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.
Over winter break I became fascinated by, and sometimes immersed in, play. I did quite a bit of playing with my seven- and four-year-old, and observed even more. It got me wondering about the power of play. This led me to ask to what extent play has a role in a Bancroft education? What’s so special about play?
You may not be familiar with the pretend game “Zebee,” especially since only two very small people seem to know the rules, or the game “Substitute Teacher” (I’m sure whatever you are imagining now is close enough), but those were my kids’ favorite go-to games over break. Throw in various art and construction projects — from making clothes out of recycled paper to building a two-seat convertible out of a big cardboard box replete with vanity plates — and you have a small sample of the ways in which their imaginations ran wild during the two weeks off at home.
As I watched them live in imaginary worlds and scenarios, I saw improved problem-solving skills, high degrees of cooperation, examples of self-sacrifice for the greater good, and improved empathetic abilities.
But what about play at school? Is it right to think about it only in terms of traditional notions of recess? I don’t see it that way. In Bancroft’s Middle School, play is an important part of our everyday experience.
- It’s in our language classes where the learning is often gamified.
- It’s in our gyms and on our fields.
- It’s the eighth grade arts electives where students are improvising through song or acting.
- It’s in the Fort Building Club where kids built structures and held elaborate competitions in the woods on campus.
- It’s in the geography class where groups made 3-D maps of Asia.
- It’s in classroom performances in history and English.
- It’s at our math competitions and Diversity Day.
- It’s in building robots and drones.
When adults think about play, many might conjure up frivolous pursuits or recess. I know from experience, both at home and at school, that play can be so much more. But even when kids say they want more recess (and most do), I see it as a great learning opportunity.
For more food for thought about play, check out these readings/videos/links that came across my radar as I was having fun watching my kids:
Article: More Playtime!
Video: Dr. Stuart Brown on Play
Website: National Institute for Play
Last Friday night, while the sixth graders and parent volunteers were playing games at their alternative gym night event, and about 25 parents were squirming in their seats as they learned strategies about how to have “The Talk” with their adolescent kids, the seventh and eighth graders were up in the Boone Room for their winter dance.
Close your eyes and imagine a middle school dance. What do your senses register? Do you see a cavernous gym with a tiny disco ball hanging limply from the ceiling? Do you feel the sticky humidity in the air? Is your hearing being assaulted by the thumping drum and bass lines of the pop song of the week, spun by a cheesy middle-aged DJ with a bit too much enthusiasm? Don’t even tell us what it smells like.
Now imagine last Friday’s Bancroft Middle School Dance. You can take most of that sensory overload and throw it out the window. This Middle School dance had the unique markings of a Bancroft event.
There were the students who excitedly showed up early to decorate the room in a winter motif. The tunes were spun by eighth grader Violet, whose DJ setup (courtesy of her audio-genius dad) and skills put your average wedding DJ to shame. And while there was the typical dancing, non-dancing, and goofing around, there were other scenes one wouldn’t see at many other MS dances — like the group of students who clustered around Dima to watch him put some finishing touches on his robot for the next day’s competition (his team was a top 15 finisher, by the way), or the kids who curled up with books for a respite from the excitement.
Sure – the songs were loud, the air was hot and thick by the end of the night, and there was a certain hard-to-miss fug in the air. But how many dances do you remember ending like this one, pictured below, with an army of Middle Schoolers cleaning up the event that they planned, decorated, DJ’d, and executed by themselves?*
Another reason to love Bancroft and the kids who make us special.
*HUGE thanks to student council advisors Jody Stephenson and Angela Sigismondi who played more than a small role herding the cats. Also thanks to the eighth grade team for chaperoning the dance, all the sixth grade parents who helped make gym night a success, Pam Sheldon who organized the parent sex-ed workshop, and Kevin Briggs and Lance Stewart who spent Saturday with our robotics teams.
