Tonight is our winter open house. While I prepare materials, make sure we have enough snacks and hope the cold doesn’t keep people home, it is easy for me to start feeling anxious. If I am honest, event planning is not my favorite thing and the pressure to show our school in its best light brings out the (unhealthy) perfectionist in me.
For all of my fretting, I know I don’t need to worry. We have our 7th and 8th graders lined up to be our tour guides. Experience has taught me over and over again, having prospective families spend time with our middle school student tour guides is the best way to show off our school. The thing I hear most often from families is that our middle school tour guides leave a lasting impression. They walk away impressed and wondering “Could that be my kid in a few years?”
You might be tempted to think our middle school students are a product of spontaneous generation. If you place kids in a setting like ours, with the words peace and community hanging on the walls in abundance, they are bound to morph into poised, caring, skilled adolescents.
The truth is, middle school is a hard time for kids. It is hard for all kinds of kids at all kinds of schools from all kinds of families. Make no mistake, middle school at Friends School of Minnesota is also hard.
At this point in a student’s life hormones are raging, they face increasing accountability at school, increasing responsibility at home and all of this is combined with an increased desire to be independent from their parents. Really, it is the perfect storm. They start to get smelly (If you don’t believe me poke your head in a humanities classroom sometime…it can get pretty zesty), the nature of relationships start to change and kids start noticing each other in different ways. On top of this they have a locker to manage, they are in charge of tracking their homework and if they don’t do these things the consequences feel bigger.
It takes hard work, skilled adults, and an unwavering commitment to see our students through to graduation in 8th grade. Considering all of this, how can a school successfully educate middle school students?
At FSMN we guide our middle school programming with a deep understanding of child development and this includes an understanding of the complex and dynamic life of a middle school student.
The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) identifies characteristics of a successful middle school program. A school must:
Employ teachers who know and like adolescents. Let’s face it, there are times middle school students are unpleasant to be around. At FSMN you will find teachers who understand this but are able to see each student for who they are and who they are becoming. At the point in our students’ lives when they are striving for more independence from parents our teachers are there to be non-parent adult advocates. Yes, it is our job to teach reading, writing, math, science etc., but it is also our job to be a supportive presence in students’ lives and at FSMN our teachers excel at this.
Be an inviting, supportive, inclusive and safe environment. Middle school is a time when the social context of learning begins to strongly influence a student’s emotional safety and sense of belonging. Unfortunately, middle school is also where class sizes tend to increase, seemingly at the same rate adult support decreases. At Friends School of Minnesota we keep class sizes small with ample adult support. Attention to community is essential for creating a successful middle school and we are committed to holding up student voices and engaging them directly in addressing community problems. We are a school that doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations, in fact we encourage them as appropriate. Our commitment to teaching conflict resolution skills and our willingness to dedicate ample time to collective problem solving (even if that means we do less math or Spanish during a week) promotes a safe climate for all learners.
Provide relevant curriculum and opportunities for active learning. With everything else that goes on in a middle schoolers life, finding a free moment to teach them cell biology can be tricky. For a middle school student to learn best, they must be at the center of their learning as active participants. At FSMN we provide students with time to be curious, ask questions, experiment, design, fail and have fun. We provide students with the materials and experiences to construct knowledge, solve meaningful problems and do it all with a sense of purpose.
Beyond the academic areas, we challenge students to reflect on themselves. Developing a sense of self helps ground a student when the real issues of the world are hurled at them from every direction. Having students continually ask themselves, “What do I believe?”, “How do I learn?”, “How do I stay true to my values when they are challenged?”, “How do I stay true to my values but still keep an open mind?” promotes self-awareness, develops voice and prepares students to navigate life with skill.
I am writing this as the clock ticks down to our open house tonight. I know there will be many curious kindergarten families, and I am excited for them to meet our students. They will see our kindergarten room, they will meet Marshall. How could they walk away without being amazed? Even after all of that, I know what will linger with them are our middle school students.