There is nothing quite like chaperoning the Form II class to Washington, D.C., each year to remind me what it's like to be in the eighth grade at Shady Side. Perhaps the most telling moment for me was when the students all sat quietly, riveted to the explanation that Mr. Mark Talisman gave about the need for the Holocaust Museum. The students had recently finished a unit on genocide, and we were lucky enough, through the help of a parent, to have the opportunity to be addressed by Mr. Talisman, who was a vice president of the museum and is still an active member. Our children were able to go from the silliness of the bus ride to the incredible intensity of this setting, and to embody one of our Guiding Principles, respect. It made a huge difference that they were well-informed about what they were about to see, so they had a context; but even so, they were acutely aware and appreciative of the fact that this was an important moment, one that did not allow for distractions or inattention. I was immensely proud of them throughout the whole visit, but this moment brought it home to me that they have, indeed, internalized so much of what we all work on every day.
At each stop along the way, different children would have their antennae up and ask great questions of the adults, and they all would notice different things. We also got to meet with Nancy Pelosi on the Capitol steps, thanks to another helpful parent, and so we were able to brush up against history in a very meaningful way. Being at Arlington National Cemetery during Prince Harry’s visit gave us the opportunity to witness a 21-gun salute (although no sightings of Harry himself!), and we saw a motorcade leave the White House on our first stop. Various experiences along the way spoke to individual children differently, but I was left with the sense of how much they have grown over three short years, and in what important ways. Yes, there was still plenty of silliness and fun, which is very important too, but the way they responded to what they were shown was enormously satisfying. It was a great trip!
The end of the year is always full of activities and different schedules, so I want to help you out with a bit more information than is on the calendar you received last August. I'm sure you are all aware that exams are coming up, but rest assured that each teacher has planned good review time prior to the tests so the children know what to expect. The point of exams in the Middle School is to get children accustomed to larger, cumulative tests, and the only way to do this is to actually take them. They are an hour and a half long and given over a three-day period. The first test is the English exam (for all three grades) on Wednesday, May 29, followed by a regular day of school with normal dismissal from the Senior School. The next two days have two exams each (social studies and languages on Thursday, science and math on Friday), and there is early dismissal on both days from the Senior School at 12:30 p.m. The following Monday, June 3, there is no school, except for any students who miss an exam during the regular schedule, and then it is Exam Make-Up Day. If this should happen for your child, please contact Mr. Curry to schedule the test(s).
The last week of school is all early dismissals, and all dress-up days. On Tuesday we have our Academic Awards Assembly, which consists of awards for primarily sixth graders and Form I students, as Form II awards are mostly given out at Closing Exercises on Thursday. The parents of students who will be receiving awards will get a phone call from the school so that you may be sure to attend; we do not have enough room in our Cafetorium for all parents to join us. We also acknowledge students who participated in various academic contests during the year, but those numbers are large and we do not call those parents. After the assembly, we have a shortened class schedule for an exam return and book return. Those who would like to return textbooks to the school may have your child do so that day. On Wednesday we have an Athletics Awards Assembly, in which the students of each spring sport receive recognition, followed by a rehearsal for Closing Exercises. Our culminating event on Thursday, Closing Exercises, begins at 9 a.m., but all students are to report to the Middle School at the usual time on Thursday. We will bus everyone over to the McKnight Hockey Center in order to be ready for the 9 a.m. start. The program generally runs until 10:30, so you can plan to pick up your children any time after that. There is plenty of room in the hockey rink, so everyone is welcome to attend! At Closing Exercises we celebrate the Form II students, give out the academic awards for each discipline, and give the named awards for students of each grade. Following the ceremony there is a reception given by the Parents’ Association at the rink for all families of Form II students.
As we all try to keep our heads above water in these last few weeks, we strive for some level of consistency and pacing. The children really need us to help them with this, because there is so much going on, and they cannot always prioritize it themselves. We will do what we can on our end, and we appreciate your help and communication in all of this. Finally, we always try to keep the big picture in mind. For us, the big picture consists of paying attention to all of the students’ growth in so many areas, and recognizing that for all of them. A few will receive awards, but the great majority will have made wonderful strides that we want to acknowledge as well. It is a long road, and one that is always full of bumps, but it can also be a joyous one, and this is the time of year that we celebrate so many accomplishments. I look forward to seeing many of you here on campus over the upcoming weeks!
The spring rollercoaster has begun! It’s amazing how right after Spring Break the tempo always picks up, and while nature comes back alive we keep up with her in all of our activities. The next two months are very busy and exciting ones, and we love being able to get outdoors with your children for classes and sports. We’re just so happy to finally see the sun!
Over the Spring Break two important things happened at the Middle School that we look forward to impacting our lives here for a long time. The first of these was the installation of the Middle School version of the SSA Farm that was begun at the Senior School last year. Our garden of 12 raised beds was installed by our facilities staff, and is ready for spring planting in the very near future. We intend for the science classes to be using the beds in their curriculum in the coming years, and Mr. Brunner’s classes have already started seedlings that are ready for planting whenever the weather permits. Mr. Tim McGuigan is in charge of our garden and he has worked with the Science Department and others to plan it, and he is already working with some of our students. We will plant vegetables for use in our cafeteria, as well as flowers that will attract certain birds and insects, and other plants that are relevant to the students’ work in their classes. It is a wonderful opportunity to get our children outside and to learn more about the world around them, and our location is the perfect place for it to happen!
Secondly, although you might not even notice it as you drive up our driveway, every one of the old leaded glass windows from the original house was replaced with beautiful new double paned windows that look remarkably like the old ones. We did not have to part with the incredible stained glass windows by the staircase and in the library, as they were cleaned and encased so that we can continue to enjoy them for years to come. We can already feel the difference in the temperature in the building, and the savings are projected to be sizeable. The Academy is committed to being a responsible consumer of energy, and this large project will go a long way towards that goal.
Another project that we have been working on is that of the schedule. Last week Mr. Curry and I spent a day with a scheduling expert from Independent School Management (ISM) in order to look at some different models that we might be able to use starting next year. We are trying to achieve a few different goals, the main one being to lengthen the class periods so that the students have more time to settle in, get focused and work on things that take more than 30-minute increments (we currently have 40-minute periods). This is necessary not only for the obvious subjects such as science and art, but all of our classes. We are also looking to get more conference time and a less frantic pace in general. We have a few possibilities that we will be presenting to the faculty soon, and will keep you up to date as we make our final decisions.
There are a few important events that happen in April that I want to remind you about so that you can get them on your schedule if they are not already there. My very favorite day of the year, Grandparents’ and Special Friends Day, is on Thursday, April 11. I love to see the care with which your children attend to their visitors, and to see the love that shines through in both directions. Grandparents and special friends are welcome any time from 8:30 a.m. to the end of the day at 2:10 p.m., or any part of the day that works for them. Their visitors shadow the children through their classes, and they get to see a day in the life of the Middle School students as well as some musical performances in the cafetorium in the morning. We would like to have a head count for lunch, so if you have not yet told Mrs. Cephas about your family’s plans please do let her know. We will have pre-printed name tags for those whom we know to be coming, and the others we will hand-print. The Form II Parents’ Meeting will be on Thursday evening, April 18, at 7:30 p.m. in the cafetorium. At this meeting we will discuss the upcoming trip to Washington, D.C., as well as the process for Senior School course registration. You will be receiving an itinerary for the trip via email, but at this meeting we will talk about our plans and expectations. We also have two concerts in April! On April 18, many Middle School musicians will travel to the Junior School for the Middle-Junior School Concert that is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. This is a different time from the original calendar, so please note the change. Finally, the Spring Concert is onWednesday, April 24, at 7:30 p.m. at the Hillman Center for the Performing Arts on the Senior School campus. This is our musical grand finale, and is always a special treat. Let the roller coaster roll!
We have so much going on at this time of year, and we know that families do, too. As always, we want to partner with you in our efforts, so please keep in touch as we make our ways through the spring. We look forward to seeing you at any of the many events in the upcoming months.
One of the great pleasures we have as a PK-12 Academy is being able to watch your children grow and develop over a long period of time; whether he or she starts in our Junior School, or joins us in the Middle School, it is a delight to have the opportunity to observe their growth over the short span of years that we get to see them. This was brought home to us very clearly over the last month, as the Junior School students and faculty came to watch our performance of The King and I, and we got to go to the Senior School to watch their production of West Side Story. In both cases the students were enthralled at what the older kids were capable of doing, and the faculties from each campus were amazed at the incredible growth of students whom they had known just a few years before as much younger and less mature children. And it all seems to happen so fast! It is also a wonderful opportunity for us to connect the dots from division to division, the need for which is clear, even in our age of hyper-connectivity.
This connecting of the dots from campus to campus is evident this year in a number of places, such as in the Academy’s Strategic Planning committees, as well as in our own inter-divisional meetings. All three divisions are working to ensure that the flow from campus to campus is as well integrated as it can be, and, as we are, by definition, in the middle, we have a big job in straddling two transitions. One of the places that families will see this work coming to fruition next year is in our Math Department, which is embracing the Singapore Math program that was started in the Junior School just this last year. Next year our standard sixth grade and Form I classes will use the Singapore Math approach, which for the sixth graders from the Junior School will be an extension of what they already do, and we will ease the Form I pre-algebra classes into the approach. All advanced classes, such as Math 1 and 2, Form I Algebra and Form II Geometry, and Form II Algebra, will continue on with the same program as in prior years, but the bulk of our students in grades six and seven will have the opportunity to take Singapore Math. This program is highly successful in training young math minds, and we are excited to bring it to the Middle School next year. It is one more way that we are working to connect the dots!
Another job we have is of connecting our students to the greater Pittsburgh community, and the world outside. This last month has been great for us in this capacity, as we have not only brought the outer world to our students, but we are also taking them to it. Internally we had Eliot Schrefer, the author of the book Endangered, come to visit with our students and talk with each grade not only about the bonobos (great apes) about which he writes, but also about the process of writing a book. We also had a residency program with Attack Theatre, a dance company in Pittsburgh, that worked with a number of art and PE classes together. The sixth grade took its field trip to the Carnegie Museum, in which they split time between the Art Museum and the Museum of Natural History, and the entire Middle School, along with the Junior School and children from Fox Chapel Country Day School, were treated to a performance from the CLO, “We the People.” Finally, this week as part of their study of the Holocaust, the Form II class will be attending a showing of the film “Nicky’s Family” on the Southside, as part of the Jewish Film Festival. All of these efforts help our children to understand their place in the larger community and the larger world, and I thank everyone who worked so hard to help our children broaden their horizons through these experiences.
