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.
Just two days ago, after school got out at 2:45 for the weekend, I had the honor of heading to the lobby of McDonough and sitting in tech teacher Kevin Briggs’s low slung blue beach chair, a typical Friday afternoon fixture in the fall. Fridays after school are when our robotics team and Mr. Briggs voluntarily gather to build, tinker, program, fail, refine, fail, rebuild, reprogram, tinker, reprogram, and sometimes succeed before moving on to the next problem.
Watching the kids as I filled in for Kevin, I saw that students were serious about the robots, some of them working through programming issues that stymied them for weeks. But they were also having lots of fun with each other. There was laughing and socializing. A dance move was busted. This atmosphere naturally led to a spirit of communal experience, and in turn that spirit engendered examples of empathy and care. On three separate occasions I saw three different eighth graders help sixth graders solve problems, not because they were asked but because they noticed the need. By 5:00 the area was totally cleaned up and the last student headed home.
It’s probably a good idea to be crystal clear about my role filling in for Mr. Briggs on Friday. My role was to sit in the low slung blue beach chair. That’s what I agreed to do, and, amazingly, that’s all I had to do.
I sat while the students were completely self directed, from setup (including unfolding said chair for me), to collective problem solving, to cleanup. To be sure, Mr. Briggs deserves all the credit for coaching these students and having the skills necessary to work with this technology. More importantly, he’s also responsible for creating the climate I sat amongst, one that’s a mix of chilled out curiosity and a dogged determination to make crazy ideas work. Like all of our Middle School educators, Kevin brings an original style and expertise to a community of teachers who love working with Bancroft middle schoolers, helping them become self-sustained learners. Of course the kids deserve credit for their work ethic, attitude, and commitment on yet another Friday after school. And me? I was asked to sit in a chair.
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.
Choose groups to clone to: