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Middle School: Grades 6–8
Welcome to Rowland Hall's independent private middle school. Our teachers recognize the years of growth and discovery that happen here. It's a unique transitional period from the creativity and imagination of childhood to the abstract thinking and global perspectives of young adulthood.
We provide an educational program that holistically supports early adolescent students in achieving academic success and positive personal growth. Rowland Hall's dedicated faculty create a supportive, caring environment that motivates and challenges students. The teachers are as knowledgeable in their subject matter as they are in understanding students’ unique needs, whether cognitive, emotional, or physical.
Our curriculum is relevant, challenging, and exploratory. Teachers use a variety of instructional and assessment methods grounded in research and best practices. We empower our students to be well-rounded, inspired, and compassionate individuals.
In mathematics, students learn the definition of an equation: a statement that shows the values of two mathematical expressions are equal (for example, x – 5 = 10).
But math teachers, including Garrett Stern, who teaches in the Middle School, want students to understand that an equation isn’t just numbers and letters on a page. “An equation,” said Garrett, “relates to an image on the graph.”
For many of our math students, this piece of algebra art represents their pinnacle achievement in middle school math.—Garrett Stern, math teacher
These images can take a variety of forms—such as lines, parabolas, and circles—which, when placed together on a graph, can do something exciting: they can create art.
To help illustrate the visual beauty in mathematical equations, Garrett has for the past six years assigned his students the task of creating their own algebra art using the Desmos graphing calculator, a free resource used by educators around the world. Every year, he’s found that Rowland Hall students are able to produce inventive, and often very impressive, works of art.
“For many of our math students, this piece of algebra art represents their pinnacle achievement in middle school math,” said Garrett.
At an April 15 student assembly, Garrett highlighted algebra art as well as recognized the accomplishments of this year’s crop of artists. He was joined by three students, Rebecca M., Jojo P., and Erika P., who created some of the most outstanding pieces in this year’s unit. Below, these students share their algebra art experiences with the Rowland Hall community.
“Star Destroyer” by Rebecca M.
Rebecca’s drawing of a Star Destroyer is one of this year’s most complicated pieces. In fact, the Star Wars fan’s subject was so detailed that Garrett said he initially attempted to talk her out of it.
“I tried to dissuade Rebecca from trying her idea,” he remembered, “but she rejected my advice.”
Rebecca—who was inspired to tackle the Star Destroyer after viewing an algebra art drawing of an AT-AT, or All-Terrain Armored Transport, that now-junior Dillon Fang created when he took Garrett’s class—admitted that, although she was able to complete her chosen subject in the end, the process of creating the Star Destroyer was very challenging.
“I was quite confident going into this project, but my confidence began to dwindle after doing some equations,” she said. Rebecca especially remembers the difficulty of creating the ship’s bridge. “It has many small pieces that you don’t think about until you have to trace it with algebra equations.”
Rebecca said the time-consuming three to four weeks it took to complete her project required a lot of patience and resilience—but that it was worth it because it taught her she can do difficult things.
“I am super proud of it. I would gladly do it again,” said Rebecca. “I managed to push through and made a really cool design.”
“Simplicity” by Jojo P.
Jojo loves line drawings, especially of people, and discovered that she could successfully recreate the curves of a traditional ink-and-paper line drawing in the online Desmos format—an accomplishment that caught her math teacher’s attention.
“What impresses me most about Jojo's piece is the stylish curvature,” Garrett said.
But creating her project wasn’t easy. Jojo remembers feeling far behind her classmates in the early days of the assignment.
“I didn't really know how to make the equations,” she said. “In the beginning, all I had was about five lines, when everybody else had way more done. I was scared I would be behind.” Instead of panicking, however, she persisted, figuring out the equations she needed and building on her skills as she moved from long lines and wide curves to nail and flower details, which she said were definitely the hardest part of the drawing.
“When it was finished, I felt proud,” Jojo remembered. “I felt awestruck because I didn't think I could do anything like this.” It’s clear that the experience built her confidence in a way that will continue to benefit her.