Finally, I want to remind you of one of our favorite events of the year, which is Grandparents’ and Special Friends’ Day on April 11. This is a wonderful day in which your children escort their grandparents or special friends through their schedules, and participate in classes with them. It is a dress-up day in their honor, and we look forward to welcoming our many guests. Please see the flyer below, and do let us know how many extra guests will be coming that day for lunch.
This weekend’s warm and sunny weather, coming right after our snow day last week, is a reminder of the nature of March and the coming of spring. Many of us are itching to get back to digging in the dirt, both here at our new Middle School version of the SSA Farm, as well as at home. The tops of daffodils are starting to peek through the earth, and although I know there will still be cold days to come I am heartened by the sight of them. I hope that you and your families will enjoy some peace and relaxation during Spring Break, no matter what the weather, and that your children get to re-charge their batteries before the final push to the finish line.
One of the single greatest tasks of adolescence is learning to look outside of one’s self and to see and understand others. Watching your children develop this capacity is remarkable and wonderfully rewarding, and we had some terrific examples of it last Monday on our Martin Luther King Day of Service. The students who were able to join in the activities came away not only with a great sense of accomplishment but also with a deeper understanding of the struggles that other people can have. In an email one parent told me that her son “…felt really good knowing he contributed to help make meals that would feed others.” Another parent said that her daughter now wants to look into other opportunities for service, after having spent a satisfying day on Monday. All of these gains are important not just to our community, which they certainly are, but also to our children’s development. In a recent article in The Atlantic, called “There’s More to Life than Being Happy,” author Emily Esfahani Smith discusses not only the importance of being happy, but also the importance of meaning in our lives. Although the two are not mutually exclusive, meaning comes not from doing something primarily for the self, but doing something for others. Smith quotes Martin Seligman, who says in the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.” For 11-14 year-olds this can be a challenge, but one that is definitely within reach. By doing these activities they also have the satisfaction of working together as a group to accomplish a larger task, and getting to know each other, and adults, outside of the classroom. They also can start to feel the importance of looking beyond themselves, and to their larger community. Many thanks to everyone who helped make the day run so smoothly, and to those who were able to participate.
Far from being slow winter months, January and February are packed with interesting events here at the Middle School! The sixth grade has already had a visit to two local Hindu temples for social studies class, as well as its interdisciplinary unit of Energy Quest, and later this week they are setting off to hear the Pittsburgh Symphony downtown. In February we will have a visiting author for all three grades (see Ms. Turner’s attached letter), and the Middle School musical, The King and I, will be presented for the students on Feb. 28 (a dress-up day!), and for friends and family on March 1 at 7:30 p.m. in the Cafetorium. We will all attend the Senior School production of West Side Story in February, which is always a treat for us.
Along with these important events our regularly scheduled activities are buzzing along quite nicely. Recently our Science Olympiad team took a first place in an Ohio tournament, and in so doing it beat out the current National Champions of Solon, which was an historic first! Our swim team had an impressive outing in Cleveland at Hathaway Brown, whose pool records in two events now belong to an SSA swimmer. Our other teams are also having success in both scores and growth, and our committees are full of plans. And hats off to the flag raisers who have braved all sorts of weather morning and evening to do their daily duties! All of these efforts give our community life and energy, and are a pleasure to see.
We all look forward to seeing you here at the Middle School on Feb. 5, along with your child for Parent/Student/Teacher Conference Day. The focus of the day will be on your child’s academic and social progress so far, and if you have not made your appointment yet please do call Mrs. Cephas at 412-968-3100 soon. Also, please be aware that on Friday, Feb. 15, the entire school has an early dismissal at 12 p.m. so that the faculty can have a half-day meeting. This is a nice start to the long Presidents’ Day weekend, and while it is on the Middle School calendar it is new for us, and I want to be sure that it does not catch you by surprise.
Finally, in looking forward to spring, which I am assured will eventually come, we want to let you know that we will be starting a new raised-bed garden here at the Middle School, and it will be run by English teacher Mr. Tim McGuigan. In the future we hope to use it in our science classes in our fabulous outdoor setting, but this spring we are starting with assembling eight raised beds at the end of the Benedum Terrace behind the building. This complements part of the Academy’s Strategic Vision, which calls for us to be thoughtful stewards of our environment, and to better utilize the incredible space we are so fortunate to occupy. Mr. McGuigan is hoping to have input (and help!) from any families who are interested, so please feel free to check in with him at email@example.com. Our plans for involving our students are still evolving, and I will keep you updated as we move ahead.
I look forward to seeing many of you on Conference Day, at the play, or at any of the sporting events that we have coming up in February.
