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Friday
Dec162016

The Wonder Years: Creating a Middle School Launching Pad

Image © Gensler.

In the 1980’s, the television series, “The Wonder Years” chronicled the trials and tribulations of adolescence through the eyes of Kevin Arnold, who narrated his own story through his now adult eyes. While perhaps fictionalized for a television audience, the show highlighted the physical, social and emotional development of middle school children aged 12-14, which, by many accounts, appear to happen faster than during any other pre-college period.

There appears to be a new focus on this age group, as evidenced by the fact that many progressive schools are pondering what grades actually constitute “middle school.” Traditionally incorporating grades 6, 7 and 8, some middle schools are looking to add grade 5, enabling them to create “clusters” of grades 5-6 and 7-8. These clusters will create small communities where older students mentor younger students, easing their transitions over the years. Other middle schools are working with high schools to move grade 8 up into high school and leaving a grade 6-7 cluster.

When we set out to design a new middle school for the Dwight-Englewood School, an independent school in Englewood, New Jersey, we wanted to get a deeper understanding of the school’s particular philosophy on teaching this age group. We held a day-long workshop with 30 faculty members and school administration, resulting in a collectively developed set of profiles and strategies that will inform design and serve as a guidepost for other schools as they consider what “middle school” means to them.

As a way of summarizing our findings, we created 10 “rules of the road” that we are continually referring to as a check on our design:

  1. The range of growth between 6th and 8th grade is vast, but they’re all still just children.
  2. Our children are transforming every day, so our school should too.
  3. Retaining the benefits of grade-affiliation is crucial in the move toward project—and discipline-based work.
  4. Middle school is the “starting point,” when you begin to become who you will be (as an adult).
  5. Let’s leverage technology to provide two-way conversation, and have a ‘push-out’ / ‘pull-in’ dynamic.
  6. We still need places for quiet and spaces for personal, sometimes sensitive conversations.
  7. Aim to create a facility that encourages parents to “let go.”
  8. Access to nature is a “need to have,” not a “nice to have.”
  9. A happy faculty means happy students.
  10. And, make it MAGIC.

Image © Dwight-Englewood School.

Now here’s a deep-dive into what we discovered for each of the stakeholder groups:

6th Grade

Profile

We found that 6th graders need their own lane before they fully merge into the greater middle school community. This is their first taste of independence—their world just expanded! Although they experience massive change in maturity level from September to June, they still need space to play, both outdoors and in. This is a time to celebrate their imaginations because they are not yet self-conscious about risk-taking. Additionally, 6th graders still need help with organization, study skills and daily prep.

Design Strategies

We believe there should be a 6th grade-centric space that can close and open to the larger school. The design of the space will highlight creativity, provide ample areas to pin up/showcase work, minimize distractions, offer direct connection to the outdoors and create a space for play (maybe designed by kids). Overall, the 6th grade space will be a cozy, home-like atmosphere with bright colors.

7th Grade

Profile

Seventh graders are beginning to build awareness of the outside world and a desire to make a difference. Social life takes on a new importance, and they are ready to expand their world. With that said, they are still easily distracted, as well as awkward and insecure; they feel “stuck in the middle.” Seventh graders tend to have a strong connection to teachers, and while they are ready to make more of their own choices, creativity now feels risky. They are just beginning to attack “maker” activities.

Design Strategies

To cater to the needs of a 7th grader, the middle school environment needs hangout spaces, as well as distributed spaces for quiet group work/focus work. It’s critical to have visual and physical access to shared areas with 8th graders to provide exposure to mentorship. In terms of play, 7th graders need a connection to outdoors, age-appropriate play opportunities and access to “maker” space. The classroom should provide choice and flexibility with furniture, such as fidget chairs, that students can move on their own.

8th Grade

Profile

Eighth graders tend to be curious and intellectual, but not yet jaded. They are learning to think critically for the first time and handle ambiguity. They are ready to take on leadership roles and are increasingly interested in the “real world” and their place in it. As pre-teens who feel torn between childhood and adulthood, the social life of an 8th grader has started to expand beyond the school.

Design Strategies

Flexible classrooms will allow 8th grade students to toggle between learning modes, a learning style that hints at upper school culture. This age group needs central flex space for showcasing, broadcasting, making and talking about work, as well as places to sit and reflect.

Image © Dwight-Englewood School.

Faculty

Profile

Middle school faculty are intensely dedicated to their students. Teachers are challenged to find private space to have sensitive conversations with students, parents, and colleagues, and they get stressed when limitations of space get in the way of delivering active education. They are always looking for moments of calm and focus.

Design Strategies

Middle school faculty need one-on-one meeting spaces, private phone space, “behind the scenes” teacher areas, tutoring/teaching bars, teacher-only bathrooms, access to beauty and nature to reduce stress, and places to sit and reflect.

Parents

Profile

Middle school parents are learning to let go. They don’t yet know how to handle their kids’ growing independence, so they need reassurance and communication from the school. They need to feel wowed and inspired by DE facilities, tech presence and student work. Additionally, children are embarrassed by parents’ presence on campus, and helicopter parents can be a distraction to both students and teachers.

Design Strategies

To fulfill the needs of both parents and students, the middle school should have a large lobby space with transparency to student work, but limited access to classrooms. The lobby will serve as an exhibit space for student projects and could feature a tech space as public face of school. The building should look fun, cool and tech-forward with two-way broadcasting.

What’s Next

We are currently in the process of interpreting and integrating these strategies into the design of the new middle school. Under the guidance of Dr. Rodney De Jarnett, Dwight-Englewood’s Head of School, we will be looking to create an environment where, in Dr. De Jarnett’s words, “our children, faculty, and parents will walk in and immediately feel something special.” Stay tuned for a design update in the coming months.

Mark Thaler is one of Gensler’s Education Practice Area leaders in the New York office, develops education projects at all scales, from classroom to campus. Mark has a passion for creating learning spaces that inspire, and collaborates with his clients to create these environments. Interested in Gensler’s education research? Send Mark a note at mark_thaler@gensler.com.