The walls of Fairfield Country Day School are not transformed into branches and canopies at 8:35 every morning, yet a palpable level of energy emits from the fourth, fifth and sixth grade homerooms. While the seventh, eighth, and ninth graders come to life slowly, our middle school boys chatter, buzz, and move from the moment they enter the building. They possess the energy of lower schoolers, but their bodies are bigger, their interests more varied, and their mannerisms more mature. Their social lives are increasingly important, particularly given the role of cellular phones, email, and the internet. A middle school boy can solve challenging analogies in English, unravel word problems in math, and produce a comprehensive Science Fair project, but he needs an ample supply of support, encouragement and nurturing to do so. Sometimes a glance at a middle school boy offers a peek into his upcoming teenage years, but just as often a reflection back to when he filled buckets in the sandbox. From an educational standpoint, these years mark opportunities for creative teaching, project-based learning, and the entrenchment of foundational skills. Fourth, fifth and sixth grade boys possess curiosity, imagination, enthusiasm and a willingness to take risks in the classroom, auditorium, art room, or sports field. Yet, we also know they can be distractible, disorganized, and interested in testing boundaries. In short, the middle school boy is a delightfully complex work in progress.
The Middle School at FCDS is designed to give boys in grades 4, 5 and 6 the opportunity to excel. In many ways, these are bridge years as boys move from Lower School and then onto Upper School. The homeroom model in the fourth and fifth grades and the new advisor program in sixth grade offer the boys a home base, a safe place where they know they belong, a place they can ask questions, and a place they know they are held accountable. These underpinnings provide middle school boys with the security and structure that is so important to their development at this age. Yet, the FCDS Middle School program is about far more than serving as a smooth passageway—it is as much about growth. Fourth graders, wearing jacket and ties, immediately appear much older than they were just a few months before as third graders. Fifth graders are the senior members of the Blue-White sports teams and possess a certain swagger as the elder statesmen in their hallway. Laptop-toting sixth graders navigate all corners of the building, bumping elbows with upper school boys, as they move from classroom to classroom. I usually have a height advantage over my English 6 students in September, but most reach or overtake me by June. Likewise, blazer sleeves creep up their wrists, big toes poke through the front of their loafers, and the gap between shoes and pant legs becomes bigger and bigger.
Academically, too, the boys are exploding. By the spring, the fourth grade homerooms are crowded with projects on Mesopotamia, and construction paper “double crowns” modeled from ancient Egypt line the shelves. Rows of books for differentiated reading groups are stacked neatly near the boys’ desks, and a cart of laptop computers rests in the corner for use during the school day. One door down, fifth graders tackle fractions in math, write multi-paragraph essays in history, and dine—clad in togas, helmets, and shields—with their teachers in the famous Roman Feast. Sixth graders, the leaders in the Middle School, become experts in current events, explore themes in literature, and conjugate verbs in Latin. This fall, the sixth graders will embark on their first overnight school trip to explore marine science on Cape Cod. Boys in each grade level learn to read music, perform in concerts, recite poetry, deliver game reports in assembly, draw, sketch and create. On any given day, Middle School boys experience reading, writing, math, science, computers, art, music, language, and athletics. Just like the Lower School and Upper School divisions, our goal is to offer an environment where boys have both the ability and confidence to be many things at the same time. As Ralph Fletcher says in his book, Boy Writers, “We want boys to grow up with a self-image that says: I am a soccer player. I am a reader. I am a citizen. I am a writer.” The FCDS Middle School strives to promote academic growth and risk-taking within a safe, secure environment.
