Maggie's Musings - Middle School
Welcome to Maggie's Musings - words and wonderings from Maggie Granados, Assistant Head of School for Lower and Middle School and Dean of Studies JK - Grade 12.
Mrs. Granados will be posting here regularly. Please be sure to scroll down to read more and check back frequently for updates.
World Language Day is being held this week at The Wardlaw-Hartridge School. Each year I am mightily impressed by the level of language competence our Middle School students showcase. For some, the ones who have been studying a language for just a few years (or less), their abilities in Spanish, Latin or Chinese are remarkable. For others, who have been studying for far longer, it is inspiring to see how they can express themselves in another language accurately - sometimes with sensitive expression or humor and often with gusto. At some point during World Language Day we typically take a moment to learn what other languages are spoken by our students – the ones not taught in our classrooms, but, instead, in their homes. It is astounding! That question and its many responses drive home what an amazingly diverse community we are.
This year for World Language Day something slightly different will be happening. I will be actively participating by reading a stanza of a poem. Mercifully, it is mostly in English. There are, however, a sprinkling of Spanish words throughout. Gulp! I am an exceedingly self-conscious student of language. I will feel badly butchering the words, embarrassed by my poor ear for another tongue. It is fair to say I approached this year’s World Language Day with trepidation… and downright anxiety.
Enter our wonderful students. I candidly put my poor skills and worry out there, and before you knew it I had an amazing support system. Students offered to email me pronunciations of the words, others asked if it would help if we went over them in the morning before advisory started or even during lunch. As I walked out of the AP Room doors at the end of a long school day, a student called to me, “Remember, Mrs. Granados, remember the /c/ in abundancia!”
When I think about it, the thing I have always been the most self-conscious of in my own language study has been my accent. Surely, I have always thought, my Brooklyn accent is showing. Surely, I sound like someone from Brooklyn trying to speak another language. I must sound horrible. I shared this worry with a few students as we laughed and again reviewed my poetry stanza. One student quickly retorted, “Mrs. Granados, we all come from somewhere, so we all speak another language like we come from somewhere – even Brooklyn.”
Our students are awesome. They are accomplished language students and, too, are outward facing and sweetly encouraging, even to their Middle School Head! I don’t think it will be pretty when I get up and share my poem, but I am grateful to our language teachers for this opportunity to push myself, to grow, and to lean into the warm, authentic support of our fantastic students. Apoyo en abundancia!
Middle Schoolers ask great questions, especially when guided by something called the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), an approach used often in many of our Middle School classrooms. An interesting group called The Right Question Institute has been working for 25 years on this particular technique to teach students how to effectively pose questions to develop greater understanding. It has been touted in the Harvard Education Letter, the Journal for the Association for Middle Level Educators, and even the National Institutes of Health has shown that the QFT produces dramatic increases in activation and improved communication. Teachers at W-H would enthusiastically concur., as it hones and manages students’ thinking abilities in a very short period of time.
Clearly, there is something to the QFT. What’s it all about?
The QFT has three simple components: produce questions, improve questions, and prioritize questions. When introduced to a topic or at a time to review it, our Middle School students are asked to come up with as many questions about it as they can. They may not stop to discuss, judge or answer the questions, but, rather, write down every question exactly as it is stated. Next, questions are improved by categorizing the questions as closed- or open-ended. Finally, the students prioritize the questions generated when they are asked to choose their three most important questions and reflect on why they chose those as the most important.
It turns out, all those good questions get even better with time, practice and direct teaching. As you can see, QFT is a structured technique, and, interestingly, whether used to introduce, review or conclude a topic of study, it provides students with new knowledge and empowers them to set their own agenda for further learning Often used in our science, history and English classes, QFT has helped our Middle Schoolers develop science experiments in STEM activities, create their own research questions in Capstone, and even think more deeply about a challenging reading assignment. I’m delighted to see our skilled teachers put a researched technique to work in our classrooms and, better still, see it free for our students to think deeply and critically as a result.
December, for me, is a lot about lists. All of our media outlets are busy counting down or counting up movies, songs, books, events and even people of the year. My to-do list at school grows, shrinks and grows some more as we move from weeks to days to hours before our school break begins. I confess my kitchen table is home to a couple of different lists I check in with every evening to be sure my busy family stays on track. There may even be a gift list or two in the air at which I will be compelled to take a gander before too long. Yes, lists are everywhere right now.
