MS Head's Blog
In the Middle of It All
Middle School Musings by Trevor O’Driscoll, Bancroft's Head of Middle School
Most weeks, MS Head Trevor O’Driscoll writes a short note to parents and faculty about middle school, education, parenting, and other topics relevant to our community. We share these Middle School Musings here for the benefit and enjoyment of all who are interested. Read recent entries, browse the archives, and delight in Mr. O’Driscoll’s take on our Middle School and the amazing people who inhabit it.
This week I present to you a classic math problem, one that many of our eighth graders were recently wrestling with in Mr. Phillips’s class.
There are nine justices on the Supreme Court. How many handshakes occur if each of them shakes hands with every other justice exactly once?
Spoiler alert: don’t read on if you aren’t ready for the answer.
Stumped? Below are correct answers from two different eighth graders, Julia D. and Talya J. Note the ways in which these two solutions exemplify how we encourage our middle schoolers to tap into their personal learning-style strengths and technology resources to employ different methods to reach the same correct answer:
Julia D's answer:
Talya J's answer:
The other day I was talking to a Middle School student about a project he recently completed. As he explained some of its key elements, the conversation took an unexpected turn when he stopped mid-thought and said, “Honestly Mr. O, I am pretty disappointed in my work.” The statement caught me off guard, but I somehow resisted the urge to fill the brief silence with reassurances, platitudes, or weak praise. Instead, I asked him to explain more. And then I kept quiet and listened.
What I heard in the next few minutes (and over the next few days as we picked up the conversational thread at various points) was a thoughtful, insightful, and on-point assessment that demonstrated some impressive reflection skills. What I did not hear were excuses. And what I concluded was that this boy learned more from this personal disappointment and reflective insight than anything his teachers, parents, or I might have told him about his project.
“We do not learn from experience ... we learn from reflecting on experience.”
That's one of the most quoted lines from the seminal education reformer, psychologist, and philosopher John Dewey, whose work is still powerfully relevant and important almost 160 years after his birth. A 2014 paper published by the Harvard Business School, titled “Learning By Thinking: How Reflection Improves Performance,” set out to examine the impact of reflective practices on learning. The authors’ findings support Dewey’s words, asserting that “learning from direct experience can be more effective if coupled with reflection—that is, the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience.” Additionally, the authors concluded that reflection “builds one's confidence in the ability to achieve a goal (i.e., self-efficacy), which in turn translates into higher rates of learning.”
Essentially the message is this: take the time to reflect on what you've done, even if the price of that reflective time means you have to do a little less — you are apt to learn more and more often achieve goals in the future.
While my interaction with the student may have been unexpected, it was not completely surprising. Bancroft Middle School teachers are very intentional about making time for students to reflect, whether it’s on a daily basis as part of a lesson’s closure, in the wake of major projects, or at our annual Student-Led Conferences. Making time for reflection is no small feat, especially considering the myriad demands placed on all of us as we compete in a zero-sum game of priorities versus time. While it might be easier to skip the reflection and move on to the next thing, it's important we carve out room for reflection. And the need to build routines around reflection is not limited to our students. The adults in our community hold themselves to the same expectations, and it’s safe to say reflection is in our School culture.
As we look to wrap up the school year, in the Middle School we have team and divisional agendas full of reflective prompts and questions. When August rolls around, we’ll be eager to build a future based upon our synthesis of what we’ve learned from past experience, just like our students.
For more about reflection and learning:
“Learning Through Reflection,” excerpt from the book, Learning and Leading With Habits of Mind
Full text of the Harvard Business School paper “Learning By Thinking: How Reflection Improves Performance”
Last Tuesday and Wednesday the halls were abuzz with nearly 40 young scientists who had conceived of, designed, and executed a wide-range of fascinating experiments as part of this year's seventh grade Science Fair. Each project included at least 100 observed bits of data, resulting in a gyre of roughly 4,000 data points swirling about the McDonough Building. With all that information to wade through, it wasn't too hard to feel more enlightened after talking to these curious seventh graders. Here is a tiny sampling of some things I learned about from the students:
- Silver is a great conductor of electricity, although it's cost prohibitive (but it is used in iPhones)
- Cocoa butter is the most effective key ingredient if you want a lotion that is best at locking in moisture
- Beeswax is the most effective key ingredient if you want a lip balm that won't melt in your hot car
- How hydrogen peroxide affects seed germination
- Potential kinetic energy and the role it plays in roller coaster design
- The best tee height to use in golf to maximize drive distance (it's higher than you might think)
- The chemistry behind molecular gastronomy
- Birch bark is the most effective firestarter compared to printer paper, newsprint and cardboard
While I learned even much more than the brief snippets I listed above, what's more impressive is what the students learned about themselves. In keeping with great pedagogical practice, seventh grade science teacher Allison Roach had the students answer some reflective questions about the project and process. Here are some of the students' thoughts when it came to emerging knowledge of themselves:
- I'm actually able to do things that I say I can't; I just need to try
- I am determined to get something done
- I need to keep on top of things a lot more and probably work on over-preparing more
- I am a good learner when I focus and put my mind to it and block out everything else
- I procrastinate too much
- I need to manage my time better
- I like chemistry
- I can get things done
- I have an ability to do things efficiently and fast but thoughtfully
- I did improve at public speaking a little
- I do not like plants
Congratulations to the students and Allison for seeing their hard work come to fruition.
