If grade school is about gaining knowledge, middle school is about gaining choice. Beginning in sixth grade, students are introduced to “The Wheel.” Made up of six-week short courses, and common to all three middle schools in the PAUSD, students are exposed over the course of an academic year to a range of 7th and 8th-grade electives for further, more in-depth academic exploration beyond the core.
As Jordan Principal Greg Barnes puts it, “With the wheel, students are encountering learning opportunities that might never have occurred to them in their elementary years.”
“Middle School is a unique period of self-discovery in which our students are able to explore who they are becoming as a person, in tandem with what they are learning academically,” describes Pier Angeli LaPlace, Assistant Principal at JLS. Be it drama, computer science, or creative writing, the choices in 7th and 8th grades give PAUSD middle schoolers the chance to pursue courses that will help them in this process of self-discovery.
In middle school music programs, PiE pays for intensive instrument–specific “sectionals” coaching, bringing along individual players while strengthening the overall quality of the orchestra.
Principal Katherine Baker embraces this model at Terman Middle School, where the watchword is inclusion. This is especially evident in the Terman choir. Students of all grades and abilities come together in a shared love of music, and the results are remarkable. “The choir is special not only for the beautiful sound they make—I love to hear them rehearse—it is also about the inclusive community they make together. It is the ultimate expression of group work and the results are beyond what one would expect of this age.”
Baker emphasizes the importance of an extracurricular activity such as music, drama, or public speaking, all supported at Terman by PiE funding, as essential to any student’s self-esteem, including struggling students. “Electives help some students excel for the very first time,” she noted.
All the principals concur: courses such as Industrial Technology, Leadership or Architectural Design can launch life paths. There are many examples of how these courses translate into student clubs; such as the solar-car builds, that draw predominately from the Industrial Tech class at JLS, or the creative writing club, which, in the other direction, ultimately transformed into a very popular elective course.
Electives satisfy students who are struggling, gifted or seriously challenged and everyone in between by focusing their interests. At Jordan, 8th grader Sive Mullen has been passionately pursuing fine art since placing out of Art 1A as a seventh grader. She took Multimedia Art instead, where she discovered Claymation. That has lead to a particular fascination with ceramics. “Art 1B is where I really took off. Before then, I had never even used oil pastels before. I loved smudging it for the swirls in an abstract version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.”
Her dedication to her art has set her apart, to the extent that now she is following an independent study curriculum and can experiment in the classroom alongside her fellow students. “If an idea has been nagging on me, I can spend an entire period working on it.” Sive will continue to pursue her independent study next semester. She is excited to experiment with different media. She also has her eye on the kiln at Paly, “…and I am definitely taking glass-blowing.”
Greg Barnes feels there is still work to be done to offer the best possible training ground for further, high-school-level exploration and specialization. “If we can prepare them, in a prerequisite sense, for the highly targeted, skill-based electives offered in high school, we create greater articulation at the high school level,” he said. The experience of electives helps more graduates gain a sense of where they’re headed and the clarity to set and meet their own goals.