In spite the work and action those lists present, this, too, is a time of year for reflection. What have been personal and collective successes? Where are the opportunities to do better or be better? What are the guiding forces and ideas speaking most clearly to me?
Such contemplation and the subsequent goal setting that comes from it, like those lists, is not just a personal activity. Smart and centered schools engage in it as well. As a school directed in its mission by powerful guiding principles, now is an excellent time to make space to reflect on them, and to see how deeply rooted they remain in our school community. I happen to believe our core value of Opportunity should be particularly meaningful in the life of Middle School, and in the lives of middle schoolers.
So, in the spirit of lists and in the spirit of reflection that seems to be a large part of what December is about in our world, I sat with several or our wonderful Middle Schoolers and simply offered a prompt. They did all the work of fashioning an excellent list for us all to consider:
“Opportunity in The Wardlaw-Hartridge Middle School is…
… the chance to be part of a sports team and really participate on it.
… interacting with interesting International Students who teach us what it is like being our age in a totally different part of the world.
… the chance to meet with your teacher and have a second chance with an assignment that you didn’t quite understand the first time.
… getting to try out for the Upper School Musical. Even if you don’t get in it this year, you can keep on trying, and everyone here keeps an open mind and sticks with it.
… having lots of different performance opportunities, like our recitals and concerts where we get to show what we are learning.
… that I am able to be a part of every class no matter what gender I am. There is never a teacher who directs all the questions and activities to only one gender. There are even a few sports where boys and girls can be on the same team. I think that being co-ed is a great opportunity.
… being part of small classes where our teachers really get to know us.
… having the right number of students in our grade and in our middle school, so we are able to meet friends and get to know them better as a result.
…having the chance to try something new after school like robotics, chess or sports.
… amazing overnight class trips.
…being able to vote! We get to elect student council representatives who bring our ideas to the administration.”
And, it would not be an authentic gathering of our W-H middle schoolers without some oldies but goodies enthusiastically cited as well:
“Opportunity in The Wardlaw-Hartridge Middle School is…
… recess! We are so much luckier than my friends at another school who don’t get to go outside and run around for recess.
… lunch! We have choices on the hot food line, at the sandwich and salad bar areas, even with soups. “
It was a lively conversation, and warmed my heart and inspired my work to see that here at the end of 2016 our core value of Opportunity is flourishing right along with our wonderful students.
I hope your year concludes peacefully and happily, and that you have the happiest of holiday seasons. On to 2017!
Last week I had the opportunity to attend two of the eighth grade “warm-up” debates, experiences that will prepare students to be even stronger debaters in January, when each eighth grader will participate in a judged debate. Our students will be guided to incorporate and build upon the feedback they receive this week. Even in this first go, I was impressed with the depth of research undertaken by the students, the demands placed on them to think on their feet, actively listen, and respond, and the high bar we set for them to be effective, persuasive public speakers.
I was so stimulated after seeing how high we asked our eighth graders to reach and how well they responded, I took on some research myself. I’d like to share with you some insights that celebrate the power of providing formal debate experiences for our Middle schoolers, and helps explain why we think it is a challenge well worth posing to our students in our classrooms.
Why should students learn and participate in debate?
For the Experience in Itself
Debate has been fittingly described as an intellectual sport. As with any sport, the thrill of competition and the uncertainty of outcome serve to energize the whole team. A good debate is both serious and playful. Debaters soon become skilled enough to achieve what my students call "the zone," or what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls optimal experience or flow – the experience of focus and complete involvement in an activity that is often "so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
- Jon Kendall. “The Case for Debate: Intrinsic Motivation for Thinking and Writing.” Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. April 10, 2014
For Improving Learning Outcomes
Critical thinking and argument skills – the abilities to both generate and critique arguments – are crucial elements in decision-making… In all careers, academic classes, and relationships, argument skills can be used to enhance learning when we treat reasoning as a process of argumentation… This is not only important for assuring students are equipped to compete in the marketplace of ideas but also to maximize their own cognitive development more broadly.
