mixing things up in middle school
as students grow through the divisions at mpa, their character education needs change. what was engaging in lower school does not translate well to the middle school. desiring a program that was designed specifically for this time in the middle, mind-person-action (mpa) was born in 2016. it builds upon the foundation of the lower school champ program, and is made up of nine pillars: creativity, curiosity, perseverance, courage, gratitude, integrity, collaboration, communication, and respect.
"we were looking for ways to personalize the program and embed the nine pillars into students' day-to-day experiences. the faculty and students now have a common language to use and are encouraged to push themselves out of their comfort zones to expand their skills. everyone has different strengths and areas for growth, so students monitor their own development through eportfolios," says erica brewinski '96, middle school director.
one way to practice these skills is through monthly mixers that engage students in hands-on activities that focus on one or more of the pillars. in mixed grade groups of nine students that change every three months, each cycle of three sessions builds on the last, ending with the activity that pushes students the furthest outside of their comfort zones.
"it's a little risky—for some students more than others—but it's still safe because there's a teacher there and students know at least a couple of other students in the group. there's no doubt that students are being asked to stretch themselves socially and emotionally," says brewinski.
mixers vary widely and have challenged students to navigate through a maze in silence, stand in a circle asking personal "three things" questions in a high-energy rotation, create a gratitude quilt, build a pyramid of cups without touching the cups, and more. brewinski explains, "each activity gets them up and moving. and, we work hard to design activities that address all of the intelligences. if a student is weak in interpersonal skills, for example, perhaps they will excel at the drawing or the spatial awareness aspects of the activity. they can all shine in one way or another."
that's one thing that teachers appreciate most about the time spent engaged in the mixers. they have noticed that they see students shine in ways that they do not see in their classrooms. it provides an even deeper, more meaningful student-teacher connection.
"the mixers have evolved to a point where we are not naming one of the pillars, but instead more subtly practicing several. we love that students are becoming more comfortable developing friendships outside of their grade levels and we're seeing the older students mentor the younger students," says brewinski.
while generally positive, students at this age are often not outwardly enthusiastic about activities that push them outside of their comfort zone. seventh grader ella humphrey bucks that stereotype, however. "i think it's really cool because you get to hang out with people that you wouldn't normally. and you can talk about things that you wouldn't normally. i feel more comfortable now connecting with students outside of my grade level."
when asked how her peers feel, she says, "people think they are more fun and more beneficial than they want to admit."
alex bolduan '05, middle school assistant, recently completed her initial teacher licensure program and played a vital role in designing and implementing the mixers. a kid at heart, she sought out activities that appealed to her. "i think we've been successful with that. the goal is to get them thinking about one of the character pillars in an active and engaging way, so they can actually practice those character skills and then reflect on that practice. they really seem to be connecting."
bolduan even snuck her own square into the gratitude quilt. "we have so much to be grateful for in middle school at mpa," she shares.
in one large group of 10, students work together to write the word "persevere" using one marker and strings. perseverance required.