In my previous (introductory) post, I described the general design and belief system of our middle school program at Presbyterian School. A colleague and faculty member appreciated my use of the word opportunity to talk about learning. I chose this descriptor to emphasize how we encourage students to attain meaningful, joyful learning pathways that fulfill the soul. As educational professionals, we help each young learner see the value of taking a comprehensive approach to learning. Pushing beyond standards and into learning for the joy of discovery is our goal for any child with whom we are blessed to interact.
“An important part of PS is that we coach students and provide them with a decision making framework that enables them to evaluate as-of-yet undefined situations they will face in their lives, the skills to read the lay of the land, and to have the confidence and resiliency to veer from the simple route, and when needed blaze new trails through undiscovered territories in academics and life.”Gordon Center, Seventh Grade History
During the months of October through January, the majority of our eighth grade students participate in interviews during the high school application process. In these conversations, students describe their successes and missteps with confidence and appreciation for the journey. While our students are incredibly well-prepared to succeed in high school, Presbyterian School prepares the child for the paths presented at every stage of life, a mission moving far beyond grades 9-12. To prepare each child for future challenges, our middle school program instills the essential skill sets and abilities for our students to become Pathfinders. Pathfinders understand the opportunities available to them. They have been given time to reflect on personal strengths when selecting new roads for their learning, competing, and/or performing. Additionally, Pathfinders have developed a unique charisma to carry others into meaningful and fruitful experiences. There are many ways to develop Pathfinding skills through words, thoughts, and actions. Our dream is for each child to gain access to all of them by recognizing and utilizing personal strengths.
One final component in the successful development of students includes the discovery and utilization of empathy as a means to success. Whether it’s built upon a faith-based foundation or moral root, our students learn through our everyday practicum that connecting to the emotions and perspectives of those they lead from, learn from, and walk alongside has immediate and long-term benefits to themselves and the community.
“Empathy is a crucial theme [in our program]. Stepping outside of oneself and considering others’ perspectives allows us to become more reflective, more forgiving, more considerate, and more productive.”Kelsey Pedersen, Seventh Grade English
Introducing the Construct
While traditional English classrooms engage in vocabulary, grammar, and writing skill development, our classrooms aim to do this by incorporating learning opportunities that promote one’s ability to use the components as a way to improve a learner’s communication capabilities. With this goal in mind and in order to develop Pathfinders, we have developed a thematic Identity Pathway in our English, history, and language courses to help the learner understand his or her place in the school community and beyond. The middle grades at Presbyterian School present the following in age-appropriate stages within grade levels. These stages offer students the opportunity to use various lenses to observe, infer, gather, and present.
Sixth Grade - Introduction to and Exploration of One's Identity
Seventh Grade - Navigating Alienation and Pursuing Reconciliation
Eighth Grade - Redefinition and Presentation of Personal Identity
Beginning in sixth grade English class, our students dive deeply into the concept of identity by way of reading, analysis, evidence-based conversation, and research. Our design allows for students to explore parallel experiences in novels, short stories, and poetry in order to develop a basic understanding of identity.
“Throughout the year, students use their growing writing skills to reflect on characters they meet in class readings, particularly as those characters and their reactions relate to the students’ emerging selves.”Janice Kemp, Sixth Grade English
History classes in sixth grade provide a similar experience; the observation and research of past civilizations help students to understand the constructs of identity creation. Students explore cultural identities on a global level (and through various time periods) to understand why a civilization decided to follow a certain pathway, and what its success (or failure) teaches us about our own choices as individuals and as a modern culture.
As a culminating, cross-curricular demonstration of their sixth-grade journey, students use their writing and presentation skills at the Genius Hour; this exhibit allows students to share with others a passion for learning they developed during their year-long discovery of self.
Respectful Resolution in the Face of Doubt
During a child’s seventh grade year, we take these constructs of identity and integrate the concept of choice into the conversation. Seventh grade remains the most challenging year of personal growth for our middle school students. Whether it’s a physical or emotional change, or a social disruption among friends or peers because of personal interests or beliefs, our seventh grade learners feel criticism and doubt with increasing impact. They learn to manage feedback, albeit positive or negative, independent of adult intervention, thus creating the foundations of meaningful and stable interactions. As this struggle ultimately results in a strengthening of personal beliefs, our professional responsibility to serve as positive role models creates wonderfully organic opportunities during the school day, both in and out of the classroom. Our seventh grade Humanities Curriculum therefore emphasizes the appearance of conflict, alienation, and resolution as a part of literature and historical research.