- Rabbi Shmuly Yankiowitz. “A Society with Poor Critical Thinking Skills: The Case for Argument in Education.” Huffington Post. October 13, 2013
Getting Ready for the SAT
Two years ago, the College Board announced that they are making changes to the SAT. The most fundamental difference is the focus on evidence-based argumentation (read: debate). The new SAT “had been redesigned with an eye to reinforce evidence-based thinking… students will get a source document and be asked to analyze how its author used evidence, reasoning and stylistic elements to build an argument.” (Source: New York Times, 3/5/14)
Debaters must do exhaustive research, be flexible, get to the point and have the courage to discard just about everything they learn on the fly. In other words, debate teaches them to make tough choices.
“If there is a single lesson of debating, it's to know your opponent better than they know themselves,” says Scott Deatherage, head of the Northwestern University debate team, winner of six of the last 10 national championships. "We teach how to make decisions under pressure and in a timely fashion. My sense is that CEOs are called upon to do that.”.
- “Debating Skills Come in Handy in Business.” USA Today. September 29, 2004
In College Admission
Indeed, for rigorous learning in its many forms, the experience of formulating opening and closing remarks and on-point rebuttals along the way is hard to match. It is why I love that we instruct our Middle schoolers in forensics and give them opportunities to hone their developing skills. It is hard for them, but so energizing and interesting to them, they keep at it! It will be interesting to see how far our eighth graders come between now and January. I’ll be sure to post some of the highlights from those January formal debates back here on the blog.
Not that long ago, I read a thought-provoking piece on NPR’s digital media. Entitled, “Sixth Grade Is Tough; It Helps to Be Top Dog,” the article shared compelling and comprehensive research that demonstrated episodes of social aggression and academic decline are far reduced in schools where sixth, seventh and eighth grade were part of a K-8 configuration, as opposed to a 6-8 or a 6-12 one.
Author Anya Kamenetz wrote, “In the K-8 schools, those (sixth grade) tweens and young teens were the ‘top dogs’ – the oldest, the most comfortable and familiar with the school. But in traditional middle schools and 6-12 schools, sixth graders were the ‘bottom dogs.’ “
Unfortunately for us, a PK-12 model was not studied in the research. That is too bad, as I think our particular configuration - all of us on one campus, all in one large, wonderful, sprawling, connected building – is of similar if not even more beneficial merit.
I look at our lower schoolers and particularly our fifth graders and the carefully planned ways we introduce them at just the right time to the middle school experience and what it can be for them. There are aspects that are wildly anticipated (The panini press! The overnight trips! The iPad! Walking to classes on their own!) and there are those flavors of middle school that are unlocked over time, (having a steady, supportive advisor, interesting elective clubs, playing as a whole middle school at recess, the depth of study and rigor experienced in the humanities, math and science). It all comes together and builds a sense of anticipation in our young students and establishes our current sixth graders as informed, accessible role models. They are never the low-man-on-the-totem-pole, but, instead, valued and admired by those not yet in middle school.
That is something that inspires our sixth graders. They get to be ‘top dogs’ while still very much being sixth graders. Through ongoing support and supervision of our students, our developmentally appropriate and enriched program of study designed just for this age and stage, and through our tightly knit community, we are a thriving middle school model and a distinctive alternative to the 6-8 schools around us.
Kamenetz’s piece can be found in its entirety by clicking here.
Our administrator blogs here on the website were created with two goals in mind - a short term (but recurring) one and a long term one. It was a way we could show you the amazing things our students do every day here at The Wardlaw-Hartridge School. That was the short term goal, and this space, I hope, works well to support it.
The long term goal was to create a better, more enjoyable, more distinctly W-H way of talking about independent education, the W-H philosophy, our pedagogy, and, again, of showing the trials and successes of your children, our students. This blog is the illustrated, annotated, serial story of the W-H Middle School. Over the course of the year, photos and guest bloggers will help me share our Middle School story with you.
Blogs are just one of the many ways in which W-H communicates with its community. Why do we take such efforts? We believe The Wardlaw-Hartridge School's mission is realized in its fullest potential when parents and families take ownership of their child's education, are proud to be a part of the school community, understand the benefits and value of the program, and feel a true zeal to work toward W-H's long term success.
