by Assistant Head of School and Middle School Principal Dr. Meredith deChabert
The middle grades, which comprise Grades 5 through 8 at RCDS, are a unique time in young adolescents' development. These "no-longer-children" and "not-quite-young-adults" are in the midst of rapid and dynamic physical, emotional, social, and cognitive changes. Their bodies grow rapidly (and they need to eat a lot to support that growth!); their brains develop increased capacity for abstract thinking (and argumentation!); and they begin the major process of identity exploration. All of this change contributes to their increasing ability to understand the experiences and perspectives of others and to compare and contrast them to their own. At the middle school level, awareness is at the center of their development, and a sense of fairness and a desire to act follow from this awareness and a newfound sense of agency. Empathy, therefore, is poised for cultivation in middle schoolers.
One of the most germane aspects of the RCDS Portrait of a Graduate's definition of citizenship for middle schoolers is the focus on awareness, specifically, the Portrait's focus on students practicing empathy and perspective taking, examining local and global issues, showing openness and flexibility towards differences in opinion, recognizing stereotype and bias, and embracing and understanding the importance of diversity. As the Portrait suggests, in order for students to make a difference in the world as engaged and purpose-driven citizens, they must first be aware.
Below are a few of the ways in which the Middle School helps students to develop awareness alongside their typical developmental tasks.
Advisory and "House": The Advisory group in the Middle School is one of the many hubs from which students can safely explore themselves and their peers during these years of increasing awareness. At the beginning of the year, Advisors of single-grade small groups strive to get to know their advisees and work with them to set norms for the way the Advisory group will learn from and support each other. Advisory discussion topics run the gamut, but all are designed to help students understand themselves and others, elicit and share perspectives, listen and hear. This year, the Middle School has instituted another advisory-type configuration, which we are calling "House," grouping students from all four grades and two adults for the purposes of strengthening student connections and community-building across grades. It is in our House groups that we will explore award-winning author Sharon Draper's Stella by Starlight, this year's one-division read. Our House book discussions will focus on several of the big issues in the book, including community, injustice, courage, and humanity—all through the lens of empathy for the main character, Stella, and her family.
The SEEK Program: In SEEK class, all Middle School students are guided by Middle School Counselor Carrie Donahue to begin to develop a sense of their emerging identity, to explore their emotional selves, to examine their own decision-making skills, and to practice emotional regulation, among other things. It is awareness central! Some of the questions that come up in SEEK are as follows:
- How do we stay true to who we are when others want to define us?
- How does empathy impact identity?
- Why are human beings so judgy?
- What's the work we need to do to challenge stereotypes that bombard us?
- How do we find our courage muscles?
- Who am I becoming as I grow into a leader?
- Where do I need to push myself in terms of personal growth/community identity?
Service Learning: 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.
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).
MS Service Saturday, Fall 2018
MS Service Learning Fair, Spring 2019
In 2018-19, 18 different groups in Grades 6, 7, and 8 worked on projects as diverse as support for families at risk, animal welfare, medical research, habitat preservation, military personnel, education, and more. Students who participate in the program are educating themselves about a new range of issues and learning to advocate on behalf of causes they feel are important to them. 2018-19 also saw 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 now 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.
Service learning also continues to be a major aspect of the fifth grade experience. Fifth-graders diligently read books and submit detailed summaries in order to earn a scholarship for a student at WEMA, a school in Bukembe Village, Bungoma, Kenya, with which RCDS has a longstanding partnership. In addition to their work for WEMA, students learn about endangered species and explore the various ways humans can help these animals. Over the course of the year, they will research specific animals to find the reasons for their endangered status and to look for opportunities to help.
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 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. The Council brings student issues to the awareness of the administration, and in the process, learns a great deal in how decisions are made, often very slowly!
Of course, middle schoolers are working on their awareness in small and large ways in classrooms and hallways, as well. If you've ever almost been run over by a horde of middle schoolers on their way to PE, you know what I'm talking about (they are developing a sense of themselves in physical space, too)! In their classes, they are coming face-to-face with characters, historical events, themes, scientific phenomena, and their own abilities, all encouraging them to have empathy and compassion. The unique space in the middle that they occupy is fascinating, powerful, and full of potential!