It was ten years ago this month that a group of faculty, staff, and administrators first gathered in the office of former Head of School Martha Shepardson-Killam to discuss the possibility of starting up a middle school program at Stoneleigh-Burnham School and begin to work through how best to proceed. Many of us in the room had worked with middle school students in the past, and enthusiasm for the idea was high. Once we secured Trustee approval, we agreed to announce the new middle school in January of 2004 and open in September of 2005. However, upon learning what we were doing, many local parents asked if we couldn’t find it in our hearts to open earlier, and we responded by deciding to open a Founders’ Program for day students only in September, 2004, and then expand to include a boarding component in September, 2005.
As part of our 10th anniversary celebration, we will periodically be re-publishing blogs from earlier years. To start out the series, here is an anticipatory posting from March, 2004 celebrating all that middle schools can and should be: “A Sense of the Possible.”
Today at lunch, some of my colleagues and I were reminiscing about our middle school years. Our laughter was often rueful as we recounted stories of trying to remain out of sight of the gym teachers surveying the showers from their offices on high, or running headlong down corridors trying to avoid the kids who wanted to dump you in another garbage can. But as each of us spoke, you could almost see the young adolescent within peering out, still asking to be noticed, to be taken seriously, to fit in. Had our stories continued, perhaps we would have moved on to talk about the other side of middle school, about those teachers who cared, about our friends and how important they were back then. On MiddleWeb, a listserv for middle level educators, one of the teachers recently asked if our old schools had felt like jails to us. Upon reflection, I wrote that while Amherst Regional Junior High School may have looked large and forbidding from the outside, “It’s where my friends and I played bridge each morning before homeroom, where I wrote a 1500-word short story, where I first learned to play French horn, where Mr. DiRaffaele opened up my mind to the world and Mr. Luippold inspired a lifetime love of French.”
“They’re just so endearing” one of my friends exclaimed as she fairly flew into the faculty room after 40 minutes of teaching literature to a group of lively 7th graders. I knew exactly what she meant – this was one of those classes where everyone threw themselves wholeheartedly into whatever they were doing, and if you caught their attention and got them engaged in a project, there was no holding them back. I remember asking them to work in groups to build websites presenting their detailed proposals for an extended trip to France, and spending hours in the computer room as they threw every minute of free time they had into adding to the information they had discovered, looking for just the right images to illustrate their points, finding a new coding trick that would make the webpage itself more interesting to look at. I presented their work to other secondary school language teachers at a summer technology workshop sponsored by the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools, who were just as delighted with the kids’ work as was I.
It’s nice to have these experiences to draw on, because when people find out we spend our days with teenagers, their reaction is often one of pity, horror, or both. While I would never pretend there aren’t moments of frustration, those moments pale in comparison to the times when teachers and students are so caught up in learning that time stops, when they plan and carry off an evening coffeehouse to raise money for Children’s Hospital, or when they say “We know, you love us.” and let you know how much that means to them. As David Killam, who will be teaching instrumental music in Stoneleigh-Burnham’s new middle school program, once observed, “Get them on your side, and they will walk through walls for you.”
March is National Middle Level Education Month. Different organizations and communities will be celebrating in different ways. For members of the New England League of Middle Schools (NELMS), the month will wrap up with the annual conference, a gathering of many hundreds of committed middle school teachers who are often just as lively as their students. We attend workshops, look for new teaching materials, and listen to speakers praise our commitment and dedication. But we are ever mindful that middle level education must begin and end with those young adolescents peering out and asking us to believe in them. After all, they are the ones who give our schools a sense of being, as another one of my friends put it, “Alive with a sense of the possible.”