5th–8th: The Journey
Odyssey Middle School honors the complex journey of individuation, self-discovery, and finding one’s voice for justice in the world. Students build community through lessons in citizenship, while practicing meditation and reflection to discover a strong sense of self. Our curriculum requires students to play, to design, and to think critically, creatively, and contextually.
Journey Week: Welcome to the family!
Our first week of school, Journey Week, serves as an orientation to Odyssey Middle School through citizenship activities, backpacking, and an introduction to skill building before academics begin. During this week, students are also setting individual and whole class goals, and, working together with teachers, they choose a theme to investigate which is then revisited throughout the year, woven into curriculum, field learning, and service projects.
We involve students in setting the course to deepen their engagement with thematic learning, meanwhile our faculty refer to the Common Core and state standards as a jumping off point to ensure our students are well-equipped to go beyond grade level standards. Our students typically exceed grade level readiness when they take the ACT Aspire in the fall, a national test designed to measure student growth in the context of college and career readiness.
Each middle school student is assessed early in the academic year and placed at the level of math appropriate for each individual’s optimal rate of challenge. For example, some seventh grade students take Algebra 1 and some take Math 6. While math classes proceed according to Prentice Hall curriculum, we also include numerous forays into how math operates in the “real world” and how the discipline links to art, music, science, and the students’ lives. Sample projects include an exploration of the art of M.C. Escher, the building of scale models of the students’ rooms, and statistical analysis of the stock market. Students who excel in math, graduate middle school on track to advance beyond Math I (Algebra 1), II (Geometry), or III (Algebra II), and able to enroll in Calculus and Statistics in their high school careers.
Each year, students encounter Biology, Earth Science, Chemistry, Physics, and Astronomy, deepening their understanding and sophistication of content. At the core of every unit is the practice of observations, data collection and analysis, and there are 5 main goals to our scientific studies: to explore our world with wonder and curiosity, to understand and participate in the scientific process, to do independent research and present our findings, to learn about the fundamental processes and structures that make up our world, and, ultimately, to be a scientifically literate and contributing member of our global community.
Classes use our greenhouse, garden, aquaponics lab, creek, and hundreds of trees on campus to engage in hands-on learning. The classroom environment is experiential, engaged, and inquiry-based. Students graduate our program with a solid understanding of the scientific method, lab writing skills, research design, a breadth of awareness of the various scientific fields, and a developed curiosity of the world.
Social Studies includes inquiry-based project learning, experiential education achieved through historic simulations, and weekly consideration of current events. Emphasis is on considering a variety of perspectives of historic events and the insights these perspectives provide into our culture and our selves.
Specific concentration will be put on the following concepts throughout the course of studies: discovery, colonization, imperialism, revolution, urbanization, immigration, modern day cultural comparisons, the United States: our country’s identity, history, and future.
Throughout these middle school years, students become more globally aware as well as more meaningfully oriented within their own national culture. Understanding how and why our current American demographics, culture, landscape, government, and economy came to be, and imagining how these things might have evolved differently under other circumstances. Cultivating an integral perspective, students will develop a wide and varied knowledge of other cultures’ alternative approaches to government, economic regulation, education, religion, and community. Students engage with primary source accounts that help them develop a crucial sense of empathy and compassion as well as a discerning eye for bias.
As the foundation of learning and media of knowledge, print and non-print text propagates listening, speaking, writing, and reading skills in our language arts class. Reading is developed through self-selected, active, and independent reading blocks, as well as literature circles, which encourage collaborative investigation.
Students practice their interpersonal listening and speaking skills every day in class through presentation, peer teaching, and thematic discussions. Our writing goals for the semester include literary analysis, research methods, short fiction, memoir, narrative procedure, persuasive argumentation, journalism, poetry, rhetoric, and business writing. We cover parts of speech, editing and revision techniques, elements of grammar in context, word choice, spelling, transitions, introduction, conclusion, and paragraph writing in depth. In the past, our whole class novels have included: City of the Beasts, Toby Alone, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, Fahrenheit 451, and The Hunger Games. Some upcoming novel choices include Life of Pi, The Apothecary, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, His Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.
Students graduate from this program with strong writing, creative confidence, public speaking skills, developed analytical thinking, and study skills: note-taking, organization, time management, and long-term planning.
In fall semesters, Spanish is offered at the middle school level and is taught in a highly interactive mode. Students learn to listen, practice speaking, play games, work on projects, and study Spanish-speaking cultures in our community and in the world. Examples of field trips include visiting a Latino art exhibit and visiting a Taqueria. They explore language through culture, art, and play.
Students also have the option of designing an independent (or small group) alternative study of another language; these studies can be arranged for the duration of the year or as an alternative for the spring semester. Over the years, students have organized American Sign Language, Arabic, and German studies. This path requires dedication, self-organization, and parental support, and it can be an incredibly inspiring process.
All middle school students will have weekly instruction in music under the direction of Patricia Roskens and a chance for small-group instruction with the well-known percussionist River Guerguerian. River has played at the White House, Carnegie Hall, in Turkey, India, and throughout the United States and the world. His style of instruction is fluid, instructing and then setting back to allow the students space for personal and collective creativity. Patricia specializes in vocals and group performance, and has taught in international schools in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Art & Design
Visual Arts classes are focused on an exploration of aesthetics, technique and personal style through artist studies, drawing, painting, and multimedia composition, integrated with cross-curricular content.
Each fall, all students take Art I or Art II and Design. The design curriculum is an introduction to the four core studies of design at the high school level. Students explore environmental, aesthetic, social, and material design through project-based practice of the design-thinking method.