Recently I was hiking in the woods outside of Pittsburgh with a good friend, and we were on a mission. There had been a forest fire in the general vicinity a few weeks previously, and we wanted to see what kind of damage had been done. We knew that it had not completely destroyed the forest, but it had covered about sixteen acres, so it was no small event. We walked along chatting amiably, she quizzing me on my ability to recognize certain kinds of trees (improving), until at one point she said “It smells funny here,” at about the same time that I said “Why aren’t there any leaves here?” We both took our eyes off the ground in front of us and saw the answer to our two observations – we had come upon the edges of the fire. Before we set to looking directly at the damage, we laughed out loud at ourselves. Here we were, actually looking for the fire area, and the two immediate pieces of evidence that presented themselves to us came as surprises, and we didn’t get it. It took lifting up our heads and looking at the entire surrounding area and putting it all into context for us to be able to understand those small bits of evidence and complete our understanding. The same is true for us in working with children each and every day, in that we always have to keep the big picture in mind, because each small detail is only a part of the whole story. We have to see the details, but then look up, and put them into the big picture. It’s not always as easy as it sounds!
Last week you received the first term reports for your children, and you will have gotten details as well as big picture information from their teachers. We hope that you had good conversations with your children about their work in each class, and what is going well and why. Again, what may seem obvious to the adults is not always clear to them, so the conversations are extremely important components of the process.
Just as it is too easy to notice the smell of burned leaves and not see the entire forest, it can be easy to get caught up in one’s daily schedule and not take the time out for some really important opportunities. Although last week was a very hectic one for the Form II students with their visits to the Senior School, we still took out time to attend a talk at the Hillman Center by Mr. Howard Chandler, a survivor of the Holocaust. Afterwards, we were incredibly fortunate to have Mr. Chandler come to the Middle School to meet with the Form II students to continue his talk about his experiences, and answer their many questions. Although they have not reached World War II in their studies yet, and the week was already jammed with events, it was so very important for them to hear from Mr. Chandler and interact with him. They were completely mesmerized by his account of being taken from his home in Poland with his family, all of whom perished except Mr. Chandler and his brother. They learned of his experience working in munitions at three different concentration camps, and how he managed to survive. To meet this amazing man and hear his voice, much like everyone’s own grandfather, was an experience that I hope they will always remember. I want to also add that I was so impressed with our own students during the question and answer session, and they made all of the adults proud. They were profoundly respectful and incredibly thoughtful. Their questions showed not only a good understanding of what happened in general, but just as importantly they showed compassion and caring on a level that eighth graders do not always display. Mr. and Mrs. Chandler noted that they, too, were pleased with the session, and I thank Classrooms Without Borders for bringing them to us. It was a memorable event.
This is the time of year when events seem to outnumber the hours that we have, and here at the Middle School we have been very active. We had a very successful Form I and II Dance on Friday night, and we look forward to our annual Winter Concert next week, on Dec. 19, at 7:30 p.m. at the Hillman Center on the Senior School campus. This is always a high point of the season for us, and the musical performances are superb. There was a Robotics Tournament here last weekend, and athletic contests are proceeding daily. Add the holidays onto all of this and we are having a very busy time!
I hope that during all of this busy-ness you get a chance to slow down and enjoy your families. Please do remember to lift up your heads and see the whole picture, and embrace the joy that your delightful children bring. For those who celebrate it have a Happy Hanukkah, and for those who celebrate Christmas I do hope that it is a Merry one. I wish everyone a very Happy New Year, and a safe and restful Winter Break.
Amy B. Nixon Head of Middle School
by Ms. Nixon
on Wednesday December 12, 2012 at 03:26PM
Every 10 years independent schools such as ours undergo a rigorous accreditation process, and here at Shady Side we are hosting a visiting team from the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools this week. This group of 15 educators from around the state is visiting classes and observing every aspect of our school life from drop-off and pick-up to fire drills, athletics, and lunch. They have met with both faculty and students, and by the end of three days they will have been steeped in the details of our curriculum, pedagogy and processes enough to then write a report to Mr. Cangiano that will list commendations and recommendations. Every school is evaluated relative to its own mission, and the visiting team’s goal is to see if we do what we say we do. We have prepared for this visit for over a year; we spent the entire last year crafting a self-study report in which we examined all of our programs for this very purpose. It is an arduous process, but one that is ultimately quite rewarding, and we have been engaging the team in meaningful conversations about our school. Combining this feedback with the forward-looking Strategic Vision that was just rolled out, we will have a very clear path laid out to travel down, and a very exciting one. We look forward to sharing more with you in the months to come.
We are just coming to the end of the trimester and wrapping up course work and athletics, and looking ahead to the Term 2. Everyone accomplished a huge amount this last term; students got their footing in their classrooms, athletes came together as teams, and we just saw a wonderful fall drama production, Mystery at Shady Acres. Our committees are up and running; the flag is going up the pole, the school store is now open, and we have raised hundreds of dollars for the victims of Hurricane Sandy and for the Boys’ and Girls’ Club. Your children are growing up amazingly quickly, and their learning curves often resemble their physical growth spurts, steady, but erratic at times. Over the long haul, however, it is important to keep in mind that it is the growth and progress that is most important, and not just a single set of grades. You will be getting your child’s Term 1 reports after Thanksgiving, and attached to them will be a letter of explanation of our new effort grades. For the last few years we have given effort grades on a scale of 1 to 3, and the faculty felt that the range was not wide enough to reflect the levels of effort that they see, so we have expanded the range from 1 to 5. There will be a guide as to what each of the numbers reflect, and I hope that you will take the time to read it through carefully.
When Term 2 begins next week our students will all be in their new athletics and activities, but we also have a few options that meet after athletics that are offered for any interested students, such as robotics, rocketry, and MathCounts. This term Mr. Jenkins, one of our Latin teachers, is adding a weekly Philosophy Club to the lineup, which is open to anyone who would like to join. It will begin on Thursday, Nov. 15, from 4-5:30 at the Middle School, and transportation will be available from the Senior School after athletics to the Middle School, where students will be picked up at 5:30. A number of students are already eager to begin discussing ancient Greek philosophy, the birth of modern philosophy, and to learn the basics of symbolic logic. In order to join, please just have your child speak to Mr. Jenkins, or appear at the first session.
Every day I am thankful for the amazing students who come to our school, and the wonderful teachers who work with them so diligently. We can succumb to the daily-ness of life, and even become used to marble floors, carved fireplaces and curving staircases, but we should always keep in mind how incredibly fortunate we are to find ourselves together in this terrific place with so many eager, open minds just ready to be engaged – both children and adults! It is beautiful, yes, and not to be taken for granted, but it is most special for all of the important relationships that are forged each and every day, that help to build the confidence and competence of every child here. Thank you for sharing them with us, and for working as such strong partners with the Academy. I wish you all a wonderful Thanksgiving together, and I hope that you have a chance to enjoy your family in some quiet (or raucous!) moments together.
Amy B. Nixon Head of Middle School
by Ms. Nixon
on Wednesday November 14, 2012 at 01:23PM
I am always pleased when we get to October at the Middle School, because by now everyone is very much acclimated to the routines of school, and everybody is moving forward. There is an active hum in the classrooms and hallways, as the teachers and students are getting into the “meat” of the curriculum. Field trips are occurring, papers have already been written, and athletic games are being played with a good amount of success. In each of these activities our students are getting feedback on their progress, and they are learning to make adjustments as they go. The ability to receive feedback is a very important part of growing, and one that we pay close attention to here at the Middle School.
Feedback comes to us all in many different fashions. In academic settings it comes mostly in the form of comments, verbal and written, and grades. In social settings it comes by way of facial expressions, conversations, and body language. Both of these arenas can be quite complex for middle school students, as they are just now becoming more aware of their strengths and challenges, especially relative to their peers. The Middle School motto of “What you domatters” is especially appropriate for children of this age, because they can now see beyond themselves a bit better, and they can start to see that the efforts they put into something – anything – make a difference in the outcome. They can usually see the connection between effort and results in their schoolwork, and they can also see the connection between their behaviors with each other and how well people co-exist and thrive. Both school and parental feedback are crucial parts of this growth, and from each end the trick is to be supportive but also clear and consistent, and not to shy away from the difficult subjects. Critiques of one’s work or one’s behavior are best received in an environment in which mistakes are seen as tools for learning, and reasonable conversations can take place. That is exactly the kind of environment that we strive to achieve here at the Middle School.
In two weeks we will have our annual fall Parent-Student-Teacher Conferences, and I do hope that you will be able to attend. At the Middle School we invite the parents and the children because we feel that it is important to include the student, who is the one with the responsibilities for his or her work, in the conversation. Simply talking about the child and his or her work puts it all at a removed distance and sends the message that this is for the adults only, when nothing could be further from the truth. If “What you do matters,” then we should all be discussing it together. This is a joint effort, and with everyone on the same page, working towards the same goal, we hope to support each child in the way that works best for him. The fall conferences focus mainly on the students’ adjustment to the new grade levels, material, and their social well-being, and not so much on performance. If you have not yet signed up for your conference on Oct. 17, please call Mrs. Cephas at 412-968-3100 to do so.
There are a number of other important events in October, and you will be receiving information about each of them in our upcoming Parents' Newsletters. We have our Book Fair on Oct. 23 and 24, and the parent committee, along with Ms. Guering and Mrs. Brunner, does an outstanding job of arranging this high point for us each year. We are truly a community of readers, which is clear by the excitement generated by this fabulous event. We thank the many volunteers in advance, and we look forward to seeing you there! Also in October we have Bring Your Parents to School Day, which is a terrific opportunity to shadow your child through as much of the day as your schedule allows. Parents always find the day to be exhilarating but exhausting, as it gives you an excellent sense of how much your child really does each day. Finally, on Oct. 26, we have the Flavors of Fall party, which is a terrific evening event that includes all parents from the Middle School as well as the faculty and their spouses or significant others. This is a lovely time to mix and mingle, to meet new people, and to catch up with old friends. The evening is always delightful, and is yet one more example of how well our community works together. We have a wonderful partnership, and we are always happy to celebrate it!
We are well into what feels like a happy and productive year, and are enjoying working with your children every day. I look forward to seeing you at any or all of our upcoming Middle School events, and thank you for being such excellent partners.
The opening of school this year has been filled with excitement and enthusiasm on the parts of students and faculty alike – we are all very happy to be back! It is amazing how quickly everyone settles into a routine, and even the sixth graders have basically figured out where they are going. Even when there are the inevitable mishaps (I met up with a sixth grader who had misread the schedule and went to English class twice one day!) everyone has taken them in stride, and people step up to help in ways large and small. The students have taken to heart the Middle School motto of “What you do matters,” and are living it out daily. Our Form II students are stepping up quite nicely as leaders, and the Form I class is adjusting to being out of the sixth grade wing. We could not have asked for a better school opening, especially considering that we are as full as the Middle School has ever been, with 237 students. So far it is clear that when you have 237 dedicated and focused children together with a great faculty we can accomplish many things!
