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Eighth-Grade Enlightenment: Leading With Heart

Within the start of each new school year lies opportunity.
Eighth grade, in particular, is a transitional year for studentsa year marked by significant opportunities for growth, leadership, and culture-building. This is why the eighth grade comes together in the early days of September for a two-day team-building experience. They gather not for academic purposes but to map out the next nine months and evaluate and collectively define a culture in which every student can thrive. 

“Endgame with this event is creating a positive environment where everyone feels supported and understood for exactly who they are,” said Lauren Paul, Chair of the Middle School English Department and an English teacher. “But it also sends a clear message to eighth graders: that they are now the leadersthe sixth and seventh-grade students are looking at them and doing what they’re doing. It’s important that they recognize and accept that responsibility and that leadership role. It’s their turn to set the tone.”

The format of this engaging seminar has evolved in recent years. Still, the overarching goals remain the same: to foster genuine connections among students, to spotlight their pivotal role as the division’s elder statesmen, and to pave the way for a seamless transition to the increased challenges of Upper School. 

Crafting Culture with Care 

The most recent version of this event took place in September 2023 and was tailored for the Class of 2028. It was designed to coalesce students around the idea that they were a team while also harnessing their natural social behaviors into leadership skills. The two days were punctuated with sessions aimed at developing leaders and honing teamwork while staying true to who they are. 

“Bringing students together outside of the normal classroom setting allows them to learn more about one another,” said Paul, who was instrumental in shaping the 2023 program. “It gives them a chance to look deeper and to be real. In doing so, they get to see how much better their relationships are when they are authentic. It creates a dynamic where students feel supported. And when they can build trust with us and each other, they feel safe to reveal their challenges, triumphs, and vulnerabilities." 

Faculty led students in meaningful discussions around fitting versus belonging, what it means to be a good leader, identity, what they wanted the school year to look like, cliques, and how they would describe the “best year ever” (BYE). Activities that supported the major themes included short meditations, a “where am I known” activity, the creation of a life-sized word cloud, team building at the ropes course, an escape room, making “I AM” t-shirts, a vulnerability circle, and the burning of grayscale images to signal each student’s fresh start for the school year.  

“Getting an entire class of eighth-graders to adopt common goals and start off the school year on a positive note doesn’t happen by accident,” said Lisa Clarke, Chair of the Middle School History Department and also one of the architects of the 2023 seminar. “This type of programming allows us to be intentional in charting the course for the year ahead.”
 
The seminar concluded with students scripting personal commitments—pledges to themselves, their peers, and the broader school community. Stored with advisors, these written commitments extended the shelf life of the work students put in over those two days.  

“The commitments are a tangible reminder of the positive foundation we set at the start of the year,” said Clarke. “Kids will get off-track, and their focus will drift, but now we have this opportunity to refocus them in a way that is reflective of the behaviors and attitudes they committed to and a way to have a more productive conversation about what they might need to do to course-correct.” 

Head of the Class 

As the oldest students in the Middle School, the eighth graders are uniquely positioned to set the tone for sixth and seventh graders while also anticipating their upcoming transition to the Upper School.  
 
"We want them to start thinking about how they can impact their new environment next year and how the choices they make now really matter," said Paul. "The pressures in the Upper School are greaterboth socially and academically. It's important that eighth-graders put the work in so that when they enter a bigger pond next year, they feel confident in who they are and comfortable in doing what they want to do." 

To drive that message home, the eighth-grade team positioned the 2023 seminar as a clean slatea way for everyone to shed the preconceived notions they were carrying around about classmates, teachers, and even themselves. While much of the programming tied into the idea of being known, the signature activity that underscored this idea of a fresh start used grayscale images. At the end of day one, the homework assignment was to email a photo. Students were then given that photo back in grayscale, and on it, they wrote something about themselves that they did not wish to carry into the new school year. The marked-up image was sealed in an envelope. During a lively ceremony on the second afternoon, students were announced individually, invited to get their envelope, and take it to a fire pit to be burnedrepresenting the end of that version of themselves and the start of something new. 

"Sometimes you plan a lesson and think it's going to go one way, but instead, they get jokey or silly, and it doesn't resonate," said Clarke. "But not with this one. They took it seriously, and seeing them smiling and lightening up as they dropped off those images was really beautiful." 

On the Ropes 

Next up for this bonding experience is the Class of 2029, and to kick off the 2024-25 school year, this cohort will participate in an off-campus overnight trip. On the first day of the trip, students will participate in a ropes course led by professional instructors. While the central activity differs from the year before, there will be a similar focus on teamwork, communication, and understanding and valuing the contributions of each team member. 

After the ropes course, eighth-grade faculty will lead the class in the same type of community-building exercises that students participated in the year before. “The central idea remains the same no matter where we take students,” said Paul. “It’s that this is their school, so what do they want it to look like? How do they want the school year to go? What do they think it should feel like in the hallways?” 

 “We’re consistent with this age group in reminding them that it’s okay to be vulnerable and that their connections with their classmates are more real the more authentic they are,” she added.  

The ropes course that the Class of 2029 will conquer is another way of bringing that to the forefront. “With this activity, you may be 40 feet up in the air and scared,” said Paul. "That's okay, and it's okay to be vulnerable, tell your teammates you're scared, and ask for the support you need. Just like it's okay to admit you're scared about something else and to ask for the support you need to get through it, whatever it may be." 

A Place For Everyone 

Of the many positive outcomes of this eighth-grade seminar, one of the most important is that every single student starts the year feeling like they have a place and a person at Severn. “Kids don't need 400 friends, but if they have that one person they trust and have a connection with, that means everything," said Paul. 

The lessons that land most effectively in these sessions point to an overall ethos of respect and understanding amongst students. Afterward, students shared with their teachers about having a better understanding of others, now recognizing that people are going through things about which they have no idea, and giving grace where maybe they hadn’t before. One parent even reached out this fall to share that his student had connected with another student in the wake of the seminar. The two had never really gotten along, but the ideas presented in the sessions resonated enough that the students wanted to start a dialogue. 

Stories like these and so many more that go untold underscore the reality that this annual seminar is not merely an event; it’s a transformational experience that sets the tone for better communication, more authentic connections, and a collective commitment to a culture that places community and acceptance at the forefront. It’s a template not just for one school year but for a lifetime.
 
I think with every year that passes, we're seeing the Middle School continue to transform as a community,” said Paul. “It’s a change that starts with eighth grade, and then when the sixth and seventh graders witness it, there is naturally a trickle-down effect. While every class has a different chemistry and faces different challenges, this seminar is an annual reminder that we all want the same thing:a school culture built on kindness, empathy, and doing the right thing.” 

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of The Bridge. To see the full digital issue click here.
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