Each spring, several art electives are offered and students may choose from a variety of electives including at least one founded in visual arts: for example, Drawing Techniques, Fabric, Ceramics, The Craft of Furniture, Primitive Arts, or The Graphic Novel. Class offerings vary year to year.
An introduction to dramatic art includes improvisation, set design, script writing, lighting and sound, as well as the production and presentation of a play. Our drama teacher has years of experience and is a wonderful tutor in the dramatic arts, guiding students to find their stage presence with blossoming confidence.
While in the fall, all students take music, art, and drama, in the spring students have the opportunity to take different elective classes. As mentioned above, these classes include art offerings, but they are not limited to this area. In the past, these have included: personal P.E., yoga, band, gardening, cooking, film studies, chess, rock band, and poetry.
During each academic semester, students participate in a daily physical class: either in a formal P.E. lesson (twice per week) or in recess in which students play capture the flag, go on walks, and engage in the physical learning strand on a more personal level. When we teach the physical strand, we emphasize team building, familiarity with different sports, taking appropriate risks, and healthy habits.
In addition to these daily practices, Odyssey Middle School students backpack, hike, and get out into the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains as part of their orientation and end of year trip experiences, in addition to any opportunity afforded by integrated learning!
During the spring of each year each, middle school students choose a subject of personal interest to research and present their work to the rest of the class, the parents, and even the school at large. Students learn MLA formatting and research skills as they craft a paper exploring their topic’s history, future, and ethical considerations. In addition, they create a 20-30 minute presentation using digital technology and engaging public speaking techniques, and complete a project to engage in their topic creatively.
Students are guided in research methods, connected with experts in their field, and supported in the development and rehearsal of an engaging public presentation. While all students are encouraged to include human resources in their research, the occasional student takes advantage of their option of exploring their topic through an internship or apprenticeship in lieu of a creative component.
With parental support a student may apply his/her independent research project through a semester long apprenticeship with a local business person, artist, or tradesman. The school will work carefully with the mentor to establish clear perimeters of learning, working, and assessment. The student will perform some useful tasks for the mentor in exchange for the learning experience.
The Odyssey Middle School Mini-Mester is a two-week unit between the first and second semester. These two weeks are a celebration of “coming of age” through an immersive, thematic project. Themes have included deep ecology, perspective, self-acceptance, respect, and the joy and strength of diversity. During this project, our school day is loosely structured within the guidance of five main student-driven classes (Who Am I, Playwriting 101, Set Engineering, Costume Design, Music & Movement, and Research & Reflection) that incorporate the aesthetic, mental, physical, moral, spiritual, and emotional strands and allow students to flex multiple intelligence muscles in new ways.
Students are guided in creating lesson plans in order to then take the lead in directing other students to work as a successful team to create a final performance. They are encouraged to grow in self-organization and initiation by creating their own homework assignments; holding each other accountable; supporting, teaching one another and leading group activities; and keeping a Mini-Mester journal as a record of their reflections, homework, research, ideas, and contributions to the project. Their journals are a major part of their formative and summative assessments in lieu of academic grades during these two weeks.
Each week the middle school students participate in Mysteries Council (whole class) or Gender Mysteries (gender-segregated classes), as well as a classroom meeting based on Positive Discipline. Mysteries Council teaches students to listen and speak from the heart on subjects relevant to their lives. It is not solution-oriented, but builds skills in relating to one another carefully and compassionately. In addition, these meetings create space for healthy exploration of the existential questions and developing emotional complexity characteristic of the middle school journey. Gender Mysteries takes the place of Mysteries Council every other week. The young men and women separate into two groups so they may carefully and more considerately discuss gender specific concerns.
Inspired by Positive Discipline, our middle school community meets each week to express appreciation for the ways individuals contribute to classroom culture, as well as to workshop solutions to issues, concerns, and needs that arise from day to day. This meeting is solution-oriented and attends to a foundational understanding of responsible democratic process.
As in all Odyssey classrooms, students are given direct instruction and individual encouragement to develop nine essential learning skills and behaviors that contribute to becoming successful life-long learners. Students set weekly goals, considering their strengths and areas of growth, and create portfolios that underscore their work in the six learning strands. These reflections are shared with families during Student-Led Conferences each spring.
On the right, you can see one of our sixth grade students taking pride in self-initiating the task of cleaning our social studies classroom!
Assessment at Odyssey is core to the learning experience as it is a reflection of the learning process. While our elementary students are assessed through narrative reports, Odyssey students receive grades beginning in sixth grade. Our fifth grade and sixth grade teachers work together in this transition and invite students to play an active role in creating rubrics for their work and engage in discussion about the purpose and meaning of a grading system. In addition, our teachers participate in regular professional development to explore a variety of creative ways to assess knowledge through a variety of learning styles and intelligences.
As such, both teachers and students must be an integral part of both informal as well as formal assessment. Because Odyssey is a community school and founded on relationships, grade report cards are not our favored means of communicating progress and assessment. Four parent conferences are offered each year: The first of which is a listening conference, led by parents in September; the second is a teacher-Led conference in November; the third is a student-led conference in March, and the fourth is a parent-teacher-student conference in May, a chance for all to reflect on the year and plan for the new school year to come.
We offer the ACT Aspire test in October. This allows us a general understanding of how each student is performing in each subject and is scored on the basis of a national percentile. By giving this test early, we can get a general sense, from a third party perspective, of a student’s strengths as well as areas that may need strengthening, and this supplements our teachers’ personal assessments.
What is different about testing at Odyssey? We test once and we test at the beginning of the school year in order to teach from the test rather than to the test.