Message from the Principal, Jennifer Cox
The junior high years – in Paideia’s case, the seventh and eighth grades – are sometimes considered the most difficult, challenging, and fascinating time of one’s life. Physical, intellectual, and emotional changes are rapid and intense. Students feel that they are no longer mere children, but while they’re eager for the greater freedom and responsibility of teenage life, they’re also apprehensive about the social conflicts and increased academic pressures that lie ahead, and they’re filled with self-doubt. They constantly try out new roles for themselves. They might seek to distance themselves from their parents, but they still need and want the support and guidance of the key adults in their lives.
This age of transition has typically been difficult for schools to handle. Skills and maturity vary widely at this age. Within one class, students who can think and write at a high school or even college level sit next to others who are still fairly young intellectually. Even within individual kids there can be wide fluctuations. A seventh or eighth grader can behave like a 16-year-old one day and like a ten-year-old the next. To deal with all these competing factors, most studies have recommended smaller, more flexible schools, more individual attention and guidance from teachers, and more opportunities for reflection and self-expression.
We have developed a program at Paideia we think is especially suited to deal with the needs and opportunities of early adolescence. It combines close and sustained contact and support from teachers with independence, individual responsibility, and a range of choices. It demands a lot from students, but does so in relaxed surroundings in which they can feel supported. Classrooms are openly arranged with sofas, tables, and chairs. This informal atmosphere is especially valuable for junior high kids, for whom a certain degree of fidgeting and sprawling is as inevitable as breathing. They need lots of elbow and knee room, and they were never intended to sit in desks for hours on end. Teachers are called by their first names, and they get to know their students very well. Kids still know who’s in charge, and they know that calling teachers Bonnie or Tony does not make them the adult’s peer or make assignments and expectations any less serious. Academic and interpersonal skills are nourished within a creative curriculum designed to develop self-awareness, expression, and empathy. And it’s presided over by teachers who genuinely enjoy and appreciate children this age.
The teachers, more than any other variable, set the tone and atmosphere of the school day. One of Paideia’s guiding principles has been to find experienced, talented, and innovative teachers and then give them room to teach. Their classes are a reflection of their styles and enthusiasms, but they all share three things: they enjoy being around children this age, they believe they can make a positive impact on the lives of students, and they have a sense of humor that allows them to roll with the moment.
We want our students to emerge from junior high confident, generous, accomplished, and ready for the world of high school. We know they will struggle and there will be challenging moments. But as long as they learn from their mistakes, deal with some self-doubts, and make breakthroughs now, then we have accomplished what we set out to do.
We could design a junior high much simpler than the one we have. Scheduling would certainly be easier. We believe our format of homebase class time and departmentalized subject areas is more appropriate to the intellectual, emotional, and developmental needs of students this age. We also think it allows for greater creativity and individualization, a more personal as well as a more challenging way for children to learn. In addition, such a complex mix of independence and guidance, homebases and specialists, high demands and informal atmosphere, is ultimately a fitting reflection of this dynamic, transitional age group.
Junior High Principal
Over the course of their junior high years, there are skills and intangible strengths that we want students to develop and practice.
We want them to be able to
- Organize and discipline themselves to get things done
- Express ideas clearly and fully, in writing and speaking
- Think critically and deeply about a variety of subjects
- Learn and absorb new ideas and information
- Approach and solve problems in a systematic way
We want them to develop
- Self-awareness and honesty
- The ability to stand up for themselves and their emerging beliefs
- Enthusiasm for learning and trying new things
- The ability to get along well with peers and adults
- A sense of humor
- Their own voice
- An appreciation of their own unique value, as well as the value of other people who impact their lives
- An ethical approach to living
- An appreciation of the importance of every day
Most junior highs are structured like high schools, with students shuttling between different teachers and classes throughout the day. We think junior high students still need more individual attention and more contact with a primary teacher than a totally departmentalized program can provide. Our junior high is a transition to the kind of autonomy that students will experience in the high school, and its structure reflects that transition. So while our elementary school classes are almost entirely self-contained and our high school is departmentalized, the junior high is a mixture of the two.
