A View from the Middle - Middle School

Welcome to A View from the Middle by Corinna Crafton, Head of Middle School, a blog featuring interesting educational observations and commentary. 

Dr. Crafton will be posting here regularly. Please be sure to scroll down to read more and check back frequently for updates.

Community, Cooperation, Collective Good

Look for the Helpers

We tell our children and each other that there are silver linings to be found amidst adversity. Our current struggle is a mighty one, the adversary powerful and ruthless. Yet, this war, too, shall pass. We will see days, perhaps a long way off yet, when COVID-19 has been subdued and a sense of normalcy returns. What of now? What can we do now to ease anxieties, especially amongst young people?

Mr. Rogers often told the story of the comfort and reassurance he received from his own mother when he would hear about scary and upsetting events on the news. She told him to “look for the helpers” reminding young Fred Rogers that there are always folks helping one another, especially during times of great danger or uncertainty. 

Our current struggle against COVID-19 is one such moment. We are no exception to history and find ourselves yearning for comfort within chaos and community whilst restricted to our homes. When we pause to look for the helpers, however, we witness a transcendent moment of grace. If we turn away from our very real and legitimate grief over this situation for a few moments to recognize all the brave souls at work to keep us safe each day and the innovative, creative minds at work on solutions and adaptations to keep us that way, we cannot help but feel grateful to be part of the global community during this time.

The rapid move to distance learning we have all had to make tests us in varied ways. We have worked to learn new technologies at breakneck speed. Many parents and teachers have and continue to juggle working with childcare, seeking creative solutions to balancing the two. Sleep can be elusive and the workload intimidating. In all of this tumult, it may escape our notice that everyone around us is also struggling, also worrying, also navigating with only a partial map of what the coming days hold, for predictions remain elusive. And yet, there is collective power in sharing our struggles with one another. Simply acknowledging that others share your concerns, feel a similar sense of worry and unease can help us carry the burdens we must. Barriers of space and time fade away when we recognize that everyone we know is negotiating their way in the face of this pandemic. We are in this historic time together, albeit from locations across many towns, states, and countries. But in it together, we are, and let us not lose sight of this larger landscape. Students will remember much more about how we made them feel during this time than they will content from any one class. 

This Friday, I’ve invited our Middle School parents to join our Full Division meeting. We have not done so before, but we’ve not been teaching remotely before either. New challenges present new opportunities for connection. Here is another silver lining to our current predicament. Join us on Friday. Watch and learn from our student leaders who will guide us through an activity built around this week’s theme of Gratitude. For now, despite great illness, suffering, and death, there is much to be thankful for and many for whom we should and will give thanks together. As a community. A community for good.

Posted by ccrafton on Thursday April 16 at 09:49AM
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Inclusivity Comes with Challenges in Young Adolescents

Middle school-aged students crave two things seemingly to be at odds with each other. They want ardently to be seen as and recognized as individuals yet fear being perceived as different. 

Yes, middle schoolers are a bit contradictory. It comes with the territory. We expect that dichotomy to inform much of their decision making processes as they move through these tricky years of “tweendom.” 

This struggle between their need for independence and the belief that peers are watching and critiquing their every move can make young adolescents at once both risk takers and risk avoiders. It is wonderful to know that the young adolescent sense of self is malleable and evolving. During these years, children have not become fixed in any one mindset, stance, identity, or world view. Encountering a wide range of beliefs, outlooks, perspectives and ideas helps them to slowly form a nuanced and informed understanding of the world and their place in it. This wonderful openness is especially valuable here at Wardlaw+Hartridge.

Immersed as we are in an incredibly diverse school community, our young people encounter peers from a multitude of backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, races, and experiences. They are indeed fortunate to have the opportunity to experience this confluence of cultures and backgrounds. We know, however, that without intention and deliberate action, diversity does not necessarily lead to inclusion. It is through daily interaction, guided activities in advisory, bold conversations in classrooms, active and engaged listening that we invite everyone into full participation in our community. Through this intentionality, we can come to better understand one another.

This is not to suggest that we have it all figured out or that we do not sometimes encounter struggles with one another. Our 10-14-year-olds sometimes make poor choices in their behavior toward one another. An impulsive comment, a careless word, a hurtful moment of name-calling also come with the territory. Let us be reminded of those still developing frontal lobes and the need for consistency in our messages to students. Being clear and steady in our behaviors solidifies the community norms of integrity, open communication, respect, opportunity and civility. Forgiveness and offering second and third chances is also part of the process. As a team of educators, we continue to learn ourselves how we can better support our young people. 

