Life and Leadership – A Popular Fessenden Middle School Course

The energy is vibrant in the Life and Leadership classroom. Boys are buzzing around the room and brainstorming ideas about friendship in pairs or small groups, pausing every now and then to fill in parts of their worksheets. They are considering the attributes of a good friend, how friends treat each other, and the responsibility of being a friend. This activity at the start of class is a “walk-and-talk,” designed to get their brains and bodies moving.

Each day the class begins with this type of warm-up activity. Then, through group discussion or teacher presentation, they learn about the topic of the day. Other topics include community building and decision making, and the class always concludes with reflections and a mindfulness activity.

The Life and Leadership course, new this past year, is based on social and emotional learning, “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” Fifth graders take the class during the first half of the school year as a way to help them transition from Lower School to Middle School, and sixth graders take it in the second half of the year to help prepare for Upper School. This class functions as a bridge into a new stage of development, with a special focus on social-emotional well-being.

Developed during the summer of 2018 by three Middle School teachers, this course utilizes content and techniques from Responsive Classroom and Connected and Respected: Lessons from the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program by Jane Harrison and Ken Breeding. Responsive Classroom is “an evidence-based approach to education that focuses on the strong relationship between academic success and social-emotional learning,” and Connected and Respected offers a variety of ways to understand social awareness, social dynamics, self-awareness, conflict resolution, and bullying prevention. Working together to cultivate the course themes and develop the lessons, former Wellness Coordinator and Latin Teacher Stacey Smalley, Math Teacher Katie Currie, and former Science Teacher Graham Oxman merged methods and content from these two programs with thoughtful written reflections and discussions.

The goals of Life and Leadership in the Middle School are to encourage boys to become more cognizant of themselves and their surroundings, develop an awareness of their connections with classmates and teachers, and cultivate the tools and skills needed to make sound decisions as they move through their time at Fessenden and beyond. Ray Ducheine, who taught the course this past year, shares, “I aim for the boys to see a concrete skill, see how it’s applied across every facet of their lives, and see why that skill is important to develop.”

In this class, students roleplay real-life scenarios, engage in critical thinking activities, and reflect both verbally and in writing. The course covers several themes, such as identity, self-esteem, empathy, social dynamics, boundaries and conflict resolution, sense of belonging, and community. By engaging students in these topics, Stacey highlights, “the course truly embodies the School’s mission to develop each boy’s character, mind, and body in an inclusive and joyful community.”

Students benefit from their experience in Life and Leadership in a myriad of ways. Katie remarks that, through this course, they are building trust in their community. Furthermore, former Head of Middle School Lulu Kellogg notes, “This class has given students a sense of belonging outside of their homerooms, and they know that it is a safe space for them to ask questions and discuss anything that may be concerning them.” The course provides the opportunity for boys to discuss what they are seeing and hearing in the world outside of Fessenden and process it together.

As students explore topics such as identity and decision making, they learn about life in Middle School—but they also learn about life itself. And in the process they become leaders. For some, this means being the vocal one at the front of the group. For others, it means staying after class to help a teacher clean up. No matter how these boys embody leadership, in this course they develop skills that will serve them well throughout their lives.

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