This is an unprecedented, emotional time. The majority of humans in the world are having to make decisions they didn’t plan on making. As teachers, we've been asking questions and trying to come up with answers nonstop. However, there is no magical, “one size fits all” answer for distance learning. The most important question we asked ourselves is, “What is best for our students?” Our Middle School has decided that our over-arching priority is to give our community an opportunity to “be together” in a time when isolation is a mandate. Relationships above all. While our current lifestyle is anything but normal, if we can provide students with an opportunity to feel normal a few times a day, that is something special. If we can give parents the assurance that their child’s education is not roaring to a halt, we will do whatever we can. We are shifting our instructional priorities from our typical curriculum to more relevant, real-life skills, in hopes that our students will better understand what is happening around them.
Academically, students are putting together personal archives of primary documents they create and collect, depicting the history the are currently living. In science, students are starting to learn about viruses. Recording videos, writing journal entries, and having small-group discussion are ways students are demonstrating their learning.
Socially, students are leading games during morning meeting, including their pets and siblings in their video creations, and bonding with their dinosaur friends. Whether we all eat our breakfast “together” or play a round of Jeopardy “together”, students are laughing and smiling and we couldn’t be more proud.
The one thing we know for sure is that we have a choice to wake up every day and try to find some glimmers of positivity through this difficult time. Seeing our classroom community “be together” each day is certainly a silver lining. We want to make sure our students feel loved and included. We want to do enough educational activities (which span far beyond continuing with our curriculum) that enrich their lives, stimulate their brains, and occupy some of the down time they may be looking to fill. We are thankful for our students’ and families’ support as we all band “together” during this time in our lives.
SMO? What is that?
Standard Mode of Operation
For the PNA Middle School in February, SMO means being prepared for class, doing homework, participating in sports or other extracurricular activities, recycling chores for the school, taking math tests, playing badminton and volleyball,
reading Spanish story books to younger grades, creating stamps to make a tablecloth/napkin set for the auction, painting and creating designs for a wood block wall hanging auction project,
planning, writing and adding to the spring musical, emceeing the science party,
running a Valentine fundraiser for Spring Trips, collecting 22 backpacks and hundreds other school supplies for inbound refugees to Anchorage,
preparing and sharing work with parents at conferences, understanding the science behind cloning and other modern genetics, presenting understanding about the importance of animal pollinators,
writing and revising essays, reading dystopian novels that connect science knowledge as well as political governance understanding, speaking Spanish and Swahili, dissecting flowers,
exploring Asian regions and discussing global issues, entertaining parents at a Parent Lunch, playing “The Game” with Ms. Molly in Health,
participating in an all school dance, learning about trait inheritance (genotypes and phenotypes), and just plain laughing like 12 - 14 year olds.
The Standard Mode of Operation around here is exhausting, challenging, satisfying, and can actually be pretty fun.
PBL projects, auction projects, science projects, and Valentine’s Day projects kept our middle schoolers exceptionally busy this week. They were bustling with energy, partially because of the surge in daylight, but mostly because their learning has been hands-on and student-driven. It was an awesome week.
Our social studies PBL project is centered on our driving question: “What can we (PNA) do to help and empower our Anchorage refugee community?” The students came up with two main ideas and action plans to guide each component.
Part 1: Create and send welcome cards to every new refugee arriving to Anchorage in the month of February. In their cards, students shared tips and recommendations for living in Anchorage. Ranging from where to eat, find books, or go on a hike, each student shared what they love about Alaska and warmly welcomed our new community members.
Part 2: Facilitate a school supplies drive for incoming school-aged refugees to ensure they have everything they need to get a good education. Our students made posters, advertising our initiative. The 6th grade class visited every classroom to promote this idea to the rest of the student body. Practicing their public speaking and encouraging others to contribute to their goal, our students rocked it.
Next week we will sort through all the items we’ve collected and arrange them to be delivered. Thanks to everyone who has contributed so far!
We’ve also started dedicating time to our auction projects. The 7/8 graders are focusing their project on Costa-Rica inspired art. The 6th graders have been enjoying painting the blocks for their wood mosaic. Countless thanks to the parent volunteers orchestrating these projects. We all cannot wait to see the finished products.
As a follow-up to our parent lunch, your children are blossoming! Mating rituals, dances, and selection has begun! Take a peek at your creations. Our young scientists are becoming geneticists and they’re thriving.
Per tradition, the 7/8 graders dedicated much of their free time this week to promoting kindness and love, just in time for Valentine’s Day. They used their organizational and business skills to run a school store, selling homemade cards and baked goods, as well as singing telegrams and hugs. Their delivery yesterday brought lots of laughter and moments to remember.
Our classrooms were messy, our hands were dirty, and our hearts were full-- the sign of a successful week. Project based learning is a core component to PNA, this week was the epitome of that.
Empowering students means... empowering them! We can’t just give them lip service. They want to be able to have some control over their lives and to be able to make changes that improve their world.
