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The Then and Now of Student-Centered Education

The Then and Now of Student-Centered Education
Lauren Goldberg, Director of Middle School

Last Friday, we spent a marvelous afternoon celebrating our annual Middle School Grandparents’ and Special Friends' Day. The day began with a community lunch in the Dining Hall, followed by a gathering in Common Ground where I had the chance to greet our guests and introduce some of the highlights of our academic and co-curricular program. For the remainder of the afternoon, teachers and students happily welcomed family members into their classrooms to experience the everyday joy of learning in community. 

Visiting a school brings back vivid memories for adults. We can all remember what it felt like to solve challenging math problems, analyze a literary selection in English class, or participate in physical education activities. We remember time with friends, connections with teachers, and evenings spent doing homework. At first glance, it might appear that our current students’ school days are not much different from what we recall from our own childhood. Indeed, there is a widely-held perception that schools are one of the few American institutions that haven’t changed very much since all of us were students ourselves. 

The perception isn’t totally wrong, at least on the surface. Classes are still conducted in large rooms with desks or tables for seating, a display board in the front, and a teacher leading a lesson. Students still the study core disciplines of math, science, social studies, and English. There are still homework assignments.

However, beyond the familiar aspects of furniture and subject matter, teaching and learning at Dana Hall is qualitatively different from what many adults remember from their own time in Middle School. One obvious difference is the addition of technology into many aspects of our day. Teachers make excellent use of digital tools, to be sure, but they also rely on the tried-and-true approach of meaningful face-to-face conversation. Instead of chalkboards, we have interactive white boards. Our students build with their hands, sketch and organize on paper and on iPads, and switch back and forth between technology and organic learning styles. There is not a lot of lecture-style instruction in our classrooms, nor is there an emphasis on rote memorization or repetition. I challenged our guests to look for the differences between their Middle School experiences and the program we offer today. 

When I was in Middle School in the 1970s, there were no computer courses. Now, of course, all of our children are adept with digital media in many forms. During Grandparents’ Day, guests in the 5th and 6th grades joined technology classes led by Computer Science teacher Mike Roam. Our students showcased their skills in coding, engaged in knowledgeable conversations about artificial intelligence, and demonstrated their skills at creating digital avatars. 

Visitors to 7th grade joined a seminar-style class that is unique to Dana Hall. Known as Forum, this life skills class meets once a week and is conducted for all students from 5th grade to 12th grade. Themes of identity, friendship, digital citizenship, growth and nutrition, healthy relationships, and decision-making are incorporated into lessons and discussions that emphasize autonomy and self-awareness. Our guests enjoyed an engaging comparison of “then and now” topics such as music, communication among friends, media, and current events. Our students loved hearing about AM radio, vinyl records, rotary telephones, and Elvis. Our guests were amused and enlightened to learn about Snapchat, text messaging, and Taylor Swift. It was clear that many pivotal adolescent experiences continue, despite the different modes of information delivery. 

Our guests also visited more traditional classes (history, English, algebra, and science). No matter which classes they visited, they observed the ways that my colleagues engaged students in critical analysis, collaborative thinking, and exploration of ideas and materials. Our classes tend to be physically active, occasionally boisterous, and focused on the voices of students. Grandparents’ Day gives us all a chance to remember that our students are always at the center of our work. We are so grateful for the time that our guests spent with us.