On Tuesday there was a line of students out my door. You might assume a line out the door to the principal’s office can only mean bad news. But things are different at Bancroft. This line represented my favorite moment since our return from break.
Before I explain, some context is necessary.
One of the most engaging elements of my job is being part of the work our Middle School faculty does behind the scenes to design ways for students to own their learning. It’s exciting to see teachers creating truly student-centered learning experiences, building in opportunities for our kids to:
- Have voice and choice in aspects of what and how they learn;
- Learn by doing; and
- Share their work with an authentic audience.
But what does this have to do with the line at my door? It’s all about culture. Our faculty, and the models they provide, help to foster a culture in our community where students are not only able but expected to play a major part in steering the ship. The students standing in line had big, bold ideas they wanted to talk about.
Here’s a sampling:
- Two eighth graders presenting a plan to publish a Middle School yearbook;
- A sixth grader developing a girls' lacrosse club, replete with an expert outside coach, that will take place in the Field House;
- Two students looking to design and build recess accessories for Lower Schoolers;
- A seventh grader who is passionate about archery wanting to start a program in school;
- Students asking to use their recess time to work on robotics and science projects;
- A student wanting to rekindle our Middle School newspaper; and
- Three sixth graders hoping to start a performing arts group with the goal of putting on a variety show.
The line out the door was long, and the list goes on. The adults are creating a culture that seeps into the DNA of the School, and the students are absorbing it. It’s incredibly rewarding to see that kind of learning in action.
During the last week and a half here in the Middle School we had several opportunities to rally around major events that brought our community together. The eighth grade play, our community service afternoon, and a student-organized Turkey Trot all served to put a spotlight on the power that comes from a group of people, all with incredibly varied identities, uniting around common beliefs, principles, work, and events that are larger than any one person.
- On Wednesday and Thursday, November 8 and 9, our eighth graders staged four performances of “Born to be Wild,” a fantastic play that artfully and humorously revealed the inner lives of animals while more subtly exploring themes of identity, friendship, family, self-awareness, and self-actualization. It’s hard to say what was the most enjoyable part for me -- seeing the masks, costumes, and sets the students made; watching kids recite lines on the stage and then frantically jump down into the pit band to play the accompanying score; witnessing the behind-the-scenes support the Upper School tech crew provided -- there were so many highlights. But in the end the best part was the shared laughter that brought all of us, including every Bancroft student as well as parents, teachers, family, and friends, together.
- On Wednesday, November 16, more than 150 Middle School students, faculty, and volunteer parents ventured off campus to serve our greater community. We accomplished much and some of those feats (miles of trails cleared, pound of goods and food organized and distributed, number of books read to kids) are definitively quantifiable. But what is unquantifiable, and arguably more important for the development of our children, were the human connections made, the moments where empathy transcended differences between people, and the wonderful feelings spurred by the release of dopamine as we laughed and enjoyed ourselves while doing good work.
- On Thursday, November 17, around 50 Middle and Upper School students and faculty participated in a Turkey Trot, a run around our cross country course that generated lots of donations for the Worcester County Food Bank. Not only was the fun run a great opportunity for the student leader and her team to learn how to organize and run an event like this, one with lots of moving parts and inevitable last-minute speed bumps, but it brought many of us together. Again. As a parent noted to me in an email, “[we] appreciate the fact that Bancroft values and encourages this type of learning experience for the students, and that the community turns out in support.” I couldn’t agree more.
These moments that brought us shoulder to shoulder are profoundly important here at Bancroft. Celebrating individuality and emerging personal identities while highlighting and emphasizing what brings us together has always been a crucial part of the important work we do with kids.
Finally, below is a sampling of thoughts faculty shared after an exhilarating day serving our community. The energy, spirit, and fearlessness the students demonstrated in giving what they can of themselves for something bigger than themselves is an inspiration to me and all the adults who have the privilege of working with your children every day:
- A young student at Belmont Street School told Sullivan he was drawing a picture of him
- Siblings Anne and Jack working together to saw a log
- The AMAZING kids laughing and chatting with the elderly and making them so happy!
- Feeding sheep
- Seeing the supervisor of Wachusett Greenways beam about the work of Bancroft students
- The passion and joy in the eyes of the parents who witnessed chorus sing at Seven Hills
- The ladies at St. Anne’s were so willing to do whatever they could. Mary completely re-organized a shelf of holiday items and Abby befriended a baby and her mom.
- Celine getting an extremely short-term memory limited Alzheimer's patient to color for the first time (it's been a long time since this woman was able to do this)
- "Ms. Sigismondi, can we go sit and talk to that old man?"
- Sophie, after packing boxes of food up for Thanksgiving meals said, "I LOVE packing boxes! Can I come back here next time?"
Enjoy what you are thankful for this no-homework Thanksgiving break.
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