Middle School Whisperers Speak Out

Bill Fisher
When teachers talk about Shore's middle school program, they usually spend far more time speaking about social and emotional skills such as empathy, risk-taking, relationship-building, and self-forgiveness than they do about the details of the curriculum in European history, English, world languages, and the like.

"Of course, there are those academic expectations," acknowledges history teacher Pat Coyle, "and there are some pretty rigorous goals in terms of where we want kids to be as students, but what's most exciting about this place, and most gratifying for me as a teacher, is the ways we're able to guide them in terms of citizenship, in terms of overall wellness, in terms of mindfulness, in terms of empathy. ... That's a draw for me, and I think for many of us at Shore—being able to think about the overall child."

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Since the beginning of the middle school movement in the 1960s, study after study has demonstrated that a deeply ingrained, faculty-wide focus on the well-being and emotional health of children is the defining trait of the successful middle school program. As Thomas Armstrong wrote ten years ago in his The Best Schools, a publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development,

"...the biological event of puberty fundamentally disrupts the relatively smooth development of the elementary school years and has a profound impact upon the cognitive, social, and emotional lives of young teens. In line with this important insight, ... special instructional, curricular, and administrative changes [are needed] in the way that education takes place for kids in early adolescence. Among those changes [are] the establishment of a mentor relationship between teacher and student, the creation of small communities of learners, and the implementation of a flexible interdisciplinary curriculum that encourages active and personalized learning."

Armstrong could have been writing about Shore's middle school program: an extraordinary attentiveness to the unique needs of sixth through ninth graders is baked into our model at every step.

In discussing Shore's use of Harkness tables and Harkness-style pedagogy in middle school English, history, and science classes, history teacher Gwen Sneeden explains how important it is that we match what goes on in the classroom with who sits down in that classroom. "Middle schoolers have certain characteristics unique to their tribe," she explains. "Not only are they growing physically, they also have a strong need to belong to a group. The Harkness pedagogy 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."

Pat Coyle's classroom practice is similarly tuned to the developmental needs of his middle school students. "There are times when I'll take five minutes at the beginning of class to ask my students a simple question: 'What don't I know about life as a 7th grader?' or, 'What don't I know about life as a 6th grader?' They might start by talking about quizzes or homework, but then that five minutes turns into a suggestion session. Some of the other kids in the class may be able to offer ideas for how they can handle some of these bumps; I sometimes will interject with a few. The idea is, you're bringing problems to us, and we're going to try and help you. We're going to accept those and help push you to the next level, where you can do something about it."

Veteran English teacher and interim Head of Upper School Walter Morris echoes, "One of the most important things I try to encourage in my students is a willingness to ask for help. Being able to ask a question or admit you're having a hard time really is a life skill; it matters now, and it especially matters when they go on to high school and college. I want my students to buy into the idea that they can, and should, turn to adults and peers who care about them, who want to help. Sometimes I pose the question, 'What would it feel like if there was no room in your life to make a mistake?' I think it's important for students at this age to have the sense that it's okay not to have it all together yet, not to have all the answers. And particularly with those exceptionally driven kids, many of which we see here at Shore—I want them to be able to say they've done their best, and it's enough."

All teachers of middle schoolers at Shore recognize that their students are in the midst of a major transition, during which their task as mentors is to help direct surging emotional impulses into productive channels, transform a hunger for belonging and connection into positive social relationships, and mobilize newly developed intellectual abilities in the service of reflecting on the transformations that are taking place in their lives.
Pat Coyle provides an example of one student's growing ability to move past the inevitable challenges of middle school. "She came in to talk to talk to me about a paper that she had written. She had done a pretty good job on it, and I went into an explanation of how I got to the grade I gave her. But she stopped me politely and said, 'I'm not worried about the grade.' She said, 'All I want to know is what to do differently for the next time.' For me, that was the specific moment in time where that student reached that next level we hope to see all our kids achieve. This girl had always been conscientious, she'd always been intelligent. But now, she showed that she was comfortable taking good risks, and she felt comfortable coming to me for advice, just to chat. That was a transformative moment."

The "good risks" Coyle talks about are key to Shore's program; he says it's all about creating a safe environment where young people can try something new or look at something in a different way, without knowing the outcome or whether they'll arrive at the "right" answer. "We really do want these kids to step outside of their comfort zone. Not so far that it's anxiety-ridden, but just enough so they try something new that lets them grow and expand."

Genuine relationships are the building blocks for the safe environment that Shore's teachers try to provide. Spanish teacher and Service Learning Coordinator Pamela Torres talks about Shore's advisory system as the lifeblood that nourishes those relationships.

"I see my advisees every single day, whether it's in the morning, or checking in at lunch, or being here for Eighth Hour. You get really close: you learn what their styles are, who needs to go out and get help, and you help to get them there. Over the years you keep developing that relationship. If you have them in class or on a sports team or you see them in the hall, you talk. Our sports program is unique in that way. As a teacher and a coach, you see them four days a week at least for an hour, and you're outside together, not in the classroom."

Torres continues, "I have advisees that I keep in touch with who were here my first year. It's a relationship that doesn't go away."

Those vital student-teacher relationships may well be the "secret sauce" in Shore's middle school program. Recently, says Coyle, two former students came for a surprise visit, enjoying a day off in their first term at Phillips Andover. "I asked them, 'How's it going? Do you feel prepared?' And both, resoundingly, said, 'Yes. We feel prepared.'" When Coyle asked them what it was that made them feel so prepared, so confident at a school like Andover, the students kept coming back to the relationships, their ability to build genuine connections with their teachers. "The fact that they could go seek support or ask questions, or show a particular interest in an area, seemed to put them in a position where they were most able to succeed," recounts Coyle.

That preparation for success figures in one of Walter Morris's year-long guiding questions, recurring prompts for thought and reflection no matter the reading: "The question is, 'What nourishes us?'" explains Morris. "It's the notion of sustenance. When we read The House on Mango Street, for example, we talk about empathy as sustenance—our ability to find hope in human connection even when the world around us appears hopeless."

"One of our philosophies is you don't have to be friends with everybody, but you have to be kind to everybody," says Torres. "There's a huge difference. You just need to be a good person. Being good encompasses lots of different things: we expect our kids to be good to each other, to their community. But it's not just about other people. You have to be good to yourself, too."

If it seems that having the time, the resources, and the institutional support to think about students in this way must feel like a luxury to Shore's teachers, they would agree wholeheartedly. Pat Coyle says, "Most often, people focus on the trials and tribulations that happen in the middle school years; but here at Shore, we also get to attend to the amazing progress, the maturation, and the small daily triumphs that the kids have at this age, too. We're really fortunate that, despite the bumps along the road, we can help them enjoy this time as they're growing socially and becoming who they are and developing as good citizens and students. I love the fact that we see our students becoming who they're going to be, and we can wonder about where they're going to head off to, and what great things they're going to be accomplishing soon."
    • Middle schoolers on a bird-watching expedition

    • Studying in Shore's new outdoor garden classroom

    • Investigating microscopic life

    • Getting psyched before a game

    • Collaborating around the Harkness table

    • Capturing the shot

    • Rehearsing a scene

    • Climbing Gloucester's Red Rocks