Eleven Characteristics that Distinguish Field School from other Middle Schools
1. Size and Autonomy
We believe that small schools can be much better for students. First, we can be better because we are able to create a genuine community of students, teachers and families who know one another. Our size allows the teachers to do their best work. Because we know the students and their families so well, we develop a detailed knowledge of how the students work, of their strengths and weaknesses, and, over time, of their academic history. We get many students whose parents had been concerned that their boys had "fallen through the cracks" at a previous school. With our size, it's just impossible for anyone to fall through the cracks. We also do not get bogged down with a bureaucratic administrative structure. Those who make the decisions are the ones working immediately with the students every day and that makes a tremendous difference in the quality of the education. We have only had to call occasional faculty meetings because so much of the work that typically takes place in meetings happens at our school in conversations at recess or lunch. In my previous jobs, changes in policies would take months or years of meetings and discussions. At Field School, policy changes sometimes take place during recess.
Despite our size, we have still been able to stage big, exciting middle school events. We take about 10 field trips per year. Our annual events, evenly spaced throughout the year, include parents days, fundraising events, speakers, a camping trip and an eighth grade journey to Costa Rica. We also have a dynamic sports program, with almost all of our boys playing on a team or two or three, a heavy schedule of games, and intramural Blue-Silver games at the end of each season. Our boys have events to look forward to throughout the year.
We do lots of fun things and we believe it makes for a loyal and dedicated student body. We take field trips. We have recess every day and we play sports. We field lots of teams in a variety of sports, and we schedule as many games as we can find. If it rains, we avoid canceling sports and we usually still make it outside, playing kickball on the blacktop or hiking in the nearby woods. While a majority of sports days are practice days oriented toward performance, we also schedule many days for fun games of kickball or capture the flag or intramural basketball, football or lacrosse. We make sure all our students have cool school gear—blue hoodies and gray tee shirts and black shorts, all with our school logo. Our school planners are fancy Moleskines, with their names etched into the soft black leather.
Our boys have a good deal of work to do, and we have genuinely high expectations of them. The fun stuff is part of the deal. We agree that we will work hard to make our school a fun place for our students, and we expect them to do their part to make ours an excellent school as well.
Anyone who wants to create a successful business or organization would be well advised to develop a focused mission a do a limited set of things very well. Schools, however, are expected to do a bewildering variety of things—teaching many different subjects while keeping students safe, healthy, and virtuous. We have been successful, in part, because we do specialize at least a little bit—on middle school and on boys. We teach a limited range of boys and we are very confident about what we do with students at these ages. We do not offer education from Grades K-12, spanning a variety of ages as is common in private schools. We learn the details of what our students need and how they develop during a small and particular slice of child development. We are constantly working on becoming better teachers of middle schoolers only.
We also specialize in boys. There are a variety of compelling reasons for separating the sexes in middle school, but we think the specialization argument is strongest. Our interest in boy-specific education is reflected in our choice of teachers, our schedule, our assignments and textbooks, our arts and music program, and our emphasis on sports. We also get to know lots of things about boys and develop strategies that help them work up to their potential.
4. Four Years with the Same Teachers
At Field School, we get new students every year, but the bulk of each year's classes are returning students with whom we have already worked and they with us. This makes for seamless transitions for students and teachers. There is no need to ask "did you guys cover the structure of molecules last year?" This year's science teacher is last year's teacher, and she remembers what she taught last year. Thus the question becomes, "remember when we talked about molecular structure last year?" At Field School, we operate as though we have four years to cover, review, reinforce, and build on the details and goals of the curriculum.
We also benefit at Field School from our many shared experiences. Our classes spend a great deal of time together over the year. Fifth graders enter and remain with virtually the same fellow students for four years. Thus, we have a wide variety of school-wide shared experiences. These memories, of class exercises, special events, and field trips provide us with a collective experience on which to build an education. "Remember when we went to the power plant?" "Remember last year when we made the camera obscura in photography?" Over the course of four years, we can be thorough in our education, inculcating values and teaching our subjects. It makes for a very satisfying experience for both students and teachers.
5. A Genuinely Interdisciplinary Program
For the most part, our academic curriculum is a standard, rigorous, meat-and-potatoes program offering core classes in math, English, Science, History and Foreign Languages (Latin and Spanish). It is unusual, however, in the extent to which we can approach themes in an interdisciplinary fashion. From the very beginning of Field School in 2007, we have organized much of our curriculum around unit themes. During our third year, for example, we have six units through the course of the year—astronomy, Latin America, service, economics, comedy and food. We do not organize everything around these ideas, but we try to match up appropriate material in each of our classes with the theme where we can. It happens primarily in science, history, and English literature selections as well as our speakers and field trip destinations.