“The project was challenging, but it showed me, as a mathematician, what I actually was capable of,” Jojo said.
"Ornate Owl" by Erika P.
Garrett chose to highlight Erika's piece at the assembly because she managed to include texture—although she said that hadn’t been her original plan.
“I wanted to create an owl because owls are my favorite animal, but I hadn’t planned on making it so detailed,” Erika explained.
After experimenting with equations for the owl’s body, beak, talons, and eyes, Erika said she felt like she needed to add more to her drawing and started on what turned out to be its most complicated component: feathers.
“I had to try out multiple numbers in order to get the feathers—which were created out of parabolas—to be thin and long enough to look good if I consistently spread them throughout the wings,” she said. The feathers alone took Erika over two hours to complete, and are just one example of the experimentation she had to do to create a piece that she was proud to turn in.
“The hardest part was getting shapes and lines to line up and intersect, as well as experimenting with equations to get shapes that looked at least somewhat realistic,” she remembered. “I just had to jump into it.”
Now, Erika said, she can’t imagine her drawing without those detailed additions, and she’s proud she challenged herself.
“I was glad I decided to add detail because I was thinking about submitting the work before then, but it just didn’t feel like a finished piece,” she said. “After finishing, I felt quite accomplished!"
Altogether, this year’s eighth-grade class created 75 pieces of algebra art. Below are some examples of their work (click each square to see the artwork larger on Desmos).
“Our students deservedly feel proud of their achievements,” said Garrett. “They ambitiously attempted challenging images, embraced sophisticated equations, attended to detail, and, above all, persevered.”
March 11, 2021, marked one year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, and many people around the globe used the occasion to reflect on how their lives had changed over the previous 12 months.
In Rowland Hall’s Middle School, eighth-grade English teacher Chelsea Vasquez viewed the anniversary as an opportunity to help students process their COVID-19 experiences within the context of other cultural and historical factors featured in the choice novels they’re currently reading in their coming-of-age English unit.
Reading enables us to make sense of our own lived experiences.—Chelsea Vasquez, eighth-grade English teacher
“One of the ideas I'm trying to convey is the universality of themes—the fact that the things characters experience in books happen in the real world,” said Chelsea. This universality of themes extends to non-fiction texts, too, and Chelsea pointed out that guiding students toward making text-to-self and text-to-world connections within a variety of reading materials can be a valuable way to help them understand events happening to and around them.
“Reading enables us to make sense of our own lived experiences,” she explained.
As a way to practice this skill, Chelsea had students read “Coming of Age: Teens on a Year That Changed Everything,” a New York Timesarticle published the week of the pandemic anniversary that showcased teens’ reflections on life during COVID-19. “They could see examples of things other students, some their age, had created, and then consider how these artifacts mirrored or differed from their own experiences,” Chelsea said.
After they read the article, the eighth graders reflected on a list of questions generated by The New York Times’ learning network and wrote responses. Those responses—insightful, thoughtful, and poignant—offer a valuable and touching glimpse into the pandemic experiences of some of our Rowland Hall students. With their permission, we have shared a sampling of excerpts from those reflections below. (Text has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Reflections on What the Collection Says about Coming of Age during a Pandemic
"This collection shows that everyone struggled during quarantine. It got worse before it got better. It also showed that everyone had different ways of coping. Contributor Sunnina Chen talked about how she felt like she was suffocating, but realized she was the one pulling the ‘Saran Wrap’ tighter over her head. I relate to this because, as quarantine went on, I felt like every decision I made made it harder for me to be happy and stay motivated. I, like Sunnina, realized that I was causing my own sadness and decided to let go of everything that wasn’t making me happy. With that, things started looking up again. It got better after it got worse." —Kavitha K.
"Because we are coming of age during difficult times, we have learned to be more resilient and resourceful. We have been separated from many of those who make us happy, and that has taught us to find happiness around us and within us. I can 100% relate to feeling isolated and lonely, which has shaped me to be a (hopefully) more gracious and kind person.” —Rebecca M.
