Civility Seminar 

This year, our 6th grade students experience a new enrichment, Civility Seminar.  The class is designed to teach what civility is, why civility is important to middle school citizenship, and how to put civility into everyday action, especially in the schoolhouse.  The class is taught in the seminar format, meaning largely a discussion and thought-sharing teaching style.  The teacher, of course, oversees the process and guides the class talks, but the students generate the real insights.

Last week, we discussed P.M. Forni’s Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, from the short, readable text, Choosing Civility.   One of the discussion topics and following themes I asked of the students was to rank the top three rules of conduct they deem are absolutely crucial for success in middle school (especially 6th grade) at Severn School.

The findings spattered inconsistently except one rule, #25: don’t shift responsibility and blame, which was overwhelmingly chosen by the students.  Once the students started talking, it was clear they thought many 6th graders struggle with taking responsibility for their actions, but they cared deeply about this specific area of growth as students and as people.

As I listened, this was a telling lesson for me.  I was intrigued, first and foremost, by the intelligence of my 6th graders (they never disappoint).  Secondly, from their view, our 6th graders were cognizant and thoughtful about the rule being essential for middle school success, and that they could do a better job of carrying out such a responsibility.

While this type of info might seem slightly dire to any teacher or administrator, I found it refreshing—refreshing because of their honesty and humility. The data made me happy because of the talking and reflecting that followed during the assignment—our bright 6th graders realized that, while the discussion mounted, this was not ok for our school community. That they, even as young 6th graders, have real work to do, and so does our school leadership and faculty. But most pointedly, this discussion and information conveys our kids have a “growth mindset”—a term teachers pronounce often, write about in heaps, yet something we do not necessarily see in everyday school life.

This is one hope I have of all middle school classes—that we witness upshot learning from classes that are beyond the discipline taught.  I am excited about the initial year of the civility course, but I am more enthusiastic about the daily lessons and learning that come out of each class that help our middle—schoolers  know how to live richer, fuller, and more ethical lives.


High Quality Teachers in Independent Schools

Over winter break, I read an excellent article titled, “Hiring and Retaining Great Independent School Teachers.”  It appears in the Winter 2016 publication of Independent School, a magazine published by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).  Heavily research-based, the article reasons well what constitutes a high quality teacher in independent schools.  The writers utilized a triangular approach to gather data: they conducted school administrator interviews, focus groups, surveys and site visits to construct coherent criteria. Essentially, the authors discovered school leaders and teachers alike consider the following four criteria as paramount in hiring and working with top notch faculty:

  • Develop strong relationships with students
  • Demonstrate strong pedagogical knowledge and content expertise
  • Possess a growth mindset
  • Fit well within the school’s culture

The article is a good reminder and focus to what we have and what we seek to bolster with our faculty in the middle school.  Severn’s middle school faculty understands connecting with students enables our students to feel respected and valued and in turn, students typically increase their effort from such positive relationships.  Severn has made quality relationships with students a priority in all- school professional development this year.  We listened to a guest speaker on the topic of relational learning and engaged in some workshops on improving student relationships this past August.

For professional development in just the middle school, we have focused on academic department work, specifically targeting pedagogical skills and broadening our knowledge in each academic discipline. Furthermore, our faculty seeks and attends professional development workshops throughout the year at various schools and networks with other middle school educators at AIMS schools (Association of Independent Schools of Maryland).

Lastly, I strongly believe we have a faculty that has either evolved to fit our culture or faculty members who have passionately sought out our middle school because of Severn School’s mission and what is explained in our hiring ads—an aspiration to connect with middle-schoolers and a desire to support and work with middle school students outside the classroom.  This fit within our culture also overlaps with some of the other, above criteria.  Our faculty are teacher-coaches, play directors, community service leaders, and hold other roles outside the classroom.  I see these supplementary teaching roles encourage strong teacher-student bonds.  In addition, when faculty are not “experts” in a sport or extracurricular area yet they are willing to try such roles to grow and learn, it serves our students exceptionally well.

Below is an offprint of that article that principally conveys the same message.  If you have the time to read it, I believe you will agree that what is articulated in the commentary is real and delivered effectively in our middle school.

My best,

Dan Keller

Innovation and Immersion

This week we had our first ever middle school tinkering workshop. The focus was on Arduino technology. A full group of youngsters learned about computer programming and circuitry.

While the program also conveyed programming language and LED light design, the true beauty of the workshop was how it fostered students’ imagination, bolstered their power to question, and encouraged—well—good tinkering. There was no docile act of listening to a teacher talk, no rote memorization of notes; instead, students immersed in the first steps of creating and innovating something new and fun.

As I looked around, I saw students working together to create; I also saw some students working alone, so focused, so immersed, that I highly doubt they realized they were in school. This engagement is the environment and experience middle school students need and deserve. As a middle school, we are actively thinking of how we can encourage this type of lesson design in our curriculum. Curriculum that requires students to ask a thoughtful question, empathize with a certain “real-life” challenge, and employ various academic disciplines to generate positive change. It is taking part in the process of learning to solve meaningful, life challenges that will become the spirt and purpose of Severn’s middle school. I can hardly wait to see what our kids will create and do!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


The Teacher—Coach Model in Middle School at Severn School

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The fall sports assembly is one of my favorite days as a middle school head.  As I view each coach speak glowingly about their teams, I witness a school commitment in action: the teacher-coach model. All our middle school teams are coached by teachers, school people who additionally recognize their players as hard working students on a daily basis.

In our middle school, we are deeply committed to the teacher-coach model of athletics and academics.  In many schools today, however, there is a discouraging trend of former outstanding players automatically considered great coaches for young adolescents. Not so in our middle school.

Continue reading

Middle School Advisory: Practical and Relational Elements

Good independent middle schools preserve pillars that help with the development and processes of early adolescent growth.  A quality middle school advisory system is one of those pillars.

I think the what makes an advisory so great is its flexibility, its ability to give pause  from the academic side of school and to enhance a “family-feel” for the small group of students in the care of supportive teachers.  While each advisory is not perfectly scripted, the time allows relationships to grow and for the knowledge and value of each advisee to foster.

At Severn School, the advisory system is an integral part of middle school life.  Advisors help students acquire information to be successful, to develop confidence, and to relate effectively with the teachers in the schoolhouse.

Continue reading

Kids Celebrating Writing and Risk-taking

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It is always a joy to be in the audience at our middle school coffeehouses.  About four years ago, I had a vision once I graded so many outstanding pieces of writing in my English classes. I wanted to provide an outlet for students to share their work not for a grade, but for the community to hear and celebrate their efforts and artistry.  From an adolescent perspective, sharing personal work in front of peers and parents is daunting. When students risk such an endeavor, they build confidence and a good, inner spirit of a job well done.

Continue reading