During our most recent astronomy unit, for example, our science class fully reflected the theme while we read about Galileo, Tycho, Kepler and Newton in history—history of science to be accurate. In English, our boys read science fiction novels— Ender's Game and A Wrinkle in Time. We had two speakers—one had written a book on astrobiology (life in space!) and the other works as a "futurist" for the Defense Department investigating applications of new technology. His information helped our boys flesh out the characters in their evolving sci-fi stories. During our morning meeting, the boys provided presentations on astronomy topics such as the Very Large Array. We managed to match up our work very well during the astronomy unit and we helped the boys to develop a thorough understanding of the subject.
Not all the units work quite so well and not all the classes match up. We are trying not to be too contrived with this nor are we allowing the integrity of our classes to be sacrificed. Our math classes, for example, have not made much effort to match the unit theme; they have been straightforward marches through the math curriculum.
The units approach has given us a framework for developing an interdisciplinary curriculum and it has helped to foster a school-wide interest in specific themes.
6. Teachers Who Coach
Whenever we have had the opportunity to hire new teachers over the past few years, we have had no shortage of interest in positions with hundreds of applications for each. In our announcements, we always emphasize that we are looking for teachers whose interests reflect our mission to "develop well-rounded boys of character and accomplishment" and that they should expect to be fully absorbed in the life of the school including coaching and activities. In scrutinizing the resumes, we can quickly eliminate most of them by simply looking for experience in coaching. Our sports program makes up a big part of our school's life. All of our boys must participate in the daily practices and though they do not have to play on our teams, virtually all do so. We thus need teachers who are interested in coaching in order to properly staff the school and, as with everything we do, we want to do it well. We also believe that the teams give us all an opportunity to learn about one another in another non-academic context. Some of our boys shine on the fields and develop confidence and skills there that are beyond them in the classroom. It helps us to nurture them as well-rounded young men.
Coaching also gives us the opportunity to teach about critical elements of character: teamwork, fair play, perseverance, and sportsmanship. The fact that our boys compete together makes them feel like teammates, brothers. Not a day passes that we do not highlight lessons about trying hard, about working together, about being respectful toward others including visiting teams or referees.
We don't imagine any of our students playing professional sports, but we do like having the opportunity to teach them on the fields. We use sports to promote physical activity and values. Thus, we don't hire coaches who can teach; rather we hire teachers who can coach.
7. Musicians and Artists Who Teach Their Specialty
When it comes to music and arts, we hire part-time teachers. For music, we have faculty teaching guitar, drums, strings, bluegrass band, and choir. In offering these classes, we were thinking about the most popular choices among boys—ones that would encourage them to want to play music.
For art, all the students take the same course each unit with classes occurring for 50 minutes twice per week. For the most part, these are traditional art courses—drawing, painting, sculpture, history of art, and photography. We have had some non-traditional classes as well, however, such as martial arts and cooking. We also use this time in our schedule to teach other courses we think our boys should have such as first aid, civility, personal finance, home repair and auto maintenance.
8. Regular Attention to Character
Schools tend to teach about ethics in six ways: (1) by the adults' modeling of behavior, (2) through special ethics classes, (3) through discussions in regular classes, (4) through speakers, (5) through helping students to develop good habits of behavior, and (6) by responses to bad behavior.
Each of the methods has merits, but the first and last are the most important. Having good role models for kids is the best thing a school can do to develop virtue. This is something we keep in mind for myself and when we hire faculty at school. It is a fact that we make clear in interviews and throughout the year with the faculty. Our kids learn about appropriate behavior by following the lead of influential adults in their lives.
Schools are also wise to recognize that young people also learn when they make mistakes. We try to take advantage of this fact and communicate very clearly about the importance of being a good person whenever anyone in our community makes an egregious mistake. These happen pretty regularly.
We also teach classes on ethics and address ethics whenever we get the chance in our regular classes. We teach about honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, compassion and courage. We are also well aware of the situations that tend to arise in our boys' lives that lead to teaching moments about particular virtues. For example, we teach about respect in sports—respect for referees and opposing teams. We teach about compassion whenever we get a chance, as the virtue is sometimes more difficult for boys to cultivate than with girls. We teach about courage, which we define as doing the right thing even when you fear doing it, every chance we get, and opportunities arise pretty regularly.
