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School Stories

How We Cultivate Strong Character & Community in Middle School

By Marti Champion, Head of Middle School

Despite the fact that the majority of the school day is spent in classes such as math, English, science, and history, the true purpose of education is to help students realize their full potential as human beings. At Graland, we work towards this goal by introducing our students to the character framework, which shows students how to balance

 taking pride in who they are as individuals while also being valuable members of a community. School is about teaching students how to be human but also how to interact with other human beings.

School activities and learning experiences are often the places by which these lessons are sprinkled. As educators, we are well aware of the skills, standards, and metrics we aspire to meet in our respective disciplines during any given school year. We also have access to data that reveals whether or not we’ve met our target. But when it comes to being an engaged citizen and thoughtful leader, where do those metrics exist? The answer lies beyond the four walls of the classroom. At Graland, we engage with the larger community, and we are often lucky to walk alongside our students in these moments. When weaving elements of what it means to be a contributing member of our community into our 45-minute classes, we look to moments when our students support a teammate or even help a neighbor to measure our success. Continue reading below to learn about moments of triumph in character through the eyes of Middle School educators. 

Promote Independence / Agency 
By Mallory Gordon, Dina Horsch, Alexis Michalos, and Lauren O’Neill, Middle School Learning Specialists

At Graland, agency refers to a student’s ability to develop their own thoughts and questions and take initiative in their learning. We aim to support students in becoming self-reliant by building self-awareness and self-advocacy and encouraging them to become champions of their own learning. As members of the Student Support Team, agency is one of the most crucial skills to teach our students as they are often some of the most vulnerable learners. At the beginning of the school year, students in our classes embark on a self-actualization journey through the lens of their support plan. Students create an All About Me presentation based on their individual strengths, needs, interests, and learning preferences. As learning specialists, we support students in preparing for and presenting their slides to all of their teachers. This provides the opportunity for students to advocate for their needs across classes throughout the school year.

In addition to providing direct instruction, we help students build independence and agency by leading conversations about their individual accommodations and teaching them to advocate for the implementation in their classrooms. Through the demystification of accommodations, we are helping to foster more confident, independent self-advocates who are better prepared for their time after Graland.

Celebrate Perseverance / Resilience
By Tara Kochevar, Assistant Athletic Director

In athletics, we often speak about perseverance, resilience, and grit. Perseverance is a quality that doesn’t just appear for most students. Much like a growth mindset, perseverance and resilience require learning from mistakes, reflecting on opportunities, and adapting to new circumstances. To become resilient, we must accept responsibility for attempting a task repeatedly without guaranteeing success. This idea can be challenging for our student-athletes because resilience is born from discomfort. As physical educators and coaches, we help students develop character through physical pursuits in concert with mental acuity. We strive to create an environment where students feel empowered to take risks, lean into discomfort, and develop the grit that it takes to be successful on the sports field and beyond.  

The beneficial consequences of sport, such as joy, camaraderie, effort, and cooperation, are always accompanied by experiences of disappointment, frustration, and division. For every positive outcome within the sports landscape, there exists the exact opposite; and because winning is inherently scarce, athletics are fraught with adverse and potentially disappointing outcomes. In these moments, competitive or challenging situations provide opportunities for the development of resiliency at an accelerated pace. To understand perseverance and resilience in sports is to accept and learn from these more challenging experiences. Our work in the PE and athletic departments centers around exploring how we can build relationships, develop empathy, and create a sense of community so that as students face increasingly challenging situations, they feel equipped to handle them with adaptability.

Practicing perseverance and reflecting on resiliency helps our students understand that striving for a goal inherently gives accomplishment greater value. As a community, this notion is especially important because a resilient mindset can be highly contagious. Resilient students will find more empathy, agency, curiosity, and responsibility in their experiences at Graland and beyond. 

Honor Individuality / Curiosity
By Jen Chen, Grade 8 Science Teacher
During the two days before Thanksgiving break, I scurried throughout the Middle School hallways and in and out of my classroom, supervising eighth-grade science students as they completed the slingshot lab. I spotted captivated fifth, sixth, and seventh graders watching my students burn a circular string with a lighter to release a rubber band and fling various metal blocks across the hallway to demonstrate Newton’s three Laws of Motion. The younger students were taking videos, asking the eighth graders questions, and begging their teachers to let them watch a few more trials.

Simulating a slingshot and using a lighter - how could a middle schooler NOT be excited about this lab? My goal for Grade 8 science is to ignite curiosity and provide time and space for students to explore individual questions as they conduct experiments. Hands-on experiences are essential for students to develop a passion for science and make connections to their everyday lives. 

When I walked back into my classroom near the end of the last class on Friday, I noticed a lab group had propped up their slingshot with materials they found in the room. They wondered whether the distance of the block would change if it were catapulted as a projectile. It continues to energize me every year to witness the unique questions that arise and the “ah-ha” moments achieved as students enthusiastically investigate and discover, each in their own way.

Cultivate Compassion / Empathy
By Tara Lavizzo, Middle School Counselor & Betsy Metcalfe, Health & Wellness Teacher 
“Words have a magical power. They can either bring the greatest happiness or the deepest despair.”–Sigmund Freud

There is a critical need to foster empathy and compassion in students in today’s world. Students need to see each other, listen to one another, and understand another person’s perspective as they journey toward adulthood. Building and enhancing empathy skill work is embedded into the advisory program, service learning programs, the Gates Invention and Innovation program, and Middle School classroom instruction throughout the year. 

Specifically in Grade 7 wellness, using the Learning for Justices’ “Speak Up at School” anti-bias framework, students thoughtfully identified words said by fellow students that might be categorized as a microaggression, stereotype, bias, or simply hurtful. As they leaned into discomfort, led with curiosity, actively listened, reflected on their words, and claimed their own “no joke zone,” students were able to explore the power of words and the tremendous impact they have on individuals.

Filled with raw emotions at times, students clearly articulated the language used by peers that they identified as not just simply bothersome but also insulting and damaging, particularly around individual identifiers. Listening with an open heart and mind gave students the opportunity to connect and understand each other’s feelings. 

Finally, recognizing that being called out for using words that hurt can be uncomfortable and difficult, students reflected on how best to respond: acknowledge, apologize, and make a commitment to doing better next time. By encouraging students to acknowledge their feelings and make a commitment to acting more compassionately, they establish compassion and empathy as cornerstones of their character and help them contribute to a strong community wherever they go.

Instill Integrity / Responsibility
By David Hill, Grade 7 Math Teacher

Our seventh-grade students are learning some amazing lessons in integrity, responsibility, and character as they volunteer with local non-profit, A Little Help. With the assistance of this organization, each Grade 7 advisory is matched with an older adult in the community to visit, learn from, and support. For many of our students, this involves completing chores (raking, cleaning, shoveling), asking questions, and building a bond. 

By forming meaningful relationships with elderly community members, Graland students are given the opportunity to act with integrity and continue to grow into responsible members of their community. This responsibility can take many forms, including staying humble, identifying commonalities across generations, and offering help where it is needed.

Through these efforts, it is our hope that students recognize a sense of responsibility in caring for and honoring important members of our broader society and finding purpose in community engagement and commitment.  

Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1927, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.