Part of our effort requires staying current with emerging research into adolescent development, cognitive neuroscience, social media and technology. Late last month, I attended a meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools. Of many workshops and several keynote addresses, I was struck by two in particular and for quite different reasons.

At the opening keynote address, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business, spoke to us about his recent work studying what he argues is a mismatch between intentions and outcomes in how we are preparing young people for college and life beyond. Professor Haidt discusses the concept of “antifragility” at great length in his latest book, The Coddling of the American Mind, and he spoke to us about how good intentions meant to protect young people can, when taken to an extreme, result in children who distort and catastrophize even the most mundane events, focusing almost exclusively on the possibility of negative feedback or outcomes. This stance can paralyze a child or an adult, leaving them feeling that every move is risky and danger or failure lurks around each corner. Haidt explains that “when students are reacting to real problems, they are more likely than previous generations to engage in thought patterns that make those problems seem more threatening, which makes them harder to solve.” 

Rather than avoiding risk and potentially negative experiences, he suggests we confront both the possibility of failure, danger, risk, in order to build capacity and skill in tackling these inevitabilities. Haidt’s argument, when extended to the idea of relationships and developing inclusive communities, holds a reminder for us. A fear of those different from ourselves in some way is cultivated by the very distortion of reality Haidt discusses. Such anxiety about “the other” can intrude upon a child’s willingness to step into another person’s shoes, the very action necessary to develop empathy. One of our mission skills, empathy is a trait that requires nurturing over time and that can only happen throughout consistently acknowledging the realities of others.

The closing speaker at last month’s NAIS conference was writer and civil rights activist Angie Thomas (The Hate You Give). She shared two examples from her childhood which place into stark contrast the power that adults have to instill in children either the courage and tenacity to confront challenges or the negative, success-stealing demon of self-doubt. Both examples were teachers she had while in elementary school. Thomas overhead one teacher speaking in racially derogatory terms about her students, including Thomas herself. The other teacher inspired Thomas to believe that anything she wished for herself was within reach by encouraging and believing in her. 

Fortunately for Thomas and for us, she listened to that second teacher and became the writer and advocate for young people who has motivated and mobilized young people to expect and demand better from their leaders and from themselves. Building agency and empowering young people is a mission for Thomas, and one we share with her. 

Providing tweens and teens with the tools to interrogate their world and examine their own choices is more necessary now than ever. One of the workshops I attended at the NAIS conference was led by Linda Burch, Chief Strategy and Development Officer at Common Sense Media. The workshop was devoted to better understanding the degree to which social media is impacting children and their development. She advocates not for removing all devices or banning access to social media but for a reasoned and thoughtful approach, one which includes the child in the conversation. Again, the themes of empowerment, building agency and fostering “antifragility” where echoed in her presentation. It was perhaps a bit disappointing, but not surprising, to learn that there has been a 40% increase over the four years in smartphone ownership by children. In 2019, 25% of 9-year-olds and 70% of 12-year-olds had a smartphone. 

The scenario that has been created through the best of intentions puts in the hands of children a device that introduces them to the wide open world of the internet and all its opportunity and danger, yet we have instilled in them a fear of so much (fragility) they are not prepared to navigate the terrain. Burch suggests we must be much more open, frank and inviting in our discussions with students about the temptations and pitfalls they will confront online in order to prepare them to make wise choices. No parent or teacher can monitor every moment online, so the idea of exploring the law of logical consequences can foster ownership of actions, in person and online. She suggests we model the type of reflective and deliberate behavior we wish to see in our children by slowing down ourselves, seeking facts and evidence in decision making, and considering the perspectives of others. 

After spring break, we return to advisory, grade level and full division meetings. These, in addition to class meetings, will be opportunities to explore the ways in which we are being deliberately inclusive, thoughtful in our choices and selective in our uses of screen time!

Posted by ccrafton on Thursday March 12 at 08:56AM
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Life’s Greatest Challenges Require Rigorous Inquiry

Today’s Middle School blog marks a departure from my past approaches. I have enjoyed sharing highlights and developments regarding a particular aspect of the important work we do in Middle School. On one occasion, I have turned the pen over to a student-blogger for a fantastic journey into the power of introversion and observation. Over the past few years, I have written about our advisory program aimed at developing strong character and life skills, shared examples of programs and projects that build resilient academic risk-takers, and explored some of the many opportunities we provide to build leadership capacity through service learning. 

I shall be doing none of that today. Instead, I write about something that is both very personal and highly relevant to this month’s theme of rigorous inquiry. I must admit, I struggled with the decision to move into uncharted terrain – writing about myself. A discussion today with a dear colleague provided the confirmation I needed to share this aspect of who I have become, for it is indeed “mission aligned” and, while difficult, offers an example of the necessity to cultivate learners who are passionate and tenacious in seeking answers to life’s most complex and challenging questions.