In English, we reflect on counter-cultural figures who appear in such works as The Outsiders and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Writing and revision sustains an ongoing process through which students research with intention to express ideas in relation to others while becoming more articulate in speaking, writing, and sharing their convictions. In history we analyze choices made by opposing nations as students explore the tolerance needed for peaceful resolutions as opposed to the devastating cost of war. From treaties to respectful “agree to disagree” tactics, seventh grade learners consider how decisions can burn bridges and/or build them. Some structured practice of this brain development appears in the form of Harkness discussions — a consistent conversation framed within mutual respect even as disagreement arises. As a part of their final trimester, students present a self-assessment of particular skill sets developed over the course of the school year in an all-school presentation for younger learners and families to witness.
“All human societies contain inventive people. It’s just that some environments provide more starting materials, and more favorable conditions for utilizing inventions, than do other environments.”― Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel
As Jared Diamond begins, our students explore the conditions which give rise to the decisions of others, and thus learn to interact with better understanding and perspective. Most importantly, students consider the value of patient, deliberate decision making based on a multitude of facts rather than split second decisions. This translates directly into their everyday lives as they navigate the messiness of adolescence and the empathetic development of self while learning from choices, histories, events, struggles, and emotions.
Empathy Built on Wise Use of Perspective
“You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.”― Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability
Brené Brown offers endless support to our Identity Pathway. Each step is built on a similar foundation to the platform she has so successfully created – vulnerability, trial-and-error, and authentic self-definition. The child in a middle school program is very much a work-in-progress, with years to go on his or her journey. For this reason, we extend the concepts initiated in seventh grade into the heart of our eighth grade year. Additionally, the eighth grade program focuses on individuals who reaffirm their position and beliefs to stand up for what is right.
Vulnerability exists throughout our eighth grade Humanities Program, specifically called The American Experience, which gives respectful attention to perspective – that of classmates, characters, and historical figures. As students dive into social conversations via Harkness discussions and Socratic Seminars, they gain a deepening of perspective which leads to comprehensive respect of others. Further exploration towards understanding exists in extensive, thematic literary/historical research by choosing their own texts based on interest and need. Additionally, our Pathfinders engage in a reflective, iterative writing process to demonstrate their learning in various capacities such as expository essay and prose.
“Our lessons from the past allow students to directly connect to the present world events. And the study of language arts/English helps them to communicate clearly and concisely their understanding and perspectives.”Danielle Filas, Eighth Grade English
As a vehicle for learning, students explore the Holocaust and Civil Rights Movement, navigating the various perspectives that created these uniquely polarizing events. By learning from others and reflecting on their own perspective amidst a diverse community of interests, each student develops a Manifesto, or a statement of intentions, opinions, and vision. Students present this Manifesto as a part of their final action as a Presbyterian School learner. In the spirit of vulnerability and personal growth, their projects are displayed for all to see.
Communication in Any Environment
Our Language Program at Presbyterian School focuses on Spanish as its principal pathway. While we spend intentional time in grades 6-8 developing a vocabulary and grammatical foundation in Spanish, our efforts focus primarily on the development of skills that enable students to communicate in the target language. This skill set includes listening, reading, writing, and speaking. Our program affords each student the means to demonstrate proficiency on their high school course placement test at destination schools for ninth grade Spanish courses; however, our methodology moves far beyond the standard of “test prep.” Students at Presbyterian School learn that defining their identity and considering the opinions of others should exist in any media and in different languages. Houston is home to a wonderful Latino community which strongly contributes to our city’s unique identity. According to the Institute of Hispanic Culture of Houston, the Latino population in the city sits close to 37%, less than one percentage point below the Anglo population. For this reason, speaking Spanish has become an essential part of growing up in Houston (and in Texas). Our Spanish program, recently expanded to include the sixth grade, takes this need into account. Spanish language and various Latino cultures are an essential part of our community identity. We must celebrate this component as an enriching benefit to being in Houston.
Every year, a culminating, student-led event takes place at Presbyterian School as we participate in “Día de Immersión” – Spanish Immersion Day. This day focuses on the gifts given to us by the Latin American cultures of Houston, including dance, song, movies, art, food, and games. The day exists for the benefit of our students, who oftentimes find themselves in a unique bubble living in parallel to this wonderful culture.
“Día de Immersión exists so our students can authentically interact with each other and community in the Spanish language, and we hope this positive experience can encourage students to become more comfortable interacting with Spanish-speaking people in our area.”Sara Broussard, Sixth Grade Spanish
Our students experience a wonderfully made journey of self-discovery with each class and every year. Like Harry Potter’s exploration and discovery of his own Patronus incantation, one’s power unfurls when recognition of and appreciation for personal identity takes center stage. Though sensational in design, Harry recognizes that, in the face of danger that questions his very being, a person’s most powerful counter lives in his or her personally-defined system of beliefs. This belief system remains in constant development; however, at the moment of need, its core values must be ready for presentation.
We are confident that students find themselves at our Commencement Ceremony upon completing eighth grade with a sense of preparedness for the pathway that lies ahead. Success shines in the steps our young learners have taken to consider personal identity and responsibility in their greater community. The impact that their beliefs can make as Pathfinders will lead us to a better tomorrow.