Our primary goal in middle school is to provide a challenging and encouraging environment that is at all times sensitive to the unique developmental needs of preadolescents and supportive of a positive self-concept for each child. We aim to help children move along the continuum toward greater independence, giving them responsibility for their own work and behavior while affording them increasing opportunities to make appropriate, independent decisions as they show their readiness to do so.
Children this age require both support and space from the adults who care about them, and our grade-level academic teaching teams are always seeking the right balance. There’s an important role for parents in our program as we partner to encourage students to take positive risks knowing that failure is a crucial part of learning, and we make every effort to help students learn from mistakes while the stakes are lower than they will ever be again.
A high level of academic rigor exists at USN, and the life-worthiness of the skills and understandings students are building is a major consideration in curricular and instructional decisions, including the use of technology. School values of diversity and inclusion can be found in every curricular unit, and our schedule includes time set aside for mindfulness and deeper understanding of one’s identity. Our aim is to develop compassionate, thoughtful, high-achieving, and well-balanced young people, prepared for a future that is difficult to envision today.
In the non-academic portion of each school day, students have choice as they identify areas of interest and talent and pursue them. A wide range of fine arts and athleticoptions exists, as do opportunities to participate in academic competitions, community service, and various clubs.
Head of Middle School
Core beliefs that guide our work with Middle School children
1. The person a child is becoming is more important than what a child knows. 2. The social-emotional curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum. 3. The brain of a pre-adolescent is still developing in significant ways, including time management, perspective-taking, reasoning, impulse control, and attention; as a result, instructional time should provide scaffolding in these areas. 4. Discovering and making use of how a student learns best is as important as what a student learns. 5. Pre-adolescents develop better decision-making skills and learn best when they are in the company of adults they trust and who know them. 6. Learning to struggle effectively and to seek appropriate assistance when struggling leads to maturity. 7. Self-confidence is crucial for personal and academic growth; it comes when effort invested is met with a feeling of progress. 8. Content taught should have a high life-worthiness value. 9. Partnership between students, parents, and teachers leads to a child’s best learning. 10. Children need adequate time for play, nature, and reflection, without electronic devices.
The best recipe for educating preadolescents involves more than just a dash of involvement from parents. Best practice for educating and rearing healthy, well-informed children is to have healthy, well-informed adults--both at home and at school--talking with them regularly about the same things in the same ways.
At USN, we place great importance on our partnership with parents for the child’s benefit. Ultimately, we want students to be at the center of the conversation, becoming ever-better advocates for their own learning needs. Teachers and advisors address their progress notes, emails, and other correspondence to students rather than parents on a regular basis; parents are included to help keep them well-informed. Students are encouraged to attend parent-teacher conferences, and one each is year led by the student, who discusses progress toward goals and his or her learning using work samples.
There are occasions where just the grownups need to compare notes or make a plan to help a child. In addition, we host several parent education sessions during the year to help keep parents informed about their children’s use of technology and to allow them the chance to hear from experts at school and in the community on salient topics like adolescent development and social cruelty.
Our goal with fine arts in middle school is to nurture each student’s appreciation for, knowledge of, and interest in a range of fine arts. Taught in most cases by the heads of their respective programs, students enjoy expanded opportunities for specialized and advanced learning as they reach the upper grades of middle school. All fifth graders experience a range of fine art classes as they move through a rotation of mini-courses in instrumental music, vocal music, visual art, theater, and digital technology.
In grades 6-8, students choose the fine arts courses they take, selecting from an extraordinary menu. Students take four elective courses during one school year: two in the fall semester, and two in the spring. Some courses can be repeated; for instance, those choosing Band will take Band both semesters, leaving two other options for elective courses.
Each student has one period each school day dedicated to fine arts, and students alternate the elective class they attend: A-days are Mondays and Thursdays and every other Wednesday, and B-days are Tuesdays and Fridays and every other Wednesday. Each student takes at least one performing art (PA) and one visual art (VA) course each year enrolled in middle school.
Many current middle school students will occupy jobs which currently don’t exist, and as adults they’ll communicate on devices and platforms beyond anything ever imagined thus far. In response to these kinds of realities, we need to maintain the right priorities about how and what we teach, priorities which may be different from those of previous generations. For instance, how important is it for students to memorize the same facts and figures their parents once did when they can access that information instantly in the touch of a button or with their voice?
In addition to core knowledge, we owe it to our students and to the lives we hope they lead to deliver a program focused on key skills and understandings for the future, such as understanding and appreciating differences and similarities among people; knowing where to find relevant information and how to evaluate its accuracy, and how to creatively design and problem-solve new solutions.
Among the life-worthy skills and understandings we want students to learn to develop are specific personal qualities: teamwork, resilience, curiosity, creativity, ethics, and time management. We highlight these qualities in our feedback to students and post them in every classroom of middle school.
We no longer talk about trying to integrate technology into our curriculum. It’s already there. Students in every grade of middle school are issued tablet or laptop devices imaged with links to the learning resources they’ll need for the school year. Teachers regularly rethink their instructional methods to make the best learning possible, often “flipping” the traditional classroom model and allowing students to view or hear new material at home from the teacher’s webpage and reallocating class time for teacher-assisted or small-group work.
We pay close attention to helping students and parents make sense of how to use--and how to help their children use--technology safely and appropriately, and when it’s best NOT to use it at all: Administrators lead a parent education series each year designed to share best parenting practices for the digital age; and, for students, we view our digital citizenship curriculum as one of the most important components of our program.
Like any responsible parent, we, too, worry that students have too much screen time. We restrict all cell phone access during the school day in middle school, and we limit device/laptop use to specific classroom situations where we believe they can produce the best learning outcomes.
Grade-level academic teaching teams form the foundation of our middle school faculty. Other than world language teachers, these faculty members have a dual role as subject-area specialists at their grade level and as advisors to a subset of their students. Focusing on students of a particular age allows teachers to become experts in the unique developmental needs of the students they teach, something we view as vitally important to the goal of helping every child learn.
Our teaming model allows for common planning time each day, with teams meeting to discuss student needs and to maximize interdisciplinary opportunities across subject-area courses.