During the first weeks of school in September 2017, just after I assumed the position of Middle School Head, my husband was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. I found myself simultaneously learning the ropes of my new and exciting job while processing devastating news and diving headlong into an ocean of research, data, opinions, second opinions, third and fourth opinions. And then began the logistics of learning to support a spouse needing intensive medical intervention while continuing to develop and grow in my new position. I found myself quickly immersed in an endurance test and wondered on many a late evening – How much can I handle?

The short answer is, a great deal. We all can and do confront sudden life changes that demand swift learning as we go. Embracing the reality that we do not have all the answers in a crisis, acknowledging that we know very little, in fact, about so much, is just the beginning to learning. Maya Angelou wrote, “I've learned that I still have a lot to learn.” Seeking to know and demanding of myself the skilled inquiry I expect to see in my students was indeed put to the test. And it still is. Angelou also wrote, “We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.” 

And so, here we are, two and half years on and my husband remains in treatment, both of us knowing a great deal more about his illness and taking comfort in that knowledge. We keep reading and asking questions and trying new treatment protocols. All of this rigorous inquiry has informed the critical decisions we have made and given us peace in knowing we’ve engaged fully in the process. Most importantly, however, we have learned to be grateful to those who’ve taught us so much along the way.

Posted by ccrafton on Thursday February 6 at 08:46AM
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A Student's Perspective on Global Engagement

Each year, I am honored to turn over the reins of my monthly blog to a student. It is my privilege to share this month’s blog with a member of our Student Government and Publications team this year. Ms. Oluwagbemisola “Gbemi” Olarewaju ’24 is a leader of our Student Government group and writes about the ways our students demonstrate global engagement through their daily actions.

As you will read, our Student Government is a very active and engaged team. Much of their work is service-oriented, with projects undertaken to help our immediate community as well as people across the country and the globe. Indeed, the efforts led by our Middle School Student Government enact our mission to “prepare students to lead and succeed in a world of global interconnection.” We are incredibly and rightly proud of these fine students and all they do each day to learn about and aid in improving their world.

On behalf of the Wardlaw+Hartridge Middle School Student Government, Oluwagbemisola “Gbemi” Olarewaju serves as guest blogger this month…

As a school and community, Wardlaw+Hartridge not only educates their students, but also teaches them to become better citizens. Teachers and administrators try to teach about different communities and what we can do to make the world a better place. Our Middle School initiates and takes part in many services, events, and fundraisers to help organizations globally and locally. 

One recent example is our awareness and fundraising effort to support the Thirst Project. The W+H Middle School sold $1 candy grams, which are small lollipops with a note attached, for students to purchase and give to friends. Proceeds benefited The Thirst Project, a non-profit organization with a mission to end the global water crisis by building fresh water wells in developing communities worldwide. The organization is student-led and believes that youth can change the world. So do we. 

In some developing communities, women and children walk about 3.75 miles to fetch unsanitary water for their families. This prevents women and children from getting a job or going to school. Carrying a 44-pound jerry can, daily, takes an extreme toll on the human body. Chronic fatigue and dehydration are only some of the issues it causes. One of the Thirst Project’s major plans is to provide clean, safe drinking water to every person in the Kingdom of Eswatini, also known as Swaziland, by 2022. Eswatini also has the highest HIV/AIDS density out of any country in the world; this shows us just how dire the situation is for the population of that country! The people in Eswatini need help and the Thirst Project is trying its best to give it to them.  Learning about the Thirst Project and its ideals helped us to better understand what other people go through on a daily basis. This led us to want to make a difference; the W+H Middle School raised a total of $308 for the Thirst Project. 

Our Middle School also holds an annual local event called the “Giving Tree.” This is when students can purchase gifts for children in the Crossroads School located in Westfield, New Jersey. The school serves children on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. The school is publicly funded with many students coming from low-income families. We put a small tree in our alcove with children’s names and a few gift ideas for what they want. The gift each child receives may be their only holiday gift, so we know it means a great deal. 

Student Government and Publications tries to work globally and locally; no matter how far away, we know our outreach can still make a difference. Eighth-grader Sanya Sidhu ’24 explains that, “We give the kids (at Crossroads) something they don’t get every day. Honestly, even if we don’t get to meet the kids, I know that by the end of the day they’ll have a smile on their faces.” Even personally, I can say that it warms my heart to know that these kids will have a holiday gift waiting for them on Christmas Day. This shows the impact that can happen when you give just a little, even for someone you may never meet.

