their completed projects.

Now in its fourth year, the Middle School's service learning program continues to bring real-world problems to the forefront of students' learning. Faculty and students may choose to participate in the service learning program each year. Faculty who participate may use their curriculum as the anchor for a service learning project, and collaboration/tie-ins with other faculty and subject areas are strongly encouraged – we want to get students thinking interdisciplinarily about problems. Alternatively, faculty may work with a group of students on a project based on common interest and community need. All projects are encouraged to use the service learning model (Investigation – Preparation – Action – Reflection – Demonstration).

In Grade 5, students and faculty focus on the theme of animals and use science class as the curricular anchor. The fifth grade also continues its multi-year partnership with the Wema Children's Centre in Kenya. Service learning groups in grades 6, 7, and 8 this year are partnering with organizations such as Boston Children's Hospital, the Cure JM Foundation, the Humane Society, Building One Community, St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, the Bronx Zoo and the Wilderness Conservation Society, Letters for Lily, Neighbor to Neighbor, Our New Way Garden, PlaySmart, the USO, Wema Children's Centre, and the Wounded Warrior Project.

Now, that is a lot of good!

Freedom from Chemical Dependency (FCD)
In January, a Prevention Specialist from FCD, a non-profit organization that provides substance abuse prevention education for schools, worked with our eighth graders for four full days. FCD's mission is to encourage and support the non-use of alcohol and other illegal or illicit drugs during the growing years; to empower young people to make healthy, responsible choices regarding alcohol and other drug use; to teach students and adults how to recognize the early warning signs of substance abuse and to intervene appropriately; to educate students, parents, teachers, and administrators on the physiological and psychological effects of alcohol and other drugs; to promote awareness of drug addiction, including alcoholism, as a progressive, chronic, and often fatal disease; and to provide educational communities with the guidance and training necessary to implement comprehensive, effective approaches to substance abuse prevention.

As a result of FCD's visit, our eighth graders reported a significant increase in their knowledge of the risks of alcohol, marijuana, tobacco/nicotine/vaporizers, and other substances. Students also reported more confidence in how to help a friend in trouble with alcohol or other drugs and that they are more likely to make healthy choices after meeting with FCD.

A Prevention Specialist will return to RCDS in late May to work with our sixth and seventh graders on FCD's introductory curriculum.

Study Skills
The Study Skills Program, unique to the Middle School and taught by Ellen Cartwright, helps students to develop, practice, and implement healthy and effective study skills. The goal is to help students become independent learners, as well as to help them make efficient and effective use of their study time when by themselves or when part of a group. Below is an update from Mrs. Cartwright on what has been happening recently:

  • The fifth graders just completed a learning profile assessment to identify areas of strengths and weaknesses. We have redefined what the term "smart" means and will be investigating further how the brain works with regard to selective and sustained attention as well as visual, auditory, and language processing. Overall, students are learning how to identify and use their strengths while at the same time practicing to improve areas that prove to be challenging.
  • Sixth graders are delving deeper into executive skills and identifying problem areas that significantly interfere with effective studying. Please find two self-assessments that students completed: 1) Executive Function Questionnaire (pdf) and 2) Executive Skills Problem Checklist (pdf). In addition to tools already introduced, which include the Star, Check, and Circle Method, Weekly-Hourly Calendar, and the active listening tool S.L.A.N.T., students will be adding specific tools to address problem areas.
  • Seventh and eighth graders are getting ready for March Exams. Explicit instruction is ongoing, specifically in how to prepare for cumulative exams by using different strategies to prepare effectively for level 1, 2, and 3 questions. Additional topics explored in depth have been time-spaced learning, chunking information, battling procrastination, and effective test taking strategies.
In-House Professional Development: Observing Our Own Practice
Some of the most important professional development in education can come from observing the ways in which others do things: other teachers, other departments, other schools. In December and January, Middle School faculty members visited a class of another Middle School teacher in order to observe that teacher's methods and to see what might be effective strategies to add to their own toolkits.

Teachers were asked to identify a colleague whose class they would like to observe and to articulate some goals and hopes for what they would like to learn from the observation. During the visit, teachers were active observers of all that occurred in the class, with an especially keen eye to what they identified as important before the visit. Teachers were challenged to take purely objective notes during the visit – what they observed – with no judgment and no recommendations.

At our January 30 faculty meeting, the faculty came together to reflect on what they had observed, share their observations with colleagues, and generate a short list of patterns, overlaps, or even divergences in what they wanted to observe/learn and what they actually observed. Faculty also were challenged to think about their observations with the following questions:
  • What effective strategies did you observe for working with middle schoolers?
  • What made you come to the conclusion that something was effective? Were there particular student behaviors that signaled understanding, engagement, etc.?
  • Were there things that you observed in a colleague's teaching that reinforced something in your own?
  • Were there things that you observed in a colleague's teaching that made you want to try something new?
The faculty were so engaged by this activity and discussion that we did not have time to get to part three, which was sharing the take-aways from the small group discussions with the whole group and generating a master list of best practices from this set of observations. The conversation will continue. Teachers love learning and talking about good pedagogy, and giving them the time to have these kinds of collaborative conversations is essential to making our practice the very best that it can be.

Student Leadership Council
The Student Leadership Council (SLC) works as a collaborative team of eighth graders who are passionate about aspects of the Middle School and who want to gain practice in peer leadership. Members of the Student Leadership Council are expected to conduct themselves with the highest level of integrity and remain in good standing academically. They must exhibit leadership and examples of respect and responsibility throughout their tenure. Council members are required to attend meetings once a rotation with the Principal.

Once again, this year's members of the Student Leadership Council have been busy!
  • They have outlined a series of spirit weeks and more varied food sales for the year, and through it have learned important skills in calendar and schedule coordination.
  • The Student Leadership Council continues to support our service learning groups with grants from the proceeds of their food sales. Service learning groups may write proposals to the SLC asking for funds to help make something happen for their project (e.g. to buy supplies that are needed). Groups have to answer the following questions: How will your service learning group use the grant? Why should the school help fund this project? What will be the impact of this project on the community? Once a proposal is received, the Council votes and then communicates with the group.
  • The Council's proposal to grant iTunes privileges for 8th graders was successful.
  • The Council drafted a proposal to improve snack offerings in the Middle School. They did research on healthy and tasty snacks, and they supported their claims with evidence. The proposal was delivered to the Headmaster and Associate Head of School, and the administration is working on ways to accommodate the students' recommendations. Goldfish crackers have already made a comeback, much to the students' delight.
  • The Council hopes to spruce up some of the Middle School classrooms with comfortable furniture for relaxed studying during Flex time. Beanbags may be on the horizon, so stay tuned!