Windows Into Our Own World

November 26, 2018

Books allow the opportunity to see a window into another world, as well as a chance to have a deeper understanding of the world we live in. While reading The Outsiders, seventh grade students had the opportunity for both. The Outsiders, acclaimed for its ability to connect to teenagers, focuses on two rival gangs, divided by social class, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as is told through the eyes of fourteen-year old Ponyboy Curtis. After discussions of what it means to be an outsider, and essays on who was the bigger disgrace to society- the Greasers or the Socs, English classes were asked to find a situation in the news and relate it to the themes they identified in the book. They presented these through iMovies, powerpoints, realistic fiction writings, poster presentations, artistic creations and even in song. As students reflected on the lives of their neighbors, friends, family members and even themselves, they discovered that people felt like outsiders due to autism spectrum disorder, race, sexual orientation, divorce, lack of water, and plenty more. The English teachers couldn’t be prouder of the thoughtfulness and empathy the students demonstrated throughout this project, as well as the connections they made to the novel. While some students took the approach of creating awareness of a social situation, others took to expanding on this understanding by walking in another’s shoes or looking at ways in which outsider groups are included in mainstream society. This attempt at connection is not isolated to English alone, as similar conversations have occurred in advisory, Town Hall grade level time, and with Mr. Bhat in the cultural competency curriculum. We embrace these opportunities because we know that such understandings create a deeper understanding, as well as allow our students to be reflective participants in the world we live in.

-Laura Boroughf- 7th Grade English & Social Studies, 7th Grade Coordinator

Throughout this fall, I have found myself immersed in conversations and learning environments that share an unmistakable thread.  Earlier this fall, the National Association of Independent School’s quarterly magazine arrived in my mailbox with a spotlight on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) work in independent school communities. On October 12, a group of St. Anne’s 7th and 8th graders attended a full-day diversity and inclusion leadership conference where they participated in honest conversations about stereotypes, the media, bias, racism and more. The next day, I attended the CIRCLE Conference on inclusion and diversity at the Colorado History Center, an event drawing over 100 educators from the Denver area. Less than two weeks later, St. Anne’s administrators and board members invited renowned DEI consultant, Dr. Derrick Gay, to lead them in a half-day workshop on Cultural Competency. October 26, Eli Saslow, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Rising Out of Hatred, and son of a former St. Anne’s teacher, spoke to our community about reporting, and what he learned in the writing of a story about a white supremacist who experienced a change of heart and mind.  Finally, on Halloween, a group from the Colorado Shakespeare Festival performed an abridged version of Macbeth and held workshops for our middle schoolers around the importance of being an upstander.


The frequency and similar theme of these events have reaffirmed in my mind the importance of the added emphasis we’ve been placing on diversity and inclusion work at St. Anne’s over the past several years. But while our recent efforts from the growth of affinity spaces to the normalization of DEI trainings have served us well, we know that this work must be ongoing and unrelenting for us to continue to be an inclusive community.  Nationwide, school communities are realizing this same understanding and are also creating a variety of spaces both in and out of the classroom to have purposeful conversations around race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, identity and more. I firmly believe, though, that those conversations are more successful and valuable for all involved when a tool box of understandings and cultural-competency skills is possessed by those participating.


But what is cultural competency? It is certainly a phrase gaining a lot of attention, and while there are variations in how people define it, I rely on a definition that considers two components. The first is an inward reflection and understanding of our own identities, biases, and privileges, and how that influences our own world view. The second component refers to our ability to communicate and interact with those of cultures and identities similar to and different from our own. I’ll go further and share that I believe cultural competency also should include having a positive respect and appreciation for the differences of people of all backgrounds. With each generation getting increasingly diverse across all social identifiers including race, gender, and religion, it is important to me that as a school we are not only providing a welcoming environment for all students, faculty, staff, and families, but that we are also empowering our students to go out and create welcoming environments outside our walls as well.