This is not the same as giving students what they want all the time. In Middle School at PNA, students have a voice; and they are expected to use it as long as they are being respectful and staying within the guidelines they created at the beginning of the year.
Students must also provide evidence in support of what they want and request changes in a reasonable, timely, and organized way.
This week alone, Middle Schoolers voiced ideas on creating an ideal middle school, and have been given green light to “embellish” the framework of the musical they will be performing in April.
While these topics are ongoing and expect real change based on student input, the 7/8 class has been working to change the dress attire for field trips. On Thursday, they presented their research on this subject to the Head of School and PNA Board of Trustees President arguing to change this special dress attire to a simpler uniform for field trips - something similar to everyday dress code.
While a simpler dress attire for field trips is what they all wanted to start off, they were split into two groups to write and deliver arguments for both sides of this coin. In this process, they did extensive research into dress code policies nationwide and interviewed teachers while also conducting a survey with students, teachers, and parents here at PNA. By arguing to keep dress attire the way it is (clearly against what they want)each side clearly understood the perspective of both sides. (They also were very challenged to find information on unique dress attire for field trips outside of the everyday dress code.)
After they debated these arguments in front of the 6th grade, these Middle Schoolers set out to write one argument. They selected the top arguments for each side and divided themselves up to write one focused letter they could deliver to those who could actually enable the change. This letter had to include, and then refute, the counter arguments as well as provide strong evidence in support of their arguments.
When these courageous, empowered Middle Schoolers presented their findings this week (the culmination of a month of work), they were received openly, but challenged to produce more evidence in support of the change by the PNA Community.
Encouraged, but pressed to find out more, these students did not feel rejected; instead they were energized to do the work needed. They were not just handed what they wanted. They know they need to do more work and are excited to do it! This is empowerment. Showing students that what they say matters, and that change can happen, but it will take work, and compromise, and thinking, and communicating, and evidence, and analysis, and so many other skills. This is PNA: in charge of its own destiny.
PNA uses the Responsive Classroom approach. As we strive to teach our students to become exceptional learners and independent thinkers of vision, courage, and integrity; we support them in more than just their academics.
Here are some examples of shared practices used K-8:
These practices are extremely important to our middle school students. 11-14 year olds, developmentally, are often in a whirlwind. They are experiencing more obvious physical, sensory, and motor development changes. However, it’s their cognitive and emotional/social developmental changes that are more complex and impactful throughout our day-to-day learning.
Responsive Classroom practices ensure we are helping guide our students through a challenging and overwhelming time in their lives. Students are beginning to sort out their own feelings about the world around them—sometimes unsure what they think or where they fit in. This emotional confusion can lead to friendships being tested and boundaries being pushed. In our school bubble, we do our best to talk through our problems and interact with each other respectfully, just as we do in the real world. Our students have already showed immense growth since the beginning of the year, as students and as people. Every lesson they learn and experience they overcome, helps them become better people.
We also use educational practices specifically geared toward Middle School:
Enjoy some of the photos we’ve taken during Advisory and Morning Meetings throughout the year:
To learn more about Responsive Classroom, visit:
When I read about the Middle School experience online, I wonder why I can’t really identify with many of the issues being reported. Sure, I recognize the emotional and self conscience adolescent struggling through a stage of self discovery, but I don’t see the standard issues of exclusion, mockery, defiance, and apathy described in these articles. In thinking deeply about this, I realize that it’s PNA, and how we respect and “grow” our students by honoring their individual insecurities and encouraging them to take risks.
Why are teens self conscious and emotional?
According to Dr. Frances E. Jensen (Neuroscientist, professor, and author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults), teenagers have emotional highs and lows because the emotional centers of the brain are connected before the frontal lobes. The frontal lobe is what controls executive function, judgment, insight, empathy, and impulse control. As a result, teenagers make a lot of mistakes because they are doing many things for the very first time. The brain actually turns down the critical thinking and impulse control so that tweens and teens may take more risks. This also means that teenagers are very impressionable, both by good and by bad things. In general, influences have a much more penetrating and permanent effect on them during this period.
Middle school is the right time to take risks. PNA’s Middle School is a safe place to take these risks.
While ultimately, middle schoolers worry deeply about disappointing their parents, they are also doing everything they can to self identify away from their parents. To do so takes tremendous courage. At PNA trying something new, hanging out with someone different, trying new foods, picking up a musical instrument, etc, are celebrated and encouraged. When notes are missed, or social miscues happen, or other teenage "fails" occur, it is all treated as part of the program - the Middle School Program of finding out our emerging identities. The encouragement and acceptance within the community of students, parents and teachers ensures that the PNA grad, while possibly not completely unscathed, heads to high school with a sound grounding of self, starting a leg up from other incoming freshmen.
I know this to be true because I have had high school teachers explain to me that they can tell if a student went to PNA. They say that a PNA student will come prepared to class, is confident, is not swayed by peer pressure, and often goes above and beyond. PNA graduates have already taken their risks and landed on their feet - stronger and taller each time.
