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MS Head's Blog

Mr. O in his 2nd floor office on a dress-down day

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.


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Helping Kids Navigate their Online Lives: A Parental Cheatsheet

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.

  • Pay attention
    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.
  • 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. 
Posted by Trevor O'Driscoll on Friday October 21, 2016 at 12:06PM
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Painting Fences: MS Parents Night Remarks

MS Parents’ Night Welcome, 2016

Tom Sawyer illustrationFor 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. 

Posted by Trevor O'Driscoll on Friday September 23, 2016 at 03:56PM
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A Peak Seventh Grade Experience

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. 

On top of the worldAs 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.”
– Aidan B., 7th Grade

 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. 

Communing with nature
Becoming a squad
Posted by Trevor O'Driscoll in Only in Middle School, Learning Lab Method (LLM) on Friday September 16, 2016 at 10:37AM
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Venturing Into New Territory

This past week the halls of Middle School were filled with excitement, nervousness, joy, and the energy that comes with imagining all the untold possibilities of the school year that has begun to unfold.

Before we settled into the more typical rhythms of the year, all of our students ventured out into the world to connect with their peers and teachers beyond the classroom walls. And of course our seventh grade spent three days in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. This trip prompted my favorite parent email of the week, from a mom who sent her son off for the adventure early Tuesday morning. After wondering if her boy was going to be alright on the trip, he quickly responded, "Mom I am a seventh grader and I am independent now. You will survive not talking to me for three days and I will be ok."

Part of being the parent of a middle schooler is knowing when and how far to toss your fledgling teenagers out of the nest. Sometimes if we listen to our kids, they’ll tell us how ready they are. Thanks for sharing your children with us.

Enjoy a few pictures from our various escapades.

MS Escapades

Posted by Trevor O'Driscoll in Learning Lab Method (LLM) on Thursday September 1, 2016 at 03:22PM
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The Case of the Cross-Divisional DNA Lesson

One of the many things that excites me about working at Bancroft is seeing how great teachers are always striving to engage and teach their students in new, exciting, and meaningful ways. Upper School science teacher MaryAnn DeMaria recently shared the story of how a chat with colleague Carrie Whitney, our sixth grade science teacher, resulted in her eleventh grade students concocting a crime scenario — let’s call it “The Candy Caper” — to illustrate current DNA analysis technology to the sixth grade students. MaryAnn writes:

"Earlier in the year Carrie asked me to help her put together a DNA fingerprinting lab for her students. I thought it would be great if the juniors in my AP Biology class could modify their Restriction Enzyme Lab and turn into an experience for the sixth graders. Their idea was to make the crime a candy theft — someone had stolen the candy from Mr. Kamosky’s desk! They crafted a great lesson plan to teach the sixth graders how DNA fingerprinting actually works to identify a criminal. They created lab packets, designed an assessment, and set up the lab for the sixth graders. They even recruited several faculty and staff members to star in this video, which set the stage and outlined the crime for the sixth graders."

This week I popped into the Fuller Science Center and witnessed those sixth and eleventh graders working side-by-side, performing gel electrophoresis on DNA from the “suspects,” which allowed them to create a DNA fingerprint to help determine the perp’s identity. As MaryAnn excitedly explained, “My students got to be ‘teachers of others’ while capably demonstrating their knowledge of DNA and DNA fingerprinting!”

Eventually the sixth graders will create a news video to share their results with the juniors.

When educators have opportunities to connect like this, even a casual conversation between two of Bancroft’s fantastic teachers can grow into a unique and memorable learning experience that connects our curious and talented students across divisions.

As to who committed the crime? I’ll have to plead the Fifth.

Posted by Trevor O'Driscoll on Friday May 27, 2016 at 04:21PM
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