Middle School Is Essential

 

The middle school years are a time of dramatic physical and cognitive growth and hormonal changes. Young adolescents are also shifting their focus from their families to their peers. Thus, an effective middle school program must do far more than prepare students for the academic challenges of high school. It must take into account the interplay of intellectual, emotional, social, and physical changes at this age and very deliberately foster students’ growth in all areas. 


Marc Brackett, Ph.D., founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a pioneer in social and emotional learning, found that student success often rests on having a relationship with a trusted adult. Brackett’s latest research is indicating that connectedness with teachers is particularly important in early adolescence. Explains Meadowbrook Acting Head of Middle School Jordan Bentley, “Middle school is the time where, if students can connect with that one adult in life, whether it’s in the arts, a coach, or an advisor, they will feel like they belong, which will lead to greater happiness and success. Connection and belonging are themes that run through everything we do at the Middle School at Meadowbrook, both academically and through social and emotional learning.”

Meadowbrook’s mission to “know, love, and challenge each child” takes on special significance in the Middle School. Teachers spend a great deal of time with students outside of class, in weekly one-on-one advisory time, during regular office hours, and mentoring and collaborating on everything from service projects to tech internships and film competitions. 

Joshua ’20 says his favorite teacher was his seventh and eighth grade advisor and science teacher. “If I needed to talk, she would come in early or stay late. She made me more confident in myself, not always second-guessing myself. Plus, she was the most passionate science teacher ever!” He adds, “Meadowbrook teachers all get to know students really well. You need to build trust so you can reach out to people and accomplish things together. Meadowbrook set me up well to move into high school at Nobles, and beyond.”

Strengthening connections among Meadowbrook’s middle school community is a priority as the school adapts to meet the health and safety demands of the pandemic. This fall, teachers and students have been grouped into small cohorts, which will remain together if the situation requires a move to distance learning. Cohorts will change after the first month so that students will get to interact closely with more teachers over time. 

Last year’s eighth graders particularly appreciated the efforts that the eighth grade dean and faculty made to connect everyone and make their last semester special even though they were all quarantined at home. The team created online group events and held virtual game nights and movie nights at least once a week. Joshua notes, “They could have been with their families, but they took the time and did something for us. One teacher, who’s still a kid at heart—and an awesome teacher and a great musician—would just go on Zoom some evenings and sing songs and talk with anyone who wanted to come on and hang out.”

 

A Time of Transition

Middle schoolers are truly balanced between childhood and adolescence, able to play with carefree abandon one moment and wrestle with sophisticated concepts and issues the next. Meadowbrook’s middle school program respects and guides this transition. For instance, the schedule includes recess along with rigorous academic demands. “We balance playfulness with the intellectual life in the classroom. Both are needed,” says Bentley.
 

Meadowbrook middle schoolers excel in the National Foreign Language Exams, garner state math and writing awards, and still find time to participate in games and projects with their younger “buddies” from the Lower School. As part of a K through 8 school, they can be role models and leaders without the pressure to grow up too fast.

Celeste ’18 was captain of Meadowbrook’s track team and had lead roles in musicals. “But the most important way I learned about leadership was through our buddy system, where younger and older students are paired each year. By eighth grade, you’ve gradually and steadily gone from being a follower to being a leader. It was very helpful when I entered Phillips Academy. It was an entirely new environment, but I knew how to make that progress into a leadership role.”

Balance was also key as Meadowbrook reexamined its middle school curriculum this summer to determine the essentials that it must retain no matter how instructional delivery must change this year. The middle school team decided to adopt block scheduling to allow for more in-person teaching time and deeper dives into subjects. Rather than short class periods for courses that run all year, the schedule now includes fewer courses each semester that meet for longer periods of time. 

Bentley explains, “Instead of, say, reading seven novels in English, students will read four but at an even deeper level. We will continue to foster academic excellence, critical thinking, and the joy of learning. I’m excited to see where our students will go with this.”

 

A Time of Discovery

A motto at the Middle School at Meadowbrook is “Try everything.” Students engage in the arts all three years, choose from a wide range of student-run electives, and participate in Project Challenge, an adventure-based team-building and leadership course. When the state allows middle school athletics to resume, all students will once again practice a sport every day.

Celeste explains, “My main interest is theater, but exploring Meadowbrook electives also encouraged me to put myself out there in high school and try new things such as the debate club, the newspaper, and dance teams.” 

Meadowbrook offers unbounded opportunities for middle school students to lead and contribute. Students produce many of the school’s news videos for social media, lead environmental efforts at the school, and have designed and 3D printed prosthetic hands to give to patients in need. In addition, students explore new perspectives on self-identity, racial equity, and global issues through curricula specially developed by Meadowbrook middle school faculty.

All of these opportunities are carefully designed to help students discover what they are most passionate about and that they can make a positive impact in the world. Lauren ’20, who is now a student at Concord Academy, entered Meadowbrook in sixth grade. “Meadowbrook opened my eyes to the world around me, in history and English classes and especially in the service and cultural trips to Costa Rica and South Africa.” 

Connections and relationships are, indeed, at the heart of the Middle School at Meadowbrook. As Celeste sums up, “Everyone at Meadowbrook is extremely dedicated and has a sense of purpose—and knows how to treat each other. Meadowbrook taught me what to expect from a community.”

 

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