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Severn Education Series

Best Practices for a Middle School Education

written by Middle School Head Dan Keller
The Middle School experience is the bridge between Lower and Upper School student success—an intense three years to foster young adolescents’ intellectual, physical, social and emotional well-being. As a result, Middle School educators need to navigate a complex terrain to support students from their Lower School years as well as prepare them for the rigors of Upper School.
Implemented well, middle-level teaching incorporates a healthy balance of knowledge and skills, along with an equal measure of challenge, joy, and engagement in course design in curriculum — all while young adolescents experience accelerated brain growth over those three years of education. Middle School teachers must consider, therefore, the age-specific changes in cognition, motor ability, and social-emotional behavior that develops in their students when creating high-quality lessons and curriculum.

Such demands give reason for pause and reflection on what makes a thriving Middle School program. Of course, any valuable reflection on progress in education cultivates with good questions, and the book A More Beautiful Question conveys an ideal framework for actionable inquiry toward school betterment. The book delivers the notion of sequential questioning—Why? What if? How?— to generate ideas for improving schools.


Why do we have our specific Middle School program in place? Independent school educators bear both the responsibility and freedom of not being part of a state school system, of not having to adhere to a federally mandated curriculum and academic program. Yet this responsibility and liberty can be a double-edged sword: it gives faculty a sense of autonomy and ownership of their curriculum, but it also runs the risk of increasing roughshod decisions. Such a dichotomy calls for a deep look into independent school programs—why is this particular part of our school important? How does it serve kids effectively? The National Association of Independent Schools delivers first-rate resources that outline the excellent standards and ethical behaviors in many sectors of independent schools, namely the Principles of Good Practice (PGPs)—a philosophy that articulates the complicated landscape Middle School teachers navigate each year.

This past summer, these principles provided an outstanding starting point for our faculty conversations centered on why we have our specific programs in place. As a faculty, we discussed best practices in terms of how our Middle School serves the evolving needs of our students. In fact, we use the PGPs as a framework to organize our own MS program. The outcomes indicate a vigorous dose of best practices in our own Middle School program.

What If?

What if there is a way to summarize, to rationalize, and to highlight our MIddle School program? What if there is a format to synthesize data in a way that is clear and pleasing to the eye? Last Winter, many colorful, informative, and visually attractive posters began to emerge in the hallways outside of classrooms. The projects resulted from teachers engaging in professional development at our Severn Summer Institute, an in-house summer professional development program, which offered a course on infographics. Viewing such great work outside classrooms sparked further inquiry: how could such graphic organization and observable rationale be used with faculty for the greater Severn community? Nearly a year later, with a healthy sum of data from our faculty discussion on best practices, I thought back to those wonderfully decorated hallways and began to imagine an infographic of all the collected faculty intel on our own Middle School program and its relation to NAIS’s Principles of Good Practice. The clear synthesis of that thinking and professional process is the Best Practices at Severn School infographic.
Cover of the Education Series


How might we effectively express this infographic to our school constituents? Educational leadership requires opportune communication to school constituents of expertise areas and the vision for a particular academic division. This steady message builds consensus in addition to support for the philosophy of the academic division and the subtle areas the program can be enhanced. Accordingly, the Best Practices at Severn School document was shared and explained at many platforms: grade-level parent coffees, faculty meetings, board meetings, and with prospective families at open house. Sharing this document framed those exchanges in an informed and positive light, and it generated greater parent comprehension and respect to the sophistication, depth, and intricacies of middle-level teaching and learning. 

Furthermore, this process and final product clearly express that we recognize and value growing adolescents above all else, that we make decisions based on what is best for them when considering all the developmental challenges and needs they bring to our classrooms. Yes, excellent Middle School educators employ best practices to meet 6th graders where they are from their elementary school learning, and yes, we use best practices to prepare students for a college-prep Upper School. But it is the journey between that motivates us to give 6th, 7th, and 8th graders the finest educational experience possible, and it is these best practices that provide middle-schoolers the sound and guided steps across the bridge.


Lower School

Upper School