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A Recipe for Middle School Success

Dr. Gregg Lightfoot, History Department Chair and Teacher, explores risk-taking and confidence in girls.
Fall is a time of crisp weather, cozy fires, warm cookies, and sheer terror because, you see, I am a terrible baker! Many a first attempt at impressing guests with pumpkin pie has wound up satisfying the undiscriminating palate of my dog. And those cookies … the less said about what I’ve done to those poor gingerbread men, the better. There’s seemingly far too much precision required and too sequential an approach to all the measuring, mixing, folding, proofing, and timing for me to be a good baker. Instead of this perfection, where’s the culinary risk-taking, where’s the excitement, where’s the FUSION?

Now to be fair this fusion, that my nieces kindly call some of my more disgusting culinary creations, is not always the stuff of success. Just because my taste buds convince my brain that I am in the mood for steak sauce and vanilla ice cream, doesn’t make it a good dessert! However, at least I tried, right?

In their book The Confidence Code for Girls, Claire Shipman, Katty Kay, and JillEllyn Riley shared their insight, drawn from a wealth of research, that between the ages of eight and 14, girls’ confidence levels fall by 30 percent. Early adolescence is typically the point where overprocessing and perfectionism imposes a paralysis of action that reduces confidence and drives fear.

However, within this concerning news is a very clear ray of light: confidence, optimism, and risk-taking can also be encouraged, supported, and even rebuilt during these years. The recipe for greater success has to include the very things that produce the initial fear; taking risks, a willingness to fail, and the resilience to try again are essential to building confidence. Middle School is the moment to intervene and to help construct a foundation for confidence-building.

Our sixth-grade Global Science class encourages girls’ appreciation for where people live, what they are doing, how they are processing experiences, and how we are interacting with them. These lines of inquiry drive deep investigation of, for example, what being a girl in Iran meant in 1980 and how that experience can help our girls at GPS better understand their lives and their world today. Middle School history teacher Trish King fosters a creative streak in her classes that supports risk-taking in girls’ educational lives and builds confidence to take those same risks in their social lives. Sixth grade, as King says, “sets the foundation for growth that encourages girls to produce for an authentic audience, learning to use but not take advantage of academic freedom, and to accurately and honestly self-assess work.”

In seventh grade, we focus on connections between some of the earliest moments of human history and our lives today. Our class builds on the skills developed in Global Cultures and helps students grow into confident evaluators of sources, creators of ideas, and appreciative observers of the world. We approach our inquiry, writing, and projects in ways that foster attitudes such as curiosity, responsibility, and self-discipline. We appreciate that our critical thinking involves evaluating multiple perspectives and wrestling with complex questions. Our main goal is to see the world through others’ eyes by listening closely to each other and our sources.

Our eighth-grade Citizenship in Action class helps students think of themselves as developing members of our local and national communities. Middle School history teacher Jordan McCarter ’96 highlights some of the challenges the girls face in her class. “They get to research and discuss topics of their choosing and share their findings with classmates,” she says. “And, most importantly to me, they prepare two sides of debate arguments. They get to do all of this in an environment that is supportive because their classmates are also engaged in the same process, but at the same time each girl creates and explores something that is her own.”

Our students need mirrors of enjoyment, effort, struggle, and success from all of us. In the History/Social Science department, we take well-measured risks to perfect the delicately balanced recipe, combining ingredients of empathy development, critical thinking, and spontaneity that are the center of the human experience and our students’ appreciation of it. We need to shift our acceptance of the mechanistic sequence of classes toward appreciation for sequential skill development throughout our girls’ educational experience.

Our goal is strengthening of a developmental sequence that helps inculcate within students an appreciation for skills that prepare them for higher-level thinking and learning. This is the stuff that we call lifelong learning and produces the growth we hope from ourselves and our girls. We talk a lot about brain science in our business, and we know more about how girls learn and thrive than ever before. Our efforts in History/Social Science classes are designed to help girls strike their balance between the inventive and the impactful—taking risks combined with honing the skills to help those risks pay off! This work is particularly important for our girls at this point in their development.

I’m still not a good baker, but I’m getting better. I’ve come to realize that following directions is important, knowing your ingredients and how they combine is essential, and finding the creativity and daring within a matrix of understanding and appreciation for developmental progress is challenging. School work, like baking, is challenging because it takes a combination of attention to detail and a desire to push boundaries.

Taking risks is scary and doesn’t always end in success and that is okay. As we help our girls develop their skills and creativity, we help them build confidence. Our recipe is a simple one: empathy added to critical thinking produces compassionate action from our girls, none of which happens without risks. Our girls, through this challenging work, become truly impactful examples of intellectual and emotional confidence for each other and our community.
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Girls Preparatory School

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