What does it take to build life-long skills of self-advocacy and independence?
At BASIS Independent Schools, our educational philosophy is centered around student autonomy and self-advocacy. We want to empower our students when they come to school each day; to do so, we believe students need to learn to exercise their autonomy, which allows them to take greater control of their education.
So, why does our program target student autonomy in middle school? According to Mr. Heighington, Director of Student Affairs at BASIS Independent Manhattan, “Most students develop executive functioning skills during high school, but our students are able to hit the ground running from the beginning of grade 9. They’ve learned to better manage their time and workload during the Middle School Program, and they’re able to focus more on the learning in the classroom.”
Through guidance, support, and encouragement, students learn to assess what they need to do to improve their skills and meet their own goals, to become proactive problem solvers, and to meet the high expectations of today’s modern world. Read on to explore some of the ways we build autonomy in middle school to ensure students are prepared for high school and beyond.
Weekly Student Hours
All Subject Expert Teachers at BASIS Independent Schools offer weekly student hours where students can ask questions, work on homework, or address concepts from class (or beyond) with their teacher. In middle school, this is a critical support stream as students begin to tackle more advanced coursework and concepts that require more abstract, critical thought. These hours enable our students to really own what they are learning—they have the chance to assess what areas they need to improve in, determine what topic they need to study more thoroughly, or even seek out a new goal they might like to fulfill.
On helping his students feel comfortable coming to him for help or asking questions, Introduction to Science Subject Expert Teacher Mr. Archambault, BASIS Independent Silicon Valley, says, “With my grade 5 students, I put in a lot of effort to making my classroom a safe and supportive learning environment. I believe that students are more comfortable in a classroom when they can trust their teacher. Sometimes with students this age, that just means setting aside time to be a little goofy with them. I also have the flexibility to shape my curriculum in a way that makes learning fun and allows students to really invest in the class and choose to succeed.”
BASIS Independent Silicon Valley grade 9 student Aashirya R. says that each teacher offers support a little differently. “Some support more in class, some more in office hours, but they are all helpful! There is a genuine care that you can feel from them that they want you to succeed. My teachers are very approachable and easy to talk to. They will help with anything.”
“Even if you’re struggling with something everyone else seems to get,” agrees BASIS Independent Brooklyn grade 8 student Greta S. “They don’t let you feel lost; they’re patient and helpful. Without a Learning Expert Teacher (LET) in middle school, you learn to speak up more and advocate for yourself with your teachers. I find them very supportive and approachable.”
Prioritizing Executive Functioning Skills
Helping students manage their time and schoolwork effectively is core to the BASIS Curriculum. Middle school in particular is when we focus on building strong study and organizational skills, learning how to plan, managing their workload and extracurriculars, maintaining a great work ethic, and even developing skills like public speaking that encourage students to speak up with confidence.
One of our most important tools in developing students with management skills and disciplined, critical enquiry is the Communication Journal (CJ). Essentially a daily analog planner, it is the epicenter of our students’ educational experience, a record of their wins, losses, and areas for improvement, encouraging students to own their schedule with careful intent.
Aashirya, grade 9, tells us she uses the CJ to write down all the work and tasks she does each day. “I find that the CJ guides me from class to class, assignment to assignment, and keeps me organized. I have used it from day one at this school. I didn’t use a planner at my old school so having a system of organization has helped me.”
Mr. Archambault applauds the CJs, saying, “I think the CJ program does wonders—it adds a layer of separation between the teachers and parents as the primary form of communication. Students—even as young as grade 5—are expected to take responsibility for their own performance and behavior. The CJ ensures that students stay at the center of the conversation of their education.”
When students have tools that help them manage their time and schedules efficiently, they find that they can do more outside of school too. Christian Y., grade 7 student at BASIS Independent Manhattan, says, “When I have a tennis event and I’m traveling and will need to miss school, I make sure I stay on top of things. I get assignments before I leave and don’t let things pile.”
Our students are also frequently encouraged in class to learn how to take informative notes, keep an organized binder, approach problems critically and analytically, and develop a solution or an argument.
World History Subject Expert Teacher Ms. Forde, BASIS Independent Brooklyn, shared a story of one student doing just this: “Recently, I observed a student excitedly pull out colored highlighters and pencils. She was eager to make a customized study schedule to prepare for a high-stakes exam. She diligently examined her CJ, her study guides, her teacher recommendations, then combined it with her own personal experience. She felt confident in her time management and organizational skills. Yet, she didn’t stop there. She turned to support her classmate in doing the same, but didn’t merely copy her own schedule for her friend. First, she asked several pertinent questions. She wanted to know her classmate’s best subjects. Non-academic commitments? Preferred study techniques? Weakest subject? Armed with these answers, they worked together to develop a realistic review plan together.”
When students feel confident in what and how they are learning, they can better make decisions, self-assess what their needs are, and make improvements accordingly.
The formative middle school years are where students really begin to construct and refine self-advocacy and independence. Instead of acting on impulse, middle school students start to observe the situations around them and how to take appropriate measures to deal with challenges. In these years, students begin to understand that they can use their knowledge as a tool to discover what interests them and what they are passionate about.
“At the beginning of middle school, many students still struggle with taking initiative,” says Ms. Forde. “However, by high school, students have developed greater self-awareness regarding their own needs. At this point in the curriculum, they have navigated through a wide range of diverse coursework, activities, and understand the strategies that work to support their success. Students ask for what they want, provide factual reasons for why it may be beneficial, and take action to achieve their aims.”
Putting the control in our students’ hands is key to reinforcing this idea of autonomy.
The more our program and teachers encourage autonomy, the more engaged, self-aware, and independent our students are. And, according to Mr. Heighington, our middle schoolers CRAVE independence. “Taking more ownership of their work drives their motivation and the feeling of engagement within their work. It can be overwhelming at times and students may make mistakes along the way, but that’s where we provide support and guidance to coach through those challenging times and further develop their independence and confidence.”
Aashirya, grade 9, shared how she truly enjoys utilizing her responsibilities both inside and outside of the classroom: “I’ve learned to manage my time a lot better. I used to procrastinate a lot! My school work didn’t used to ask a lot from me when it came to workload and time. I may have more to do here, but the payouts are worth it. I like that I’ve learned to better manage my time. I’ve learned, as a person, how to do more, and I use these techniques outside of school in my personal life as well.”
Greta, grade 8, agrees: “Because I’m so organized now in school, my parents have allowed me more freedom and independence outside of school too.”
Preparing for What’s to Come
At BASIS Independent Schools, we work to instill our students with the foundational values that will foster future success. Ms. Forde explains, “BASIS Independent students strive constantly to reach their own personal best, as well as help others along the path to success. It is part of the culture of respect that I think is often rare at more academically rigorous institutions.”
When it is the student’s responsibility to get to class with the right materials, manage their time successfully, communicate with their parents about their grades, and follow-up with their teachers when they need extra help, they learn to trust in themselves. By giving them more autonomy in middle school (and throughout our entire program), we tell them they are capable.
As we instill and nurture this sense of ownership in our students, we can trust that they will transition to high school and college with ease, unafraid and excited for what awaits them next.