In the middle school this year, both the sixth grade spring curriculum and seventh grade fall curriculum will include a dozen classes focused explicitly on building our students’ cultural competency toolboxes. This includes doing simulations and activities followed by candid conversations around bias, privilege, identity, and allyship.  Prior to beginning each class, we review ground rules around assuming good intentions, respecting differences of experiences, speaking from the “I” perspective, confidentiality, and an understanding that “what’s learned here, leaves here.” Below, is just a sample of the key understandings we hope to instill in our students as part of this curriculum:


1) We all have biases or inclinations that have been formed as a result of experiences or messages from media over time.  Most biases we are unaware of, and without reflection, they can have adverse impacts on relationships and experiences we have and could pursue. Everyday bias includes a boy not pursuing a school club because he feel that “only girls sign up.”  Not exploring a certain school for high school based on a few people you know that you do not like or because of chatter you heard from someone who went is a bias we try to counter in our 8th grade high school support process. Being aware of one’s own biases allows us to take action, which is essential to having inclusive communities and allowing us to pursue diverse experiences. Examples abound in the real world of anti-bias measures that have led to positive impacts. For centuries, orchestras were entirely dominated by men, but once they used blind auditions and had applicants remove their shoes (the heels, they discovered, made noise on stage that preserved gender bias), the orchestras became much more balanced gender-wise.  There are many studies that have shown racial biases can dramatically impact a hiring process, which has led many companies to explore concrete practices aimed at mitigating that bias. Beyond being aware of our own biases, a particularly critical skill today is being able to detect biases from sources of information. Knowing whom the story is coming from is often as important as knowing what story is being told.



2) When it comes to identity, we only see and often only know the tip of the iceberg of other people’s identities. Not only are certain aspects of others’ identities not always visible to the outside world, but sometimes people choose not to share parts of their identities for various reasons. The iceberg analogy proves to be a powerful reminder that what we see is only part of the picture, so taking the time to get to know others’ stories can help us have a greater appreciation for the complexities and intersectionalities of our different identities around race, religion, ability, family structure, gender, sexual orientation, and more. When asked how Eli Saslow gained the trust of those about whom he was writing stories, Eli shared, “When you invest time in people and show them that you are genuinely interested in them, they trust you.”  Building trust can lead to the foundation of a relationship. When we develop relationships with those that share different identities from our own, it can help us counteract hurtful and inaccurate biases in ourselves and others as evidenced in his story. Moreover, it can build empathy for others and encourage us to make better decisions about our behaviors, comments and humor that shape how welcoming an environment we are creating for all.


3) Privilege refers to more than just having greater economic means. It can include unearned benefits that we do not have to think about in certain situations. At 6’7” and with a booming voice, I do not have to worry about whether I’ll be able to see at a concert or if I can get everyone’s attention in a room if I want to speak to a group. As an able-bodied person, I have the privilege of not wondering whether there is a ramp to get to the front door of a party I get invited to attend. For years following the attacks on 9/11, I began to expect to be selected for additional “random” screening at airports while my white friends would pass by and not worry.

Privilege comes in a variety of forms and plays a significant role in how we experience the world, and very often, we are unaware of both our own privilege and that which others may lack.


4) In order to be an ally to someone who lacks privilege, you must first be aware of your own privileges.  The phrase, “Sometimes you’re a caterpillar, sometimes you’re a snail,” has proven to be a “sticky” mantra  from this fabulous video which speaks to how all of us have times where we have privilege and other times when we lack it. When we have privilege, it doesn’t mean we need to feel guilty, but it does mean we should be aware of it.  After all, being aware of our privilege and how not everyone experiences it can allow us to be better allies. Being an ally means being a good listener, a safe space, and not being a bystander. An ally knows that if they are willing to speak up or take action, it can have a positive impact on how others feel about their identities and the sense of belonging they experience.  Allies know that being an ally is an everyday thing, not just when it is convenient.


As mentioned, this is just a sampling of the conversations we’re having as we try to build the toolboxes for ourselves and for our students. We are still learning and have plenty more work ahead for us in our training, our curriculum, and our programming. As a PS-8 school, our students may not leave us with a Master’s Degree level proficiency in cultural competency. However, I do believe the time and space we are providing them will help them have a stronger sense of self, be an ally and supportive space for others, and have an appreciation and respect for differences of all people.