The other exciting element of the new school year has been the new faculty who have joined us. Partly because of the larger size of the sixth grade, and some unexpected summer departures, we have a number of new faces who are already bringing us fresh ideas and perspectives. We welcome to the Middle School the following teachers: Mrs. Lauren Bowser (Form II French), Mrs. Molly Braver (sixth grade social studies), Ms. Andrea Cespedes (sixth grade, Form I and II Spanish), Ms. Molly Girts (Form II social studies), Dr. Sara Kajder (Form II English), Ms. Kristen Rohr (sixth grade English), and Mr. Michael Williams (sixth grade social studies). There is an attachment along with this letter that will give you information about each new teacher’s background. We are very pleased to welcome them all here, and I hope that you get a chance to meet many of them this week at Parents’ Night.
Parents’ Night is probably our best-attended event all year, as well it should be. This year it is on Wednesday, Sept. 12, and it begins at 6:45p.m. for schedule pick-up and the program begins at 7 p.m. in the Middle School Cafetorium. At Parents’ Night you will get a copy of your child’s schedule, and you will follow it from class to class to meet the teachers and to hear about the curriculum for the year. While it is not a time to talk about your child in particular, you have the wonderful opportunity to meet the teachers and hear about the class’s plan, and the student expectations for the year. As your partners, the teachers always appreciate the excellent turn-out, as they want you to know what is going on in their classrooms. We are very proud of what we are able to do with your children, and we look forward to sharing it with you. Please remember that Wednesday is an early dismissal for all Middle School students.
After Parents’ Night, we look forward to our Parent-Teacher-Student Conferences, which take place with your child’s advisor on Oct. 17. This is your first formal opportunity to meet with your child’s advisor, and there is no school that day in order to be able to make it happen. At the Middle School we include the student in our conferences, so that, as the learner in the equation, he or she can participate in the conversation. We have two conferences during the year, and the first one is designed to reflect upon interests, strengths, and challenges to work on throughout the upcoming year, as opposed to the early grades. You will have also received a basic interim report by then, to give you a sense of how your child is settling in to his or her new classes. You may schedule this appointment by calling Mrs. Cephas at 412-968-3100. We look forward to seeing you then.
In schools we are so very lucky to have a cycle in which to work, with a new beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning of a school year is always filled with possibilities, and wonderful enthusiasm. The children rekindle old friendships and start to make new ones, they review previous work and dive into new ideas, and they remember old patterns and can start new ones. It is a terrific opportunity for us all, and it has been so much fun to see the students come in the doors with new hopes and challenges. Not only have they grown tremendously in size over the last few months, but we also sense pockets of new maturity and new perspectives. While such growth is rarely a straight trajectory, it is exciting to witness it in so many ways. Thank you for sharing your children with us, and for being our partners on this wonderful journey.
The middle of August is here, all of the stores are full of back to school items and we are just (with special emphasis on the just) about ready to go! Here at the Middle School we are tidying up the building to be ready for the children, as there has been a lot of activity over the summer. This letter is our first communication to you in a few months, and I hope that it will answer questions that you may have concerning the start of the school year. Included in this mailing you will also see the cycle schedule for the year as well as the Parent/Student Handbook. For those of you new to the Middle School we will also have a New Parent Orientation on Wednesday, Aug. 15, at 6 p.m. in the Cafetorium when we can answer any questions that you still might have. This meeting is by no means mandatory, and if you cannot come please do not worry. It is mostly an opportunity for parents to ask last minute questions and to go over any information about which you are not completely sure.
Over the summer we have had some work done in the building, but mostly our work has been of the organizational type. We have had new flooring installed in the art room and in a few other spaces where the floors are tiled, along with some new paint. There are new draperies in the music room, and we have had some important but invisible (to us) work done on the roof. Very soon we will have new windows installed throughout the building, which will make us much warmer in the winter, and much more energy efficient throughout. Of course we will not be replacing our magnificent large windows by the main staircase or in the library, but we will be encasing them so that they will no longer leak. We are all looking forward to that!
Everyone knows that the heart and soul of the Middle School is not the building but the teachers, and this year we have some new faculty to welcome to our ranks. We had a few surprises in the summer with faculty who elected not to return for personal reasons, so we have been busy hiring and re-arranging on our end. I know that families will be saddened to learn that neither Mr. Yeh nor Ms. Banwell is returning, each for his or her own personal reasons, and we will miss them very much. On the other hand we do have some exciting new additions to the faculty, and I am pleased to introduce them to you here.
Lauren Bowser: French
Mrs. Lauren Bowser is joining us to teach our one section of Form II French I this year. Ms. Bowser received her BS in Education with a teaching certification for K-12 from the California University of Pennsylvania and her MA in Foreign Languages with a concentration in French Literature from the University of West Virginia. She has also spent time at the Universite de Nantes in France in the Master FLE Pedagogy Program. Most recently she was a teaching fellow at Pitt, where she taught French I and II to college students.
