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Celebrating the Positives Eases the Transition
During the course of her spring student-led conference, absolutely predictably, Georgia made me cry. Her first conference as a seventh grader was still clear in my mind, as she sat there asking me what to do next and wondering what the point was. I knew she'd grown a lot academically and socially over the past two years, especially in self-confidence. But she sailed through the conference, not only acknowledging her strengths matter-of-factly but also facing up to her challenges with honesty and a genuine willingness to keep working on them. We reached the end, and she said, "What do I do with my binder?" I told her she could keep it, if she wanted, as it was her last middle school conference. "That's right," she said, eyes widening. "Wow."
Often, my advisees realize during these spring conferences that the Moving Up Ceremony, which seemed so comfortingly far in the future in early September, is fast approaching. So as they navigate the final few weeks of school, we work hard to give them opportunities to focus on and enjoy their remaining time in this particular iteration of our learning community, while maintaining the natural flow of things and keeping focus in the classroom to the best of our ability.
Besides conversations in advisory, we find a series of traditions helps ease the transition. Founders' Day in early May is a special day off from classes just for our middle schoolers, proposed a decade ago by the founding students when we opened the program. Although they plan the day from scratch each year, it has evolved into a routine of breakfast, movie, tie-dying t-shirts that will be signed by everyone over the next few days, lunch, and an afternoon of Capture the Flag and other outdoor games. Nine days later, the entire school takes Spearth Day (Spring-Earth Day) off to spend the morning doing community service, the afternoon attending a talent show, and then roaming through carnival-style booths. During the final week, we have a school trip to Six Flags (established by the founders), the eighth grade Moving Up Ceremony, the final dance concert, and several other events focused on our seniors, all culminating in commencement.
Keeping Academic Focus
Meanwhile, classes do continue. In my own classroom, the students design units, choosing themes, related questions, and books democratically. Currently, we are beginning a unit on aesthetics built around the theme question, "Why does beauty matter or exist?" This year's students seem particularly excited by how much better their questions are now than they were at the beginning of the year, and even with the sun’s warm invitation to come outside and play, several were beginning to choose their projects before the unit even formally started. As with planning their own special days off, giving students a voice in planning their academic work around their own questions and ideas can help keep them engaged and focused.
In an Ideal World
If we were not constrained by classes we share with the upper school, I would suggest we take the final two weeks for special multi-disciplinary mini courses built around student and faculty interests. My junior high in Amherst, MA, did this way back in the 1970s, and it was always one of my favorite parts of the year. Our eight periods were combined into four double-length blocks, and each student chose from a list of offerings sorted by period. While students didn’t lead courses in my school, we could offer suggestions, and I can easily envision a model in which students and teachers co-teach some of the classes or the student(s) does the bulk of the teaching while the adult provides supervision for the class and support for the “student-teacher(s).”
Farewell Eighth Graders
It's always sad to end a year and dissolve a specific learning community, but with classes that engage students and activities designed to ease the transition, our students are generally ready by the time the last notes of the exit music for commencement fade.
If only the faculty were ready to see them go.
Bill Ivey is middle school dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham, an all-girls school in Greenfield, MA. He teaches Humanities 7, French 2, and Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. He is also proud to be a middle schooler at heart.