Middle School Matters
If your middle school experience was anything like mine, you are more likely to recall an awkward moment at a dance or an embarrassing comment in a classroom than you are to remember the depth of your learning. In fact, it is rare, when I share my job with someone in a social setting, that I am not inundated with that person’s worst memories of middle school.
For years, middle schools were intentionally designed to mimic the high school experiences and environments of their students’ futures. In these junior high schools (get it?) teachers expected students to perform like mini high school students as they navigated watered-down high school classroom experiences. This is not to say that we who survived these environments didn’t learn anything or that we didn’t experience some great moments--I am quite sure that you did, too--it’s that we likely were not learning in an environment that truly supported the developing human beings that we were at the time.
The failure of this junior high school structure is that it does not take into account the uniqueness of the middle school student, one who is navigating a seemingly overwhelming transition of cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development. Schools were asking and expecting students to, quite literally, be someone they were not, which left too many students feeling lost and disconnected from their schooling at a time when the single greatest need is to feel an authentic sense of connection. At Ridgefield Academy we are crafting a developmentally-appropriate learning experience for our students, one that challenges them to grow and develop as learners and people in a caring and nurturing environment; one that understands that middle school actually matters.
Meeting Students Where They Are
A truly great middle school meets students where they are at each developmental level. The range of cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development is never again as wide as it is during the middle school years. This reality has driven a pedagogical shift away from a traditional, one-size-fits-all teaching model to a far more engaging, student-centered model, which allows each individual student to interact with the material at his or her own developmental level. In this model, the great middle school teacher of the twenty-first century is akin to a symphony conductor, encouraging and leading each student to perform at his or her best. In order for this to be possible, the teacher must be a master of his or her content. This allows the teacher to be dynamic and to shape and steer the learning around the questions and conclusions of the students. The teacher must also foster a strong and healthy relationship with each individual student, to know them as distinct learners and to support them in making the learning relevant in their own lives. With a deep understanding of the content and a strong relationship with the students, the teacher can craft a meaningful learning activity that supports the students in accessing the material and deepening their own, individual understanding.
Learning Through Connection
Another quality of a great middle school is that of student-teacher relationships in and out of the classroom. I often refer to the middle school years as a rollercoaster as students navigate the ups and downs of the significant cognitive, physical, and social-emotional change they are naturally experiencing. During this time of relative instability, students crave consistency in their relationships and in their environment, and unfortunately their peer group is equally unstable. To this end, the adults at home and at school must keep their feet firmly on the ground during these rollercoaster years. Genuinely trusting relationships with adults at school help students to feel grounded in that environment, which engenders in them a sense of security and safety as they work to define their authentic self. Moreover, educational neuroscience reminds us that brains learn better when they feel “safe”; when students learn in a safe and joyful environment, they are supported in taking greater cognitive risks--to think more deeply and make greater connections in their learning. No longer are middle schools the training grounds for new teachers or the pasture where former high school teachers go to finish their careers; instead, great middle school classrooms are led by dynamic adults who truly love and understand the age group.
Providing a Well-Rounded Experience
In addition to recognizing the unique developmental needs of middle schoolers and supporting those needs with dynamic, student-centered adults, a middle school program needs to be built with its student body in mind. As we do at Ridgefield Academy, the middle school years are a wonderful opportunity for students to explore new learning opportunities across the academic disciplines, through the performing and visual arts, in technology, and through athletics. With the competitive landscape of high school in mind, by providing middle level learners with a broad set of curricular and co-curricular experiences, the students have to opportunity to develop new passions and to determine how best to dedicate their time when the move on to high school. Moreover, without a high school building looming large on our campus, as a preschool-Grade 8 institution we are able to craft authentic leadership leadership roles for our middle school students. Our eighth graders understand and embrace their critical role as leaders on our campus; they lead community meetings, assume leadership roles in service learning initiatives, and set a positive example for our younger students. Through these
opportunities our students not only learn the value of leadership to a community, but also how to be a leader in a community. They are empowered by this challenge and rise to it, taking these critical skills with them into their high school experiences and beyond.
At Ridgefield Academy, we strive to create the best learning environment for our middle school students. Because we truly know and understand middle school students, and we provide a strong program and positive environment that supports them in their own cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development we empower our students to challenge themselves as learners and leaders in a world that so desperately needs their leadership.