The homebase classes place particular emphasis on literature, writing, social studies, and community service. These subjects provide fertile ground for learning at many levels. There is intensive practice in writing and speaking skills, with ongoing lessons in the importance of honest and open communication. Students are pushed to look beneath the surface. These subjects can also tap into the passions and anxieties of early adolescent life. The United States Constitution, semi-colons, and To Kill A Mockingbird run head to head in competition with who likes whom, who is mad at someone, and who has the hairstyle and clothes of the hour. Personal and social concerns can seem all consuming, and to some extent, that’s developmentally appropriate for this age.
One way we differ from most schools is that we don’t treat these anxieties as distractions and try to teach in spite of them. We try, instead, to use them constructively to give the curriculum more relevance to students’ lives. A particular child’s insecurities or conflicts with friends can lead to a wonderful story, a meaningful exchange of ideas, or a way for really understanding what is going on in the current literature book. We want our students’ lives to be incorporated into their schoolwork, which requires a fair amount of organization and creative license. We have found over the years that the results can be astounding, and, among other things, basic skills are strengthened in the process.
The key to becoming a good writer is to write constantly and have one’s writing nurtured critically. Students practice writing short stories, essays, poems, speeches, and literary analysis, as well as autobiographical pieces focused on conflicts and triumphs in their own lives. Junior high students find the process far more interesting, and the results more powerful, when they have a personal investment in the topic.
Literature class is serious business at Paideia. Students learn very quickly that we are interested not only in their reading skill, vocabulary, and comprehension, but also in what they have to say about what they have read. They are constantly urged to read between the lines, consider interpretations and motivations, question the choices of the characters or the author, recognize themes, motifs, and symbols, and discuss parallels with their own lives. Remarkable discussions occur in these classes, as students become more sophisticated students of literature.
In social studies, the content and approach depend very much on the individual teacher’s style and passion. It isn’t a uniform experience throughout the junior high, but it is a creative and dynamic one.
Every classroom includes ample helpings of history, geography, government, and social issues as well as specific targeted study skills. Some teachers have a definite two-year curriculum that they consistently follow, such as “World Religions” or “Race, Class, and Gender.” Others choose different themes each year, such as “Hunger” or “Peace.” In some classes, social studies is more action and experience oriented, while others rely on a more traditional lecture, discussion, and quiz format. Everyone, at some point, covers the basics of the United States Constitution and system of government, and all incorporate current events into their studies. Classes include research projects, speakers, and field trips along the way.
Each pair of homebase teachers puts their own stamp on their classroom, whether it’s the way they organize their schedule, how they group students for classes, or how they use technology. All of our homebase classrooms include a service-learning component, and all work with kids on organization techniques to help them figure out what works best for them.
Dividing seventh and eighth graders among homebase classes creates a certain amount of friendly competition. Classes compete in everything from field day sports events to reading bowl to scarecrow building to recycling. Every year, teachers come up with new ideas and activities depending on student interest. From the annual poetry slam competition to the “haiku of the week,” to Makers’ Day, we find ways to compete that are engaging and fun, without resorting to class rank or honor rolls. With so many opportunities to practice and succeed in large groups, small groups, and independent endeavors, we find ways to celebrate every student’s unique strengths in mind, body, and spirit.
While students spend up to 50 percent of their day in homebase classes, they also leave homebase each day to mingle with other students in math, science, foreign language, art, music, and PE.
Students come to our junior high with a range of math experiences. Some are crazy about math and very confident; others are competent but have low math self-esteem. We provide students with the courses best suited for them by offering several different paths through our junior high and high school math curriculum. We recognize that some courses need to move fast and others need to slow down to make sure students find confidence and success in mathematics. Our small classes create a comfortable atmosphere with individual attention as well as time for questions. Each of our math teachers incorporates technology into the classroom, which helps students grasp concepts through different modes of learning.
Our junior high science curriculum focuses on life science for seventh graders and physical science for eighth graders. Both classes incorporate hands-on experiences so that students have a healthy balance of group projects and labs to balance the smaller number of lectures. A seventh grader might learn about cells by creating a movie or study biomes by using Google Earth. An eighth grader might study motion and force by racing mousetrap vehicles. All students learn to use lab equipment, design and interpret experiments, analyze graphs, and solve problems. There is strong interest in clubs such as robotics, bird club, science club, hiking, and even baking club. All of these clubs help take science out of the classroom and provide students with an opportunity to pursue a subject in greater depth.