Reflections on the Themes, Words, Images, and Ideas That Spoke to Them
"The idea that seems to cover almost every entry was loneliness. The type of loneliness felt in the pandemic was not ordinary. It required learning how to not be lonely when you don’t have social interaction. Learning how to be friends with yourself. From my perspective, when you can do that, you are never lonely, even in a pandemic. I think being friends with yourself is coming-of-age at its finest (and I think this applies to every generation, as we are constantly evolving humans).” —Adara S.
"Two themes especially stood out to me. The first was participating in change. Whether it was fighting for racial justice or LGBTQ+ rights, many submissions showed teenagers working to change their communities for the better. The second was hardship and isolation. Many pieces illustrated self-doubt, depression, anxiety, and pure boredom. While it is true that people of all ages experienced these feelings, I think it hit teenagers especially hard. Social interaction, movement, and change are things that many teenagers cherish and—to some extent—need. The pandemic has deprived many teenagers of these things.” —Aiden G.
Reflections on What’s Missing from the Collection
"The collection didn't address sibling bonding during COVID. I got to play with my brother more than I've done since we were toddlers. Though this started with simply having nothing else to do, I soon realized it's nice to talk to a sibling. A lot of brothers and sisters did. This collection also missed how grandparents suddenly became so important. I didn't see my paternal grandma until around summertime, as she lives in a memory care center and those were locked down." —Sophia L.
"I feel that the collection seems to miss how masks affected us socially. Personally, I had such a difficult time with masks—facial expressions are the key to my socialization. I had to adjust with only reading the upper half of people’s faces, and it is much harder to understand body language when you're six feet apart and banned from the language of touch." —Dylan B.
"What’s missing from this collection—or at least not strongly highlighted—are the benefits of the powerful emotions felt throughout the pandemic. These emotions were what allowed us to create some of our strongest pieces of art, poetry, or whatever we enjoy doing with a deeper sense of passion—a passion that one will still be able to feel after looking at the piece years and years later. This can help others understand and connect with you in a way that would have never been expressed through just having a conversation." —Erika P.
Once upon a time in a middle school, an entire class was lost in the pages of other worlds…
In the front row, one student hunched over a glossy magazine, while another sat immersed in the thrills of a YA, or young adult, novel. Another, eyes closed and headphones in, listened to a rich voice narrate an audiobook bestseller. There were few sounds in the room: whispers of pages turning, the hum of a fan, the shuffle of getting comfortable in a chair. At that moment, thanks to the magic of reading, the students were both present and not—while in their chairs on the Lincoln Street Campus, they were also, somehow, far away, exploring new places, trying on new identities: Detective. Basketball star. Dragon tamer. Field biologist.
“Reading is often described as the keys to the kingdom of learning,” seventh-grade English teacher Jill Gerber recently wrote in an article for Middle School families. “Once someone falls in love with reading, they can go anywhere and be anyone.”
The benefits of reading are well-known. Independent readers are more successful across the academic spectrum—in arts and humanities as well as sciences and mathematics—and enjoy higher levels of empathy, reduced stress, and mental stimulation through their lives. But helping students discover a love of reading, and an internal drive toward it, isn’t always easy, especially once students enter middle school, a phase of life in which many stop reading for pleasure.
Choice empowers middle schoolers: it allows for autonomy, builds engagement, and develops students' interests and skills. When teachers give students choice, they allow a variety of perspectives, interests, and increased enthusiasm into the classroom.—Pam Smith, Middle School principal
Knowing this, Rowland Hall’s Middle School English teachers have long focused on methods that help students rediscover the joy of reading, with one rising to the top: giving them more choice in what they read for school. With choice, teachers introduce students to a wide variety of genres, perspectives, and topics, and then let them pick what they want to read. Supported by research by teachers like Nancie Atwell and Penny Kittle, choice has become a popular approach because it works: by offering students a variety of texts, they’re more likely to find something they like, encouraging them to continue to seek out books that meet their interests.
