Category Archives: Middle School

Reinventing the Student Notebook

Three years ago, during my first year at Morgan Park Academy, I had to improvise part of a lesson after I was left without one of the handouts I planned to use.

I tried a slightly different way to get my seventh-grade English students to engage with the classic Robert Frost poem “The Road Less Traveled.”

I had them take out a piece of notebook paper and draw their understanding of the poem. Think about what the poem represents. What do you think it means? What images are most prominent? What colors come into your mind when you read it?


The students loved this approach. Some of them drew compelling images from their interpretations of the poem. When asked to explain their images and how they connected to the poem, they had clear, analytical answers that showed their understanding and a higher level reading of the poem.

This success got me thinking: How can I do more of this in my classroom?

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Meet Our Teachers: Jessica Stephens

Please help us welcome Jessica Stephens, who joins the Morgan Park Academy faculty as a sixth-grade math and science teacher and sixth-grade advisor.

Mrs. Stephens has taught at both the middle school and high school level, teaching algebra, chemistry, biology, and seventh- and eighth-grade science.

She holds a B.A. from Princeton University, where she majored in psychology as a pre-medicine student.


What is the most important life lesson you want students to learn in your class?

I appreciate George Bernard Shaw’s quote that what is most important is seeing “the child in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the child.” I desire most that students learn the value of knowledge and the importance of pursuing truth. This life lesson will transform students into individual persons who set the intent to educate the self rather than passively awaiting another to dispense knowledge — only to be tempted to either instill such knowledge or carelessly discard it upon its false evaluation of its worth. Therefore, my hope is that in understanding the worth of knowledge and the pursuit of truth, one’s perspective will be the impetus in doing the former rather than the latter.

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Summer Adventure at the Grand Canyon: Our Top 5 Moments


An important part of each student’s experience at Morgan Park Academy is tied to our mission to prepare the global leaders of tomorrow and our belief that learning can and should take place outside the classroom. This comes to life most vividly in our school-wide Global Week each March, our immersive world languages program with optional international trips — and most recently, our travel opportunity for middle school students each summer.

This summer, a dozen sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders joined my fellow Humanities teacher Sandra Burgess and me to explore the Grand Canyon and the wondrous state and national parks of Arizona, Utah, and Nevada.


We experienced so much in five days! As Ms. Burgess put it, “You know you’re on a great trip when every day your students say, ‘I changed my mind; today has been my favorite day.'”

Somehow, though, we managed to pick five experiences that stood out as the top highlights from our trip! Continue reading

The Dreaded Second Semester Slump

Prior to coming to Morgan Park Academy, I was an adjunct professor, teaching Acting, Theatre History and Speech classes at two state universities and one private college. At each of the three institutions, there was a visible trend in my students’ effort and achievement between the months of February and April: the dreaded second semester slump.

kurutIn reviewing report cards for the third academic quarter, the same trend is evident at the Middle School level. Many students whose grades had been on an upward trajectory take a sudden dip, indicating a drop in effort and/or a “relaxing” of work habits. Anecdotally, I see more emails and hear more tales of students whose phone privileges have been taken away, or whose parents are considering taking them out of a sport or other cherished activity. The American Psychiatric Association even has a name for what our students typically experience – “Middle School Malaise.” Whatever we title it, this slump is often the main topic of conversation at Spring Parent-Teacher conferences, and invites questions from our parents: what happened? How can we get this student back on track and motivated? What can we do to help?

What happened?

It’s worth noting that the second-semester slump is a normal, natural trend. Often, it is attributed to a combination of factors, including dreary winter weather and a complacency with daily routines. In addition, there is merit in acknowledging that the third academic quarter is significantly longer than the two previous quarters. It’s hard for a student, especially adolescents whose brains are not yet fully developed, to consider academic consequences when the end of the quarter seems so far off.

How can this student get back on track?

The advice that I give to students who are falling behind or in danger of a big grade drop includes a combination of the following suggestions:

  • Stay active – especially in the cold weather, getting up and moving are important for staying motivated and energetic. Inactivity begets more inactivity – and any student (or adult) who has found him/herself watching YouTube videos for hours at a time can appreciate the truth of this statement. Likewise, it’s hard to sit and work on a school project for two hours straight, so I recommend breaks that involve moving around.
  • Manage your time wisely – as a college student with daily rehearsals to attend, I became proficient at managing my time. It seemed the busier I was, the more diligent I had to be about getting work done on time. I recommend that students schedule their work time with parent help.
  • Plan, parcel and prioritize – It is crucial for students to look at upcoming assignments and plan ahead. With major projects or big reading assignments, dividing the work into manageable chunks makes the task seem less monumental. (I had a college professor who used to ask, “How do you complete a big project? The same way an ant eats a pizza. One bite at a time.”) For some students, prioritizing may mean getting the least desirable project or subject out of the way first.

As a parent, how can I help?

  • Help with time management – when I was in school, the tasks that seemed most daunting to me were the big reading projects. My mom would help me by doing the math for me… if I had to read forty pages by Friday, and it was assigned on Monday, then I had to read ten pages per night.
  • Put things in perspective – When your child is disappointed by a grade or outcome, help him or her deal with what may feel like failure. It’s always helpful to keep in mind that even a quarter grade is one grade, in one subject, in one quarter, in one year of what will be a long academic career. Make plans to do better next time, and focus on the things you can change (future work habits) rather than the things you cannot change (the already-earned grade).
  • If possible, don’t take your child out of cherished activities – by all means, take away Xbox time or social media or the iPhone, but try to steer clear of making your child less active. Being in plays or on sports teams benefit your child in both physical and social-emotional ways, and can often provide a much-needed feeling of successful accomplishment.

