Custom Class: post-landing-hero

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.

Middle School students reading in class.

Seventh graders reading Show Me a Sign, the grade's first all-class novel of this year.

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.

Two eighth graders discuss All American Boys in class.

Eighth graders chatting about All American Boys during class.

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.”

Middle School students writing in English class.

Studying how writers use language helps students sharpen their own writing skills.

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.

Academics

With Choice, Middle School English Teachers are Engaging Students and Inspiring Lifelong Learners

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.

Middle School students reading in class.

Seventh graders reading Show Me a Sign, the grade's first all-class novel of this year.

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.

Two eighth graders discuss All American Boys in class.

Eighth graders chatting about All American Boys during class.

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.”

Middle School students writing in English class.

Studying how writers use language helps students sharpen their own writing skills.

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.

Academics

Explore More Academics Stories

First grade teacher Lizbeth Sorenson chats with a student during writing workshop.

Upon entering first grade, students are just beginning their reading and writing journeys, with varying levels of literacy experience. By the end of the school year, thanks to the guidance of a dedicated team of teachers, these first graders have become confident, age-appropriate readers and writers.

Rowland Hall’s first-grade team—April Nielsen, Galen McCallum, Susanna Mellor, and Lizbeth Sorensen—puts their hearts and souls, and more than 70 combined years of experience, into the art of teaching first graders how to read and write. These teachers are the backbone of Rowland Hall’s uniquely engaging literacy program, a key educational pillar that serves as a launchpad for students’ love of reading and writing, which continues to grow throughout their time at the school. 

Our students leave first grade loving reading and writing. They feel empowered as word professors, readers, writers, and learners.—April Nielsen, first-grade teacher

“Our students leave first grade loving reading and writing,” explained April, lead first-grade teacher. “They feel empowered as word professors, readers, writers, and learners.”

During their first-grade year, students have a variety of opportunities each day to strengthen their skills and foster a foundation of empowerment. They practice reading, writing, and phonics, and learn about different genres and how to use authors’ techniques in their own writing. “Students feel empowered to take control of their own learning,” April said. “They’re excited about their progress as readers and writers.”        

What sets Rowland Hall’s literacy program apart from others? Undoubtedly, it’s the devotion and hard work of the first-grade teachers. The team uses the best research-based practices, as well as their combined years of teaching experience, to create joyful and engaging classroom communities of children who feel safe trying new things while actively learning. “The first-grade literacy program is highly engaging, developmentally appropriate, and thorough,” said Susanna. “It includes explicit, teacher-directed instruction, as well as many components that are discovery-based, requiring students to investigate and explore.”

The program also offers individual support for each student throughout their reading journeys—and this has been especially true during the pandemic. The teachers were proactive following distance learning in spring 2020, identifying students who would benefit from additional support over the summer to ensure they wouldn’t fall behind when they returned to school in the fall. These students were offered a two-week summer learning program where they could focus on reading and writing, as well as mathematics, in ways that would keep them excited about learning. Once students returned to the classroom, the teachers worked tirelessly to offer them individualized literacy instruction, while also being proactive about reaching out to families about progress and how to support children at home. Thanks to Rowland Hall’s small class sizes and administrative support, they used formative assessments to guide their instruction. “We meet with each student individually to find out exactly where they are and what they need instructionally,” explained April. “Then we are able to work with students individually and in small groups to practice the new skills being taught each day.”

Rowland Hall first graders in a writing workshop.

First graders practice reading, writing, and phonics skills during writing workshops throughout the year.

As the year progresses, the teachers use methods that encourage students to examine language and build meaningful literacy knowledge and skills. One of the most impressive aspects of Rowland Hall’s program is how they weave together reading and writing units to optimize student success and retention. “One nice thing about our program is when we’re reading nonfiction books,” April explained. “That’s when we’re learning how to write nonfiction, too, so students are really learning how these books are organized both during reading and writing time.”

The first-grade team is constantly hard at work implementing new and innovative strategies for writing workshops that make learning both inclusive and fun for students so that they want to explore those skills.

The first-grade team is also constantly hard at work implementing new and innovative strategies for writing workshops that make learning both inclusive and fun for students so that they want to explore those skills. (In fact, Galen highlighted how, during choice time, students often choose to do reading and writing activities. “I love writing workshop because I can use my imagination to write my very own books,” commented first grader Scarlett M.) Writing workshops allow the first graders to use a variety of skills to write and illustrate their own stories, building confidence and ownership of their own literacy learning. Students create everything from narratives to persuasive writing to nonfiction stories, and at the end of the year participate in an authors’ celebration where they read a story of their choice to their classmates and parents. This May, for example, student Ozzie S. chose to read his story about a “sushinami”—a tsunami made of sushi.

“It was fun writing my story and I'm excited to read it for the class,” Ozzie said. “I really liked drawing the pictures of the sushinami.”

The literacy program has been a longtime strength at Rowland Hall, and during an unconventional year, the program has been especially beneficial to students. Due to the consistent hard work and dedication of the first-grade team and their students, April is confident this year’s first graders will be well-prepared for second grade.

“I am extremely proud of our first graders and my team,” said April. “All of my students have made great reading and writing progress this year because they received intensive, systematic reading and writing instruction.”

Academics

Middle School students gather around the 1920s magazine project display on the Lincoln Street Campus.