 
St. Anne's Students attending STAMP Leadership Conference     

Learning About Food Insecurity

September 29, 2018

On Thursday September 27, the 7th grade spent the day learning about food insecurity in classes and through various experiences. In all of our classes/subjects, we learned about food insecurity which is where people struggle to find consistent access to healthy food, and they don’t always know where their next meal is going to come from. One specific thing that we learned about is what a food desert is.  A food desert is when people don’t have access to fresh healthy food. They usually don't live within walking distance of a supermarket that has fresh fruit and vegetables. The USDA says that in 2017 about 40 million people suffered from food insecurity, including over 12 million children. In math, we were given a limited amount of money to spend on groceries based on a lower income. The twist was, we also pretended like we were in a food desert so if you wanted to go to the grocery store and get fruit, meat, and vegetables, you would have to take a bus that cost money. So was going to the supermarket worth the extra money, or is it worth saving the money and walking to a convenience store like 7/11? People who are food insecure may be forced to choose to get things like fast food and junk food from the stores. The problem with that is you could be eating very unhealthy. Lots of people don’t just have to feed themselves, they also have to feed their children. And, when people get sick, they have to spend money on medical costs too which hurts their budget. Overall, food insecurity is a serious issue, and has to somehow be stopped.

At lunch on Thursday we also participated in the first ever hunger banquet at St. Anne’s which allows students to get a window into the differences that exist around food access around the world. Each 7th grade student got a card at random which assigned them to a developed country or developing country. I got a card that allowed me to only a serving of rice and beans while sitting on the floor. Others had access to a meat and vegetable and others could eat everything plus got a nice table cloth and other perks. I was fine with the rice and beans, but when I saw the one group eating cake, soda, and other luxurious foods, I started to feel empathy for the people who have to eat this everyday or have limited options. It was also surprising to hear that only a small percentage of the world enjoyed the kinds of meals we get everyday at St. Anne's. Overall this was a truly humbling experience that expanded my horizons and experience what people have to face everyday.

In the afternoon, we divided into different action project groups. Some students worked on making posters to put in the halls to raise awareness about food insecurity. Others wrote over 70 letters to representatives and grocery stores asking for help. One group made 150 lunches that went to the organization Impact Locally that supports both kids and adults who are in need of a meal. Other projects included working on presenting to the middle school at assembly, creating a one page document that highlights foodbanks and soup kitchens for those who would benefit from that information, and writing this blog!

It was clear from the day why it is so important that we and others volunteer to work at the soup kitchen, so that people trying to pay bills and support their family that are in need can get a healthy and nutritious meal which does not cost them anything. 

*This article was contributed to by 7th graders George, Tristan, Ben and Alex as part of their action project to raise awareness about food insecurity.  Special thanks to the Sodexo Dining Staff for all their help running a great day for us!

Your Guides for the Year

August 24, 2018

 Since my days in high school, my father and I have talked about taking a father-son trip to Machu Picchu.  Twenty years later, the stars aligned for us to realize that dream this summer and explore a place that is equal parts breathtaking, inspiring and spiritual. It was an unforgettable journey, made more special by the relationship we have with one another. Since returning, I have reflected on countless memories of hiking ruins together, learning about Incan culture, and catching up over conversations at local restaurants.  Part of the joy of the trip came from our experience with those who guided us at different parts of our journey. As I consider the school year ahead, I have found myself drawing many parallels between the care and stewardship provided by our guides, Joel and Martina, and the nurturing support of the amazing faculty and staff who will help guide your children’s journeys in middle school this year.

 Though our time together was short, our guides’ impact on the trip was unmistakable. I was grateful and most impressed by how Joel and Martina balanced their sharing of insights into where we were traveling with taking the time to get to know both my dad and me. When our guide learned that my dad grew up in a small village in rural India, he continued to seek out my dad’s personal stories. This had a particularly powerful impact on my dad, who felt a greater sense of belonging in a foreign country and was able to draw connections to his own experiences growing up in a rainforest in India. Our guides brought plenty of expertise throughout the journey on everything from geography, to restaurant recommendations, to never-ending content knowledge on the Incans. However, they also were very intentional about giving us some time to reflect and pause, taking in the different places and their meaning, especially while in Machu Picchu.  I also appreciated how they considered the different needs and wants of both my dad’s and my experience. From conversing in only Spanish with just me (while speaking English to my dad) to finding an Indian restaurant in Cusco to appease my dad’s withdrawal from Indian culinary spices, the guides were able to differentiate our experiences.

