Keeping the Fire Lit, Winter Carnival and Joy in the Middle School

We’ve almost made it to February break. It has been an admittedly tough slog at times, but kids are hanging in there. They are doing surprisingly well in fact. Admittedly, they’re tired…  Of course they are! Students are tired. Teachers are tired. Families are tired too! So, it should be no surprise that when we(the middle school team) sat down to look at this week… tired was the primary condition that we had to battle. You see, every year at this time we tend to plan something really fun to celebrate the hard work that our community does throughout the year. Most years we have a community celebration before every break! Unfortunately though, many fun, unique and interesting events have been eliminated this year for health reasons, safety reasons, or for reasons of sheer fatigue. With everything that students have lost this, we feel strongly that school celebrations SHOULD NOT be another important part of school that falls to the wayside. If nothing else, we want to maintain the joy we share at school. So our 7th and 8th grade team doubled down on our outdoor time this week… The result? Friday, February 12th is the “Winter Carnival.” A day of celebration of learning and the beautiful winter weather we have been so fortunate to get this year. Students will compete in a “bean bag biathlon (ski/snowshoe/run and corn hole), snow sculpture building, and enjoying outdoors. Of everything that we’ve lost, we couldn’t bear to lose celebration and joy. Just enjoying each other’s company, snowshoeing, nordic skiing, and playing in the snow… okay… maybe a little campfire too.

I probably don’t need to tell you that this is a weird school year. You’re very aware. If you’re reading this, then you either have a kid here at Flood Brook or you’re in someway connected to the education community. I really don’t need to tell anyone that the school year looks different, and the chances are pretty good (if you’re reading this) that I also don’t need to tell you to waste any time worrying about “kids falling behind.” They’re just learning different things. See Kimberley Moran’s great article from  WeAreTeachers from last May (Moran).

So what AM I going to tell you? Well, I won’t say “the kids are okay.” There is plenty of research by better equipped people than me regarding the unique challenges that COVID schooling presents for young adolescents (Singh et. al). It’s not as dire as some are making but it is the reality that we work with when we meet kids where they’re at. What I will tell you is this– of everything that has to go away, of everything we have the opportunity to re-envision, re-work, or try again, we need to cling most strongly to any school event that can safely promote joy in learning. Which brings me to my real goal for this year: To keep the fire lit. 

Fortunately, kids are not falling as far behind as we worried, see NYTimes Dec. 2 piece by Erica Green (Green). Even if the COVID gap was as big a threat as people worry it is(trust me, it’s not EVERYONE ON THE PLANET IS GOING THROUGH THIS) there is something you can do. Even with the constraints that are in place due to covid restrictions, there is one thing you can do for children’s education that doesn’t cost you anything. It does not require you to be an expert in the field where your child is struggling. It just takes us all being present. If we can do nothing more this year, we can endeavor to keep the fire lit! We can do everything that we can to make sure that when this is all over, your child still has the burning desire to learn. Something. Anything. Whatever makes your kid really want to learn… The most important educational goal for your child at the end of the pandemic is that they still love learning. Do what you can to keep that fire lit! Reach out to your child’s advisor if you need suggestions.

Thanks for reading!

-Cliff 7/8 Social Studies

Works Cited

Green, Erica L. “New Data Show Some Children Aren’t Falling as Far behind as Predicted.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Dec. 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/02/us/new-data-show-some-children-arent-falling-as-far-behind-as-predicted.html.

Moran, Kimberley “Kids Arent Falling Behind.” We Are Teachers, 4 June 2020, http://www.weareteachers.com/kids-arent-falling-behind/.Singh, Shweta, et al. “Impact of COVID-19 and Lockdown on Mental Health of Children and Adolescents: A Narrative Review with Recommendations.” Psychiatry Research, Published by Elsevier B.V., Nov. 2020, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7444649/#:~:text=The children may develop feelings,et al., 2020).

Music, memory, and the nostalgia of Understanding

WHAT IS GOING ON? WHAT ARE THEY THINKING? WHY DID THEY JUST DO THAT?

Just a few of the great questions you might ask when you find yourself frustrated with a young adolescent. I was reminded of these questions recently upon receiving an e-mail from a frustrated parent. Riddled with the kind of language we all fall victim to when frustrated, “they cant…” or “I don’t know why they…” It was hard to read. Particularly, because as with all of my students, this is a student that I have seen succeed in so many ways over the years.  So after responding with a quick affirmation that this student in fact CAN do this and IS an amazing part of our class, I began to think about the questions above, and how often we ask them.

Truthfully though, these questions aren’t worth asking if you’re not focusing on how amazing the process of brain development is. Think about it. Really sit back and realize that young adolescents-in the best of times- are working through one of the most active periods of brain development in there entire life (Spear). As their brains rewire, a process referred to as synaptic pruning, they are constantly growing, learning, and adapting to their environments. This while they are still fully a decade or more away from developing the portion of our brain that handles decision making and executive control.

So when a teacher friend or a parent of a middle schooler asks me… “How can I possibly understand? Or “I do not honestly remember what this was like,” I tell them about one of my favorite strategies; When I start tearing my hair out, saying to myself, ‘WHAT THE CUSS IS WRONG WITH THESE TINY HUMANS?! I try and put myself back in the mindset of a young adolescent. I stay late after school. I close the classroom door. I put a song on the speakers at the highest volume they tolerate and I clean the classroom- listening to one of my absolute favorite songs from middle school. 