Finally, recognize that we are all on the same team – the team of adults working to teach your child and help him/her learn applicable skills and work habits. Yes, the second semester slump is common, but it need not be a permanent situation. As with just about everything else at school, that dip in achievement and effort can be a tremendous learning experience.

Social Conflict: Middle School Principal Heather Kurut Discusses

When I think about my own middle school experience, the thing I most remember is a sense of discomfort. Many of the girls who had been my friends since early childhood suddenly identified me as “not cool,” and I struggled with navigating my social experience. I recall loving classes, and particularly loving orchestra and chorus, but I also remember how terrifying it felt to potentially make the wrong choice of lunch table, and the possible outcomes of such a choice. There were people who were not nice to me, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to best avoid their insults.

kurutIt has always been my mission to help our middle school students have a school experience in which they feel both safe and comfortable, which includes being treated with dignity by both peers and adults.  I tell them that they do not need to be friends with everyone, but they do need to treat one another in a civil manner. Most of the time that works pretty well. Yet, here we are at the end of October, and I am spending a fair amount of time fielding concerns from students about conflicts with their peers. It’s official: we have reached that point in the school year where students are comfortable enough with one another to voice their feelings, even the negative ones – and that means inevitable conflict.

Short of just remembering how awful these conflicts were in our own pre-adolescent years, how can we help? I have a few ideas.

  • First, we can listen to them and validate their feelings. Even if something was said in jest, if the person receiving the comment feels insulted, that feeling is valid. It’s hard to process the feeling of being hurt by someone you love, especially when you are twelve. Listening to a child who is experiencing strong emotions is tremendously helpful.
  • We can help them separate first-hand experience from assumptions, gossip and rumors. Recently, I had a student share with me that she thought a student had called her a “bad word,” but she wasn’t entirely sure. I listened to her concerns, we talked about possible scenarios, and I assured her that it is never okay for someone to call her names. She came to the conclusion that she may have misheard what the student said.
  • We can help differentiate between normal social conflict and bullying. Anti-bullying author Carrie Goldman (who is presenting at our speaker series here at MPA on March 12, 2016) urges parents and school staff to articulate these differences. She clarifies that bullying behaviors are repeated, unwanted and involve an imbalance of power; normal social conflict does not share these characteristics.
  • We can reflect on and share our own experiences, but know that our students live in vastly different social universes. When I recently asked a student why I might be talking with him about insulting a peer, he responded “well, because people were mean to you in middle school.” Clearly, I have shared this story more than once. But when I was twelve, the comments ended when I left school – the people who didn’t like me certainly weren’t calling me on their rotary-dial phones to taunt me at home. In the age of smart phones and social media, our students are more actively involved in these worlds outside of school, and thus open themselves up to comments, wanted or not.

As you likely recall, it’s hard to be a kid; the added pressures (plus the hormones!) of pre-adolescence make it even harder. Emotions are strong, and the social dynamic is ever-changing. As students work to express themselves and create fulfilling social lives, we promise to do our best to help them feel safe and comfortable.

Why We Only Speak French in French Class


Imagine entering a classroom and being greeted by a smiling teacher … in French. The teacher asks you to take out your homework, exchange with a partner, and discuss your answers — all without speaking a word of English.

Sounds scary, right? It’s not!

Morgan Park Academy’s world language teachers aim to spend at least 90% of class time interacting with students in their target language: French, Spanish, or Mandarin. Teaching in the target language can be challenging, but like a parent speaking to a toddler, our faculty is trained to speak to students at a level of language that they can understand.

We follow the rule of “L plus 1,” which means that we interact with students in the target language at a level that is just slightly above where they are. If the input is too difficult — too fast or too complicated — students get lost and frustrated. If input is too simple, they will get bored and plateau in their learning.

We strive to reach a level that is just right for them, adjusting our speech constantly to make sure they understand. We also use visual aids, movement, facial expressions, and comprehension checks to make sure that nothing is getting lost in translation.

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Why Young Athletes Should Play Multiple Sports


Shortly after the Ohio State football team won the 2015 national championship, I saw a chart that showed that 42 of the Buckeyes’ 47 recruits had played two or more sports when they were in high school.

That is an amazing statistic and truly contradicts the popular contemporary idea that to excel at the college level, a young athlete should choose one sport in which to specialize from an early age.

Supporters of this idea include David Epstein, author of the best-selling book The Sports Gene. As he said in an interview with

“Athletes who specialize early have pretty high burnout rates. I just saw some unpublished data from Division I athletes, and more than a quarter of them said they dropped a sport they were really good at because they got burned out on it. So, it looks like early sport sampling is better for ultimate skill development for most athletes and probably helps many athletes stay fresh and gives them the best chance of truly falling in love with a sport.”

Epstein makes a great point that youth athletics, all the way through high school, is the time to explore and play multiple sports. Specialize, if you desire, when you get to college. Often, the burnout factor takes place — and that burnout can be in other extracurricular activities as well.

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