At St. Anne’s, our teachers are far more than providers of content to our students because young people need more than that in their school experience. Our middle school teachers truly love working with middle schoolers, beginning by getting to know their stories so they may have a greater appreciation of them and be able to best challenge and engage them.  With classrooms of students who possess such diverse experiences and backgrounds, I admire the ability of our faculty and middle school staff to support the different journey of each child. Part of that journey will involve being there for the "aha" moments and transformative growth that will happen while performing on stage or writing that first research paper. Also part of that journey this year will be helping your child navigate the inevitable challenge that will await them, be it academic, artistic, social, athletic or emotional in nature. Just as they will be there to celebrate and reflect on the successes, our teachers will be there to listen, process and help empower students to problem-solve or seek out the help they need. Though every child’s journey is unique, our experienced faculty have developed a great perspective and loaded toolbox from which to draw for all students. Middle schoolers crave independence as they develop their decision-making skills, and I admire how our faculty provide the encouragement, listening skills and mentorship to push them in safe ways out of their comfort zone.  

Over the course of the year, our faculty will serve as teachers, yes, but also as coaches, advisors, club leaders, and literal guides on outdoor trips.  As we step into a new era of expanded programming at St. Anne’s in the Hills, our center for outdoor and environmental education, it is such an honor to be a part of a faculty who possess natural skills as guides and understand the importance of how to check in, differentiate, and support a wide variety of students in their growth.

 So, as we wrap up an abbreviated first week, here’s to a great adventure ahead for us all!

Right before we left for Spring Break, I was so fortunate to join our 8th graders mid-trip in Washington, D.C. It was my first time on this rite of passage trip with the 8th grade, and what an experience it was! Throughout the six days, our students were “device-free,” a quality that was incredibly uncommon amongst the countless other student groups I saw while we were out there. The unplugged week not only led to our students engaging with one another in new and authentic ways, but it also allowed them to better engage with the history that surrounded them at every corner.

For the non-historians, often our connection to historical events is rooted in remembering where we were when the event happened, whom we were with, and how it made us feel. This is so true for me since I recall both events that were both enthralling and emotionally distressing. For me, those events ranged from my hometown Chicago Bulls winning their first title to the Berlin Wall coming down to watching the events of 9/11 unfold from my college common room.  Those events were part of my life experience and bring back feelings of anger, fear, exhilaration, confusion and hope. As I think back to my middle school years, I remember learning about what were relatively recent events like the Civil Rights Movement, which had happened only twenty-five years prior to my learning about it. I had researched it and done a presentation on that period which I remember seemed so foreign and distant from the present-day world I was living in, leading to a more intellectual connection with history for me. No matter your age, I think we have all had experiences like this with both history that we were a part of history and history that we have viewed as a distant observer.

                                       

Part of my great enjoyment of the D.C. Trip can be attributed to the frequent opportunities for students and me to foster more than that aforementioned intellectual connection with history.  At the Newseum, we had a chance to walk through a gallery of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs from major events in our history. The ability of these personal photographs and their accompanying captions to capture the raw emotion for events that I was not alive for had a palpable impact on me, bringing me closer to moments which I know carry meaning and have shaped the lives of so many in ways that I can only hope to comprehend. Watching news footage of people covering this event and seeing their reactions also provided new windows into these historical events, which I am grateful for.

                                         

On the day we walked on the National Mall up to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, we were able to pass the exact location where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” I was ableto pull up on my phone pictures of the countless supporters MLK was looking at when he delivered his speech, which struck a chord with the few students who were around me at the time. Given the lack of social media to spread the word, the gathering to fill such a large space spoke volumes of how important it was for people to be there.

                                                          

War memorials also proved to be powerful experiences for our 8th graders. While you can certainly read and remember a fact about the number of lives lost in a war, seeing the number of names listed on the wall and standing feet away from the relatives looking for a name helps bring those numbers into a human context. We, too, had multiple 8th graders look for relatives at different memorial sites and at Arlington Cemetery, but even those who didn’t seek a relative walked away with a sense of scope for the magnitude of these wars. 

                                                                         

Near the end of the trip we visited the Holocaust Museum. Our 8th graders had already been provided exposure and some key background knowledge to help them in the processing of the experience that would await them.  However, the photos, letters, personalized stories and artifacts provided a glimpse into this painful part of history. Many students who finished somewhat early also took the time to talk with an actual Holocaust survivor who had set up a table in the atrium of the museum to share his stories. The number of survivors is dwindling by the day, but hearing from someone who survived the Holocaust reminds us just how recently it really happened and that it is not a part of ancient history, despite the black and white photos that capture this time period (or how much we wish it to be so). The intensity and forced traffic flow of the museum does leave an indelible mark on a visitor. I felt equal parts solemn and shocked thatt the Holocaust could go on for so long.

