( 7 Votes )

Middle school kidsRemember middle school?

Most of us would rather not.

What with the fluctuating hormones, the peer pressure, the growth spurts and the clumsiness, it’s hard to figure out who you are and where you’re going.

Social media thrown into the mix complicates things even further.

Fluvanna Middle School Principal Brad Stang and his administrative and guidance staff wanted to do something to help students navigate the often rocky road of adolescence. School Counselor Lynn Jenkins said it became obvious students needed help learning things other generations took for granted.

“We notice on a daily basis the changes that seem to be occurring in their ability to interact with kindness and compassion,” Jenkins said. “It appears that social media is attempting to replace the hard social work of dealing face-to-face with their peers, a skill that they will now need to practice in order to be successful in real life. It seems to be easier to be mean or cruel because they can do it either anonymously, or without provocation, and with no need to feel any empathy.”

Teacher Hillary Pleasant had her own concerns. Pleasant noticed students didn’t know how to greet each other or adults. She shared her observations with Jenkins.

As Jenkins, Pleasant and two other teachers and administrative staff spent hours over the summer researching packaged curriculums, Jenkins said they realized none fit. Either they didn’t cover the topics the FMS team felt were important or they were too expensive.

“I also didn’t want this to be a burden on teachers,” Jenkins said. “They already have so much to do. I knew we needed their buy-in. And we didn’t want just a video they’d put in and have students watch.”

Finally, Jenkins told Stang, “Let me take a stab at it.”

So with his blessing, Jenkins, Pleasant, Tonya Vowels and Joyce Carter went to work building a program specific to FMS needs.

In the last school year students had 30 minutes each day set aside for “genius hour,” in which they worked on projects geared to their particular interests.

The team decided to use two of those days for “Community Hour.” An important part of the curriculum is everyone works on the same topic each day. Students are grouped alphabetically with 15 in each group.
According to the Power Point developed by the curriculum team, the purpose of Community Hour is to:

  • Help students develop their social and emotional learning so that they are “available” to learn course content; and
  • Build a sense of community in the school by developing relationships, giving students the opportunity to have staff that are available to them, and embracing the opportunity to bond outside of classroom studies.

The team behind Community Hour hopes to see:

  • Increased positive student-to-student interactions;
  • Increased positive staff-to-student interactions;
  • Decreased discipline issues; and
  • Increased achievement.

Jenkins said she uncovered an important, proven fact while doing her research: Students who can build a relationship with at least one adult in school have increased resilience.

Each Community Hour session starts with a five-minute warm-up in which students practice a different way to greet each other. Some are as simple as giving everyone a high-five or learning the proper way to shake another’s hand. Others are more intricate, such as the “multi-ball toss”: Student A greets Student B across the circle and tosses the ball to them. Student B returns the greeting and then greets Student C, tossing the ball to them, and so on. After everyone has been greeted, another ball is added, then a third.

Jenkins said another aspect of the curriculum is teaching students how not to be a bystander when they see someone being treated badly. “We tell them to be an ‘upstander’ instead. We have students come up with ways they can be an upstander,” she said.

They also teach students ways to react when someone is being mean to them. “This has been powerful.  When someone calls you names, be resilient. Don’t fight back but learn ways to disarm them,” Jenkins said.

One important aspect of the curriculum is having students brainstorm ways to respond in difficult situations and giving them opportunities to practice those strategies, Pleasant said. So far, they’ve completed 13 lessons and both students and teachers seem pleased. “Now that we’re in the swing of it, I’m getting emails from teachers daily saying, ‘Let’s try this,’” Jenkins said.

During announcements each morning, a student reads a motivational quote. Jenkins used to provide them. Now she has so many submitted by students, she doesn’t know if she has enough days left in the school year to get to them all.

“This was so much more work than I anticipated, but the rewards are amazing,” Jenkins said. “It’s contagious. It’s really starting to take hold.”