To honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day, middle school students spent their grade-level time on Friday, Jan. 14 watching the PBS documentary, Soundtrack for a Revolution, which tells the story of the American civil rights movement through its powerful music—the freedom songs that protesters sang on picket lines, in mass meetings, in police wagons, and in jail cells as they fought for justice and equality.
This programming is part of a new Friday pilot program in the middle school designed to give students an opportunity to dive into both social justice topics and areas of deep interest. Similar to the upper school’s Flex Wednesdays, these Fridays include grade-level time focused on social and environmental justice, Mav Dives (in which students get to pick from a variety of 75-minute workshops, all with curricular tie-ins), Lit Club, and community assemblies.
“Fridays have become a time where we emphasize community,” said Middle School Division Head Karen Tiegel. “We want to encourage students to build relationships with one another.”
What is special about these days, Karen explained, is that there is now time for faculty and students to engage in activities and lessons that go beyond topics covered in core academic classes. Dedicating Fridays to this programming is also a way of protecting academic time.
“It gives us the opportunity to invite guest speakers, address and reflect on what is going on in the world, and pursue areas of passion without interrupting the regular flow of academic courses,” Karen said.
The grade-level time focus on social and environmental justice bore out of the recognition that students need more time to talk about, reflect on, and process what happens in the world.
“With everything that happened in the world last year, it felt inadequate to only be able to dedicate 30 minutes to, say, anti-Asian hate or anti-Semitism,” Alegria said. “It’s hard when we have so few containers in which to have these conversations. And sadly, we seem to be in need of those spaces frequently.”
So Karen and her team asked themselves, “Why not create a space wherein we have the capacity to learn more not only as needed or responsively, but also to give students the opportunity to practice the skills they need to have these conversations?”
It’s the second part of that question—giving students the opportunity to practice the skills they need to have these conversations—that has become one of the main driving forces behind grade-level time.
“We have seen success of having all-division learning around social justice at the upper school,” said equity and social justice coordinator Alison Williams, who has been part of the team creating this programming. “I’m really appreciative of the middle school dedicating time to allow students to be outside gem groups working across their grade, grappling with what it means to be an inclusive, thoughtful, engaged member of the community. They are also practicing the SEL skills that are applicable to grappling with issues of equity, inclusion, and diversity.”
Students have watched pieces of media and then reflected in small groups, participated in community service learning days, and engaged in lessons designed to help build beloved community.
Late last semester, for example, students watched Come From Away, a musical which tells the true story of 38 flights stranded in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001.
“The story really demonstrates the tenets of a beloved community,” Alegria shared. “Students thought about how to care for another person in community, how to step outside oneself to step up for others, and what it means to be connected to and supportive of others. There were some really good conversations about this compelling text.”
Community service learning has also taken place during this grade-level time, with December’s day focused on food insecurity. In the first part of the morning, students heard from a panel of experts who are working to fill the gaps in our food system and increase access to healthy food for all. For the latter part of the morning, students packed bags with the donated food.
During the January 3 professional development day, faculty iterated on the fall’s programming and created a variety of social justice workshops that students will have the chance to take beginning in February. These have included everything from How Fashion Asserts Identity, Art Across Borders, and Music in Hawaiian Activism to #BlackJoy Movement, Freedom Writers, and Food of the African Diaspora.
“The fact that we are providing these options for students to explore and that they cover a wide range of social justice topics is really cool,” Karen said. “Even though it is hard to start from scratch, I hope they are rewarding for our faculty and students.”
Alegria added, “I suspect these will be really great. Having students realize that JEDI work is in all disciplines and that there are so many places where you can have this experience, helps them to understand that the scope of JEDI work is not narrow.”