Our Middle School is built on a foundation of character, conduct, scholarship, and leadership. These values are more than just words in our mission, they provide a structure for every assignment and activity on our campus. Last week every Severn 6th grader took the podium to share with families and peers a belief statement that both resonates with them individually and connects them to others. This milestone project for all 6th-grade English classes exemplifies our core values as a school, encouraging our young students to reflect on their own experience and share that with the greater community.
Modeled After a Storytelling Tradition
At the end of their academic year, 6th-grade students write and deliver “This I Believe” compositions. These narratives are modeled after the NPR program that asked contributors to share their core beliefs in a storytelling format. Middle School English teacher Ms. Laura Drossner introduces the project to her classes during the last quarter of the year. Each student must choose one core value that is meaningful to them and that will also make a connection to the audience. Ms. Drossner encourages her class to look back on novels they’ve read during the year and consider the values and actions of the characters. Self-reflection can be challenging, but referencing their book discussions can help get students in an introspective mindset.
“I think the hardest thing was to choose a value that you resonate with, but also that you can find specific life examples of and make sure that they really support your value. And to make those exciting, but also to make it meaningful. Of all the things we do, I like how it’s not on a random book, it’s about our lives.” — John Esposito '24
By this time of the year, our 6th-grade classes are 100% comfortable with the writer's workshop format. After Ms. Drossner introduces the assignment and students choose their topics, they write outlines, complete several drafts, share with one another for peer feedback, and then meet one-on-one with Ms. Drossner to fine-tune ideas and writing mechanics. The end product is a succinct, personal narrative that our students are proud to share.
“Sometimes I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing, but I can ask Ms. Drossner and she gives me ideas to make it better. We had a few minutes to share with each other too and because your classmates are doing the same thing as you, they understand. Ms. Drossner said we can write notes on our speeches to help — like slow down (I already talk fast and even faster when I’m nervous!) and make eye contact.” — Caroline Bing ‘24
Speaking for the Audience
Each speech begins with a personal anecdote to draw the audience in. This type of storytelling relies heavily on imagery to paint a picture for the listener — a skill our 6th graders have developed throughout the year. After sharing their anecdote, they support their topic with several more personal examples and talk about how this value or belief can benefit others. Our 6th graders have to look within, but then extend their thinking outward requiring a sense of empathy for the audience.
“It was challenging for me to think about what would keep the audience hooked in and keep their attention. I’m trying to make sure that people take something away from this and that they know why I chose this and why they should have this in their life too. It’s also giving you a chance to think about how you want to represent yourself and how you can show that to other people.” — Christopher McCollum ‘24
Strategies for Success
Public speaking doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Even for students who are comfortable on stage, the act of sharing their personal stories can be nerve-wracking. Ms. Drossner prepares her students for the presentation as much as the actual writing of the pieces, instructing them on body positioning, hand gestures, eye contact, and keeping good notes. They listen to examples of good storytelling, role play, and pay close attention to the 8th-grade speeches to see which techniques are the most effective.
“For me, the hardest thing is getting over the fact that we will have to speak in front of our whole class. But then I remember it’s just preparation for speaking in front of the whole Middle School in 8th grade. I’m nervous, but I can do it.” — Aidan Shenck ‘24
Perseverance and Process
There’s an element of perseverance needed for this assignment. Our students prepare as much as possible but have to accept that things may not be perfect ... and that’s ok. Ms. Drossner helps her students recognize the value of the journey, emphasizing that the process matters more than the grade or end result. The speeches themselves are only part of the larger goal — to become strong writers and public speakers. There is always room to improve.
“I know I’m going to make mistakes and I have to just accept that. I’ve had some experience with getting bad grades and it’s not the end of the world. You have to keep going and try harder even if it doesn’t go exactly how you want.” — Michael Greenstreet '24
“There’s no reason to be nervous. If you mess up you can just start again, it’s totally fine. You can work on it and make it better, you just have to try.” — Julia Hlousek '24
Mission-Driven Learning in our Middle School
Through the 6th-grade “This I Believe” speeches, our students demonstrate their understanding of self, empathy for others, commitment to academic achievement, and support for their peers. It’s a marker of what they have accomplished during their 6th-grade year and one of many opportunities to learn about themselves, learn about their peers, and share with their families just what it means to be part of our community.
“It’s a core part of Severn’s mission to know and value our students and by the time they are done with these speeches, I know a very important part of their lives. I love working on the anecdotes because they think they know what defines them, but there is often something more, deeper down. Their writing really comes alive because it’s so connected to them personally, they love to relate. This is my favorite time of the year.” — Ms. Drossner