In this two-part series we look at how students at the Middle School are learning to find the "I can" in the midst of challenges they face, choosing to make this sometimes awkward yet very special season of life their time to shine.
Last year English teacher Chantal Ulferts worked with a student who just couldn’t seem to connect with books.
Reading wasn’t a joy, and the boy was close to writing himself off as a non-reader.
Recognizing the importance of finding stories with characters you can relate to, Ulferts invited the student to join her on a search for books with characters who looked and sounded like him: male, young, African-American.
As the student explored authors like Walter Dean Myers and Jason Reynolds he was drawn into new worlds, and reading captured his imagination in a fresh way.
“He wrote down the fact that he now feels like he is good reader,” Ms. Ulferts shares.
This story is important on many levels: Representation in literature. The tight connection between reading for joy and academic success. Identity.
It’s the third one we want to look at today.
A Key Season for Identity
Who Am I Becoming?
Between the ages of 11 and 14 students go through an explosion of brain growth paralleled only by the growth during infanthood.
This growth impacts a number of critical areas of development, from belief systems and problem-solving skills to perception of identity.
The key moment between Ms. Ulferts and her student connected to multiple aspects of his identity: Am I a reader? Am I someone who keeps trying until I find success? Do people like me do big things?
One key area of identity we are working to nurture in our students is a mindset that responds to questions like these with the answer: “I am someone who can.”
Following we will look a just a few examples of how our students are learning to stretch their "I can" muscles.
I Can Do Hard Things
Sometimes we don’t realize just how much we can accomplish until we step into the unknown.
Each winter band instructor Brandon Delbow turns his class and the spring band concert over to his students.
Dividing the students into groups, he instructs them to find their own music, figure out how to make it work for their group's instrumentation, rehearse, and prepare an introduction. They then perform that music during an event patterned after an art crawl, where the audience moves from space to space to experience the performance of each group.
“Every year students are editing something they've been given to better fit their group,” Delbow says. Some students compose their own music or write new parts to match their instruments.
“During this unit, I purposefully don't tell them what to do, but ask them questions...then they think of ways to do it on their own.”
Requiring this deeper level of ownership over the process changes how students understand their music as well as their own potential.
“When they come back to full ensemble after the small ensemble unit they sound a grade older because they've had to think, learn, and perform with greater understanding,” Delbow says.
By encouraging students to push the edges of their perceived abilities and giving greater independence, faculty members prepare them for the day when there won’t be a parent or kindly teacher at their side guiding them. Students develop a mindset that looks at challenging tasks and says, I can do that.
I Can Take Responsibility for My Success
The steps needed in order to do hard things can feel mundane and boring. Both in class and during advisory teachers work to help students understand the responsibility they have for their own success.
This is a challenge instructor Michelle Vitt takes seriously.
Every year her students bring home national honors on their French and Latin exams, but she sees "life skills" equally important as academic skills.
During advisory, for example, she spends a lot of time discussing organization and helping her students connect their habits with their success in class.
“I realized that trying to impose my organization on others was not the way to do it,” Vitt says. “Unless they bought into it, it wasn’t going to last.”
Instead, she explains her expectations (i.e., that you come to school with your iPad charged), and asks the students what methods to meet these expectations have worked for them.
When crowdsourcing solutions the students generally hear a method that resonates with them, take greater ownership for their choices, and that ownership leads to increased follow-through.
“We equip them [the students] and expect them to become increasingly independent and responsible for their work, their time management, and their decisions,” says Principal Karen Balmer.
The result? Students realize that they can take a greater measure of responsibility over the many little choices that foster day-to-day success.
Watch next week for Part 2 of this article.