Many W+H Middle School parents and students take part in Service Learning trips led by Dr. Crafton on Saturdays throughout the year. We go to the Hillside Food Bank, the Ashbrook Reservation, and other locations to learn and to serve. At the Hillside Food Bank, we sort and package foods that are given to people in need all across New Jersey and places far away, such as Houston, Texas and Puerto Rico after devastating hurricanes left thousands without food or water. At the Ashbrook Reservation, we clear trails of storm debris and fallen trees while learning about the ecosystem and the history of the area. Eighth-grader Kayla Martel ’24 says that with service she has “learned that no matter where you came from, we all have different struggles and we should learn to appreciate others do for us, even if we don’t know them.” She also says that at the Ashbrook Reservation, “I learned the real meaning of hard work and dedication because our guide works hard and is dedicated to keeping the trials sustainable and helping the Earth, and his spirit and passion for the environment is contagious.” I would recommend going on a Service Learning event to anyone who is interested!

It is very important for us to take part in these various events because it not only helps us to become better people, but deepens our understanding for other lifestyles, cultures, and struggles. It is also important for young people like us to realize what’s going on in other parts of the world and what we can do to help. If we can get involved and make a difference, the world will be a better place. It is very important for the youth in this generation to learn about issues in other regions of the world to gather an understanding for other people. Different people live different lifestyles and it is very important for us to be able to empathize with experiences that are different from our own. It is great for the youth to experience and be aware of other people and cultures. As a young person myself, I can say that taking part in these events has led me to become a better person and has helped me learn about communities on a global level. 

-Gbemi Olarewaju ’24 for Student Government & Publications

 

 

Posted by ccrafton on Wednesday December 11, 2019 at 11:05AM
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Onward, Pioneers! Chipping Away at 10,000 Hours

The day began with breakfast and table games, a light-hearted start to what would become an enriching day of sharing and learning from one another. Last Monday, teachers and administrators took part in workshops across a wide range of teaching and learning topics including: developing digital portfolios of student work, enhancing our culturally responsive and inclusive curriculum, differentiating instruction for all learners, designing alternative assessments, and promoting social and emotional health while advancing a rigorous program of studies. We are grateful to have this time to work together to further hone our skills as educators and to collaborate with one another across grades and disciplines.

Time, teachers will tell you, is the one resource they all wish they could reproduce at the copy machine or manufacture using our 3-D printer. With all that needs to be done, finding pockets of time to devote to developing the craft and art of teaching must be intentional. We are fortunate that Wardlaw+Hartridge prioritizes this time during our professional development days, allowing teachers to teach each other. Certainly, we could use more of these special opportunities. Each workshop offered last week was planned and delivered by one of our expert faculty members.

We ask our students to be pioneering thinkers each and every day. We must embody that mindset ourselves, and there is no better way to do so than to dive into learning more about the profession we love. When we get together as a faculty and talk about how to make the most of the moments we have with students and our hopes for them, we talk about latent talents and the ways we can scaffold instruction to bring out the best in each student. 

Many of you have likely read Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Outliers, wherein he discusses what it takes to truly master a skill. He writes about the “10,000-Hour Rule” to which he devotes an entire chapter. This topic receives the most attention when folks discuss the book, and certainly it is attention-grabbing and powerful. However, there are a few other points Gladwell makes that are worthy of our consideration. 

For example, he writes of several fascinating young people who excelled far beyond their peers with no 10,000-hour effort. Henry Cowell, he explains, “had been raised in poverty and chaos. Because he did not get along with other children, he had been unschooled since the age of seven. He worked as a janitor at a one-room school-house not far from the Stanford campus, and throughout the day, Cowell would sneak away from his job and play the school piano. And the music he made was beautiful… “he had an IQ of above 140, which is near genius level” (73). So, what do we make of this dichotomy? Most of us must put in at least 10,000 hours to master an art, skill, or topic. A smaller number, such as Cowell, or the girl who “was reading Dickens and Shakespeare by the time she was four,” are born with a special proclivity for something. Perhaps one way to consider this disparity is that it is no disparity at all. Rather, there are many ways of being “smart,” of learning and knowing. Most take hard work. We know also, as Gladwell points out, “the relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point. Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage” (79).

Indeed, Gladwell digs deeper to learn what becomes of the geniuses among us and finds that regardless of innate talent or aptitude, “extraordinary achievement is less about talent than it is about opportunity” (77). Providing an environment rich in opportunity is critical to our program at Wardlaw+Hartridge and we work continually to develop new and novel opportunities for students to stretch their minds and expand their hearts. Professional development opportunities for their teachers is requisite in achieving these desired outcomes. 

