Why the Performing Arts Matter

It is an honor to be directing the Brimmer musical once again. It is wonderful to see students stepping out of their comfort zones and singing in front of their peers. The process has reminded me of the importance of the creative arts in our School and in the greater world. Theater and drama help students to grow in several key areas that are essential to their growth and development. At Brimmer, the Creative Arts are a vital part of the student experience, and our classes and productions help students to develop in these key areas.

Fostering Collaboration
The process of putting together a show is a complicated process. Participation in a production requires students to explore complex group dynamics during team building exercises. Every person involved–from the director, to the stage crew, to the cast–are essential to the success of the production. Everyone involved works collectively to ensure a successful outcome.

Building Public Speaking Skills
The importance of being able to communicate effectively is vitally important component of success in the Upper School and beyond. Drama helps to build these skills by providing opportunities for students to articulate their thoughts in front of their peers and adults. I will never forget one fifth grader who struggled with extreme stage fright. Through his time in Middle School drama classes, and with the support of the faculty, he grew immensely, and he ended up as a lead in the fall play his 8th grade year.

Building Empathy and Emotional Intelligence
Exploring dramatic literature builds empathy and compassion for human experiences different from our own. Building these key skills is important in middle school, and I believe it plants the seeds for who we want our students to be as adults. It also supports our mission of developing ethical citizens and leaders and our diverse world.

Sparking Creativity
When students come together to create a play or musical, they are able to expand their horizons and think creatively about how to portray the world of the play. So often, students come to rehearsals with costume and set design ideas, as their experience as an actor opens their minds to think about how to portray the world of the play to the audience.

A Strong Curriculum Across Disciplines

At Brimmer, we believe in educating the whole child and in a strong curriculum across all disciplines: the sciences and engineering, math, humanities, world languages, and the creative arts. Below you will find descriptions of three current units underway in the Middle School classrooms that exemplify that philosophy.

Humanities 8
In English, students began their exploration of China’s Cultural Revolution through the reading of Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang. This memoir tells a young girl’s experience during this turbulent time in China’s history. Students are being tasked with acting as discussion leaders for chapters in order to facilitate conversations around the themes in the novel. Students are examining what it means to defend their positions with textual evidence. Students are also continuing their grammar studies using noredink.com, an adaptive learning platform. In history, students are completing their study of the Russian Revolution by completing a research paper. The topics of these papers ranged from the fall of the royal family to the philosophies of Karl Marx. They will study the Cultural Revolution using the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum in the new quarter.

Science 7
As an introduction to their study of water, 7th graders have been tasked with a scenario: they are stranded on a deserted island in the middle of the ocean and there is no fresh water. All they have at their disposal is a trash bag full of discarded things from bagged lunches. Using the design process, students are collaborating in small groups to devise a way to collect the vapor evaporating from salty or dirty water, have it condense, and then collect the resulting precipitation. Once they devise their plan, groups will be asked to create a prototype. Finally, the teams will present and test their designs.

Art 6
Students are embarking on one of highlights of the year in art class, creating self portraits. The unit begins with a discussion around the physiological science behind why it is challenging to a draw a realistic face. After this exploration, students are able to break down the mental barrier the allows them to draw the accurate shapes and lines of the face instead of the symbols that are engrained in our society like eyes being at the top of the head. Using a photograph of themselves as a reference, students create a contour drawing of their own facial features. Watercolor adds color and personality to the piece, and the final step of using colored pencil adds shadow making the features appear three dimensional. Keep your eyes out for the finished products which will be displayed later this spring.

Facing History and Ourselves

Last year, in consultation with the humanities teachers and Kelly Neely, Co-Chair of the Humanities Department, I made the recommendation that we bring back the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum into the grade 8 humanities curriculum. The teachers agreed, and the curriculum was rolled out this fall. As it turns out, this change could not have been timed better. The curriculum asks students to grapple with ideas surrounding the fragility of democracy, standing up for what is right, and being cautious of stereotyping. Their brief study of their own identities highlighted areas of strength and, at times, areas of insecurity which helped our students to better be able to empathize with people who may be different from themselves or who have different opinions. By noticing ways in which people outside our communities may see us, and by dismantling the stereotypes about parts of ourselves, we begin to gain a greater understanding of encounters with people who are different from us. These are important topics to discuss and students have taken these ideas to heart. We have heard of many parents who have had conversations with their children at home based upon the work we have been doing in class about the Holocaust and making connections with pre-World War II Germany and growing fear, uncertainty and discrimination in our own country. This work in history laid the groundwork for the reading of Night by Elie Wiesel and selections from The Diary of Anne Frank in English. With the divisive election and the rhetoric that was used, this unit of study is all the more relevant. The response from the students and their parents regarding this new addition has been overwhelmingly positive, and it is has quickly become an integral part of the Middle School experience at Brimmer.

Interdisciplinary, Project-Based Learning Is Key

Our middle school faculty are constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve their curriculum to stay on the cutting edge of educational trends. Interdisciplinary, project-based learning is a key component of the curriculum in Brimmer’s Middle School. These projects focus on the problem-solving and collaborative competencies that are essential for creating the leaders of tomorrow. Below, I have highlighted three such projects that ask students to create and problem solve, and that fulfill the plans laid out in Brimmer’s Strategic Priorities for 2013 and Beyond of envisioning and implementing education practices for the future.