“It’s so simple to give choice, and the benefits are so profound,” said sixth-grade English teacher Mary Lawlor. In fact, the benefits of choice are so powerful at this developmental stage that the approach is utilized across the Middle School, from student-led project collaboration in social studies to self-pacing opportunities in math and world languages classes.
“Choice empowers middle schoolers: it allows for autonomy, builds engagement, and develops students' interests and skills,” explained Middle School Principal Pam Smith. “When teachers give students choice, they allow a variety of perspectives, interests, and increased enthusiasm into the classroom.”
Chapter 1: A Seat at the Table
Student choice takes different forms within an English class, from the almost limitless options available for independent reading to the extension texts teachers pair with the all-class novels that headline their learning units. Whatever the form, choice provides teachers a way to support students wherever they are as readers.
“Kids are on a journey; they're not all at the same place,” said Jill. This means that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to reading—while some students are ready for advanced texts early in the year, others are challenged by the first all-class novel.
“Choice allows me to target toward reading levels, giving me a lot more flexibility in terms of reaching readers and getting them engaged,” said eighth-grade English teacher Chelsea Vasquez.
For instance, if a student is struggling with an all-class novel, the teacher can balance that challenge with an easier independent read, ensuring that at any given moment the student has access to a book they actually want to read and helping to avoid the frustration or resentment toward reading that can build when a student doesn’t feel connected to the all-class text.
“Having more choice allows kids to really get into a book and enjoy it,” Chelsea explained. “They get excited, and it builds excitement across the class.”
Choice also helps build students’ confidence when it comes to analyzing literature, an important aspect of the English classroom. For instance, graphic literature—including comic books and graphic novels—has become more common in English classes because of its ability to help students better understand literary terms like theme, symbolism, mood, and imagery.
By meeting students where they are using books that are targeted to each person’s reading level, teachers are helping them feel seen and appreciated on their educational journeys. This is important, because when children feel valued, they’re more likely to believe in their own capabilities and engage on a deeper level.
“For a lot of kids, it's easier to identify symbols and mood when it's a graphic image, before they jump to prose,” explained Jill, an authority on graphic literature (she’s been invited to share her expertise at places like the 2020 Comic-Con Books for All panel and co-authored an article about graphic literature in the classroom). “That switch from the concrete to the abstract, that's kind of the nature of middle schoolers—they're starting to be able to get those abstract concepts.”
Benefits like these add up in a powerful way: by meeting students where they are using books that are targeted to each person’s reading level, teachers are helping them feel seen and appreciated on their educational journeys. This is important, because when children feel valued, they’re more likely to believe in their own capabilities and engage on a deeper level.
“Everybody has a right to a seat at the table, and that's important—we're a community of learners,” said Jill. “I want my kids to see themselves as readers, writers, and thinkers, no matter their skill level.”
Chapter 2: Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors
In addition to giving middle schoolers a seat at the table, choice also helps them understand the importance of making room at that table for a variety of human experiences and perspectives. Through choice, teachers can introduce students to a wider range of books and voices, demonstrating to them the value in lived experiences that differ from their own, and helping to build their empathy and understanding of a diverse world.
“We really try intentionally in the Middle School to make sure we are incorporating all kinds of identities, and that includes both authors and characters,” said Chelsea.
Research shows that all students benefit from diverse stories, including both books in which they see themselves and books in which they don’t. Rowland Hall teachers utilize the concept known as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors when determining which texts to teach, focusing on books in which students can find reflections of themselves (mirrors), examine others’ worlds (windows), and step into new worlds (sliding glass doors). This approach has been especially important as students have been learning about racial justice movements and starting to explore how they can help create a more equitable world. Teachers play an essential role in guiding students through this process, and can use texts to help them make sense of current events and learn from the experiences of others.