Lesser known perhaps is, Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, written by Scott Barry Kaufman in 2013, seeks to dispel some of the many myths surrounding IQ testing and put forth a case, steeped in research, for a more holistic approach to understanding and nurturing intelligence. Engagement, mindset, curiosity, self-regulation, creativity, and deliberate practice feature prominently in the emerging research about what makes for successful outcomes for students across many measures and across various demographic groupings. Much of the work we undertake in advisory, with our focus on non-cognitive character traits, and within classes aims at building capacity in the areas Kaufman suggests are most impactful, “critical thinking, working memory, mental flexibility, deliberate practice, communication and social skills, public speaking skills, compassion, emotional self-regulation, learning strategies, growth mindset, and divergent thinking” (305). 

None of what teachers do each day is easy. All of what they do in support of students, however, is important and the work they put in at night and through weekends reflects their commitment to continually developing their professional practice. 

Posted by ccrafton on Wednesday November 6, 2019 at 11:17AM
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Unplug and Talk, Unwind and Walk

The start of a new school year is both exciting and extremely busy. At one of our faculty meetings in late August, I asked that we remember how important it is to unplug and talk, unwind and walk. This is perhaps easier advised than accomplished. The intentionality required to actually step away from devices and step into conversation or engage in moments of solitude was made more powerfully clear to me this summer as I read our Middle School faculty selection, Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Ageover the summer months. Turkle is a researcher at MIT and is particularly interested in the development of the adolescent mind. Here is a link to her book: Reclaiming Conversation

In recent years, her work has turned toward the effects of technology and media on the developing brain and she has followed cohorts of young people, the first generation of children to have smartphones, as they move into their first jobs. Of this cohort, she writes they are “Intelligent and creative...but employers report that they come to work with unexpected phobias and anxieties. They don’t know how to begin and end conversations. They had a hard time with eye contact” (28). One anecdote she shares of a high school senior keenly illustrates this anxiety: “...he fears any conversation that he cannot edit and revise... For later in life I’ll need to learn how to have a conversation, learn how to find common ground. Someday, someday soon, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn to have a conversation’” (28). How is it that a high school senior, on his way to college, fears what may have been considered a mundane part of the day of an average adult: conversation with other adults? He is not alone. Turkle, and others before her, have written of a growing unease with in-person engagement and a startling drop in empathy.

Turkle’s book offers clues as to why it is young people today are stricken with fear about face-to-face interaction and may struggle to develop empathy. She suggests the very skills necessary to be a successful employee are those skill that require patience to master, and patience is not honed through life lived online. For example, she explains “conversation unfolds slowly” while the technological world is incredibly fast-paced, even frantic in its incessant stream of information and stimuli” (71). She and others argue that we have unintentionally robbed children of one of the most critical building blocks for deliberate, slow, and deep thinking: boredom. “Parents worry that downtime is boredom and see it as a waste of time. But childhood boredom is a driver. It sparks imagination. It builds up inner emotional resources” (71). Child psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott has studied boredom in children and found the more capacity a child has for boredom – the ability to play or think while alone – the better overall psychological health that child enjoys. Interfering with the natural development of managing boredom and the solitude and space for imagining and pondering in provides, inhibits a child’s neurological growth and well-being. 

This is but the tip of the argument; there is a great deal more she discusses and perhaps some of it we would not all agree upon. Please consider reading the book and deciding for yourself whether she is correct in her many assertions. Our faculty began and will continue to discuss Turkle’s findings and her recommendations for our response. One thing we have determined is that we must more purposefully use technology in our approach to instruction and student learning. We have scaled back our use of the iPad a bit this year and are asking very pointed questions of ourselves when it comes to our use of digital media and electronic devices. Is it necessary? Is this technological approach preferred to a more traditional approach? If so, why? Turkle writes that in many schools “there is pressure to use technology in classrooms in ways that make conversation nearly impossible. Interestingly, this technology is often presented as supporting student engagement.” We ask, engagement in what? If the answer is not with each other or with deep learning, we reconsider the approach. We are indeed extremely fortunate to have such options, to be empowered to make critical decisions for the well-being and optimal learning of our students. 

I do hope you will join us in our exploration of the role conversation plays in developing empathy and cultivating a mindset for lifelong success by perusing Turkle’s book. Please look for an invitation soon to a book talk to happen on campus, of course, in person!

I look forward to seeing you at Thursday’s Back-to-School Night in Middle School, which begins at 6:15 p.m. in the Berry Performing Arts Center Lobby.

