“Children ages 8-11 have often been underestimated in educational settings,” says Cynthia Harmon, Middle Division Head at The Park School in Brookline. “At Park, the Middle Division (for Grades 3–5) is not merely a passageway to something; it is its own destination.”
A few years ago, the school created a Middle Division to meet the needs of the whole child at this unique developmental juncture. With the primary goal of meeting the needs of children where they are, Cynthia adds, “the skills they learn in the Middle Division gain nuance and complexity as they progress through Park’s older grades.” Calling upon a rich metaphor of jazz music, Cynthia likens the notion of a “home key” to the critical skills children acquire and practice in the Middle Division: “You need to know your home key before you can do improvisation.”
Cognitively, students in the division start out in Grade 3 using their new reasoning skills in order to discern questions like, “What is the big idea?” “By Grades 4 and 5, students are ready for more independence, along with more homework, rules and routines, and the move to a new wing of the school signifies this social-emotional growth,” says Cynthia. Throughout the Middle Division, children transition from gathering basic skills to making meaning of how to think about and use them effectively.
The Middle Division also affords students the opportunity to experience bumps along the road both academically and social-emotionally. Cynthia notes, “It is our collective responsibility, parents and teachers alike, to help our children learn from their mistakes, taking advantage of the inevitable challenging moments that are an integral part of learning.” The Middle Division offers what Cynthia describes as “multiple small community connections” within the homeroom classrooms, where children learn how their behavior affects others. “We aim to set children up for success, both academically and interpersonally,” Cynthia explains. Conversations in the classroom led by teachers, as well as occasional “visits with or by Ms. Harmon,” emphasize the importance of process and teachable moments both of character development and academic growth.
She is particularly proud of the Middle Division’s focus on character development. Students broaden their understandings of what it means to participate in a community with rules that support a cooperative learning environment and how to work and play together in a common space. Socially, fifth-graders are the leaders of the Middle Division, and there are high expectations for their behavior: They often hear, “there are little kids watching you.”
Community at Park is built not just through curricular goals, but also by day-to-day social rituals. Middle Division students attend a special Morning Meeting on Tuesdays tailored to their developmental perspective. In addition, Cynthia goes to every Middle Division class each morning to take attendance and establish personal connections with students. She aims to be seen as a resource for children, and not just as a disciplinarian.
At Park, “leading from the middle” is not just a catch phrase. Last year, the school implemented a “stay-at-school” iPad pilot for Grade III, where each third-grader received an iPad, preloaded with applications to support ongoing instruction in language arts, math and social studies. “So many academic programs are written for kids ages 8-10; our Middle Division is really in the sweet spot to transform the device from a toy to a tool,” Cynthia explains. Classroom teachers are able to load individualized apps on each student’s iPad, allowing for more differentiated learning.
“This pilot was so successful that we have expanded it to fourth grade this year, and it will help inform our thinking about the one-to-one technology choices for our older students (in Grade 6-9).” In terms of technology, Park really is leading from the middle.
Looking back, looking inward, looking forward — Park’s Middle Division has taken hold with a strong mission and purpose, steering children through the unique developmental landscape of middle childhood.
In addition to serving as the Middle Division Head, Cynthia A. Harmon is also the Assistant Head for Professional Development at The Park School in Brookline. During her 20-year career in independent school education, she has been a teacher, coach, advisor and administrator. Cynthia is a conservatory-trained classical vocalist and has been a member of the New England Spiritual Ensemble since 1995.