It’s been 100 years since the 1920s, but eighth-grade American studies teacher Mary Jo Marker believes the nuances between then and now have never been more relevant. 

Close-up of one magazine cover from the eighth-grade 1920s project.

A close-up of one of the group's finished magazines.

An interest in the parallels in time inspired Mary Jo to create a centenary project for her eighth graders in which she broke students into small groups and asked them to create a magazine based on the 1920s. Each group was asked to choose an overall theme for the magazine—this could be anything from fashion to politics to technology—and, within that theme, to focus on one aspect, like makeup or the stock market in the 1920s. 

“I thought it might be interesting to have the kids explore the 1920s more in depth,” explained Mary Jo, “and to do that in a more creative way that gave them voice and choice in how they approached their research around the 1920s.” To the students, this concept of voice and choice is invaluable when it comes to learning—it not only empowers them to be independent but it also builds engagement and allows them to broaden their interests and skills. 

After deciding on their groups’ themes for the magazine, the students were instructed to each write a 1,000-word article on their particular topics, each of which would appear in the finished publications. “One thing they all did really well,” reflected Mary Jo, “was meet the thousand-word limit, which was really a challenge for them.” 

When students are granted creative and academic freedom, they can produce some truly wonderful results.—Eighth-grader Milo B.

When it came to the magazines’ details, Mary Jo asked the students to use the Library of Congress to find advertisements, letters to the editor, and political cartoons to add to their projects to round them out and create end products that looked like actual magazines. Eighth grader Milo B. excelled in this project and credits much of his success to the great deal of creative liberties Mary Jo allowed the students. “When students are granted creative and academic freedom, they can produce some truly wonderful results, like the magazine,” Milo reflected. “Ms. Marker did a fantastic job in managing this project.”

When all was said and done, the eighth graders delivered some truly impressive pieces. Upon perusing the display of their work on the second floor in the Middle School, it is hard to not be blown away by the variety of topics and the immense creativity each group brought forward in both their design and in their writing. 

“It was great to see the personality of all the groups come out,” said Mary Jo. “I was really proud of them. I set a high bar, and by and large the majority were able to meet the learning targets and goals of the project.”

Close-up of the bulletin board displaying the eighth-grade 1920s project.


And in doing so, the students were able to recognize how history can be reflected in our own modern world by highlighting connections between society 100 years ago and today. The work the students created reveals a lot about their work ethic, creativity, and the outstanding guidance they received from Mary Jo, but it also reflects the collaborative nature of the Middle School—both among students, and between students and faculty. 

“I think this project reflects the willingness to be vulnerable and take risks to really set a high standard and work to meet it,” reflected Mary Jo. “This goes across the board, in the Middle School for students and adults alike.”

Mary Jo also noted how it is worth remembering, when looking at this project and future projects, that kids will rise to whatever occasion you set for them, so we mustn’t forget to create challenging opportunities for them to aspire to.

Academics

A Rowland Hall middle schooler in class

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.

Desmos algebra art by Rowland Hall eighth grader Rebecca M.

Click image to view on Desmos.

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.

Desmos algebra art by Rowland Hall eighth grader Jojo P.

Click image to view on Desmos.

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.

Desmos algebra art by Rowland Hall eighth grader Erika P.

Click image to view on Desmos.

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.”

Algebra art 2021

 

Algebra art 2021

 

Algebra art 2021

 

Algebra art 2021

 

Algebra art 2021

 

Algebra art 2021

 

Algebra art 2021

 

Algebra art 2021

 

Algebra art 2021

 

STEM

Salt Lake City-based Rowland Hall's princiPALS podcast shares more about how to talk to kids about race.

The princiPALS are back in the office to revisit one of today’s most essential topics: how to talk to kids about race.

Since recording their first episode on this subject—which won a silver InspirED Brilliance Award—in February 2020, princiPALS Emma Wellman and Jij de Jesus have often reflected on the importance of returning to this conversation. The need to do so was made especially clear after recent events, including ongoing violence against people of color, have continued to underscore our collective need to examine and talk about racism.

Demonstrations and discussions about racial inequity in this country initiated a massive shift in the conversations about race and racism.—Emma Wellman, Beginning School principal

“Demonstrations and discussions about racial inequity in this country initiated a massive shift in the conversations about race and racism,” said Emma.

And because these conversations don’t just happen among adults, the princiPALS wanted to give parents and caregivers tools that will help them teach children how to have thoughtful conversations about race and racial differences. With their trademark warmth and approachability—and their understanding of how children learn best during the early childhood and elementary years—Emma and Jij provide listeners with strategies to help kids develop positive racial identity and awareness and to teach the skills and vocabulary necessary to comfortably and respectfully discuss race.

“We’re talking about having the attitudes, capacities, and skills to navigate a diverse and dynamic world,” said Jij.

The princiPALS also give listeners tips to model antiracist behaviors for children, including simple steps that they can start using today to help dismantle racism, since, as Jij noted, “small choices can add up to make a big impact.”

Join Emma, Jij, and host Conor Bentley ’01, as they discuss “How to Talk to Kids about Race, Part II,” available now on Rowland Hall’s website as well as Stitcher and Apple Podcasts.

Podcast resources:

Podcast

You Belong at Rowland Hall