March 5, 2018

Middle School Overview

At Tremont School, we practice a Living Curriculum that responds to and expands on student interests and motivations. Our Living Curriculum unleashes the vital energy of student curiosity to bring all of us in touch with the world and what can be learned from it. This approach fosters self-knowledge, self-advocacy, and leadership in Middle School students.

A core feature of Middle School academics is the contract, a document outlining assignments and expectations for the week, and a core structure in the Middle School schedule is contract time, substantial blocks of largely student-directed time. The students look at the tasks they need to accomplish and plan their weeks accordingly. The contract system helps students do the following:

  • Become self-aware and independent rather than relying on teachers to tell them about each transition.
  • Practice time management and organization skills.
  • Value themselves as decision-makers who can shape their own learning experiences.

The contract is a model for how many of us organize our lives. We assess what we need to get done, consult with our own natures—our own rhythms and styles of working—and proceed accordingly. The contract system allows for recognition that students have:

  • focused times and unfocused times
  • tasks that are easy and tasks that are hard
  • times when they like to work alone
  • times when they want to work with friends

Knowing that a math assignment will take significant time, a student can plan to take that time. Knowing a spelling lesson will be a breeze, the student can save that for a part of the day when there is less time. Students can plan collaborations with other students, set aside time for personal reading, or get ahead on tasks when they are feeling on top of the world.

The contract affects homework. Tasks that are not accomplished during the day may become homework. Homework is discussed with each student at the end of the day. Students may plan to do certain tasks at home or may choose to make sure tasks are done at school.

With the contract system, students learn to take initiative. Instead of teachers saying, ”Everyone, work on your reading essays,” students come to teachers saying,”Can you help me with my reading essay?” Students seek teacher assistance and instruction as needed. They are invested in getting their own work accomplished, and the teachers are available to help them.

So what is this work that students are doing?

Each year, we have four interdisciplinary units and an Independent Study. We find that an interdisciplinary approach allows for many different points of access to learning and fosters many connections between ideas. Each unit contains elements of science, math, social studies, and language arts. The reading of fiction or biography is linked to most units and is discussed in small reading groups. Each unit has a primary science or social studies focus. The units  usually proceed in the following order during the year:

  • Natural Science
  • Cultural Geography
  • Physical Science
  • American History
  • Independent Study

The units provide learning opportunities in their own right, but they also provide the context for skill-building in many areas.

For example, in each unit, students practice:

  • Reading skills through study sheets that focus not just on content but on the ways authors convey content through figurative language, specialized vocabulary, illustrative examples, and use of data. Students are asked questions that call on them to locate and interpret facts in a text. They learn to read and reread material in order to clarify meanings. Students often do this in small groups so that they are discussing their interpretations as they read.
  • Math skills are taught in small groups focused on development and application of skills. Students also work on applied math problem-solving and simulations related to units, for example plotting the growth of deer populations for our Ecosystems Unit, or exploring the counterintuitive math of gerrymandering for our Election and Democracy Unit.

A centerpiece of our Living Curriculum is that students conduct individual research for every unit. This means that, to a large extent, they can tailor their engagement with a unit to suit their interests.

  • For example, a student recently requested the chance to study an artist for our United States History unit on Social Movements of the nineteenth century. There were no artists on our list of suggested biography topics, but a little searching revealed that Winslow Homer was a fitting topic since his art was important in documenting the social changes of the era. The student got to study painting, his passion, while learning about changes in social roles and values. This is just one of many examples of students actively advocating for learning that has meaning to them while still engaging in the common discourse of a unit.

Perhaps the most notable venue for student ownership at Tremont is Independent Study. Independent Study is a unit conducted in grades 5-12. In this unit, students pick their own topics to research and contact experts inside and outside the school in order to conduct that research. Students show strong commitment to their Independent Studies and vigorously advocate for what they need to accomplish these. For many students, Independent Study is the unit they look forward to the most. They also often work harder in this unit than in any other. It is a strong validation of our belief in student self-direction.

Colleges often look for how students distinguish themselves in their educational careers. Well, students attending Tremont from grades 5-12 have 8 opportunities to initiate and follow through on in-depth projects of their own design.  It is not hard for them to point to highly distinctive accomplishments.

A Sampling of Middle School Independent Study Topics from the 2017-2018 school year:

  • Newton’s Laws
  • Film Photography
  • The Gardner Museum Heist
  • Andre the Giant
  • Sound Waves
  • The Golden Age of Piracy

A critical part of our Living Curriculum and of our vibrant community at Tremont is that students are expected to share their learning with others. Each unit in the Middle School concludes with a Celebration of Learning to which parents are invited. Here, students present the papers they have written and the projects they have done.

Indeed, this commitment to presentation informs student writing and the high level of investment in projects. Writing for an audience means explaining terms carefully, developing expertise on complex matters so that they can be discussed fluently, and telling why information is significant. Students develop important skills in this process and are motivated to make each paper better than the last.

Similarly, students put their full creative powers to work on projects because they are thinking about how to engage their audience at the Celebration of Learning — and because they have been given the time and encouragement to design projects of high interest to them. Often students set individual goals related to projects, such as improving visual design or finding a way to fit creative writing into their work.

Samples of Middle School Celebration of Learning Projects:

  • Catapults and other contraptions
  • Student-directed films
  • Speeches, stories, plays, poems
  • Graphs and diagrams
  • Paintings, pastels, prints, sculptures, flags, photographs
  • Homemade food of all sorts
  • Student-designed board or computer games
  • Science experiments and demonstrations
  • Costumes
  • Songs, skits, dance, music, and martial arts performances