Now that I’ve been on the trip, I can see why our students remember it well beyond their years at St. Anne’s. In fact, at a recent St. Anne’s alumni event, there was no shortage of stories and moments remembered, even amongst those who graduated well over a decade ago. Yes, there will be plenty of stories documenting the chocolate fountain at the Golden Corral, staying up to watch epic March Madness games, or even the souvenirs students picked up at any and all gift shops. However, having been on the trip, I am confident that our students will also take away with them a greater appreciation and connection to our history, therein setting them up to more readily take in the intellectual content that awaits them in their future studies of history.

Coming Together

March 5, 2018

On Wednesday of last week, our St. Anne’s community witnessed our first ever original musical. To see so many middle school students confidently belting out songs on pitch in front of hundreds of people will be something that neither I, nor anyone who was in attendance, will ever forget.  Less than twelve hours later, we returned to the dining hall on Thursday morning where we had our Middle School Winter Sports Assembly. This provided a forum for us to celebrate two undefeated 8th grade basketball teams, a feat that has never been accomplished in school history. We also celebrated 6th and 7th grade teams. This included our 7th grade boys basketball team who suffered heartbreaking losses all season before putting it all together to win their last game. All of these are noteworthy in my book.  As I’ve reflected back on what I saw on stage Wednesday and in the gym all winter, I found myself marveling at the manner in which groups of kids have come together to accomplish great things, but also considering a few of the factors that it takes for these teams to come together to accomplish what they did.

1) Hard work and effort on the little things: There is no question we have talented students, but without consistent effort, talent is not always realized in full.  So much happens outside of normal class/practice time, from a coach working one-on-one at break to tech crew and cast coming in on weekends and staying after school. What I’ve also noticed is that the effort is not only placed on big things, but also on little things such as where to stand on defense or on stage and reflecting on how to respond when a mistake is made.  The effort and attention to little details often can be the difference between good and great performances!

2) Contagious positive energy:  I am a big believer that energy is contagious, regardless of whether it is positive or negative.  Having members of the group that are relentlessly positive and a coach/teacher who constantly expresses belief in what the group can accomplish is powerful.  It allows them to survive setbacks and move forward. Whenever I see a team huddle or walk by the drama crew’s pre-show pump-up ritual, the positive energy is palpable (and usually loud!). Furthermore, it carries on to the start of the performance.

  

3) Trust: An environment of trust at any level is so critical, whether it is on the floor or on stage. However, at the middle school level, it’s even more important. It's incumbent on the teacher and coach to get buy-in, and that requires honoring and trusting student voice. It also requires creating a culture where everyone understands that their success is reliant on the success of the others in the group. When someone stumbles on lines or struggles to shoot the ball, sticking with them and continuing to believe in them nurtures a trust that strengthens a group in powerful ways.  I’ve seen so many examples this year of students helping one another with a line or continuing to pass to an open teammate, and it ultimately pays off down the line. Looking back on the musical, clearly there was a safe and trusting environment created by Mr. Lemire in his drama classes to engage in dialogue around bias, stereotypes and differences, which we saw play out on stage so masterfully.

 

4) The Presence and Overcoming of Obstacles and Conflict, Not the Absence of Them:  All groups go through a series of highs and lows.  It is a natural and inevitable part of the process. This winter we had a rash of injuries and sickness that took its toll on teams and the cast. Differences in opinion also factored in, and at times, the group didn't hit the bar on an individual day. However, the growth continued to happen each day.  Individuals on the teams and cast not only had to take care of themselves and persevere, but they also had to look out for one another.  Often, it is the overcoming of these obstacles that ultimately most helps groups come together faster and more tightly in positive ways.

 

The impact of the confluence of these factors is unmistakable. It builds enduring connections between students that last beyond the days of St. Anne’s. How else could you explain the number of alumni who come back to watch the play each trimester? Yes, they want to see an awesome show, but it also brings them back to a space where they accomplished something wonderful together. The memories that they form together after putting in time together, trusting one another, and overcoming obstacles are impossible to forget. 

