New Middle School Courses
New Middle School Courses
Skills for Middle School, Skills for Life
BY SUSIE ZIMMERMANN
As summer 2021 began, Middle School Director Quincey Grieve identified potential. “Fifteen months of COVID disruptions required us to be flexible and nimble and change a schedule we had only recently overhauled,” she said. “While hugely disruptive, that flexibility turned out to be a real blessing. We discovered that we could handle even more changes, add a day to the rotation, and open up some amazing opportunities.”
Expanding the schedule meant the division could add a course for each grade, and provided Quincey and her team a chance to add subjects that would be beneficial to every student’s academic and personal growth.
For the sixth grade, that meant an Academic Skills class. While the Middle School faculty had always dedicated time to helping students make the transition from Lower School to Middle School, they recognized that for many students the new responsibility, independence, and level of organization this change demanded was challenging. Additionally, Middle School is a time for students to better understand themselves as learners, to understand their strengths and to understand areas for growth. “We had been thinking for a long time about how to better help the students with this,” and the Academic Skills class was born from that,” explained Quincey.
The new class for the seventh graders would be content-based: computer science coding. This subject was a top priority for Quincey and her team. “Coding is one of the most essential skills for students,” she said. “Providing this in-depth coding experience in Middle School develops at a young age confidence in and passion for this vital skill, which is no longer a skill of the future. It’s an important skill today!”
In eighth grade, the faculty focused on another important transition when designing the Eighth Grade Seminar. Students at this age are beginning to break away from their parents and establish their own identities and beliefs. “They are really starting to question what they believe is right and what they agree and disagree on with their parents and peers,” explained Quincey. They wanted to help guide the students to think independently, deeply, and personally about the knowledge and skills they are acquiring and the world they face. “We wanted to build a space that teaches the students about reflection and the connection between what they’ve learned and what they think and see in the world,” explained Quincey, “and to put some piece of their learning into action by doing something meaningful for them.”
With the subjects chosen, the rest of the summer was dedicated to course curriculum development and preparation. “It was a very positive experience of creativity, fresh ideas, and a new start after the difficulties of teaching during COVID,” remembers Quincey. “A great deal of intellectual and creative energy went into each one.”
Sixth Grade Academic Skills
Learning Specialist Cheryl Jackson helped create the new sixth grade Academic Skills course that she teaches along with five other teachers. “The course makes visible what is often an invisible assumption about learning—that kids will just know how to follow instructions, keep a planner, organize, take notes, and figure out what’s important,” she explained. “We know it’s not automatic for everyone, and everyone can improve and benefit from doing things better and more systematically.”
The course focus is to equip all students with the essential executive functioning skills they will need to independently navigate not just the Middle School but their future academic careers. Moreover, the skills they learn in the class—test preparation, organization, following instructions, breaking down large projects into discrete tasks, managing deadlines, and more—should also have a long-lasting impact on their adult lives.
The class grew out of the Academic Center class Cheryl and Learning Specialist Melina McCrary had been teaching for the last two years. While teaching this course, it became apparent that it could be useful for everyone. “All students benefit greatly from adding skills to their toolkit,” explained Cheryl. “Teaching them how to listen for action instructions, better take notes, and convert mental organization tendencies into steady systems will only strengthen their robust internal capacity.”
The course uses games, skits, and a wide array of practice activities in a no-grade, pass/fail structure. Cheryl and her team also coordinate with the rest of the faculty and the broader sixth grade curriculum to support specific projects and assignments, as well as take time to explore how brains learn and how organization helps that process.
Accurate Writing and Teamwork
The sixth graders were asked to write detailed written directions on how to get from their classroom to another room in the building. Since they couldn’t assume anything about what the reader would know, their instructions had to be detailed, specific, and clear. After listening to verbal instructions, they took to the hallways in teams to work together and map out the path. The exercise tested their listening skills (did they understand the instructions), their writing skills, and their ability to collaborate and work as a team.
Coding: Bubbles and Stars Challenge
- Create canvas 640 x 360.
- Create a program with 2 classes (bubbles and stars) on separate tabs from the main program.
- Utilize the begin Shape and end Shape to create the star polygon.
- Each class should have data and functionality.
- In the main part of the program (primary tab) use an array  and a for () loop to display and move 200 bubbles and 200 stars in random locations.
- Add random color to your bubbles and stars.
Seventh Grade Coding
With 500,000 open jobs in computer programming in the U.S. today, and opportunities in the field growing at twice the national average, coding is no longer just a fun elective for a handful of college students. And given the alacrity and ability of adolescents to engage with technology, introducing them to the basics of coding is a welcome assignment for Middle School Technology Coordinator David Hunsicker.
In the course, Learning to Code in Java, students gain insight into the fundamentals of computer programming by learning to manipulate pixels on a digital canvas. One of the most useful computer languages, Java is used in mobile applications, big data, cloud, artificial intelligence, and more to build applications and platforms for a wide array of devices, from gaming consoles to medical devices, smart phones, navigation systems, and more.
