5 Truths Learned in Middle School: Reflections from our Eighth Graders

The following is excerpted from a letter that our Head of Middle School, Carla Moyer, recently sent home to parents.

In an attempt to continually learn from our students, I have spent the past few weeks meeting with each 8th grade student as they approach the end of their MS career. I am doing an “exit interview” of sorts. This has been a completely enjoyable process for me, and I gained valuable insight into the 8th grade experience. I have found our students insightful, delightful, and willing to talk, and I love that they feel comfortable spending time with an adult engaged in an honest discussion. Because I have a “zoomed out” view of our students as their Head, I have the unique opportunity to see them develop over their years in middle school. It affirmed my belief that the path through adolescence is a process and not a product, and that their experience each year contributes to the young person they are as they head across the parking lot into their next adventure – Upper School! It was interesting to ponder how something they began to think about in fifth grade (or earlier) played out in their discussions with me. From learning how to use a locker and a planner to becoming a leader in an ensemble or team, each step along the way was a building block to nurture these amazing humans. Several themes became evident as we spent time together.
The work is challenging, but students feel a sense of accomplishment when they master hard work.

Through our study of David Streight’s concepts of Relational Teaching, we learned that students need to be appropriately challenged with meaningful, interesting, and authentic work. Many of the students felt that each year was harder than the previous year, but so many of them told me they realized that conquering something hard made them feel a sense of self-competence and pride. Beginning in 5th grade, we aim for appropriate, developmental challenges, but we also realize the need for support for those challenges. Each year builds greater confidence in their abilities, and by 8th grade, most students are truly owning their work. For those who are still growing in that area, our Upper School offers continual support and guidance.

Through challenges, students learned about work habits and personal study preferences.

Study skills and habits take years to build. Until students have an authentic application, they don’t always process adult suggestions about how to study. Each teacher in the middle school spends time discussing how best to study or learn topics in his or her class. This is ongoing process throughout high school and even college. From my talks with the 8th grade students, there are light bulbs going on about how students learn. They are at an age where they can choose their own path based on personal preference and learning styles. In other words, study habits are increasingly owned by students and are no longer abstract concepts. While some students can internalize these habits at younger ages, the majority do so as the skills are needed. Because kids mature and develop at different rates, some will take longer to do things on their own. I heard so much pride in their voices as they talked about realizations and improvements in results. Habits are forming, and all of the work along the way has contributed to this end result.

They really can’t choose a favorite class or teacher.

I can’t tell you how many of the students could not choose a favorite class or a favorite teacher when asked. “That’s a really hard question,” was a frequent reply. This speaks to the amazing faculty we have here in the middle school. While not every child is in love with every subject, they do understand that their teachers are passionate and interested in what they are teaching. That passion can be infectious. I had several students tell me that they are feeling successful in areas that surprised them. For example, one student who was disappointed with his arts placement this year discovered a passion in a completely different area. While he is still passionate about the first option, he has discovered new areas to explore. Another student found that one class seemed unusually challenging at the beginning of the year, but she discovered that once she figured out how to be successful, she actually enjoyed the class. Without exception, the students feel that they can seek help and guidance from their teachers, and they are at an age where they are not afraid to follow up individually for help.
Friendships change, and that’s okay.

Most 8th grade students have had some sort of social struggle at some point in their middle school career. Their struggles seem to have made them stronger and more resilient, and the class seems to have come together as a whole. They admitted that they were surprised to find that they have grown to enjoy classmates who weren’t in their close friend group prior to this year. They report expanded groups rather than more insular relationships. Some even reported choosing to leave groups they found were not right for them for some reason – wow! They have respect for peers who are not their closest friends, because they have done significant and meaningful hard work together in the classroom, in clubs, on service projects, and on the fields. We as faculty see this phenomenon every year, but it was so enlightening to hear that the students recognize this change in camaraderie.

They love when we recognize their strengths.

I ended each interview by letting them know what I appreciate about them as an individual. While teachers get the opportunity to do this through their classes and report card comments, I don’t always get to experience this type of interaction. We spend so much time helping them grow, that we tend to focus on what needs improvement. There are so many things to celebrate with these young people, just as they exist right now. Yes, they are all a work in progress. However, they model our core values, lead one another, show compassion for their peers and adults, and represent their families incredibly well each and every day. Many are very comfortable in their own skin—remarkably so—and many are showing signs of the adults they will become someday. This process has made me realize that I need to take more time to thank them for all that they do.

What does this mean for those of you who have younger students? Will you have to wait until 8th grade for everything to come together for your child? Absolutely not. Much of what I report here is happening in earlier grades for many students. Just recognize that each point along the way contributes to the future in some way. You may wonder when they will finally take that advice you have been giving them all along, or when they will figure out how to navigate tough relationships. It will all happen eventually. As is the theme of so much of my writing, try to enjoy these morphing humans along the way—they really are very interesting people! I wish you could personally have experienced all of my “goose bump” moments during these amazing 8th grade conversations, but I promise that you will have them with your kids at some point along the way.