State of the Middle School - February 2019

Meredith deChabert, Middle School Principal*

It is amazing to take a moment and realize that we are midway through yet another academic year. This year really seems to be flying by, and in every way, our students are growing right along with it, literally, before our eyes. 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 continue to focus on excellence in curriculum and pedagogy as we support our students' cognitive growth, and we are proud of our programs that do an excellent job supporting our students' physical and socio-emotional growth. Below are some 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 fifth year, the Middle School's service learning program continues to grow and 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).

This year, 18 different groups in grades 6, 7, and 8 are working on projects as diverse as support for families at risk, animal welfare, medical research, habitat preservation, military personnel, education, and more. While some of these issues have been addressed by our middle schoolers in the past, students formed new groups this year, as well, and we are now witnessing students educating themselves about a new range of issues and learning to advocate on behalf of causes they feel are important to them. This year also has seen a shift in the program toward a greater emphasis on helping each other to understand the importance of the issues that have been raised. Many students have adopted the view that even though partner organizations appreciate any fundraising efforts made for them, greater benefit may lie in planting the seeds of interest and future activism in our extended RCDS family right now. It has been wonderful to see our students enthusiastically taking on the "learning" portion of Service Learning!

Service learning also continues to be a major aspect of the fifth grade experience. For the past few months, students have been diligently reading books and submitting detailed summaries in order to earn a scholarship for a student at WEMA, a school in Bukembe Village, Bungoma, Kenya. At this juncture, the students have read and reviewed over 200 books with the goal of reaching 500 by the end of the year. We encourage them to continue reading and writing in the months ahead! In addition to their work for WEMA, students have been learning about endangered species and are starting to explore the various ways humans can help these animals. Over the next few months, they will start to research specific animals to find the reasons for their endangered status and to look for opportunities to help.

Before the winter break, fifth graders were able to spearhead a Middle School service project, which collected over 400 pairs of socks to be donated to The Sharing Shelf in Port Chester. The socks were then given to hundreds of children in Westchester County allowing them to be warm and protected at school and at play this winter season.

It is also noteworthy that all students in grade 6 this year opted to participate in service learning groups!

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 five 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:

  • Grade 5: Understanding the brain and how learning happens has been the focus for fifth grade study skills classes. They have recently begun the unit on brain activities to help develop their metacognitive skills in specific areas. The brain activities are interactive and engaging, and they highlight misconceptions and challenges surrounding attention, multitasking, and visual and linguistic memory. Students become aware of themselves as learners through these activities, and strategies are presented to help students develop a growth mindset.
  • Grade 6: Ms. Donahue and Mrs. Cartwright have teamed up to provide explicit instruction on Executive Functioning Skills, which contain overlapping topics from both the SEEK and Study Skills curricula. Students continue to work metacognitively using the self-assessment tools provided by the work of Peg Dawson & Richard Guare. Completed self-assessments will be sent home in the coming weeks and can be used to build and support discussion with regard to your child's learning process and progress. The goal moving forward is to help students draw on their strengths while, at the same time, learn specific strategies to practice and develop weaker areas.
  • Grades 7 & 8: Seventh and eighth graders are currently gearing up for March Exams. Students received a "March Exam Study Skills Quick Survival Guide," which is available on the Study Skills Haiku page. The Survival Guide includes material we have been working with since the start of the year. To help guide students, recommendations and tips will be available at the start of each week in February. We will continue to focus on exam preparation from several angles, including organization, time management, understanding of content, and test taking strategies. In addition, Mrs. Cartwright will be offering sessions during Flex time to provide extra support on specific topics such as test anxiety, managing procrastination, mapping out a study plan, and tools to help students work efficiently.