Molly Braver: Social Studies
Mrs. Molly Braver is a Shady Side Academy alumna from the class of 1994, and we are so happy to have her back! Mrs. Braver received her BA in Sociology from the University of Colorado at Boulder and her MA in Secondary Education in Social Studies at Duquesne University. Since then Mrs. Braver has taught at Knoxville Middle School and most recently at Taylor Allderdice High School in the City of Pittsburgh. There she was able to create her own Comparative Religions course, and has taught World History, Civics, AP U.S. History and Philosophy. Mrs. Braver has also done work with Pittsburgh’s World Affairs Council, and has traveled to Poland with Classrooms Without Borders. She will be teaching four sections of sixth grade Social Studies and will be a sixth grade advisor.
Andrea Cespedes: Spanish
Our students who took Spanish last year will remember Ms. Cespedes well, as she stepped in to the Spanish classes as a long-term replacement in the spring. Ms. Cespedes has worked at both the Middle School and the Junior School, and is very well acquainted with our program and expectations. She comes to us with her BA from the University of South Florida in Sociology, and has her MS in Elementary Education from Duquesne University. Ms. Cespedes will teach Spanish to the sixth grade and Form I and II, and she will also be a Form I advisor.
Molly Girts: Social Studies
Ms. Molly Girts is joining us to teach four sections of Form II Social Studies this year, and as a Form II advisor. Ms. Girts is originally from Virginia, and she earned her BA in History and Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh as well as her MA in Political Science. She was working towards her PhD there when she realized that she would rather be teaching than researching. She has taught at Pitt, and is excited to be in the classroom at the middle school level. Ms. Girts is also an accomplished tennis player, and she will coach tennis for us in the spring.
Mary Guering: Library
We are very fortunate to have Ms. Mary Guering here permanently as our Middle School Librarian. Ms. Guering was our Interim Librarian last year, and she went through the full-scale search and came out on top for us. Ms. Guering received her BA in Communications from the University of Pittsburgh, as well as her Masters of Library Science. Prior to joining us at the Middle School Ms. Guering was the Children’s Librarian at the Mars Public Library, and she also worked in the library at the Senior School here at Shady Side. Ms. Guering is a sixth grade advisor as well as the Librarian.
Sara Kajder: English
Dr. Sara Kajder has worked in both university settings and in schools for a number of years, and the focus of her university research has been middle school learners. Dr. Kajder received her BA in English Literature from the University of Pittsburgh and her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Virginia. At the university level she has taught in the Education Departments of the University of Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia, and she has worked in middle schools in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Dr. Kajder has a particular interest in how technology can be used in an effective manner, particularly in English classes, and has written articles and books such as The Tech Savvy English Classroom. Although Dr. Kajder has lived much of her adult life in Virginia, she is originally from Pittsburgh, and has recently moved back to be closer to her family. Dr. Kajder will teach Form II English and she will be a Form II advisor.
Michael Williams: Social Studies
Mr. Michael Williams did his student teaching in Social Studies with us last year under the auspices of Chatham University, and this year he will be teaching one section of sixth grade social studies. Mr. Williams earned his BA in History from Syracuse University and his MAT in Secondary Education from Wesley College in Dover, Delaware. He is also a lacrosse goalie and coach, and played on the Division I National Championship team in 2009 for Syracuse.
I also want to mention that starting this year our school counselor, Dr. Claudia Henry, will be here at the Middle School on a full-time basis, which will be a great help for us all. She is also in charge of our advisory program, and can be helpful to both students and parents alike. Please feel free to contact her if you have any questions or concerns.
All of our returning families will be fairly familiar with our procedures here at the Middle School, but for the many families who are new to us, and to Shady Side, let me take a moment to explain how we deliver information to you. Each month I will write a letter such as this, and in it will be important information about what has recently been going on at school, as well as things to mark on your calendars for the upcoming month. Only this August letter comes to you in both a hard copy as well as electronically, as all other monthly letters will come only electronically. There are usually attachments as well, as there are with this letter. Please see the lists below to see what is coming as a hard copy this time, and what is available only electronically. In this monthly communication I will remind you of some important dates, and I may add some new items as they come up. Please do take the time to read through the letter, as the information in it will be useful to both you and your child. The letter will also be posted on the Academy website at www.shadysideacademy.org on the Middle School page.
The Academy website is an increasingly important place for parents to get information concerning the activities at school, as well as the Handbook, school forms, directions to athletic contests and teacher pages. All Middle School faculty keep their teacher pages with homework assignment listings, and often they also have downloadable assignments as well. These pages are generally pretty accurate, although shifts can occur on a daily basis, so we do ask the children to keep their daily planners with them at all times in order to record any such changes. The teacher pages are particularly helpful for checking on test and project dates and helping the children to plan ahead in their very busy lives. Also please do refer to our school calendar and check our vacation schedule. It is a very generous one, so I ask that you please plan family trips with these dates in mind.
