Whether we like it or not, middle school learners undergo a vast transformation during the formative years of being a 9/10 up through becoming a 13/14 year old. This transformation is profound. It is physical, social, emotional; it is in their brains and their prefrontal cortex; in their critical thinking skills and questioning; it’s hormonal and psychological; it’s visible and invisible, and sometimes drastic, change. Some middle schoolers are almost unrecognizable from the time they enter our golden doors to the time we send them through the doors at 116 Lawrence Street. Middle School sees the growth of our Panthers from childhood to adolescence, and this transformation is often marked by a ton of fun, joy, confusion, and all-around big emotions both at school and at home.
Critical to a Friends education is that education exists for this very purpose – in order to steward, guide, and facilitate this transformation and hopefully inform and impact the adolescents and ultimately young adults that our children become. A lesser-known education scholar, Philip Jackson, who taught at the University of Chicago, directed the Chicago Lab School, and who was an avid expert on John Dewey once wrote:
Teachers working within the transformative tradition are actually trying to bring about changes in their students (and possibly themselves as well) that make them better persons, not simply more knowledgeable or more skillful, but better in the sense of being close to what humans are capable of becoming–more virtuous, fuller participants in an evolving moral order. (Jackson, 1986)
It is this very commitment to a meaningful, guided, and informed transformation that we live each and every day within the Middle School. Dedicated, passionate, and skilled teachers and advisors are here at Brooklyn Friends because of this commitment, and while there are literally thousands of examples of it each and every day, a few transformational experiences come to mind.
Colleagues in our Middle School are focused on several key developing areas of our practice. One such practice is the inclusion of restorative work in schools, and the introduction of “circles” this year into our Advisory Program. Circle is a restorative practice used to build community and resolve conflict. Circles seek to balance the basic human needs of autonomy and belonging. Passing a talking piece allows each participant to both speak without interruption, and to listen deeply to others’ experiences. Circles create space for different voices to be heard more effectively. The aim isn’t to convince others, but rather to authentically share our own experiences and feelings in order to expand understanding and connection. Middle Schoolers participate in circles at least twice per week in morning advisory, and have come to know the norm well: “Share to be Known. Listen to Know.”
Recently, at Camp Hi-Rock in Mount Washington, Massachusetts our eighth grade students created leadership covenants under the direction of Director of Diversity, Equity, and Belonging, Dr. AnaMaria Correa. She urged students to reflect on what was holding them back from being their best self and fulfilling their highest purpose. Students wrote these obstacles down on slips of paper and threw their obstacles into the campfire one-by-one. In addition to hiking a mountain together, scaling high ropes, building catapults, and team challenges we also spent a powerful two hours together in small groups of 5-6 students facilitated by one Brooklyn Friends colleague. Colleagues modeled vulnerability and connection and students’ sharing followed on the five H’s of their lives: our History, our Heritage, a High Point, a Hard Time, and our Hopes. Middle school students are no strangers to obstacles, and the class of 2027 has navigated a lot together. Witnessing their commitment to reestablishing relationships, solidifying their leadership, and holding space for each other in new ways was an honor and privilege, and a strong reminder of how transformative these experiences are for students and adults alike.
Finally, the most consistent place of transformation is within the classrooms of our Middle School. Pandemic learning presented all of us with some unique obstacles in education, and yet, transformational experiences between teachers and students occurred even over Zoom, while in restrictive learning “pods,” and even without the ability to facilitate our full program. 2022 has presented the welcome return to a more typical program, and the ability to once again roam the halls of 375 Pearl Street and pop into classrooms as students are learning. Middle School students are engaged in asking big questions like: Who wrote this story? Who does this story serve? Whose voice was left out of this story? within their history and English classes. They examine “Americanness” and who gets to define what “American” even means as well as dissect and unpack the “American Dream.” Students transform in their awe and appreciation for life on Earth as they study life sciences and earth sciences in our labs. The looks on their faces when they witness food coloring traveling through a plant’s tubes and realize how complex living organisms are is priceless. Students create books and boardgames in math, and they study the contributions of ancient civilizations in Africa, South America, and Asia to our current numeral systems. They ask, which mathematical systems do we use, which ones don’t we use, and why. In Middle School they become proficient in another language and sometimes begin to study a third language, also learning global citizenship, the importance, necessity, and strength of difference across cultures, and the discourse necessary for respectful engagement across those cultures—the necessity to treat all human beings with dignity.
Within these four years of Middle School, students ultimately discover who they are, who they want to be, and how they want to show up in the world. They develop and pursue their passions, they learn to voice their convictions in service to our community and to our world, and they continue to seek truth.
In the Middle School, it is a distinct and humbling honor to witness Brooklyn Friends living its unique mission as a Quaker school. Our children are transforming. That transformation is sometimes difficult, sometimes fun and exciting, sometimes confusing and challenging, but it’s all so beautiful.
Nitya York is the Head of Middle School at BFS.