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Middle School, Reimagined

As a parent of school age children and as someone who values the importance of good education, I share the anxiety of a lot of parents out there  touring schools in hopes of finding a fitting environment for the much feared transition to middle school. My eldest daughter, a product of San Francisco public schools, is a sophomore at Lowell, and my youngest is a fifth grader at Ulloa Elementary. Honestly, neither of us parents nor my eldest daughter can see Maia, the youngest, in a big school setting, and that’s the reason we are looking at private schools with small size classrooms.

Helen, a good friend of mine, and a mother of a fifth grader, suggested I look at Millennium School’s website and attend one of their pop-up sessions. We went to one such session with the whole family. It was a pretty exciting and informative experience that took place at the studio of EHDD Architects, the same studio that is designing the future school site. The main concern of all attending parents was a need to find an engaging atmosphere for their child. The founding Team – Jeff Snipes, Chris Balme, Veronica Flores and Stephen Lessard were all present and shared their background and their vision for a school designed specifically for early adolescents, based on developmental science. I approached the founding team at the end of the session and asked them for a possible interview for our blog. They gladly agreed and have responded to my questions as a team.

G.B. Would you say are parents’ priorities in preparing children for success? What is a definition of success for each of the founding members of the team?

TEAM: Perhaps “success” has always been the goal, but our definition of success has changed a lot over time. Today, there is particular fear that kids will not compete successfully for what feels like a limited number of opportunities—limited slots in the “top” colleges and universities and limited jobs to succeed in a global economy. Our feeling is that some parents take this competitive mindset too far, causing anxiety and distress for kids and parents alike.

Dr. Madeline Levine, an adolescent psychologist and author who has helped shape Millennium School’s vision, offers one of our favorite definitions of success: While we all hope that our children will do well in school, we hope with even greater fervor that they will do well in life. Our job is to help them know and appreciate themselves deeply, to be resilient in the face of adversity, to approach the world with zest, to find work that is satisfying, friends and spouses who are loving and loyal, and to hold a deep belief that they have something meaningful to contribute to the world.

G.B. What role do you see parents playing in the classroom?

TEAM: Parent involvement is positive for schools and kids, creating a cohesive and safe community for kids to learn and grow. Not to mention, parents often help doing important work to run a school.  That said, it’s important for middle school kids to start developing a greater sense of independence from their parents. After all, most kids won’t live at home with their parents forever! We should respect kids’ desire for greater autonomy as part of their developmental process, and understand that they don’t always want to see their parents in the classroom.

Our approach to parent involvement is to welcome it, start channeling it away from direct classroom involvement and move it toward special projects. For example, a parent might host a student apprentice for a week in their workplace, teach a one-time workshop on their profession or help organize a school trip. These examples of parent participation, and more, are vital to a dynamic school community.

G.B. What plans do you have for integrating technology into classrooms?

TEAM: Much like a foreign language, coding languages offer access – insight into the workings and potential of technology, as it transforms the world around us. We plan to offer coding as an elective class, together with other technology-related courses in areas like robotics and social media.

More broadly, we have a balanced approach to technology. We’re excited by technological advances that make learning more accessible for everyone. It’s incredible that content exists in virtually every subject imaginable and is largely available within seconds, giving students the opportunity to connect easily with topics and experts from around the world. Fluency with this technology is an essential 21st century skill. At the same time, part of mastering technology is discerning when not to use it, i.e. judging between reliable and untrustworthy information online, and deciding when to set devices aside and focus on human interactions and relationships.

Millennium students will have technology available through school-provided laptops or tablets. On any given day, they may use these tools for a research project, to write an essay, or to have a videoconference with a fluent speaker of a foreign language they’re learning. Coding will be offered as a class, and robotics will be part of our science curriculum. All that said, we expect that if a visitor walks in to a typical project or seminar class, they will most likely see students talking with one another, engaging with faculty or outside experts, not only interacting with technology. Our work, both as educators and as adults, is to find an appropriate balance of technology and relationships.

G.B. There are students with exceptional abilities and students who have difficulty studying or are not motivated enough. As educators, how do you plan to deal with this range in a classroom?

TEAM: Our founding faculty member Stephen Lessard, who brings 13 years of middle school experience in a wonderful, progressive environment at Nueva School, says it this way: the fundamental skill of a great teacher is differentiation. Meeting students where they are is an essential part of teaching and of our school design. Being a small school (with class and advisory sizes of 10-15 kids per group) means we’ll know each student well and see their strengths and challenges in a holistic way. Learning methods are also designed around differentiation and engagement. Students who are seen as ‘not motivated’ may feel disconnected from the work and might be reached through the more personalized projects that our school model prioritizes. Flexible grouping of students of different ages and grades also allows for more self-pacing. A student making great progress in math, for example, could advance to more sophisticated courses that may include older students.

G.B. Identifying child’s passions and helping them grow.  Do you plan to help children take up a hobby or learn a skill?