As most of us know music is powerfully connected to memories, kind of like how smell can remind you of a place you haven’t been in thirty years? As neuropsychologist Lutz Jäncke writes, “Hearing music associated with our past often evokes a strong ‘feeling of knowing” (Jäncke). Sometimes just listening to art that spoke to you when you were feeling all those intense emotions of young adolescenthood… It makes it come flooding back to you and you remember what was so hard about being “all jacked up in the brain pudding.” That great big pile of neurons on top of our heads, swimming in neurotransmitters. 

So when you’re pulling your hair out, take a deep breath. Pull out that special album from your time as a teenager instead. Try and remember what it felt like. Because there were moments of pure joy. There was extreme excitement. But there was also disappointment. There was confusion. There was likely great frustration at times. Remembering that can go a long way to getting to a place of understanding.

It’s advice that I take myself all too often.

So where am I heading next? Well, school in a time of COVID isn’t always fun and games in the woods… so I’m going to go find a place to play some music that reminds me of the friends and family that got me through the period of adolescence. Feel free to click below if you need a little bit of punk rock in your life… or if you just need to hear the message that we’re here if you need it.

“If I fall back down, you’re gonna help me back up again. If you fall back down, your gonna be my friend.” – Tim Armstrong, Rancid 

Thanks for reading!

-Cliff 7/8 Social Studies

Works Cited

Brennan, Casey, et al. “SiOWfa16: Science in Our World: Certainty and Controversy.” SiOWfa16 Science in Our World Certainty and Controversy, 16 Sept. 2016, sites.psu.edu/siowfa16/2016/09/16/why-does-music-trigger-specific-memories/comment-page-1/#:~:text=In regards to music bringing,are implicit and explicit memories.&text=They also seem to last,attached to a certain emotion.

Jäncke, Lutz. “Music, Memory and Emotion.” Journal of Biology, BioMed Central, 8 Aug. 2008, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2776393/.Spear, Linda Patia. “Adolescent Neurodevelopment.” The Journal of Adolescent Health : Official Publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Feb. 2013, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3982854/.

Outdoor Learning in 7/8

It’s a rare thing, sitting outside among 10-20 young adolescents and quietly taking in the world around us. In a world where we are constantly bombarded with new and competing information, moments of calm and serenity are often fleeting. Yet every week, the 7th and 8th grade team at Flood Brook has the amazing opportunity to spend time sitting quietly in the woods, journaling about the natural world around them, and thinking deeply about the successes and challenges of our week. It is with our shared experiences outdoors, that we build the community of learners.

I say it’s rare, but increasingly less so here at Flood Brook; to sit quietly with a group of people-usually bursting with youthful energy and to simply enjoy the crackle of a campfire or the song of the birds. It is rare, but students at Flood Brook Middle School experience this weekly if not daily. You see, the 7th and 8th grade team here at Flood Brook has made a conscious decision to spend as much time outdoors as possible. Students have been learning to identify tree species on campus, they have studied the skills of a scientist-observation and inquiry, and they have focused on their writing, their team building, and their mindfulness while exploring the natural world.

While the necessities of managing healthy and safety requirements for COVID have indeed impacted our decision to work outdoors as much as possible, as many of you know this is not a new trend here at Flood Brook. Our students begin their journey into the outdoors as Kindergarteners. By the time they reach us in the middle school, many of them are well equipped to spend even the coldest days outside. So why do Flood Brook students spend so much time outside, even when we are not in the midst of a global pandemic?

The answer is as simple as you might guess. We spend so much time outside because that is what people are built for. In a world where our response to a pandemic includes additional screen time and further social isolation, we as teachers choose to double down on what we know is right for kids-being outside with others. So without any further ado, I give you… a short list of the benefits of outdoor learning.

  • Increased focus on social emotional learning: through team-building, reflection, and authentic interactions based on inquiry and outdoor projects students are practice VT’s transferable skills of Clear and Effective Communication, Problem Solving, and Responsible and Involved Citizenship
  • Health: not only are students getting more time involved in long-term cardiovascular exercise but simply the act opf being in nature has been shown to improve people’s immune systems, reduce production of stress hormones, and lower attention fatigue in students with ADHD
  • Practice in Autonomy: The natural world provides a place for students to explore, investigate, play, and try out their theories on how the world works. It is a safe place for students to practice autonomy, regulating themselves and working on executive functioning skills such as time management and accountability.
  • Fun and Play: Let’s face it, at a certain point, these students are still kids at heart. They deserve time to play and learn through play. Growing up in Vermont it’s important that they have adults in their lives both in and out of school who can model that there are safe and fun ways to play in Vermont regardless of weather.

Thanks for reading!

-Cliff 7/8 Social Studies

Works Cited

“Benefits of Place-Based Education.” Benefits of Place-Based Education | Promise of Place, promiseofplace.org/research-evaluation/research-and-evaluation/benefits-of-place-based-education.

“Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health.” Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health – NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation, http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/90720.html#:~:text=Phytoncides have antibacterial and antifungal,infected cells in our bodies.

“Outdoor & Place-Based Education in the Now.” Shelburne Farms, 26 Aug. 2020, shelburnefarms.org/calendar/event/outdoor-place-based-education-in-the-now.Publishing, Harvard Health. “A Prescription for Better Health: Go Alfresco.” Harvard Health, http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/a-prescription-for-better-health-go-alfresco.