Posted by ccrafton on Wednesday September 25, 2019 at 11:04AM
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Middle Schoolers Embrace Collaborative Spirit

How can you possibly read Shakespeare with Middle Schoolers? They’re so young and immature.

I have heard that comment and others like it for years. Well-intentioned folks, who know little about working with middle school students, assume it is impossible for young adolescents to understand Shakespeare’s language let alone his nuanced use of metaphor and imagery. 

What I know is that middle school students are adept at taking on the challenge of dramatic interpretation. They are natural performers and innately curious about how language works and why a pun is so much fun! They get it. 

Underestimating tweens is something that gets under their skin...and mine. We know they are truly capable of engaging fully with the language of William Shakespeare. For them, language is a puzzle to figure out, a riddle to solve, a challenge to be met. When I survey students after their Shakespeare performances, they remark on what a special experience it is to do live theater. Further, they appreciate the challenge and feel proud when they have met it. As one student put it this year in her evaluation of the experience, “I never thought I would understand all those ‘thee’, ‘thou’, ‘thines’ but I do and I like it, and I like how everyone in class liked it too and got excited about performing the play.” 

They recognize also how important it is to work as part of a team to produce a strong performance. We should all be very proud of the collaborative spirit that pervades the middle school student body. They are a resourceful group, supportive of each other and eager to take on the next project or performance. 

I am often asked how we can assess non-cognitive and character skills: How do you know if students are being resilient? How do you measure their creativity? One measure is by performance – Shakespeare, concert, speech, debate. These activities are all mechanisms by which we can see critical character traits in development. Children are excited by the prospect of performing for a live audience. Doing so with peers helps to foster collaboration and empathy and tends to lessen performance anxiety, for all know they are in it together. During our rehearsals for the recent Shakespeare Festival, we would encounter scenes that felt especially difficult. Through encouragement, practice, and teamwork, students worked together to struggle through. By the final week of rehearsals, one could hear children telling each other during such moments not to give up, for “The show must go on!” They were right, and it did. 

Posted by ccrafton on Wednesday May 29, 2019 at 11:55AM
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Celebrating An Alumna Who Embodies Importance of Rigorous Inquiry

Pictured to the right is Jacquelin Sibblies Drury, Wardlaw+Hartridge graduate, Class of 1999. While a student here, “Jackie” was encouraged to delve deeply into complex and controversial issues. Her work at W+H helped to prepare her for the exciting world of theater and the success she has enjoyed as a writer and dramatist. We were thrilled to learn last week that Jackie has just won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Fairview, which challenges the audience to examine their own ideas about race, stereotypes, and privilege.

Many things have changed in the 20 years since Jackie graduated W+H. We have seen enormous advances in technology and medicine, the rise of social media and instant access to information. Scientists have mapped the human genome and immunotherapies are being developed to deliver targeted treatment for a wide range of illnesses. We have also witnessed celebrity culture and reality television alter the collective consciousness and civil discourse devolve into shouting, or worse. If the two decades since Jackie walked these halls has shown us anything, it is that rigorously questioning our world and our actions remains critical to the achieving one’s fullest potential across any measure. 

Students must dive deep into thorny issues, learn all they can about topics of personal interest and global significance, engage thoughtfully with others as they challenge assumptions, convey informed opinions in writing and the spoken word. These vital skills are a hallmark of the student experience at Wardlaw+Hartridge.

To develop the habits of mind and the behaviors necessary to closely examine complex issues requires that we help our Middle School students understand how they learn. Metacognition is the fancy word for “the awareness and understanding of one's own thought processes” (www.oed.com) and knowing this about ourselves can help us to prime the brain for new learning. In the Middle School, we have used a fantastic curriculum called MindUP, which was developed specifically for use with young adolescents to explore how their brains change during puberty and how they can tap into the great potential they each possess through positive mindsets and putting to use their knowledge of how they think and learn. To learn more about the resources available through the MindUp organization, click here: MindUp 

The young adolescent brain is truly fascinating. Developing from back-to-front, the prefrontal cortex (located just behind the forehead) is the last region to fully develop, and is not fully matured until we are in our mid-twenties! This area of the brain is responsible for many things, including abstract thinking, voluntary movement, aspects of speech, and executive functioning skills. Thus, providing students with activities to assist in its development is imperative. Attention, organization, and forward planning are essential components to the sophisticated level of inquiry we pursue in and beyond our classrooms, and these attributes are honed as the prefrontal cortex develops. Knowing the frontal lobe is a work-in-progress and that each child matures at different rates, we scaffold instruction to include many activities that build their capacity for complex decision-making (such as choosing from an array of possible research questions to ask), impulse control (by using non-verbal cues and feedback to help students self-regulate), and focusing attention (breaking reading and writing activities into “chunks” to allow for pauses from intense focus). 