Our goals are to promote consistent and meaningful communication and to make the learning experience productive, engaging, and fun. Students are placed in an immersive French or Spanish class, and teachers use a variety of techniques to aid in comprehension and develop reading and writing skills. Students regularly participate in games, role-plays, surveys and interviews to help develop skills in speaking and listening. Technology is used to aid students with vocabulary and grammar practice as well as to extend their cultural knowledge of both Hispanic and Francophone countries. By the end of eighth grade, they will be eager and ready to continue a rigorous foreign language curriculum in high school.
All seventh grade students and most of the eighth grade receive musical instruction in one of three ensembles: band, orchestra, or chorus. Students learn music theory, instrumental or vocal technique, sight-reading and ensemble/concert etiquette. Each ensemble performs in several concerts during the year.
Our students are exposed to a wide and sophisticated range of materials and techniques. Ongoing analysis of artwork fosters students’ development of aesthetic appreciation, art vocabulary, and a greater understanding of individual artistic expression. Art projects often include printmaking, self-portraits, sculpture, drawing, and painting.
Technology has become a ubiquitous part of all of our lives, but figuring out when, where, and how to use it most effectively in schools can be a high wire act. Balancing access to great resources and educational apps and teaching students how to responsibly use the social media they so crave takes practice, lots of practice. All Paideia junior high students are issued an iPad at the beginning of seventh grade. We spend the next two years working with them not only to develop their technical skills and to facilitate the depth and breadth of their work by using online resources, but also to consider their digital footprint and the social ramifications and implications of all kinds of technological media use. Discussions of digital citizenship go hand-in-hand with instructions on how to include an email attachment. Peer editing a Google doc requires both technical skills and diplomacy. We embrace the use of learning management systems such as Schoology, and all of our junior high teachers maintain web pages that include schedules, content, enrichment materials and resources.
Junior high is a good time to begin a sport not yet attempted or continue playing a sport learned elsewhere. All of our teams have a range of players from the inexperienced to the advanced. Students are encouraged to participate in at least one sport per year, and many play more than one. The emphasis is on participation and learning the fundamentals. We have a firm no-cut policy. Everyone who tries out will be on a team, practice, and play. In some sports, we have one team for the more skilled players and another team for those less experienced. Sports offered in junior high are soccer, volleyball, ultimate, cross-country, basketball, softball, baseball, tennis, track, and swimming. Paideia has facilities both on campus and off campus at Python Park in Avondale Estates, and transportation to and from our off campus site is provided. (provide link to list of sports and time of year played)
With so many things to do and learn during the school day, it is inevitable that some of it overflows into extra-curricular clubs and activities. In most years our junior high students have an opportunity to participate in approximately 20 clubs ranging from Academic Bowl to Kids Who Code to Robotics to Run Club. Club offerings may vary from year to year based on student interest, and we are always excited to form new clubs when students express curiosity about a new topic or activity.
Field trips are another way we expose our students to the broader community. From excursions to one of our urban farmlets to civil rights tours in Atlanta and Alabama to intensive studies of our coastal barrier islands, we take advantage of many exciting opportunities to learn off campus, and we appreciate the added value these trips provide in bonding our students together as they tackle new and stimulating environments.
Junior high students are inherently social, and they benefit from some structure and loving supervision when interacting outside of the classroom. We offer many extra-curricular opportunities including dances, weekend social activities, field day, junior high symposium days, club-related excursions, and a variety of acting or performance based events. Some of these include the entire junior high and others are open to students who have a particular interest or passion. All are supervised by junior high teachers and further serve to strengthen our community bonds.
Every spring we end formal academic classes in mid-May and shift to our short-term schedule. During this exciting two-week finish to the school year, students take classes that appeal to a broader range of interests. From building and racing cardboard boats designed to hold four or five students, to studying films by Alfred Hitchcock to the Science of Photography, to our Broadway musical production, all students spend their final days of school engaged in stimulating, hands-on, creative courses. It’s a great way to finish the year on a high note.