Fostering Independent Learners in Middle School

The start of the school year has always seemed the true new year for me, and I enjoyed spending time last week visiting classes to observe students and faculty prepare for the year ahead. Students in all grades received a syllabus in each class, reviewed procedures for turning in work, and recorded homework in brand new Squibbs or on Chromebooks. 
Certainly, learning new organizational skills is an important part of our program, particularly in fifth and sixth grade. However, our faculty do not simply tell students how to best approach assignments or structure notebooks, they encourage skills to help them become more strategic and independent learners by having them share the best way to set up and design a vocabulary journal, read a textbook critically, and understand what map they should use to find a certain landmark. These skills of “learning how to learn” are embedded in each content area of our curriculum throughout the Middle School years.

This week, I witnessed the arc of this learning through the Middle School as I shared the intellectual curiosity and engagement of our fifth and eighth grade students as they began to discuss their summer reading. In fifth grade, students were asked to select and create a symbol to represent characters in their summer read of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Students could not wait to discuss their symbols, and they urged classmates to share theirs as well. Ms. Sidari thoughtfully encouraged students to stretch themselves by identifying sections or quotations in the book that led them to choose a certain symbol and to share their rationale for the choice.

As I crossed the hall into eighth grade English classes, students were discussing a writing prompt they had just finished on To Kill a Mockingbird, their summer reading assignment. Again, every student was engaged and could not wait to discuss their reading guide and the morning’s writing prompt on the author's choice of telling the story from a child’s perspective. Some felt comfortable sharing that they were unsure of the answers to the prompt, as they disagreed with the opinions and comments of certain characters. Mrs. Kilpela and Ms. Rigsby deftly facilitated conversations that helped students grapple with a question that didn’t have an obvious or certain answer and covered topics such as bias and adults’ desires to protect children vs. prepare them for the real world.  

Middle School is a time of tremendous, and often uneven, growth in abstract thinking and independence. At Ellis, we ensure that our students maintain and grow their inquisitiveness throughout their adolescent years, and we provide them with foundational skills to become advocates of their own learning. In addition, our collaborative atmosphere and skilled faculty encourage deep discussion and respectful discourse to support students to reach beyond their comfort zones and tackle difficult questions with confidence, creativity, and curiosity.