Feeding the Hearts and Souls of Middle Schoolers
6th grade Ring Mountain hike
By Barbara Kraemer-Cook

When I am hiring new teachers, I always manage to slip the following precept into the interview at some point: At MCDS, teachers teach people first and content second. In Upper School, a critical part of work is to feed the hearts and souls of preteens and teenagers.

If we fail at that, we also fail at teaching math, science, English and history because, fundamentally, our students need connection; they need us to know their stories. Research shows that when students feel known and valued, they are able to relax and enter the optimal zone for learning. We do this essential work in so many ways, both informally and woven through our curriculum. 

As we teach the formal curriculum, our teachers build relationships with students, discovering not only who they are as learners, but who they are as social beings. Our Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Advisory programs offer students the opportunity to build self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, personal decision-making and relationship skills. In SEL class, we offer a formal curriculum of topics ranging from media literacy to digital citizenship to introversion/extroversion to stress reduction and allow students to discuss topics that are important and relevant to them, such as friendships and social dynamics in their grade.

In our English curriculum, students delve into the theme of identity by reading All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. As they learn about the complexity of identity through literature, they explore their own identities and have the opportunity to share their multi-layered stories with classmates and teachers. 

Outdoor education is another avenue through which we learn more about our students and attend to their social-emotional well-being. Away from technology, the demands of academics and close-knit social groups, students are challenged physically and emotionally, but they also able to relax, enjoy the beauty of nature, and experience quiet and the sensation being alone with their thoughts and feelings.

In these smaller, more informal settings, we also see new facets of students’ identities emerge. A quieter student allows her sense of humor to shine through and becomes the group’s comedian, and a student who is a vocal leader in the classroom allows others to lead. On the 8th grade Ansel Adams trip several years ago, one student persisted for an entire day using a broken fishing pole and tangled line to finally catch a fish. We then understood the profound grit and determination that this student possessed.

8th grade and kindergarten buddies

We also love to play in Upper School as a way to care for students! We intentionally carve out time for K-8 and Lower/Upper Buddies, take students on Ring Mountain hikes, create a Halloween Carnival, and play Four Square or basketball as advisory groups. Electives provide a way for faculty to share passions with students. It’s a true pleasure for me to walk the halls on Mondays to see students and faculty Salsa dancing, knitting, doing yoga, or playing Ultimate frisbee together!

One of my favorite events of the year is the Upper School Olympix. On this day, which is organized by our Community Council, students compete in cooperative games, including a team dance-off, in cross-grade groups led by a faculty advisor. By playing with students, we not only have fun together but teachers model and normalize risk-taking, vulnerability and failure, all key ingredients to academic success. 

So next time you wander onto the blacktop a Tuesday morning and see the entire sixth grade and their advisors doing the Hokey-Pokey together, know that this is more than a game; it’s also one of the joyful ways we build relationships and feed the hearts and souls of our middle schoolers.


Barbara Kraemer-Cook is Assistant Head of School and Upper School Division Head.