You are probably thinking about holiday shopping now and are wondering if Middle Schoolers buy holiday gifts for teachers or staff. The answer is “no.” If you want to thank a faculty member, Mrs. Hanssen, or any other member of the Bancroft community, encourage your child to write a thank you letter or card. I’ve received many touching notes over my career, and most of them were written around this time of year. I keep a file in my desk labeled “Good Stuff” and often sift through its contents when I need a boost.
Or you may think about honoring a faculty or staff member with a contribution to the Bancroft Fund or your favorite charity or non-profit. And in case your child is thinking about buying gifts for friends, we don’t allow gift exchanges at school. Gift exchanges at school often lead to subtle and unhealthy competition and social stress.
Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy exchanging gifts with loved ones. What I don’t enjoy, and what can be unhealthy for kids, is the pressure, materialism, and competition that can come during the holidays if we as adults don’t set limits.
Here’s to a peaceful and joyful holiday season.
If you accepted the premise of the title of the eighth grade play, 29 Reasons NOT To Be in a Play, you might have assumed that there were an equal number of reasons not to see it. Boy, were you wrong. Watching this fast-moving comedy that had the whole class on stage for a majority of the action, I can say with certainty that I haven’t LOL’d that much in an hour-long span in quite some time.
Of course as an educator I’m one of those people who truly believes that process trumps product every time. I know that what the rest of the audience and I didn’t get to see — the classmates who developed a friendship through hours of running lines during every spare moment; the student who learned how to fully project her voice; the girl who, despite getting very sick, was so worried about letting down her castmates that she somehow willed herself to make it to the final dress rehearsal; the boys who fearlessly stepped in and took on additional roles when actors were absent — is where the real magic happened. The failure and recovery, learning, and personal growth all occurred in the weeks before the house lights went down and the curtain came up.
Have you ever laughed so hard you were near tears while simultaneously beaming with pride? Of all the reasons to see this year’s eighth grade play, getting to do that was my favorite.
As I walked back from lunch on a warm and windy day earlier in the week, I came upon a group of eighth grade boys who were joyously playing a game they had created out of thin air. As orange and red leaves randomly blew away from their host tree, the boys took turns trying heroically to catch the unpredictably flying foliage. Loud cheers arose every time a boy made a diving snag. While I was watching (and at one point unsuccessfully participating in) the fun, a few other middle school students walked by and I overheard their deep conversation about the etymology and meaning of one of my favorite, but rarely useful, words: defenestration. In this one moment some middle schoolers were engaged in active and creative play while others were breaking down vocabulary with Latin origins and historical significance. And thus I saw and heard simultaneous examples that are a microcosm of what it often looks like to spend your days with middle schoolers – witnessing youthful play and mature intellectual exploration.
For those of you who have the opportunity to visit us on Tuesday for our Bring Your Parents to School day, you too will see plenty of examples of what daily life is like for Bancroft middle schoolers. Whether in the classroom, the theater, the art room, the music room, the playground, or the halls, here are a few things you might notice:
- A trusting community where taking risks is expected
- The use of technology in class, whether it’s used for student creativity, to enrich the learning experience, or provides assistive technology (like text-to-speech)
- Peers supporting peers
- Students transitioning smoothly between full class, small group, and individual activities
- Adolescents discussing literature in clusters
- The gamification of learning
- Students learning transferable skills like how to best study for a test
- The use of current events to make real-world connections
- Students working on projects that have built-in choice and independence
- Classmates working together on a performance where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts
- Lots of laughter and energy
Of course you will also probably see plenty of surreptitious and wonderfully unpredictable moments that demonstrate the enthusiasm of middle schoolers and the strength of our community more than words ever could.
Finally, please note that it’s perfectly fine if you’re unable to attend this causal morning event. We know many of you can’t get away from work, and we also know that many of you have middle schoolers who have ordered you to stay far away. Both of these scenarios are completely understandable. Once you wrap up in the classroom, I’m eager for us to share what we noticed over coffee at 10:30.
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