A White Christmas

December 21, 2017

Creak. Thud, thud, thud.

  “Abby, wake up!” Henry said excitedly.

I opened my sleepy eyes just enough to see out of and flinched a little. Henry was so close to my face I could count his eyelashes.

  “What do you want?” I asked him sleepily, still not fully awake.

   “It’s Christmas, come on!” He responded, a hint of desperation in his voice.

I checked my bedside clock. It read in large, red letters, 6:30 a.m.

  “Henry, are you crazy?” I asked, “It’s 6:30!”

Finally, he yanked me out of bed, throwing the warm sheets off of me.

I timidly pushed open my door and looked around.The hallway was quiet, and shadows of furniture fell across the wooden floor in the sitting room. A faint whir could be heard from the heating unit. Outside, I could see snow falling slowly, twisting and twirling like beautiful ballerinas. As we rounded the corner of the hall, I felt my stomach flutter with excitement. Christmas was here!

Finally, we found what we were looking for. Nestled under the tree and piled by the fireplace, on chairs and the coffee table, were presents of all shapes and sizes. Packages with glossy wrapping paper, delicate bows, their silky folds tied into perfect knots, shiny tins promising delicious treats, stiff bags decorated with Christmas trees, fairy lights, and Santa hats, and finally, four knit stockings bulging with tiny treasures.

I looked at Henry. A smile crept across his face, making the edges of his mouth crinkle a little. As I stood, I realized how lucky I was to be there, snow falling outside, a warm house to live in, and presents of all kinds in front of me.

As two players on the St. Anne’s basketball team that played during halftime of the Denver University Basketball game on December 5, we wanted to share a recap of the St. Anne’s Night event.  Before the game started, the Denver University coaches gave us a tour of the locker room. We learned a lot about athletics at the college and got to see the cool facilities. A couple of minutes before the game started, the St Anne’s Middle School Choir came onto the court and sang the national anthem! They sounded  really good and had practiced a lot on that really difficult song! Five minutes before halftime a Denver University staff member came and brought us courtside. When the first half was over, we took the court and began to play five on five on the actual court! We were nervous, but when the game started, it all went away. The team made quite a few baskets for the time we were given. It was really exciting when we made two three point baskets. I think that we put on a good show for everyone in the crowd.  It was tiring running up and down the extra long court tons of times, but it was also lots of fun.

We really enjoyed this experience! It was so cool to be on the same court that Division 1 teams play on. Plus Denver University ended up winning the game against San Jose State. Overall it was very fun, and we hope future grades can do this too!

 
Written by 6th graders Brendan and Alex P
The MS Chorus singing the National Anthem before tip off!

STAMP, which stands for Students Taking Action and Making Progress, was a conference this year in Denver, at the History of Colorado Center. The leadership conference was run by high school students, and the conference was for middle schoolers. The conference aimed for creating inclusivity in schools and leadership skills. This year, in 2017, STAMP had close to 200 middle school students at their conference, and they had students from private, public, and charter schools. St. Anne’s had 13 7th and 8th grade students attending this year. STAMP also features a different keynote speaker every year, and this year’s was Stephen Brackett, a musician, motivational speaker, and activist. Each student that attended could choose two workshops prior to the conference, and those workshops were all interesting and provided all different types of discussions and advice. Finally, the keynote speaker from last year, hip-hop artist and activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, made a surprise appearance. He’s a teenager and indigenous activist, as well as a director for a climate change organization. At the end, Xiuhtezcatl performed two songs about both current events and political news.

There were a lot of different workshops for us to choose from that focused on a variety of topics. One workshop was on confidence and self esteem around body image. A key takeaway was that you don’t have to be or look like what others expect of you. Just be your own self and take pride in being different. Another workshop was on standing up for yourself and how to get your point across. We need to not get caught up in stereotypes. A third workshop some of our St. Anne’s middle schoolers went to was on understanding how different people have different perspectives on the same situation. Important to honor different perspectives because it helps our society when we take them all into account.

This conference was a really great way to meet new kids from new schools and make new friends.You always felt included! There was always someone to talk to all day. Another wonderful benefit was that you learned how to handle a variety of different situations that happen so often in life. I think that since the conference was run by high schoolers it helped us understand more because we are so close in age. Plus they have been through many of the experiences that we encounter on a day-to-day basis.Overall, we really enjoyed going and are hopeful to go again next year!