The most vibrant and critical transmitters of communication are, of course, your children. In Middle School, though, it is not unusual to hear less from your children as they work very hard to make their school world their own. So we balance giving our Middle Schoolers autonomy and responsibility in communication with you, with stepping in and communicating information to you on their behalves. But it is not just your children that we teach, work with and coach. W-H’s parents, alumni, grandparents, friends and community all are integral to what makes our school special; we want to communicate and partner effectively with each of you.
We hope that by reading publications like the administrator and teachers' blogs and the weekly WHEN updates, joining us in our annual informational meetings like Back to School Night and the Coffee and Conversations, attending monthly Parents’ Association meetings, taking advantage of your teachers' availability after school and my open door, and going to the school concerts, pot-lucks, graduation, Fall Fair and the Spring Gala, you will develop a deep sense of pride and understanding in what your family is a part of here at The Wardlaw-Hartridge Middle School.
The year is new.
The conversation has just started.
The fun has just begun.
The first week of school might be short on days, but it certainly is not short on things to do. Our students jumped right in!
Pre-Kindergarteners found their way to and from the gym for their first PE class, while the eighth graders plunged into looking at the methods of a scientist.
It always takes courage to start a new year or to come to a new school, especially a school that is quite different from what you already know. This year we are delighted to welcome 54 new families to W-H’s Lower and Middle Schools!
Thursday marked The Warlaw-Hartridge School’s 134th opening, and rolling on from the Convocation Ceremony, we have a lot of interesting, amazing things to share with you. Project-based learning, gardening, STEM activities, MakerSpace, computer coding, Shakespeare, robotics and more - this blog space will not only focus on what makes us different and amazing throughout the school year, but also will be where we share the inspirational, the humorous and the just plain good stuff that happens in our classrooms.
Watch for things like Links We Love and Postcards from the Classroom, as well as guest writers, guest photographers, and topics that have impacts far beyond our walls. I hope you'll look forward to reading about us as much as I look forward to writing to you.
In short, welcome to what I know will be a fantastic 2016-2017 school year!
A.J., a member of The Wardlaw-Hartridge School’s Class of 2020 and Middle School Head for the Day on May 20, 2016, took some time out of that busy day to share his thoughts with Mrs. Granados as guest blogger.
MG: A.J., first of all, congratulations on being the Head of Middle School for the day. When you looked over your agenda, what were you most looking forward to today?
A.J.: One of the things I was looking forward to was the meeting with the Admission Office. This is because I might get to see the process of how people get accepted to the school.
MG: A.J., some people may say that Head of Middle School is a busy leadership position. I would agree! I like to think that through all of our Wardlaw-Hartridge Middle School experiences, we are preparing our students to become future leaders. What do you think makes for a good leader? What are the essential qualities for excellent leadership?
A.J.: Many qualities and talents are needed to be a good leader. To be a good leader one must be understanding and be a social person because one must be able to talk to the people that they are leading and understand what they are saying. Some qualities that a leader must have are loyalty, compassion, and intelligence.
MG: Can you think of ways so far in your life at W-H that you have been given the chance to learn to be a leader? Has there been a time in a class you can share with us where you have practiced making decisions, taking a stand, or being “in charge”?
A.J.: W-H has given me many opportunities to be a leader. In eighth grade we practice being entrepreneurs and form a business group and I am the CEO of mine. This one of the many opportunities I have had to develop leadership qualities through Middle School.
MG: Tell us, A.J., what do you enjoy most about The Wardlaw-Hartridge School?
A.J.: One of the things I enjoy most is the sense of community. This is because everyone is open to helping each other and teachers are always there if you need them.
MG: As the year winds down, it’s a great time to reflect on the year of learning we are completing. What is something exciting you learned this year? Why is it interesting to you?
A.J.: One of the most exciting and challenging things I learned this year is Capstone. It was a big challenge to write the long research paper but it helped me enhance my writing skills.
MG: A.J., we have some pretty interesting things that happen in our Middle School beyond the classroom. Do you have a particular favorite?
A.J.: One of my favorites would have to be sports. I have always enjoyed sports since I was young and have always played. My favorite would be baseball. I am on the Leadership Council of the Middle School Baseball Team. It is great to help our coaches prepare for games and help bring the younger players along.
