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A Middle School Transition by Design

written by Dan Keller, Middle School Head & Middle School Teachers Carrie Ball, Lisa Clarke, Mary Foard, and Shaina Longway
Imagine what it is like to be an 11-year-old student, fresh from elementary school, joining a campus of 6th-12th graders. This transition is a time of accelerated cognitive, physical, social and emotional growth. How can a young person successfully manage those changes as they develop their identity?
Middle school educators have an integral responsibility to engineer and deliver learning experiences that respond to the developmental needs of the young adolescent. Recently, a group of Severn School Middle School teachers asked, “How might we design a school program that both meets the current needs of incoming 6th graders and effectively propels students into 7th and 8th grade with intellectual skills, good character, and overall wellness?”

Thoughtfully Designed Classes

We answer that question with a curriculum and schedule designed to foster growth in these relevant areas. Teachers with precise skill sets deliver practical and exploratory classes aimed to facilitate a healthy shift to the middle and upper school environment including Study Skills, Health and Wellness, Design Thinking & Innovation, and Civility Seminar.

Study Skills

Middle School students are excited by their new independence, ready to take responsibility for their own learning. But before they can take on that responsibility, they need explicit instruction in learning how to learn. From the very first day, we help students develop important habits such as keeping a complete and up-to-date planner and using study halls to work and visit with teachers. We then explore how learning works on a cognitive level. Middle schoolers are able to think about complex issues and appreciate understanding the reason behind learning strategies. They often have valuable insights that both enhance our curriculum and give students the sense of ownership they crave.
Severn School students look for books in the library.
Learning where to find and use resources is an important part of the study skills curriculum.
We also discuss “failure” and how to cultivate a growth mindset. Students often feel that mistakes are unacceptable. We help them see that struggle is an essential part of the learning process. At the end of the class, our students leave armed with habits and tools to take charge of their own education and the knowledge that our supportive community is here to help them along the way.

Health and Wellness

With increased independence, growing adolescents experience many new feelings and unfamiliar changes. Health and Wellness class offers students a timely and appropriate roadmap of the physical, emotional and cognitive changes they can expect during middle school. We believe students should become comfortable, effective advocates for themselves and others. In Health and Wellness, students learn about different communication styles, how to communicate assertively and how to manage conflict. We work with students to apply these strategies along with tactics for emotional regulation to social scenarios that typically arise in 6th grade.

Design Thinking and Innovation

Design thinking is a systematic process of defining a problem and creating innovative solutions. We created the Design Thinking & Innovation class for students to practice problem-solving, teamwork, and resilience through that specific methodology — finding the best solutions to real-world challenges within a defined time period. In elementary schools, teachers give students well-defined problems and ask them to generate innovative solutions with the materials provided. Once in middle school, students are ready to tackle more complex challenges that require deeper, open-ended reflection. For instance, students might be asked, “Is there a more fun and engaging way to teach simple addition to 5 and 6-year-old students?”
Severn School students demonstrate a game to other students.
6th graders design, build and demonstrate educational games for Severn kindergarteners.
In addition to questioning and problem-solving, students engage with a variety of learning tools such as a 3D printer and laser system. They then collaborate with peers to plan and create a design to share with a real-world audience that will use the finished products. As 6th graders journey through the design thinking process, the teacher serves as a guide but allows students to independently develop an innovative product.

Civility Seminar

In Civility Seminar, we challenge students to consider their role in the middle school community, reflect on how their choices can affect others, and discuss how to navigate new and demanding situations. Delivered in seminar format and drawing on experiences of current and former students, this class allows incoming middle schoolers to examine which behaviors help them succeed. 6th graders discuss how to become more socially aware and what it means to be a positive member of our school community. We break down different social situations and talk about ways to respond with civility when handling disappointment and building friendships. Students use discussion, debate, case studies and role-play as techniques to approach these scenarios.
Severn School teacher with a group of students.
6th graders discuss the meaning of our school mission statement.
Our transition from elementary to middle school program demonstrates what we value in middle grades education and provides just the right knowledge and skills for our growing adolescents to thrive.

Lower School

Upper School