David created the course curriculum based on a visual arts approach pioneered by Daniel Schiffman, a New York University professor in its Interactive Telecommunications Program. Last year during Covid, coding was offered as a substitute elective for sports, and teaching that course gave David a baseline to work from for the full-grade course now underway. “Last year’s students were self-selecting and inclined to enjoy and understand coding, so I expanded the focus to address various levels of interest and ability.”
A project-based approach guides students to learn problem-solving, software language and design, and debugging strategies. Each class begins with a few minutes of instruction, and then students work on their own on the day’s assignment. During October, students practiced simple commands and learned the importance of layering and ordering in coding. “I like to ask the students to do something without giving them all the answers so they learn to figure it out,” he said. “A bit of struggle leads to problem-solving, discovery, and greater learning.”
The course will also explore careers in programming and the importance of women’s contributions in the field. Students will be able to build on their interest and knowledge in this course when they get into the Upper School, where they can elect to take Computer Science and AP Computer Science. Even if they do not, though, “the practice they are getting in logical thinking, breaking down tasks, seeing things in sequence, and appreciating the various methods one can use to achieve a goal, will be an invaluable skill that is transferable to learning other computer languages going forward,” said David.
Eighth Grade Seminar
Candace Crawford, Middle School English teacher, is the lead teacher for the eighth grade seminar. She guided the development of the curriculum and pedagogy along with teachers Emma Ehrhardt, Ella Taranto, and Katherine Bryant. The teachers incorporated research, questioning strategies, social emotional learning, and a capstone project into the course to guide the students through a program aimed at blending students’ prior and developing knowledge with new methods of interacting with information and ideas.
Reflecting on what they learn and think is a key component of the course—asking questions, analyzing perspectives, engaging in discussion and debate, and taking civic responsibility. The curriculum includes students writing their “This I Believe” essays, a Middle School tradition about a belief important to them. Each year one or two students are selected to read their essay at the Eighth Grade Recognition Ceremony. Students will also create a capstone project—a tangible product, experience, method, or outcome in service of others on a local, national, or global level.
Throughout the year, students will practice and develop a variety of skills that support the development of their own belief systems, including dissecting complex information from a variety of sources, asking deeper questions, analyzing points of view, and using an asset-based approach. They will also learn to define, analyze, and express a belief effectively in writing.
Overall, the teachers want to introduce concepts to the students and invite them to interpret and react to them in their own ways. “Some of what we’re presenting is intentionally vague because we don’t want to block creativity by putting out our own assumptions or giving them answers,” Candace explained. “Their world is so different than the teachers’, so we want to facilitate and provide feedback to guide them ahead rather than teach. It’s a new approach for all of us.”
The Merits of Active Listening
Eighth graders did an exercise to demonstrate the importance of active listening. In the first round, directions on drawing a bug were read to them without much pause. The students could not ask questions or hear any information repeated. After they drew the bug, they discussed what would have made the experience better. The exercise was then repeated, with their suggestions included.
One-Third of The Way Into the Year…
So far, the reaction from students and parents has been overwhelmingly positive. Cheryl, David, and Candace, along with all of the other teachers involved in the new courses are keeping track throughout the year of what’s working and what they would change for next year. They will also gather student and parent feedback to assess and tweak as the year progresses.
The eighth graders “love the space for dialogue and discussion,” said Candace. “They’re very enthusiastic and engaged in conversations, exploring topics that are important to them.” They’ve jumped in willingly, she reports, although many are still learning to trust themselves and their instincts. “They’re accustomed to getting feedback from us in their regular courses,” she said, “while in this course we’re asking for their feedback to us. It’s good for them to see that their voice matters and it’s important for us to hear what’s working and what’s not. Their opinions carry a lot of weight.”
So far, both students and parents are enjoying the new seminar. “There is nothing I’m more excited about for my child than this course,” shared one parent with Quincey. During a recent challenging lesson, Quincey recalls, “a student commented ‘We should do this again at the end of the year to see how much we improve,’ and I was struck by the genuine growth mindset in the student’s comment!”
David has enjoyed seeing the seventh graders’ enthusiasm and pride in their work. “This is different from anything they’ve done before,” he said. “The students are being pushed to think in completely different ways and they seem to find it invigorating.”
In Academic Skills, Cheryl reports the sixth graders typically enter the classroom happy and relaxed, appreciative of the change of pace the no-grades course offers in their schedules. “They also enjoy talking about skills and tools that they can put to use right away.” For Cheryl, the course is also self-affirming and personally gratifying in a way like no other opportunity in recent years. “It’s been very rewarding and satisfying—a real pinch-me thing to teach and share something I have known is so important, but up till now had only been teaching to a small group.”
“The new schedule and courses have surpassed my expectations” reflected Quincey. “They are learning how to learn, how to manage their work, and how to form and express opinions, opinions rooted in knowledge. They are learning the language of coding which underpins so much of our daily lives. They will be able to ask better questions, break down assumptions, and take action to make a difference in their communities. These lessons will have a lasting impact on their lives—both academically and as citizens of the world. We could not be prouder to offer this to our students at this transitional time in their lives.”