MG: Next year – Upper School! What is something you are looking forward to next year, A.J.?
A.J.: Next year I am looking forward to the challenge of Upper School. It will also be fun to meet new people that come to W-H.
MG: Here’s the last question for this interview, A.J. (you’ve been doing great). I firmly believe a great Middle School Head gets up and enthusiastically looks forward to each and every day. Monday you are back to eighth grade. It will be a fantastic day. So tell us, A.J., what are you looking forward to come Monday?
A.J.: Unfortunately I would have to wake up but, after that, I would be looking forward to another day toward finishing the year strong.
Thanks to A.J. for his guest contribution to the blog and for being an excellent Head of Middle School for the day.
Several times throughout the year, parents are invited to join Middle School Head Maggie Granados for an informal discussion of school related topics. We call these gatherings “Coffee and Conversation” and Mrs. Granados frequently invites administrators, teachers and students to join her so together they may share with parents a fascinating slice of school life.
This month, Dr. Corinna Crafton and 8th grade student Camila Fang joined Mrs. Granados to share the latest developments with the 8th Grade Capstone project. A rigorous, supportive and individualized experience, 8th Grade Capstone is rooted in our mission of academic excellence, diversity and a familial sense of community. While the parent attendance was fantastic, this Coffee and Conversation marked the first of its kind captured on video to share with parents who were not able to be there in person.
I think one of the most significant realizations I have had recently is the immense importance of spending quality time with the people who matter in one’s life and how easy it is to get caught up in the day-to-day “stuff” of life while time slides by.
I am very interested in all sorts of motivational literature. I utilize it personally and professionally. After doing some reading about “quality time” and also thinking that I needed to spend more of it with my husband and son, I set a goal of spending five focused minutes every day with each person in my home. By “focused” I mean sitting together with no electronics, TV, or other distractions - just the two of us sitting together and talking in the living room. “How hard can it be?” I thought. Ten minutes a day would be a piece of cake.
I soon realized that every day was far too ambitious. So, I modified the goal to get 5 focused, quality minutes at least once a week with each loved one. I figured with a bar set that low there was no way to fail. Well…
The first week - it didn't happen!
The second week - I got 1 out of 2.
It took me three weeks to finally get it done – and keep doing it on a regular basis and eventually grow it to every day of the week.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, my dear husband and son struggled with it. "Whyyyyyyyyyy!!!!!!! Can't I go back to my game now!?" etc. My husband did better than the adolescent, but he still fidgeted a bit as we got to the 3-4 minute mark.
I found the experience to be quite eye opening. Do I spend a lot of time WITH my husband and son every week? Yes - hours and hours together in the car, in the same room, etc. We even have dinner together at the dining room table every day during the week – with no radio or television going. But the nature of that time and all the others is often rushed, distracted, transitory in nature, or just incidental.
All of this reflection and experience had me start to cast a fresh eye on the life of our students in Middle School each day they are with us. I have to tell you that it was one of the most invigorating things I have ever done. It has been such a delight to see how every day our Wardlaw-Hartridge advisors and teachers carve time out of their classes and activities - and the bustling learning and teaching going on in our classrooms and hallways -- to be very present for any student before them. To hear our teachers genuinely respond to our students, delight with them, sympathize with them, strategize with them, and create with them, is powerful. These moments can come during one of our Common Work Times or perhaps during an Advisory Period (one of the great gifts of having a short advisory period both at the start and end of each and every day as well as an extended Advisory Period once during the rotation). Teacher and student can also connect before the school day, after it or even in a quiet voice right during class. It was exhilarating for me to see our Middle School teachers “stop time” for their students and for our students to be cared for and cared about in such an abundant way.
At The Wardlaw-Hartridge School we know we cannot put off the tween or teen with interest, curiosity, or doubt. If we wait to find time someday or sometime when it is less busy, that day will never come. So we build time right in our schedule that makes that important focused attention possible.
Delighted by the plentiful focus time I see during the school day, I turn my mind back to life at home. We are improving as a family, better able to focus on the other for extended periods without being rushed or distracted.
So I humbly offer you that recommendation, dear reader. “Some day” is today. Find that five focused minutes and see what happens. I wonder if you, too, will be surprised at the start at how hard it is to find – and so glad you discovered it once you do.
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