Building Ethical Kids
The middle school years are exciting – and challenging. It’s a brave new world for adolescents, and Westtown offers a series of special programs that help them navigate self-image, peer group and friendship issues.
We believe education should include more than excellent academic classes. Values can be learned, too, and young people need a safe environment where they can practice them. Building on their own innate enthusiasm and keen sense of justice, we help them acquire the skills they need to become ethical young adults. Here are some of the ways:
In Quakerism, a leader is known as a “clerk”. And at Westtown, leadership isn’t a popularity contest. All students who want to develop their leadership skills are welcome to join the Student Clerks and help shape Middle School activities – from service and fundraising events to writing queries and greeting for our weekly Meeting for Worship.
We believe there are many kinds of leadership that will benefit our world, and so we consciously nurture both the charismatic extroverted leader and the quiet consensus builder.
Signature Middle School experiences are a series of overnight canoe trips, one at each grade level, that begin with relatively minor physical challenges in 6th grade and progress to a two-night, whitewater experience by 8th grade.
Students practice on the water for weeks before each trip. They pack for any kind of weather. And when they come back to school – and they all do! – dirty, tired and sometimes wet because it’s rained or a canoe has capsized, they are so proud of what they’ve accomplished.
They’ve been leaders, they’ve taken on responsibilities (including their own safety and that of their classmates) and they’ve challenged themselves in all kinds of new ways. They’ve learned they can push themselves to whatever their limits are because they have teachers and peers who are there to help if they run into trouble. They’re more resilient – and they have a greater appreciation for the collective power of the whole.
Remember what lunch was like when you were in middle school? For some adults, it was a painful experience: Who do I sit with? What if they won’t let me sit there? What if they laugh at me?
And now imagine middle school students dining in a formal setting with N.C. Wyeth’s magical painting, The Giant, as a backdrop. Tables, with flowers and linens, seat an assigned mix of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders plus a faculty member. Crews of students serve the food, take care of cleanup and reset the tables afterward.
Conversations are polite – and sometimes scintillating. Food is served family style, with a salad bar and vegetarian selections as options, and as part of the Farm to School movement, much of Westtown’s food comes from local providers. In this setting, meals nourish the spirit as well as the body.
Visitors are frequently amazed that lunchtime for middle schoolers can be this civilized. And parents often cite the lunch program with its informal interactions between students and teachers as one of the things they value most about Westtown.
And the inclusiveness, acceptance, and sense of community so evident in the dining room are also present throughout the Middle School. No one is left out, and students are always encouraged to share their opinions.
Middle School students serve tables, clean up and reset the dining room as part of the school’s organized Work Program, in which every child rotates through jobs such as “serve,” “set,” “wash” and “janitorial.” Work Program began out of necessity during WWII, when labor was scarce, but it quickly became an important part of a Westtown education.
Work Program reaffirms the goodness of service to others and the dignity of all work, in accordance with Quaker values. It also offers middle schoolers opportunities for leadership: older students can become “Work Captains,” supervising a work rotation as they gain valuable skills in working with others.
SPARK! – Spirit, Participation, Academic Excellence, Respect, and Kindness – is Westtown’s teacher-developed social curriculum. Middle Schoolers SPARK each other, for example, as they recognize other students on the SPARK board in the lobby for specific actions that embody SPARKiness.
Much like the competition between the four houses of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books (but much friendlier!), students explore these same themes all year long as part of competitive Brown & White teams, while queries help them focus: Have I done my best? Have I been kind? Have I taken a risk?
In Westtown’s Middle School, service is a three-year program that’s tied into the curriculum and honors the emerging empathy of this age group, as well as their ability to connect to and organize their service work.
All-School Service Opportunities: Middle School Student Clerks - our student leaders - organize events and fundraisers to meet local, national and international need. An UnHalloween toiletries drives for the local Food Cupboard, Spirit Dayz (where proceeds go to help people affected by natural disasters), and a Drop in the Bucket campaign for drilling water wells in East Africa are just a few of the activities this group has coordinated. Each grade also engages in annual service learning:
6th Grade– Service on Westtown’s Campus allows students to support others in our community and care for the school's 600-acre campus.
7th Grade: Service in the Local Community helps students to care for and give to others in our local community – and recognize that they’re a part of it.
All year: Think, Care, Act projects begin in advisories where students identify their strengths, affinities, interests, and talents. Next, we focus on what they care about in the community and the world around us. In our third step, we try to connect the first two pieces into a service project that helps others by putting passions and skills to good use. Finally, students present their projects to parents, teachers, sixth graders, and classmates at our Think, Care, Act fair.
8th Grade: Service in the Greater and Global Communities helps students look beyond themselves to the broader, global community.
All Year: Building on the 7th grade Think, Care, Act projects, 8th graders complete 20 hours of work on individual projects and write reflections on their experiences; developing a pen pal relationship with students at Westtown’s sister school, Heritage Academy in Ghana.
As schools everywhere recognize the harmful effects of bullying on everyone in their communities, Westtown has pre-emptively confronted the problem by adopting the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP), the most researched and best known program of its kind. The comprehensive program developed in Norway by Dr. Dan Olweus is used in all three Westtown divisions, and it has special relevance for middle schoolers because peer relations become increasingly important to young adolescents.
Goals of the OBPP program include preventing bullying, reducing existing problems, and creating a culture of respect among all students. At Westtown, it’s incorporated into the SPARK! social curriculum and addressed in advisories, Meeting for Worship and elsewhere throughout the Middle School.
Westtown’s mission calls for seeking out and honoring that of God in each person, challenging students to realize their individual gifts while learning and living together in a diverse community. The school is serious about creating a respectful environment, and using supplemental programs like OBPP, it offers young people the skills they need to act as ethical members of such a community.
With adoption of a 1:1 iPad program in 2012-13, Westtown’s Middle School is more committed than ever to teaching young people how to use technology to enhance their learning in responsible ways.
Westtown 7th graders use lessons from CSM’s Digital Literacy and Citizenship Curriculum to supplement existing school-wide technology guidelines. To learn more, visit Common Sense Media.
Units like Safety and Security, Digital Citizenship, and Research and Information Literacy have been informed by research in Howard Gardner's GoodPlay Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and they support the school’s own responsible use policy.