As we learn more about cognitive development, we are able to inform our own practice as teachers to cultivate opportunities to stretch young minds, challenge perceptions, nudge beyond the easy answer, and foster a love for deeper understanding. In so doing, we tap into the natural proclivity children have for asking big questions. 

I cannot help but wonder what big questions Jackie asked when she was a student here. Did she ponder the structures of a cell when peering through a microscope in laboratory life science? Did she consider the etymology of a word as she dissected language while rehearsing for a Shakespeare play in English? We know from her yearbook entry that she loved poetry, expressive writing, and taking a stand. It is no wonder then that her professional life is one that blends inquiry, performance, and social justice. In that that yearbook entry, Jackie included a powerful passage from the classic novel The Secret Garden: “At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they see it can be done--then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.” How fitting for a Pioneering Thinker to reflect on a beloved book and the powerful message it provides about taking risks and asking those big questions. Do it! Take that chance! Ask that big question! Hunt for answers! 

I wonder what terrific things our current Middle School cohort will have accomplished 20 years hence...but first, let’s finish the 2019 school year!

Posted by ccrafton on Friday May 3, 2019 at 09:57AM
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Visitor’s Perspective Sheds Light on Our Strengths

A visiting student recently remarked how “open” and “interested” students here at W+H seemed in their classes. When I invited him to say a bit more, he shared that he felt welcomed to “join the discussion” and saw students asking “big” questions of their teachers. He seemed a bit surprised that teachers welcomed diverging ideas and opinions. In that moment, I understood what the young man was witnessing and why it may have so impressed him. He was watching engagement in action. Students at W+H are not only invited to engage, inquire, wonder, and challenge, but are expected to do so. Perhaps this young man has not had that experience in his school and found it an exciting possibility.

We must prepare our students to grow into global citizens, capable and ready to venture off to college and beyond with the necessary skills needed to tackle complicated, chronic issues. Part of that preparation requires teachers to provide the practice for delving deeply into topics, invite discussion, struggle through disagreement, and reach an understanding of the perspectives of others, even if we do not always agree with one another. Civil discourse is a skill and life habit that requires careful cultivation. Vital too are activities that include collaboration amongst students and lessons that do not assume one correct answer, for we know that the most weighty issues facing our country and our world have no easy answers. 

I was reminded by this young visitor’s observations of our responsibility to help each other honor and value our special community. It is true that will never all agree with each other all the time. I propose that the very fact we do hold different opinions is the sign of a healthy and vibrant community of interested and interesting minds. Indeed, what we model is what we promote. When students see the adults in their community exchange ideas and opinions, they grow more comfortable in sharing their own. When we encourage active listening to the ideas of others, students are taking their responsibility as citizens of our community seriously. 

Perhaps the young man who visited our campus recently and remarked at the openness he witnessed in the classroom was observing this respect for “the other” that we must hold dear. I am reminded by his words of the very precious resource we have here at W+H: each other and one that requires tending and nurturing each day in the smallest of interactions we have with one another.
Posted by ccrafton on Wednesday March 13, 2019 at 08:51AM
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Introverted Minds: A Student Guest Blog

Our theme for this month’s Division blog is Ethical Conduct. Certainly, I could write at length about the many examples that abound in my daily interactions within our Middle School. I could share inspiring stories of Middle School students choosing to do the right thing even when no one was watching or when it would have been easier to make a different choice. I could provide an overview of research or data about the positive impact that an ethical mindset and ethical behaviors have on lifelong happiness and health. I won’t be doing any of those things for this blog, however. 

Rather, I must step aside this month and allow a student to do the sharing with you. It is, in fact, the ethical thing to do! Our guest blogger has an important message for us all, a reminder that strength and courage come in many forms, some loud, others quiet. I had best let her explain.

I am proud and pleased to welcome sixth grader Ruhee Hegde as this month’s author of A View from the Middle

Introverted Minds by Ruhee Hegde, Class of 2025

People I know always ask me, “Why are you so quiet?” I sometimes even ask that question to myself. I don’t have a clear-cut answer for this question. Possibly I was born as a quiet person and I don’t have to change who I am. 