By Abby, Bella and Adie-Morgan

For every middle school student, there are myriad experiences ahead for them both in school and out of school that will be new and push them out of their comfort zone. From going downtown to the Soup Kitchen, to working with a group of people at the Memory Care Center, to selling Holiday Greens for their 8th grade DC trip, these new experiences provide different levels of challenge for our students.  The importance of cultivating risk-taking and courage to be successful in these situations seems to be frequently highlighted, but another critical key is the quality of the framing that occurs prior to that experience.

 

What do I mean by framing? Framing is the scaffolding you provide prior to an experience to set a student up for success.  A good frame provides basic information about where, what, who and why. Though I prefer to have more time, I’ve found that even a few minutes of discussion, highlighting of key information, and listening to questions from them can make a radical difference for my students.

 

Framing an experience is so important when working with young people because it provides a focus amidst what can be a new environment with a lot of new faces, surroundings, stimuli and feelings.  As adults who are often providing the frame, we can sometimes forget what it was like to NOT know and to go through something for the first time. As a result, things we think will be challenging for our kids might not be, while things we don’t anticipate to be challenging become real sticking points. When we provide a frame and give a space for asking questions that are actually on the mind of our kids, we can help alleviate stress and anxiety that is often unnecessary but that exists nonetheless. We can help prevent them from getting stuck on certain aspects that make truly immersing themselves in the experience more challenging. Prior to going to the soup kitchen for the first time this year, we shared with kids information about what soup kitchens were and the population they serve. We told them what jobs they might hold, how long it would be, and why we give up time in our school day to participate in this program. However, we also shed light on questions that middle schoolers would be worried about like what they would do for their own lunch since they leave during middle school lunch hour. This, coupled with stressing that our time was about focusing on the people we serve and not on one another or who gets to hand out the dessert, really set the table for the experience.

 

This afternoon, we had a group of ten 8th graders who chose to give up part of their lunch hour and all of their study hall time to spend time with autistic students from the Joshua House as part of a socialization program to help their kids get ready to enter a more traditional school environment. Our kids were patient, enthusiastic, positive and very supportive.  They deserve kudos for stepping out of their comfort zone and showing courage in this new situation. However, I also know that having faculty from the Joshua House come over twice to share insights about autism, help them gain empathy, show pictures of the kids they would be working with, talk about tips and the kinds of activities we would be doing, and answer questions our students had, played a huge role in the success and enjoyment of the experience.

 

So, the next time you have the opportunity to frame an experience, here are a few additional suggestions:

 

1) Find the balance between sharing enough info to give them a frame without getting so granular that the focus gets lost.

 

2) Be sure to ask them what questions they might have after you share some details. Don’t be surprised though if they ask a question that seems less than essential. It doesn’t mean they are not taking it seriously or are committed to it. Honoring what is on their mind and addressing it can ultimately help them better focus on what is important.

 

3) If you’ve got another child or a friend’s child who has been through a similar experience, have them share out their experience when appropriate. Whether we like it or not, hearing from another peer the exact same thing as what we would say as adults can prove more impactful. We use this model at school at times, bringing an 8th grader in to talk with sixth graders on a topic like responsible use of technology.

 

4)You don’t need to say, “Don’t be nervous.”  New situations are bound to lead to nerves, and you can help lower them by honoring the feelings they may have. You can mention how you understand how they might be nervous, but that the value of what they are going to do/the difference they will make is worth that initial butterflies.  Sharing a similar experience where you were nervous too but persevered and were grateful for having done so, also can be effective.

 

5) Follow up the experience with a reflection, feedback, and a pat on the back. Using the initial conversations about the frame as reflection points can really help shape growth and what they take away from the experience. It doesn’t have to be that day as often middle schoolers might not be ready to have processed it and will resist initial prying. Perhaps the next day over dinner!

 

I’ve found over the years of working with middle schoolers that they are so capable of reaching the bar, even when it is set quite high. We must not underestimate them, but we must also provide the framing so that they are well-positioned to get the most out of their experiences. Simply saying, “Be on your best behavior,” or “Do you best” does not provide the information they often need to be successful. We cannot only place expectations on our kids. We must scaffold their learning as well.