Last winter, the 6th grade class participated in an interdisciplinary STEAM unit that focused on bridges. The core of the unit took place in Dr. Gallon’s science class with the study of the structural strength of different shapes and the physical forces of compression and tension. Students used these concepts to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the five main types of bridges, as well as how these shapes contribute to each design. In collaboration with Mr. Purcell’s English class, students selected a famous bridge and wrote a research paper on their selected bridge. The paper focused on the structural features of the bridge as well as its cultural and environmental contexts. Students then used what they learned about the structural strength of different shapes and bridge designs to develop a blueprint and cost estimate for a bridge made of hot glue and pasta. They built and tested each bridge to see how much weight it could hold as a ratio to its actual cost. As a culminating activity, students were faced with a final design challenge that asked them to synthesize what they had learned. In collaboration between science and Mrs. Lee’s art class, students confronted a hypothetical situation where the famous bridge that they researched had collapsed, and they were hired to design its replacement. Their new design had to be strong but also incorporate elements of design that speak to the local cultural and ecological context. This final project allowed students to use a wide range of materials to explore the limits of possible designs for bridges of the future.

Thanks to a generous donation at the Auction last April, the Science Department had the opportunity to outfit its lab with a classroom set of Lego Mindstorms EV3 robotics. Students in Science 7, working with Ms. Shannon and Mr. Bock, were grouped into teams and spent much of fourth quarter last year working with these kits. This tool teaches the principles of design, engineering, coding, and programming. After learning the basics of crafting and programming simple functional robots, the teams each selected a problem to solve. Problems ranged from picking up and moving objects to being capable of autonomously navigating trails. Students were then asked to present their final products in front of their peers and to respond to questions about the design process.

In connection with the NAIS 20/20 Challenge, eighth graders participated in an interdisciplinary study of income inequality and poverty in Algebra, English 8, and Art 8. First, in Algebra, students conducted a scatter point project that explored income levels based on education. Those incomes were then used to create budgets. Students were given scenarios of families living at several income levels and were tasked to budget their families’ monthly expenses. They then presented their findings to each other and shared what they had learned about income inequality. In order to create a community awareness campaign to help our School understand the impact of poverty on the Greater Boston area, students created poverty and income inequality awareness posters in art class, where they applied the research to a graphic design project. Students worked in pairs to learn graphic design and basic manipulations in Adobe Photoshop. Together students then designed awareness posters addressing correlations they had discovered about poverty in their math and English classes. These posters were displayed during the All- School Celebration of the Arts in May.

These projects not only teach developmentally appropriate content, but also emphasize the 21st-century skills that are essential in today’s ever-changing landscapes. I am confident we are preparing ethical, global citizens who are ready to take on the unknown challenges of the future.

Character Education: An Integral Part of the Brimmer Middle School

At Brimmer, we believe in educating the whole child. In addition to our core academic curriculum, character education is a top priority. Below you will find a short synopsis of what each grade level has been working on in their Life Skills classes.

Students in grade 6 have been concentrating on skills to serve them in their adjustment to the Middle School, with a focus on interpersonal relationships, identity, and digital literacy. At the beginning of each class, two students present a current event article that they find relevant to their classmates and the Brimmer community. Following this, they have a “climate and culture chat” to discuss relevant topics in the sixth grade class. Over the last few weeks, Mrs. Dolan has been working with the students on developing digital literacy skills so that students have an understanding of their online footprint as they learn to use internet resources responsibly. Students will be resuming the Second Step curriculum after the Thanksgiving break.

7th grade students, using the Second Step curriculum, have explored empathy and communication in relationships. Through discussion, videos, and role playing students explored how to problem solve with groups in respectful ways and how to look at a situation from someone else’s point of view. Next, students will explore how to navigate friendships and promote positive peer relationships using the Stories of Us curriculum.

Students in grade 8 began the year by developing class norms based on our core values, explored what it means to be the leaders of the middle school, and discussed decision making paradigms. Students were also introduced to two key capstone projects in our Middle School: Inspirations and the Community Service project. Last week Mrs. Dolan, MS/US Librarian, began leading us through a four-week unit on digital citizenship. Topics will include looking at one’s digital footprint, cyberbullying, and internet safety. After the winter break, students will begin using the Second Step curriculum to examine coping with stress, goal setting, and transitioning to Upper School.

In October, we held the first “Mix it Up” lunch in the Middle School. A national campaign started by Teaching Tolerance in 2002, this program encourages student to step out of their comfort zones, break the social bubble, and build new relationships with peers. Students are put into groups in a variety of ways, and asked to eat lunch with that group. For our first “Mix it Up” lunch, students pulled numbers from a hat and sat at the corresponding table. It was wonderful to see students eating and talking with peers across grade-levels and forming new bonds. We will continue these lunches on Fridays throughout the fall and winter, and we will develop new ways to make the groups. We will also provide activities and discussion topics to help facilitate conversations.

The Life Skills curriculum, along with initiatives like “Mix It Up” lunches, are central to the Brimmer Middle School experience.