I often think that the whole world is designed for extroverts. In school, it often seems like “you are so outgoing” is the best comment that someone could give to another person. Many times, teachers ask me to speak up more. I always wonder how some of my classmates are able to chat all the time with others, whereas I am not able to. During school presentations, initially I would get nervous and uncomfortable that everyone was looking at me. But slowly I got comfortable and more social with people. Now I can talk about any favorite topic for an hour at least. I can dance or do public speaking on stage without much fear. Little by little, everything got easier. Internally I have not changed much. I still feel exactly like any other introvert would feel, but now I know how to cope with the other side of the world– extroverts!

The process of understanding my limitations and powers was not that easy. Before, I always wanted to be like other outgoing kids and questioned myself a lot. I always thought: Am I normal? Why am I not like the other kids? After my own long research, I understood that it’s nothing but “I AM AN INTROVERT” and whatever behaviors I exhibited are completely normal. Introverts need some time to actually find out and explore who they are as human beings. I researched online and read some books about that topic. One of the books I liked a lot is, Quiet Power, by Susan Cain. The author wrote about her experiences as an introvert and in the book, she referred herself as being “in the world that couldn’t stop talking.” Yes, that’s exactly how I feel inside also. She also wrote about other kids’ experiences as quiet ones. I would recommend that book to anyone going through the same situation. It brought more confidence inside me and helped make it easier to talk to people from the tips she wrote in the book. More importantly, it made me realize that there are many other people like me in this world and it helped me clear many misunderstandings about quiet people. I would like to share some of those misconceptions about introverts as below:

(1) Introversion and shyness are not the same thing. Everyone is shy at least sometime in their life. People think that introverts can’t be leaders or introverts are shy just because we are quiet at times. Take the example of Barack Obama, our 45th president of the U.S. He is an introvert too! He’s one of the best public speakers and he led our country as a president. This leads us to another misconception of introverts. 

(2) Extroverts often think that introverts are poor public speakers and they don’t like to make eye contact with people. It’s true that introverts, because they are quiet, might not like being up on stage with all the attention. Introverts can be quiet but confident speakers and they can express their feelings enough to the point where they feel proud.

(3) Another misconception about introverts is that they are unemotional and that extroverts are happier than introverts because of the way they are outgoing. Introverts might not show many facial expressions and emotions and it might look like they aren’t interested in what someone is saying. They can show emotions. Take the example of comedians such as Steve Martin and Woody Allen. Even though they are introverts, they are famous for their funny and comedic jokes. It’s kind of hard to believe that even some of the world’s iconic Hollywood actors are introverts. The overall statement is that introverts can do anything that extroverts can do.

There are some things that introverts feel hard to fit naturally into the social world. I didn’t like going to parties with a lot of noise and that fear of being with other people that I wasn’t related to made it a whole lot worse to make proper friends. Without proper company, it’s hard for introverts to enjoy the parties. I always preferred to sit with my parents at our community parties because I didn’t have proper fun company. Also, I never like noisy loud music and chatting with unknown people. 

I used to get tired after talking for a long time with my friends. Introverts might need more “alone time’’ to rejuvenate after any social conversation. It’s not that they don’t like to mingle with people or talk to them. They prefer small groups of people in gatherings and more preferably like-minded ones. I can talk for an hour or so on my passionate subject areas like robotics, historical events, or fun facts trivia. Many times, my parents were surprised to see me in that “talkative mood.” So, don’t assume that introverts don’t talk more. They may not initiate the talks, but it all depends upon their interests, ambience, and most importantly, comfort zone.

To all the introverted adults and teens out there, here is some advice to tackle the fear of not fitting in or not being normal:

Always let your imagination flow and give yourself some time to just relax. Remember “being quiet” helps your brain to focus more and organize better. I myself am a deep thinker and good listener. Don’t worry what others say about you. Focus on what’s inside your mind and consider being quiet is actually a magic power!

Find your passion and use it in a way that you are comfortable. When I was in Lower School, I found that I am very passionate about math, science and other STEM related topics. I love to read trivia about all amazing things in Wikipedia. Introverts usually have a great ability to focus on multiple things and to pursue them.

Make sure to communicate well with your closest friends and let them know what you are going through. It’s never fun to be lonely and without any friends. But never rush and change yourself to fit in. Being yourself is important and your friends will slowly understand.

Get enough alone time to re-energize. It’s completely normal that you get drained out easily by the loud noises or the social interaction for longer periods. 

I am now happy and comfortable with who I am and I am eager to explore more about my introverted mind power. I’ve enjoyed the process of knowing myself better so far and I would like to continue the same.

Posted by ccrafton on Thursday January 24, 2019 at 08:36AM
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1295 Inman Ave,
Edison, NJ 08820
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The Wardlaw + Hartridge School is a top private and college prep school in Edison, New Jersey, which provides an independent, pioneering educational experience at the early childhood, kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school levels.
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