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.
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.
Parenting an online generation can be tricky, especially for those adults who reside closer to the Luddite end of the digital comfort spectrum. Maybe the parents of the first generation of teen drivers, they themselves out-of-touch horse and buggy pilots, would have been able to empathize with us.
Often parents ask me for advice about how they might help their kids navigate a social life partially lived online. What follows is merely a modern version of what successful parents have been long doing: praise, supervise, ask questions, and network.
You can, and should, be reading your child’s online communication including texts, posts, group chats, Instagram — all that you can imagine. For those of you who feel slightly squeamish and wonder about privacy, remember that you pay the bills for the devices. Just be upfront with your kids about how you plan on monitoring their online presence.
- The audience can be huge and eternal
Remind them their potential audience is always infinitely bigger than their intended audience, and their digital words can have an incomprehensible permanence.
- Repeat a simple question
Help them remember the following questions before they hit send:
1) How would you feel if grandma read this? and,
2) Is it kind, is it true, and is it necessary?
A dispositive answer to any of these questions could help kids hit the brakes. and the simplicity can encourage self-monitoring.
- Talk when things are fine
Talk to them about their online lives when there is no problem. Don’t wait for a major flare-up to be the catalyst for conversations about what it means to live a digital life.
- Have them teach you
Ask them to show you how they navigate the online world. Come at it as a genuinely curious and interested student who wants to learn from an expert. Empowering children and validating the fact that there are times when they know more than you can lead to unexpected and productive outcomes.
- Help them manage their digital footprint
Make time to periodically tidy things up. By no means an exhaustive resource, this post might help you think about where to start: 11 Tips For Students To Manage Their Digital Footprints.
- Talk to other parents
Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and talk to the parents of your child’s friends. This is especially true if you see undesirable activity happening right before your eyes.
- Remember kids make mistakes
Seizing teachable moments and enforcing immediate consequences are important. It’s also important to put yourself in their shoes. How tough it would it have been for you if some of the mistakes you made along the way were part of a permanent, written record, shareable by all? Besides, often a mistake is the perfect opportunity to to create a sticky memory. Embrace the mistakes.
- Remember kids make great choices
When you see a behavior you hope to see again, praise it specifically and immediately.
- Practice what you preach
Kids pay attention and they look for models, while being hypervigilant as they notice hypocrisy.
MS Parents’ Night Welcome, 2016
For those of you familiar, you might remember the scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when Tom is tasked with whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence. Of course Tom doesn’t want to whitewash the fence, and he first tries to get Jim to do it. But Jim wants no part of it. Tom begrudgingly begins painting the fence.
Eventually another kid, Ben Rogers, comes along on his way to go swimming, and gives Tom a hard time about having to do work.
His gears churning, Tom asks Ben, “What do you call work?”
A confused Ben asks, “Why, ain’t that work?”
Tom and Ben go back and forth a bit more, and Ben finally says, “you don’t mean to tell me you LIKE it?”
“Like it? Well I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” As Twain writes, for Ben “that put the thing in a new light.”
“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little,” Ben begs.
What eventually happens is not only does Ben end up giving Tom his apple for the privilege of painting, but kids flock to the site and Tom ends up with a veritable bounty of stuff including “twelve marbles, part of a jews–harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn't unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass doorknob, a dog-collar — but no dog — the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash.”
Getting kids to “paint the fence” is a phrase I often use to describe characteristics of great teaching and a great middle school. Great teachers hook students into going on a journey with them — a journey students might not take on their own. Great teachers get students excited about doing hard work. Fortunately for us at Bancroft, your kids are very excited to paint the fence. They are hungry for meaningful work.
I see examples everywhere:
- Carrie Whitney “hooking” 6th graders by showing them designs and examples of greenhouses built from recycled bottles. Eventually a student raised his hand and implored/almost whined, “Why don’t we get to do that at Bancroft?” Of course Carrie had them right where she wanted them, revealing that building a greenhouse was exactly what they were going to do.
- In another classroom students gave a presentation about the Five Themes of Geography by making a video that used Pokémon Go as their own hook and undergirding framework for the lesson.
- There was the note I got from Angela Sigismondi who was overjoyed at how much 8th graders were geeking out over the opportunity to create from scratch a Middle School literary magazine
- And there are the smaller moments, like when a student exclaimed in a math class, “This isn’t half-bad!”
There is no trickery involved in all of this. What your children’s teachers strive to do is create meaningful opportunities for students.
I think returning to Tom is illustrative. His ability to get others to paint the fence resulted in something like an epiphany. Quoting Twain:
“[Tom] had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
Bancroft teachers are constantly striving to understand what makes your kids tick. By blurring the lines between whatever’s obliged and whatever is not obliged, Bancroft teachers are surrounded by willing fence painters. I hope tonight you get to see a little bit of how our talented faculty do this.
Before I send you up to McDonough, two things I want to impart:
First, if you need to talk to a teacher about your child specifically, please feel free to drop them an email and set up a time to talk. I’m sure you can understand that tonight is not the right night to have individual conversations.
Second, parents’ nights are in many ways, by necessities of logistics and maximum efficiency, nothing like a reflection of what it is like to be immersed in the life and daily routine of a school. I think that this truth is especially the case tonight as the evening’s program stands in stark contrast to the schedule that your children are living each day. Tonight you are on a tight, one-class-right-after-another, only-two-minutes-of-passing-time schedule. Please realize that what your children experience is a much more humane experience.
With that I invite you to see glimpses of the fences we will paint this year.
A guest post by Dominic Dipersia
Dominic serves as Bancroft’s substitute coordinator, student activities communications liaison, and MS soccer coach. He was also one of the chaperones on the 7th Grade AMC Retreat in New Hampshire's White Mountains, Aug. 31-Sept 1, 2016. Here, he shares his insider's view of the true value of this annual seventh grade rite of passage.
As the seventh grade students tilted their heads all the way back to look up at the peaks of their respective mountain trails, their eyes grew wider with both excitement and trepidation. Most of the students on the AMC Retreat had never hiked anything before, let alone a 4,000-foot mountain. With their backpacks as big as their bodies strapped on tight, they pushed forward and began their uphill climb, a challenge that tested them both physically and mentally.
On a hike filled with stunning views, sharp corners, fallen trees, rocky paths, and even some rain, the groups of students and teachers worked their way up to their community huts in which we stayed for two nights. Sleeping on triple-deck bunk beds with not much more than a sheet, a light sleeping bag, a blanket and a pillow was in keeping with the “roughing it” nature of the experience; no memory foam mattresses here.
In many ways the experience, organized by a dedicated team of teachers, served as a microcosm for this school year. Teachers want their students to challenge themselves, both in and out of the classroom. The idea that they can climb a mountain on their second day of school should give them the confidence to get through any obstacle that comes their way inside, and outside of the classroom this year and beyond.
“It’s amazing how small you can feel compared to the whole world.”
As our group of ambitious climbers ascended to the top of Cannon Mountain on our second day, the tallest peak we climbed during the retreat (4,100 ft.), their confidence grew with each step they took. For most of the students on this trip, this test seemed impossible at first. Yet when it was all said and done, the students had accomplished a three-day hike up and down the mountain, a goal accomplished through individual grit and the support of peers. They took the challenge head-on and masterfully became a stronger group of students because of it.
Much like the challenging trails and exhausting inclines they endured, there will be tough times in the school year where students may think they couldn’t possibly rise to the occasion. With some help from their teachers and classmates along the way, they will see that reaching the peak of their seventh grade experience isn’t as daunting as it may appear.
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