Meeting the Developmental Needs of Middle School Students
Eighth Grade is a time of great change and transformation. The students begin to leave their childhood behind as they enter their teenage years. The Eighth Grade is both a time of looking back at and learning from their experiences in the earlier grades, as well as looking forwards towards their transition into their new life in high school. They have reached a crossroads, entering their final year with their class and in some cases with their teacher (in Waldorf Education a class will typically have the same teacher for multiple grades, sometimes even from Grades 1 – 8).
During this period of transition, Eighth Grade students also begin to navigate the challenges of puberty. They begin to notice dramatic changes to their physical bodies and a new intensity of emotions. At the same time, an inner quest begins to discover who they are and who they might become, and they long find a real and meaningful connection to the wider world. Cultures all over the world since ancient times have recognized this moment in time, often in rites of passage, where the young person seeks to prove their own inner and outer strength and their usefulness to the community. In our society, we have milestones such as Eighth Grade graduation, but no real rite of passage. In our increasingly complex world, faced with a society struggling to find community, our young people need this more than ever, and even more so in our post-pandemic society.
Pioneering an Expedition Curriculum for Modern Adolescent Learning
With all of this in mind, we pioneered a weekly expedition curriculum for the Eighth Grade starting in the 2017-2018 school year. While a middle school expeditionary curriculum is not set in stone, here at Urban Prairie we have certainly laid the foundations. In fact, the program has been so successful that many class teachers for younger grades and subject teachers for all grades have also taken up this impulse in the past several years, providing increased day trips and excursions. Given how well the expeditions worked before the pandemic, we sought to return this to the Eighth Grade curriculum from the 2021-2022 school year onwards.
The expeditions were designed to get the students away from their desks and into the world, and to create opportunities to meet with the rich diversity in their immediate surroundings, and further afield. Students are encouraged to develop critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence, and their developing physical bodies are given the chance to be tested as they discover that they have more to give physically and mentally than in the lower grades. Their hearts also have more opportunities to serve and be useful and connect to this place that they live in. This means they aren’t just learning from their teachers in the classroom, rather the whole world becomes their teacher. They develop naturally enquiring minds, and the skills to begin to seek answers to their questions. New research from Brown University and the University of Arkansas also supports the academic benefits of field trips, finding that students who went on field excursions were more engaged, performed better academically, and were less likely to miss school or have behavior issues.
Meeting the World, Preparing for the Future
It is important for our Urban Prairie Eighth Graders to study modern American and local history in order to have a sense of relevance to where they live and go to school, including gaining an understanding of issues of immigration, diversity, segregation and civil rights. . In studying modern history, our students learn to grapple with the reality that in the not too distant past, segregation and discrimination would have impacted their lives and the lives of their peers and their friends. That is why the chosen theme for our 2022/2023 Eighth Grade class’s expeditions was the Chicago Reformers. The students studied the biographies of key historical figures including Martin Luther King and Harold Washington and learned about the Chicago Reform Movement of July 10th 1966, and how this affects their lives today. Discussions included the significance of Chicago’s first black mayor and the issues that led to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Through the topic of the Chicago Reform Movement, our Eighth Grade students are shown the possibility for transformation, and that humanity is in a continuing state of evolution, politically, culturally, and in terms of ideas and beliefs. They learn to understand different perspectives and gain valuable skills such as project creation, analysis of written historical accounts, and making informed judgments using critical thinking skills which help them to prepare for their transition to high school. By taking their learning outside the walls of the classroom, they begin to understand that learning isn’t something that is confined to school grounds or the school year, but instead is a joy-filled lifelong pursuit of knowledge in and about the world.