This week’s MLK assembly and guest speaker event, brown bag, and lock-in provided the strong evidence of courageous students, trying new things in front of many. Even in failure, students at PNA brush it off - some even laugh about it! This is not the Middle School experience I read about online or hear about from friends whose kids go to other schools. Instead, I feel proud to know that I am a part of a program that truly builds self confident and resilient students ready for high school.
Hearing things like, “I remember hearing about this in a movie but didn’t know where it was” or “I didn’t even know that was a country” has shown how valuable our recent learning has been. There are many common misconceptions about Africa. Many people don’t know just how massive it is; If you combine the USA, China, India, Europe and Japan - they all fit into the continent of Africa. People are also surprised to learn Africa has 54 distinct, separate countries. PNA students seek out opportunities to learn and are eager to explore about the world around them. They are a pleasure to teach.
In social studies, we are currently studying Sub-Saharan Africa. We’ve been moving our way around the continent, focusing on the similarities and differences of each region (East, West, Central, and Southern). We have been reading about the history of those regions, as well as discussing how they are developing. However, we’ve been particularly focusing on the geography. Our mission is to learn all the countries that make up the second largest and second most populated continent in the world. The flow of class looks like this:
1. Preview/Predict what we know about a region
2. Read aloud, searching for claims/evidence
3. Examine the geographical elements
4. Practice pronunciations
5. Individual practice with their personal map or an online map matching game
6. Team location practice on the board (first with a list of options and then just from their own memory)
7. Play review/recall games for retention
The students have been exceptional—engaged, curious, and brave. Some students have been competitive, trying to learn the content before their friends. Others have been focused on obtaining their own personal best time. The classroom is lively and students are leading the charge.
On another note, I offered Swahili as an elective option for this 6-week session. I was skeptical how many students would choose to study a new language instead of using technology or doing engineering challenges. I was pleasantly surprised when 12 middle school students signed up. They’ve been making connections to their social studies content and recognizing similarities between their Spanish language learning as well. We’ve simply been having a ball.
What is student directed learning and how do we know if a student is engaged? What do "engaged" students look like? What do they sound like?
Teachers at PNA really try to push students to direct their own learning. Research shows that as students take part in activities and engage in their processes and outcomes, they are more likely to “own” the work and become more responsive and inquisitive toward it.
Students directing their own work may be working individually or in small groups. They will be...
This means that classrooms may sound noisy. There are many different kinds of noise, but the student directed noise is purposeful and focused. Noisy classrooms in which students are engaged in their own work recognize that listening is also part of learning. Respectful debate, dialogue, and discussion help students become persuasive speakers, critical listeners, analytical thinkers, and engaged citizens.
Of course, classrooms shouldn’t be noisy all the time. Reading and writing require quiet periods for students to maintain focus in their work as well.
PNA students direct their own learning much of the time, meaning that by the time they get to highschool, they will be confident, articulate, and ready.
It's that time of year,
Where everyone spreads joy.
When teenagers learn
It's about more than a toy.
Regardless of what you celebrate,
What you believe or how you feel,
The idea of spreading generosity
Is actually quite ideal.
Our Middle School family
Has come together as one.
We studied and studied,
But also had fun.
We experiment, we calculate,
We read and we write.
We also love to eat snacks,
Thanks, Middle School appetite.
We do trivia, play games,
We sing Taylor Swift.
Mostly we teach and we learn,
And that's the real gift.
We've formed friendships and bonds
To help ease our stress.
We journal, reflect,
Sometimes even play chess.
Our family, however,
Is losing two of its best.
With good reasons to leave,
We'll try not to protest.
As you go, please remember,
Where you came from, where you've been.
How deeply we will miss you,
Dear Cormac and Finn.
Students are learning how to formally argue in school! Whaaaaaat?! Well, they are getting a hefty dose of writing (and speaking) from evidence.
In science this is called the CER (Claim- Evidence- Reasoning); in Social Studies it’s Document Based Questions; in ELA it’s Reading for Information (Essay Response), Informative Writing, and Argument Writing.
Here are some examples of what students have recently been grappling with. In all cases, students must research to back up what they are saying with evidence from the text or data from their own experiment.
All around us, we are challenged by people making claims about anything of importance to them. Often, these claims are valuable and show assertiveness or clarity.
Yet, students are learning that these claims can’t just stand on their own and that just because someone makes a claim, they don’t have to believe that person. In most cases, strong claims require solid evidence - proof that supports the claim.
Sometimes, the evidence for a claim can be harder to come up with. It is important for students to know the difference between evidence based on fact - something that cannot be refuted, and be able to prioritize that evidence based on its strength.
With evidence in hand, students can then explain how it supports their claim. In science, this part is called “Reasoning” and it is where the evidence is analyzed and explained in detail. In other formats, the “Reasoning” may occur alongside each bit of evidence, always referring back to the claim.
Regardless of the format, the skillset is the same - make a claim based on evidence, and explain how that evidence supports the claim. This is not easy and yet the students - while they groan - take it on across subjects and practice weekly.
So, sharpen up your own skills of debate and argument. You may need them for this prepared batch of Middle Schoolers!