SEEK classes, taught by Middle School Counselor Carrie Donahue, help students to grow as responsible and respectful members of our community and help them to develop positive self-esteem and self-efficacy.
  • In early January, the fifth graders began the unit on Stress Management and Resilience. They first identified what stress looks and feels like for fifth graders, and over the next couple of sessions will practice a number of simple yet effective tools that can help students to feel physically and emotionally grounded, including simple seated yoga postures, a guided relaxation/mindfulness activity, and discussions about what is within their control and what is not - and why it is so important to learn how to let go of what they do not have control over! The students enjoy this interactive unit each year, and the hope is that each one takes away a few "tools for their toolbox," resulting in great emotional health and wellness.
  • Grade 6 has just finished a combined SEEK/Study Skills unit on Executive Functioning Skills (identifying what those executive skills are, why they are important, and which ones they are best at). This lesson results in students beginning to learn how to use their strongest EF skills in order to work toward academic and emotional success. They will next get involved in the topic of smoking and tobacco use – our first conversation in terms of thinking about addiction – which will include viewing a video that focuses on e-cigarettes and vaping. Topics covered in our conversations will include refusal skills, health risks versus the positive advertising of "electronic nicotine delivery," and basic knowledge of the adolescent brain and how it can become primed for addiction.
  • The seventh graders are in the midst of their unit on substance use/abuse, during which they focus on how addiction happens biologically, their own neurological development and the impact substances can have on the developing brain, and reasons young people might start experimenting in the first place. Just before exams, we will have some fun reviewing our self-soothing techniques as we prepare to take our first set of cumulative exams.
  • The eighth graders are in the process of viewing a TED talk by Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal, entitled "How to Make Stress Your Friend." McGonigal's talk is a wonderful lesson in understanding how our perceptions shape our cognition (and in turn our physical and mental health), and how much we can actually keep ourselves healthy as we increase our own awareness of "lens" on the world around us. It is also a great lesson in stress management as the eighth graders begin to think about getting ready for March exams. Next, we will move into our Substance Use and Abuse unit, which will continue the work done during the students' weeklong experience with FCD. The eighth graders will think specifically about the neurological and biological implications of how addiction hijacks the brain, as well learn about how social norms can contribute to their own decision-making around substance use as they move on to high school and beyond.

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 Assistant Principal.

Once again, this year's members of the Student Leadership Council have been busy! The SLC had its first round of pizza sales at the end of January. The Council also has worked with the Middle School administration and teachers in grades 7 and 8 to focus on the amount of homework given each night and on weekends. Additionally, they put together two spirit weeks and ran a successful "compliment candy gram" fundraiser. Most recently, they sent out a survey to all seventh and eighth graders about Flex time locations and will be working with the deans to help coordinate numbers of rooms designated as silent and talking. The Council's proposal to grant iTunes privileges for eighth graders was successful!

The Technology Committee has focused on educating students and faculty about topics that we face in our ever-changing technological world. Earlier in the year, faculty used an advisory period to discuss copyright laws and ways in which students and teachers should cite sources when utilizing images, music, and other content from the internet. In addition, "Tech-Talk" signs were posted in all bathrooms and the main hallways to create awareness of digital footprints and online reputation. We aim to educate students that "the internet never forgets" and how to best protect themselves online. Looking ahead, the Technology Committee will revamp the "Tech-Talk" signs to focus on cyberbullying and what it takes to be an upstander.

To coincide with these topics, teachers were offered professional development opportunities in October and early January. During one of these presentations, faculty heard from some Upper School students about their usage of social media accounts and the challenges they may or may not face with these platforms. The second discussion focused largely on how social media and online sites can promote hate speech in subtle ways. Both professional development opportunities allowed faculty a chance to explore technology usage in today's world and brainstorm ways to help our students stay responsible and safe online.

Sustainability and the Middle School Green Team
The Middle School has been participating in various sustainability-related activities since the start of the year. Each division participated in the annual RCDS Recycle Challenge, and the Middle School won for the very first time! During the four-week challenge, Middle School bins had the highest percentage of correct trash and recycling bins (87%) throughout the entire school. Each week, students on the Middle School Green Team regularly went to each classroom and office to check if the trash and recycling bins were correct or incorrect while collecting data to analyze at the end of the challenge. To raise awareness, each classroom received a recycling score as well as suggestions to improve, which motivated students and faculty alike to improve their recycling habits.

Now that the recycling challenge is over, we are now participating in the RCDS Energy Challenge with the goal of reducing our school's overall energy consumption compared to last year's data. Middle schoolers can help by remembering to turn off lights when leaving a classroom, not leaving their chargers plugged in when not in use, and making sure all windows are closed.

Lastly, Middle School students have been diligently recycling their snack bags and science lab gloves through a company called TerraCycle. Students on the Green Team have made collection containers for many classrooms and hallways around the Middle School. Once the containers are full, the Green Team sorts the bags, weighs them using a big scale in the cafeteria, and sends them off to TerraCycle. Once at TerraCycle, the bags and gloves are turned into a powder and turned into new products like benches and watering cans. In total, the Middle School has sent 31.3 pounds of snack bags and 15 pounds of lab gloves back to TerraCycle.

*Sincerest thanks to Brandon Saltz, Ellen Cartwright, Carrie Donahue, Betsy Stedman, Heather Russell, and Kerry Linderoth for their contributions to this State of the Middle School column