The Middle School Experience
Creating a unique middle school experience within a 6-12 environment is a function of intentionally creating a separate culture, curriculum, and community.
To do this at Whitfield, Middle School Director Jarrett Young shares his perspectives and strategies.
Q: How would you describe Whitfield’s middle school experience?
JY: I believe our middle school experience basically distills down into three Essential Questions for our students within the context of their Whitfield experience:
- Sixth grade: Who Am I?
- Seventh grade: Who Are We? As in their collective class as they move forward together.
- Eighth grade: How do I contribute back to this middle school program that I have been a part of, and to those who are younger than me?
In sixth grade, everything is about creating opportunities for our sixth graders to discover who they are, what they are interested in, and what they are passionate about.
In seventh grade, we typically have an influx of new students who add energy and perspective to the existing class. We create opportunities to get the group to think more broadly about who they are as a collective. Their outdoor experience trip in the Spring really helps them start to think about themselves as a cohort—how they are going to support one another and cheer one another on.
In eighth grade, there is a focus on how students model positive behavior for younger students here at Whitfield and in the greater community. A key component of the middle school experience is our partnership with North Side Community School (NSCS), a high-performing charter school in North St. Louis. The relationship, rooted in our Habits of Mind & Heart curriculum, creates opportunities for shared learning, for sharing perspectives and experiences, and for growth. Through workshops held on both campuses, students from both schools engage in activities and dialogue about ethical conduct, cultural competence, citizenship, leadership, scholarship and mindfulness.
Q: How does Whitfield’s middle school faculty shape the middle school culture?
JY: Whitfield’s middle school faculty members are innovative, energetic, and passionate not just about their respective academic disciplines but about teaching middle school students. They have a growth mindset approach with each student and by focusing on academic excellence and character education, our teachers develop future campus and community leaders. They look for ways to engage with students and build mentor relationships that continue throughout a student’s Whitfield career.
Q: How is the middle school curriculum designed?
JY: Our student-centered approach ensures that individual strengths are known, cultivated, and celebrated. Character education, through the Habits of Mind & Heart, is at the center of everything that we do. There is an intentional curriculum design in which teachers create opportunities for lessons as opposed to simply the pursuit of information. We want our students to take what they are learning in their classes and make it applicable outside of these walls. So much of scholarship is learning how to be a scholar – discovering yourself through scholarship.
Q: What factors contribute to creating our “middle school community”?
JY: Our class size, an average of 14 students, coupled with our engaging and passionate faculty allows for an academic experience that supports differentiation and appropriate academic challenge. Having small classes also provides flexibility for faculty to support individual students’ academic growth and creates opportunities for students to collaborate and problem-solve in small groups. In addition, Whitfield’s school size enables us to be nimble and responsive to the needs of community members so that everyone can be heard. Hearing one another allows for deeper connection and genuine relationships buoyed by empathy.
Our tightly knit community is the result of our academic setting, the individualized attention we give our students, and the relationships that exist in our building. The overarching goal of the middle school is to enable students to recognize that they create campus culture and have the agency to create a positive and affirming experience.
Q: How would you describe the culture at Whitfield overall, 6-12?
JY: One of the best parts about Whitfield is that all our students move through one building. The person you see playing sports or on stage in the play is the person walking beside you in the hallway. Students acknowledge one another, say, “hi,” smile. We educate one another through our actions, how we talk with one another, smile at one another. At Morning Assembly, students across grade levels make announcements and cheer each other on. Middle schoolers hear where the seniors have been accepted to college and have something to aspire to. Because we are all together during the day, we all feel more connected to our community. If the middle and upper schools were separated physically, our culture wouldn’t be the same. We are not an upper school or a middle school—we are Whitfield.