“I can change my curriculum based on the culture of the time,” said Mary, who this year introduced sixth graders to a new graphic novel unit, Other Voices, that featured Jerry Craft’s New Kid, a contemporary story about a young Black student starting a new school, along with John Lewis’ civil rights trilogy March and George Takei’s World War II internment novel They Called Us Enemy. She, along with her fellow English teachers, said they appreciate the flexibility of working in an independent school, which allows them to more easily adjust reading options to meet students’ needs and to help them explore the top issues of the day. “I have the resources to get those novels to them, and parents really want that to happen,” Mary said.
Choice also helps students make connections across subjects. For instance, this fall eighth graders read the all-class novel All American Boys—which examines the aftermath of an act of extreme police brutality through the eyes of a young Black man and a young White man—while studying slavery and abolitionism in their American studies class, allowing them to examine the history of slavery in America alongside modern-day racism and racial justice movements. To help students further explore and process racial justice activism as they read the novel, Chelsea presented them with a variety of nonfiction texts featuring activism in poetry, sports, and arts and music.
“I wanted them to see that there are movements outside of this novel,” she explained.
This experience not only grew students’ reading skills and knowledge of these areas, but also helped them feel more confident about engaging in some of today’s most important conversations.
“The kids really became able to talk about race and racism in a way that I hadn't seen before in middle schoolers,” Chelsea said.
Chapter 3: Readers, Writers, and Producers
Helping students learn how to have, as well as to lead, constructive conversations is essential in preparing them to live lives of purpose in an increasingly interconnected world.
“We're a global society,” said Jill. “We have to be able to communicate to a wide audience.”
Choice prepares students for this by getting them comfortable with thinking deeply, examining ideas, and seeking out information—habits that are built through reading. In the safety of class, students learn there truly is something for everyone, and they can experiment to find what works for them: physical or digital publications, novels or magazines, graphic novels or comic books. They can even listen to audio books, which build reading comprehension skills in the brain in the same way print books do, and are especially beneficial for students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities (at Rowland Hall, these students have access to Learning Ally, an audio book resource, thanks to a generous grant from a family in the community).
“Students are moving through so many texts and making reading a daily practice, which is one of the best ways to grow as a reader,” said Chelsea.
And it’s not only students’ reading skills that are improving. The more language that kids are exposed to via books, the teachers said, the better writers they become.
“Good readers are good writers,” said Jill. “I'm starting to see the nuance of language emerge, and it's all organic: they're looking at the way writers write, and how they connect to it, and what it makes them feel.”
Books are human experiences, human stories. Humans connect through books, and you can really see kids grow through books.—Jill Gerber, seventh-grade English teacher
In other words, students are beginning to connect the stories they read to what it means to be human.
“Books are human experiences, human stories,” said Jill. “Humans connect through books, and you can really see kids grow through books.” She pointed out that stories are the building blocks of our collective history—before we could write, we told stories around fires and painted the first comics on cave walls—which is why students who explore them are more likely to connect, and better communicate, with others, a skill that can serve any path they choose to take. After all, Jill pointed out, the best doctors are the ones who know how to connect with people. “To be a really good doctor you have to understand the human experience,” she said.
This connection to the human experience also might just spark the inspiration students need to become tomorrow’s producers: writers of the articles, the graphic novels, and the bestsellers that continue this long tradition of storytelling, that help connect us through our shared humanity, and that, perhaps, inspire the next generation of readers.
Enrolling in a new school can be scary. Enrolling in a new school during a pandemic can kick those nerves up a notch. For new Rowland Hall sixth grader Sofia Drakou, one smiling staffer not only assuaged her fears, but left her feeling like she was flying—a familiar sensation for this young ballerina.
Before an August Zoom meeting with Rowland Hall Associate Director of Admission Lisa Brown Miranda, Sofia didn’t know what to expect from her new school. But as the two discussed everything from classes to teachers to balancing extracurriculars (Sofia has an increasingly demanding schedule with Ballet West Academy), Lisa put the rising sixth grader at ease: “As soon as she started talking to me, she won my heart with her enthusiasm and genuine interest in my feelings, expectations, and worries,” Sofia said of Lisa.
