Rewriting the Middle School Narrative

Bill Fisher
[Shore's open house for Grades 5-9 is November 13, 2019, from 6-8 p.m. Learn more.]

A widespread cultural narrative often paints middle school as a time of social churn and academic struggle. It’s true that research shows kids’ self-esteem, creativity, and academic engagement can all suffer during these years. But at Shore, a carefully structured middle school program aims to head off many of the most common difficulties that students can face at this age, and it’s designed to nurture thoughtful, caring, independent young people who are prepared to thrive as they move on to high school.

Middle schoolers are hungry for a sense of belonging, and an emphasis on peer relationships is one of the first things students themselves identify as core to their experience at Shore. “It’s an accepting place, whoever you are,” says ninth grader Eloise Goedkoop. “The first day of school, you will become friends with somebody—the kids are especially open to anyone who’s new.” Eighth grader JP Charpentier, who came to Shore in sixth grade, agrees. “The community is a lot more close than any of my previous schools. I feel like I can be myself with my friends and classmates.” Parents pick up on the sense of community, too. Ethan Hugo, the father of a seventh grader in her second year at Shore, says, “For the first time, her best friends are the kids she goes to school with, which wasn’t always the case. That’s made her a happier person, which means she has a better attitude about school.”

Explains history teacher Pat Coyle, “We know that students can struggle to balance work, play, and social interactions at this age, so we focus on the whole child. We want them to develop a solid set of academic skills and knowledge, but we also want them to become engaged citizens, thoughtful friends, and helpful community members.” Shore teachers spend an extraordinary amount of time nurturing these qualities through structures such as the advisory, in which small groups of students meet regularly to bond, discuss concerns, and support each other in finding their voice.

Relationships with school adults are another success factor in the middle school experience, and as School Counselor Katie Hertz makes clear, the connections with teachers fostered through the advisory system are a core element of Shore’s program. “Advisory groups provide the opportunity for us to really get to know a small group of students in a deep and meaningful way. That, in turn, allows us to share insights with other school adults, so that we all know how individual students are doing socially, emotionally, and academically.” Connections between students and teachers grow elsewhere at Shore—from the athletic fields, where teachers become coaches, to the Dining Hall, where faculty members regularly sit down with students for lunch and conversations. The point, says Hertz, is simple: when students are deeply known, teachers are uniquely prepared to respond and offer support when an issue of any kind arises.

In Shore classrooms, meanwhile, teaching is similarly attuned to middle schoolers’ developmental needs. The most obvious example of this, says history teacher Gwen Sneeden, is around the Harkness tables in history, English, and science classrooms. Teaching and learning through Harkness-style discussion, Sneeden explains, “interacts fluidly with the cognitive growth spurts and the need for energy release that middle schoolers are experiencing. When my students gather at the Harkness table for a discussion, each of them knows that his or her voice matters. They are part of a collaborative dynamic that uses extended conversations, which help them understand their ideas are real, valued, and meaningful.” According to ninth grader Eloise Goedkoop, Harkness-style discussion encourages students to find their voice and appreciate those of others. “Around the Harkness table, everybody gets a say in the discussion. You get to hear other people’s ideas and share your own, which helps you find deeper understanding.”

Shore’s middle school curriculum itself is adventurous and interactive, built to put young learners at the center of their own education, not just prepare them for standardized testing. Says Shore parent Courtney Adams, “Challenging and thorough, Shore’s curriculum gets your kids to take risks, to learn to bounce back from failure, and to think in fun ways about the world. It’s something you dream of as a parent—to see your child literally sitting down at the homework table and telling you things they learned that day. We just never got that feedback when our children were at any other school before.” Eighth grader JP Charpentier says it’s the faculty’s student-centered approach that makes the difference. “In a lot of my classes, it’s actually you who’s doing a lot of the teaching. The teachers are there more to guide you. We get more freedom—you can find your own approach to a given assignment, which allows me to choose what interests me most and helps me learn more.” School Counselor Katie Hertz explains, “At Shore we strive to find each individual student’s strength, recognizing that for some students that could be in the art room or on the stage or in a choral group. We want each student to have the space to try something that might be outside of their comfort zone and to shine.”

If the learning is serious, so is the fun. Strongly backed by research showing that playtime is a critical part of helping kids build relationships and reset mentally and emotionally during the day, recess, sports, and physical education are central in Shore’s middle school program. Parent Courtney Adams admits, “One of the initial reasons we chose Shore was the strong reputation of its athletics program. And sure enough, our three daughters have had very successful athletics experiences at Shore.” Eloise Goedkoop adds, “Our coaches and everybody on the teams is incredibly dedicated to getting better at sports and having fun as a team. Recess twice a day is awesome, too. The school really does a great job of integrating time to decompress and be with each other throughout the day.” A comprehensive wellness program similarly prioritizes physical and emotional health as an essential component of academic success.

As carefully composed as Shore’s overall program, the school community itself comprises families who are committed to both the school’s emphasis on rigorous academics and to its insistence on the ideals of personal growth and accountability found in the Community Code. “Shore isn’t for everyone,” acknowledges parent Ethan Hugo. “It’s not just about being smart. It’s about finding the kids and families who are going to succeed here. Shore really cares about that aspect of the community.” History teacher Pat Coyle elaborates, “An ideal student may come in many forms, but what we hope they all share in common is the willingness to advocate for themselves and others, to go the extra mile, to take a good risk and get involved in a cause, and to respond with kindness as often as possible.”

If Shore graduates share many of these traits, it is not only because the school’s program rewrites the typical middle school narrative, but also because doing so leads to perhaps the most important element of that program: joy. “The atmosphere at Shore is amazing,” says Eloise Goedkoop, “and there is always joy in the air. Everybody is happy to be here, which is the most important thing in a school, isn’t it?”
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    • Around the Harkness table, students find their voice.

    • Faculty members engage middle schoolers through an adventurous, interactive curriculum.

    • Students connect in advisory groups.

    • Eighth grade yoga is part of the Upper School wellness curriculum.

    • Sports and recess are core to the middle school program.