When we talk about these virtues, we don't usually approach them as clear, "black and white" choices. There are, of course, some clear-cut right versus wrong situations. Lying about something important such as a test is an absolute no-no, while a white lie ("yes, Grandma, I like the sweater") is sometimes appropriate. We tell our boys that they want to get in the habit of telling the truth and that, when in doubt, they should err on the side of telling the truth.
We also encourage the kids develop habits of behavior that tend to lead virtuous lives. We believe, for example, that looking others in the eye, getting to know people by name, and even holding doors for others are all good ethical habits, ones that condition us all to be aware of and empathetic toward others.
We thus try to teach about being a good person throughout our day and in a variety of contexts. It is the most important thing we do and if we are modeling good behavior and doing our ethical teaching well, all our other educational goals are far more likely to follow.
9. A Daily Homework Email
At the end of every day, our students have a 40-minute study hall. Their first responsibility there is to fill out their planners if they haven't done so already. Their homework is on the board, they fill in the day for all their subjects (they have homework in 4 of 5 classes virtually every day), and then their study hall teachers initial the day.
As we believe that developing good organizational habits is a critically important part of a good middle school education, we insist that the boys do this. No matter how organized they are, they have to do their planners every day. We are trying to inculcate a lifelong habit of keeping a planner.
As a backup system for the students and as a system of alerting the parents to the daily homework expectations, Field School sends an email to all our parents at about 3:00 every day with the day's homework for each class. It allows the parents to keep up with the daily work and it is ideal for students to keep up with work when they have been absent or sick.
Both boys and parents are carefully instructed that the homework email is not a substitute for the boys' responsibility for knowing their own assignments. The email is sent to parents only and parents should only allow it to be consulted under extraordinary circumstances. If a child forgets his planner at school, we don't think he should not have the opportunity to do his work. But we try to make it clear that this is a part of their education—being responsible for their work.
Our experience in other schools has been that other systems such as relying fully on the boys or posting on websites tend to be flawed. We give one of our teachers this responsibility in order to keep everyone prepared and informed. Our parents tell us that this regular communication is one of our best features.
10. Regular Field Trips
We take field trips all the time, an average of one every four weeks since we have started. We pay the fees ourselves in order to minimize the administration and inconvenience for parents. Sometimes, on a nice day, we'll drop everything and just go hiking for the afternoon. Generally, however, our field trips fall into one of five categories: places of work, museums, shows, speakers, and events.
The most interesting of these might be the places of work. We have visited a power plant, a guitar factory, a pathology lab and the state capitol. These trips are usually good because the hosts are so open, prepared, and eager to teach. I enjoy these as much as any of the boys—seeing how others work and appreciating their passion for their professions. We also like to go to events. If something interesting is going on in our town or near us that complements our work, we go.
Teachers in bigger schools typically take few field trips because they are, quite frankly, a headache. The eager teachers have to get permission from school officials and parents, arrange the financing, and figure out transportation. These are often complicated events that require a tremendous amount of planning. Over time, these eager teachers get worn down by the unnecessary administrative demands and negative peer pressure of the field trips, and scale back their ambitions. The result is that students rarely leave school in order to learn, particularly as they get older.
This is unfortunate because field trips are excellent learning opportunities. The education takes place before, during and after the event. Prior to it, we prep for the place. When we went to Montpelier during our civics unit a few years ago, we studied James Madison thoroughly. We visited his home while it was being reconstructed and our tour guide provided a good deal of unexpected details about the building process itself. We always follow up with a thorough discussion of each trip. However, in the following years, in a school as small as ours, we continue to refer back to the collective experience we have had. Field trips make a strong impression, and good teachers can use the lessons of them for years.
11. A Sensible Daily and Annual Schedule
Our daily schedule has several features we think are important for our students. We begin with a ten-minute morning meeting, with announcements, presentations and songs. Our students have four of their five core classes each day, with 50 minutes per class, but the class times vary from day to day, so that they do not have a particular class at the same time daily. That way, a "morning" student has different classes in the morning from day to day as does an "after lunch" student. There's also one non-academic class every day—art, music, or silent reading.
Our annual schedule is equally important, and different from typical schools in featuring long periods of Monday-through Friday school weeks broken up by week-long breaks. We start in late August and take a week off in October, November, February, and April, plus two weeks in December-January. Our only single days off are Labor Day and Memorial Day. It's usually six weeks of school, then a week off, and so on. The regular schedule brings structure for our students and families, and the weeks off, without homework, allow all of us time for relaxation, reflection, and recharging. Our students and faculty come back from breaks ready to get back to work.