TEAM: Discovering one’s gifts is a fundamental element of middle school. You could even say it provides a measure of a great middle school experience: does the student leave with insight into what their gifts and “passion projects” could be? To create this kind of experience, it’s important to provide students with choices in what they study, time to explore personal projects, and sufficient exposure to a range of people and areas of inquiry, beyond the typical math, English, etc. While it’s not always possible to know if these pursuits will lead to a paying student job in college, as the question suggests, we do know that practical outcomes follow from these projects. As students discover areas of passion and have time to pursue them, they develop unique areas of expertise, not to mention greater self-confidence, which will translate into the ability to offer value to others.

G.B. Schools are focused on boosting competitiveness among children and breeding winners. But where they fail, in my opinion, is how to deal with failure.

TEAM: Yes! We were struck by a recent David Brooks’ column in the New York Times that referenced this research: “Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education asked 10,000 middle and high school students if their parents cared more about their personal achievement or whether they were kind. Eighty percent said their parents cared more about achievement — individual over the group.”

The problem is not focusing on achievement, it’s thinking that you have to jettison kindness and compassion in order to achieve. This relates to the fear of failure—thinking we have to get something right the first time, that all tests are high stakes and scores can’t be improved over time. Instead, we’re interested in encouraging students to try things at the edge of their ability, to improve and iterate on their best work, to have self-compassion as they make mistakes—all essential skills not only to a member of a creative economy, but to discover your own potential as a human being.

G.B.  My children often ask me if I have use geometry or another of their least favorite subjects after graduating from school. My answer is no. Why do we need it then?

TEAM: It’s true, too often traditional schools become focused around “teaching to the test,” without asking why a specific unit of content is being taught. Appropriately, students often ask the question “why are we learning this,” but rarely get a straight answer!

When we toured Finnish schools earlier this year, looking for evidence of why they’ve become the standard-bearers for successful progressive education, we noticed a strikingly different attitude toward content. They are shifting wholly toward project-based learning, and as part of that, are accepting significantly shorter lists of required content to memorize. They believe, as we do, that the focus should be less on content, and more on the underlying skills, habits of mind, and character traits that students develop.

With math, the area you suggested, our focus is on developing a high level of numeracy. We want to students to become fluent and confident in handling numbers in complex real-world situations. They can apply the types of math that are most frequently called for – like statistics and probabilities – and have the confidence to pick up new math skills when they’re called for in life. Specific content areas, like geometry, are the canvas on which we learn the underlying skills, and for different students there will be different canvases. Of course, as part of this we have to find a balance between student-directed learning and preparing students for entrance exams to high schools.

G.B. Homework! A lot of times homework keeps the kids away from extracurricular activities and valuable family bonding time. Your thoughts on this.

TEAM: We agree – middle schoolers need time after school to connect with friends and family, to explore learning interests, to get sufficient sleep, and to have unstructured periods in which they have to learn how to manage their time and activities. Getting lost in a book, shooting hoops for hours, talking with friends or helping to cook dinner at home are extremely rich activities for healthy adolescent development. Accordingly, assigning students hours of homework each night, particularly if it includes repetitive worksheets, is not part of our academic philosophy.

That said, we think some homework can be helpful. It’s important for students to learn to manage their time and manage projects. This means that students may want or need to work on a school project after school hours. For all students this will be necessary from time to time. Our aim is to keep the homework level moderate and free of busywork.

G.B. My final question deals with conflict resolution. Racism is a learned thing and is a big issue in the US.  How do you see a racial conflict being solved in a school setting and what are your thoughts on helping a child un-learn what they learn at home and also educate their family?

TEAM: Here’s one of the reasons we love middle school – it’s a time of such transformative change that new ways of being, relating, and seeing the world can be learned. While patterns of racism and prejudice may start well before, middle school is one of the best windows of opportunity to create a shift, as students’ social and emotional intelligence transforms with the onset of puberty.

Our approach begins with a focus, as part of our advisory curriculum, on expanding worldview – helping students feel kinship and empathy with as large a swath of humanity as possible. For many middle schoolers, they start off seeing their family as their group, and are gradually expanding to see friends as part of their “team” as well. This is good developmentally, but can lead toward “in groups” and “out groups,” cliques, etc. Part of our work is to keep their sense of who is on their team expanding – from family, to friends, to people who share traits and interests, to people who are different, and perhaps ultimately, to all people.

Related to this, we’re designing a conflict resolution curriculum that will empower any student to request meditation for themselves or for a conflict they observe. This doesn’t always mean an adult mediator – other students will have opportunities to learn the skills of mediation for their peers.

The Team Millennium is working very hard to make the school happen. What we loved the most about the team is their passion for what they’re doing and their dedication to this mission. It is obvious that they have a few tough years ahead of them, especially finding a temporary site to house the school before the actual school site is ready (originally an automotive engineering school and now a large auto body shop, the building at 1465 Folsom Street, San Francisco is the designated long-term home for the school and it offers an ideal canvas for a 21st century middle school). But with a similarly dedicated team of daring parents and children this concept can fly very high. We all came out of the meeting genuinely inspired and hopeful that such forward thinking teams of individuals can spark a big change in education system sometime very soon, and public schools can implement new ideas in their curriculum or teaching methods. All kids deserve a meaningful and child focused education. 

Photo: Interior rendering by EHDD Architects.

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