Building Bridges

A course that honors the middle school transition

By: Susan Butler, Rachel Pregont


On our pre-Kindergarten through grade 12 campus, the move from our lower school to middle school is a mere eight meters. An 11-year-old can make the trip in about 22 steps. Despite a limited physical distance, the transition from elementary to middle school remains intimidating. As new middle schoolers in August, our students step into a new schedule with seven new teachers, new social dynamics, and what many perceive as an entirely new world. While for us the challenges are routine, for each of them this move means independence, choice, and autonomy. Ready or not, for most of our students, this is a giant leap.

Managing this leap is challenging, in part because the destination, middle school, is notably riddled with uncertainty and insecurity. Students are typically excited by the autonomy and independence of middle school, but are they truly ready for it? While we know that we can't erase much of the growing pains of adolescence, as middle school educators, we asked ourselves: What if our students had more awareness and resources to weather this rollercoaster ride?

We already had honest efforts in place to support the transition from our lower school. These fall in line with all that we read about best practices. Our transition work has always been a team effort involving counselors, teachers, administrators, and parents. Our commitments include counselors hosting transition sessions with fifth grade classes, welcoming our fifth grade students for a shadow day, connecting with parents, and hosting teacher transition meetings. Once our students arrive in August, their advisor is the first face that greets them. We were doing things right. Yet, taking an honest look at all these right things, we couldn't help but ask ourselves, was it enough?

Extending the Transition

Despite these positive steps, we realized that we weren't honoring the ongoing transition. While we were hoping they acquired some social emotional skills and behaviors that echoed our core values and middle school philosophy, we never explicitly taught them. It was like we gave them a pre-game pep talk but didn't stick around for the game. While we have fabulous sixth grade teachers and team members, this was big, and it deserved more of our focused attention and time. Beyond our usual class time, we needed to commit to their success and help them connect to each other, their new community, and the philosophy of our middle school. We wanted our sixth graders to feel ready, confident, and empowered in their new home, and feel supported by their teachers and peers. We wanted our new community members to feel like they had a home in our middle school, a true sense of belonging.

Bridges: Community, Diversity, Resiliency, Responsibility

We built Bridges, a new required course for all sixth-graders. This course is dedicated to developing those soft skills that will help them face the challenges of middle school and beyond. In a quarter, over the course of approximately 22 meetings, students address four units: community, diversity, resiliency, and responsibility. Through their course activities and discussions, students are engaged in defining these terms. We are involving our sixth graders with big questions and meaningful lessons. We start each class with team building, creating a community where these new middle schoolers belong. Establishing trust and cooperation is a major goal of each and every day. Classes are a mix of thoughtful activities, dynamic discussion, and collaborative work.

In their first unit, students look to define community, exploring their identity in the context of school identity. They look to introduce themselves to their classmates, finding their place as they learn about each other. They also learn about others in our school community by interviewing and then presenting at a middle school assembly. The whole middle school cheers as new sixth graders step up in front of three hundred fellow students and confidently share their understanding of community members and their roles on campus. Not only are they becoming experts on the purchasing department and getting tours of the kitchen, they are making new connections and gaining confidence through sharing their learning.

As they look to better understand diversity, students define culture and diversity. In one activity, high school students bring their experiences as "third culture kids'' and "school lifers" to a roundtable discussion where they share their journeys and perspectives. Our sixth graders make connections to their own experiences and those of their classmates. They are developing empathy for experiences different than their own.

Studying resiliency brings conversations about growth mindset and how we respond to failure. Students learn concrete coping strategies they can put to work in their own lives. A Bridges student wrote, "The resiliency unit taught me a lot. Life is not easy, there are always going to be rough times and good times. Bridges taught me that mistakes are gifts, they prove that you are learning." The growth mindset paper folding challenge (https://blog.classcreator.io/teaching-kids-to-struggle-growthmindset/) gives us a fun way to address frustration and negative self-talk. We worked with students to reframe their thinking about struggle and failure, connecting these to situations we may face at home and school.

In their final unit, students expand on their own strategies and tools for responsibility. They learn a decision-making process and practice those steps with real-life scenarios: How do you decide between a day at the beach with friends or a birthday celebration with grandma, or between a birthday party and after-school help? They use these student-created scenarios to work through a decision-making process. Students then revisit these same decisions, considering the role peer pressure plays. Finally, they reflect on what their responsibility is to a greater community.

Reflections and Growth

As we further develop this course, we are learning from our students' experiences. Overall, our students love the class. They think it is practical and exciting. They feel a strong connection to their classmates and enjoy the team-building activities. End-of-course reflections include:

The activity that I liked the most was the interview. I enjoyed this activity because it really opened my eyes to the roles people have in the community. While doing the interview, I learned how to appreciate people's differences.

I think of all the topics we have covered, the most useful ones are all of them because all of these problems come up on a daily basis, and that makes it important.

In our Bridges class, I had the freedom to say what I thought was right and I stepped out of my comfort zone many times.

The feedback from students is clear. They feel they are engaged in meaningful topics. They are learning strategies that will help them in all their classes and relationships, helping them grow as individuals. They see the value in their work. The student response to the class has been overwhelmingly positive.

Looking forward, we are proud of the feedback we have received from parents. Students are naturally taking their learning home, and parents are positive. We are exploring how to formalize this sharing, modifying activities to engage parents more in the learning. We are looking forward to new opportunities to share the learning and strengthen the home-school connection.

We have developed this course with both the CASEL competencies (https://casel.org/core-competencies/) and the International School Counselor Association standards in mind. Our school is currently in the process of developing a preK-12 social-emotional learning approach. As this develops, we will surely be forced to reflect more on the decisions and lessons we have adopted for this course. This reflection and whole-school work will strengthen our course. As we move forward, we are excited to see our Bridges topics and others extend into core classes and our advisory program. There are opportunities for more curricular integration and connections, a welcome challenge as we further refine the course.

Overall, we are energized by the success of the program. We are building bridges through valuable skills and strategies that can be referenced and further developed throughout students' middle school careers. The school community is eager to see the possibilities as we continue the program. Perhaps the greatest indicator of our success: students are asking for more Bridges classes.

All photos provided by author.


Susan Butler is the middle school associate principal at Graded, the American School of São Paulo, Brazil.
susan.butler@graded.br

Rachel Pregont is the sixth grade team leader, middle school advisory coordinator, and humanities teacher at Graded, the American School of São Paulo.
rachel.pregont@gmail.com


Pubished in AMLE Magazine, February 2020.

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