“Lisa encouraged me and showed me that in her, I had found a reliable, empathetic, and kind person, and a valuable advisor to reach out if I needed to. This was, and still is, very important to me, and I will always be thankful for her presence in my life,” Sofia explained. “After our meeting, I felt like I was flying, and I couldn’t wait to come to Rowland Hall because she made me feel like I was welcomed before I even started school!”
I wanted to make sure that the books included inspiring people of color who mirror Ms. Miranda’s empowering personality and the diversity of our amazing school community.—Sixth grader Sofia Drakou
That pivotal meeting left Sofia eager to reciprocate Lisa’s kindness. To express her gratitude, the sixth grader and her brother—eleventh grader George—picked, purchased, and donated 10 children’s books related to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) to the McCarthey Campus library in honor of Lisa, who is Black and has been a champion of JEDI values at the school since her 2014 hiring. Indeed, Lisa is a dedicated member of the faculty/staff JEDI Committee and she and daughter Gabriella, a freshman, participated as panelists during that committee’s November 17 Amplifying Black Voices virtual evening of dialogue. Lisa also currently serves on the search committee for the school’s newly endowed director of equity and inclusion position. Beyond her JEDI-related services to the school, Lisa is simply a warm, caring ambassador for Rowland Hall. As she jets around the Lincoln Street Campus, she’s often seen greeting people by name and building them up in passing encounters, offering her colleagues effusive thanks for collaborating on past projects or, for students, asking how a test or weekend athletics competition went and praising their evolving talents and efforts.
“I wanted to make sure that the books included inspiring people of color who mirror Ms. Miranda’s empowering personality and the diversity of our amazing school community,” Sofia explained, “so young students at Rowland Hall can read about people and characters they can connect with, and be inspired by them.” The sixth grader hopes the books—which she and her brother donated on February 9—raise awareness of JEDI values at Rowland Hall, and help the school and its young students celebrate Black History Month.
My heart is bursting. Your gift will allow so many of our youngest learners to see themselves joyfully represented and will elicit pride in themselves and their families.—Associate Director of Admission Lisa Brown Miranda
Lisa said the donation left her overcome with joy. “I am proud of you always, always, but today my heart is bursting,” Lisa wrote to Sofia and George. “Your gift will allow so many of our youngest learners to see themselves joyfully represented and will elicit pride in themselves and their families. Other students will have the opportunity to learn about what makes their classmates special and beautiful in their own way. What a glorious gift!”
As for Rowland Hall newbie Sofia, she’s off to a fantastic start and is even following in Lisa’s footsteps: she'll join six of her Middle School classmates to serve on Rowland Hall’s delegation at the Northwest Association of Independent Schools virtual Student Diversity Leadership Retreat March 1–2.
Rowland Hall thanks Sofia, George, and their parents for these wonderful additions to the McCarthey Campus library:
Equality's Call: The Story of Voting Rights in America, by author Deborah Diesen and illustrator Magdalena Mora
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story, by author Kevin Noble Maillard and illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal
Last Stop on Market Street, by author Matt de la Peña and illustrator Christian Robinson
My Little Golden Book About Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by author Shana Corey and illustrator Margeaux Lucas
The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read, by author Rita Lorraine Hubbard and illustrator Oge Mora
The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne, by author Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrator John Parra
Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World, by author Susan Hood and illustrators Sophie Blackall, Emily Winfield Martin, Shadra Strickland, Melissa Sweet, LeUyen Pham, Oge Mora, Julie Morstad, Lisa Brown, Selina Alko, Hadley Hooper, Isabel Roxas, Erin Robinson, and Sara Palacios
Sometimes People March, by author and illustrator Tessa Allen
Thank You, Omu, by author and illustrator Oge Mora
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, by author Traci Sorell and illustrator Frane Lessac