The emotional development of Middle School boys is also of paramount importance. Their peer group plays an increasingly important role the lives of the boys, and school becomes about more than classroom learning. Teachers focus on skill development, but they also serve as mentors and role-models. In the fourth grade, homeroom teachers build upon the morning meeting of the Lower School through the Circle of Power and Respect (CPR), outlined in The Morning Meeting Book by Roxanne Kriete. CPR is designed specifically for middle schoolers to come together to discuss the business of the school day as well as topics such as decision-making, respect for others, and responsibility. Kriete writes, “CPR offers middle school students stability and predictability during a time in life marked by tumultuous emotional, physical, and cognitive change. And it allows students this age to do what they most want and need to do: interact with their peers.” (p. 105). As the boys move onto fifth grade, their homeroom teachers introduce them to the FCDS advisor program that meets at the end of the school day every Friday. Fifth grade boys work hard during this time to develop strong organizational and study skills, and they are periodically offered the chance to blow off some steam playing four-square in the courtyard. The new sixth grade advisor system connects small groups of sixth graders to one faculty member with whom they meet weekly. As a group, they discuss both academic and social issues, and build a sense of community within their small group. Much of the important work within the advisor group goes on behind the scenes; however, the entire school anticipates the excitement of our annual advisor wiffle ball tournament out on the fields in the spring. Middle school teachers understand the importance of guiding the boys both in and out of the classroom.
However, a truth we can count on is that middle school boys make mistakes. Then they make them again. They are simultaneously focused on fairness and on testing their boundaries. The perception of wrongdoing can impede their progress like a brick wall, but their interest in justice does not always outweigh their impulse to break a rule. Boys in grades four, five, and six are only just learning the subtleties of context, variables, and consequences. As Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson write in Raising Cain, “We bristle when we hear destructive or disappointing boy behavior excused with ‘boys will be boys,’ when the truth of those words—boys will be boys—could instead be used to advance the understanding that boys struggle in uniquely male ways at times, and they need ‘boy-friendly’ adult love, support, and guidance to develop a broad range of emotional responses to life’s challenges. They do not need to be excused from the struggle to be good people.” At FCDS we understand that boys will, and need, to make mistakes. We are here to help them understand why what they did was wrong and how to respond appropriately. The three pillars of our honor code—scholarship, integrity, and respect for others and ourselves—provide the framework for all of our work with the boys, both in and out of the classroom.
Yet, the FCDS Middle School is new. As interested as we are in preserving what works, we are moving forward. Middle school boys can expect more opportunities for public speaking during our assembly periods, more projects that cross disciplines, and more individual attention and accountability. As a Middle School faculty, we will also seek opportunities for innovation. A group of FCDS faculty members gathered in July to focus on developing 21st century skills, many of whom work directly with boys in grades four, five, and six. The development of the sixth grade advisor program will integrate topics such as internet safety, cell phone use, and social networking into our winter curriculum. Likewise, we have the ability to build upon our strong foundation in technology by taking advantage of the many opportunities afforded by laptops in each of the three grade levels. We will also continue to grow our community service projects, both in and out of the school, under the leadership of fifth grade homeroom teacher and Community Service Coordinator, Noreen Franklin. While the sixth graders will not use the blue door with the ninth graders, I am certain we will end the year with new traditions unique to middle school boys.
The 2011-2012 school year promises to be an exciting one. The inauguration of the FCDS Middle School coincides with the 75th birthday of Fairfield Country Day School, and the calendar is already loaded with events. It is a tremendous time to be part of the FCDS community, in general, and an ideal moment to launch this new division. Yet beyond the festivities, events and programs, the faculty and staff are the ones who will continue to make the most difference for our Middle School boys. Their daily contact, consistent effort, and commitment to our students are the lynchpins to our success as a as a school. Once again, John Stephens’ words strike a chord: “Clarity of expectations; consistent, patient responses to inevitable transgressions; and role models who empathize with boys’ experiences are vital components of making middle schools places for boys where ‘someone loves them best of all.’”
John Stephens, Head of Middle School at Fort Worth Country Day; Where are the Wild Things? In Middle School, Where They Are Supposed to Be
(Michael Thompson and Dan Kindlon; Raising Cain; 240)
Boy Writers, ““We want boys to grow up with a self-image that says: I am a soccer player. I am a reader. I am a citizen. I am a writer.” (p. 151)
The Morning Meeting Book by Roxann Kriete (CPR)