Everything we do here at Shady Side hinges upon our understanding of the Academy Guiding Principles of Respect, Honesty, Responsibility, Kindness and Safety. These principles are what guide our relationships with each other, and therefore create the learning atmosphere that is critical to our success with the children. They are also the underpinnings of everything that is included in the enclosed Parent/Student Handbook. Your child will receive a copy of this on the first day of school, but prior to that we think it is important for you to read through the Handbook with your child in order for everyone to have the same understandings of the rules and expectations, and how they fit into our Guiding Principles. It can also answer many questions for families ahead of time, so please do take some time out to go over it. I call to your attention in particular the school code of ethics, the dress code and the attendance procedures. The “S” Book, which is an Academy-wide school directory, will be available both electronically (on the website) or for a small cost in hard copy.
When your children arrive here at the end of the month the opening days are full of organizational activities. They will receive their homeroom assignments on their first days here (Orientation Day for the sixth grade and new students, Opening Day for all others) and in their homerooms their advisors will then give them their class schedules. In this mailing you will see a cycle rotation schedule which shows you which day of our cycle matches with the day of the month – it may look confusing, but your child will be able to explain it to you! Also we have school photos taken on that very first day of school, so please do fill out the forms and send them along with your child. If he or she should forget them, do not panic, because we will have the photos taken regardless and then the paperwork can follow. Please also get the enclosed permission slips to us as soon as you can, because field trips in some classes begin right away.
There is one change to the athletic information that you received earlier in the summer, which is that this year we are offering MathCounts as an option for the athletic/activity time period from 2:10–3:30 p.m. It was not on the list of options that went out earlier, and I did want to let you know that it is now a choice. If your child would like to switch out of a previously selected activity, please email Mrs. Gorse at firstname.lastname@example.org. If your child would like to participate in the MathCounts program, but still would like to take an athletic option, that is still possible. Please have your child speak to Mrs. Fravel, and she will be sure that you all understand how it will work.
Transportation is often a concern, especially at the beginning of the year, so please do check with your district’s bus company before school starts if you have any questions. It is also very helpful if your child knows his or her bus number at dismissal time, so that we can get him or her to the right spot. Remember that dismissal is always from the Senior School, and if everyone follows the faculty’s directions we can have it moving pretty smoothly in no time. The same is true for arrival. Please do pull up to the far yellow line in the mornings to dismiss children from a car, and never pull around cars that are still discharging passengers for obvious safety reasons. Discharge passengers from between the two yellow lines only, and always pull as far forward as you can before doing so. When we all work together on these things they go quite well.
Our goal at Shady Side is to communicate with you clearly and effectively so that we can all work together in the best interest of your children. You will receive regular updates on the academic progress of your children, and we encourage you to ask any questions that you might have either by phone or by email. Our guidelines are that teachers will respond to you within 24 hours, but most people get back much more quickly than that. The communication that we have with you is vital to our happy and productive partnership, and we find that sooner is much better than later. Your children grow by leaps and bounds throughout these Middle School years, and while some of their growth is fairly predictable sometimes it can take us by surprise, and the more we are in touch the better it is for the children.
I love the fresh start that comes with the new school year, as the children who come in the doors are the same but very different from the children who left in June. They are not only changed in the obvious ways of being taller and more grown up, but the subtle changes in their tastes and abilities are so much fun to observe and work through with them. We all get a clean slate, and the chance to decide how we want the year to go, and then to make it happen. I look forward to making many things happen with your children and with you this year! Until then, enjoy the last two weeks of summer, resting, playing and reading, and we will all see you very, very soon!
The enthusiasm with which everyone embraces the end of the school year is contagious – we all have lighter steps and bigger smiles, the laughter is louder and the air fairly crackles with excitement. This can only really happen when we are pleased with a job well done, which is exactly the case for most everyone in the Middle School building. The growth in your children is remarkable, as they only vaguely resemble the students who came through the doors in August. When we see them every day it can be hard to gauge their progress, but when one looks back to the beginning of the year it is quite evident that they have all come a long way. They rarely take a straight path, and that can require enormous patience and understanding on the parts of all adults involved, but it is a very worthwhile and satisfying journey, and I congratulate everyone for such great progress!
The end of the school year is full of activities, and the last three days are out of the ordinary and often require some explanation. They are all half days, and the students are dismissed from the Senior School at 12:30. Lunch is not served on those days. Tuesday is a dress up day for the Academic Awards Assembly, Wednesday is a regular dress day for the Athletic Awards Assembly and Thursday is another dress up day for the Closing Exercises at the McKnight Hockey Center on the Senior School campus. Attendance is required for all students. Parents often ask about their attendance, and the Closing Exercises are open to everyone, as there is plenty of space at the rink. Our Awards Assembly is trickier because of the limited space in our cafetorium. Parents of students who are getting special awards on Tuesday will have been notified by the end of this week, although there are also certificates of participation that are given out that day for which there is no notification. The same holds true for the major named awards that are given at Closing Exercises, in that parents will be notified.
Shady Side Academy believes that extraordinary effort and accomplishments should be acknowledged, so we have long-standing awards that are given in most subject areas. Some of these awards are given strictly by the numbers, so that the child with the highest average gets the award. Others take into account participation, level of engagement, how hard the student has pushed him or herself, and a student’s overall impact upon the class. We are incredibly fortunate to have a number of students from which to choose for some of these awards, but recognizing truly stand-out achievement is important for the community. There are inevitable disappointments that go along with this process, but it is important for the children to learn from that as well. Everyone has much to be proud of in their journey through the Middle School, and we must help them to focus on their successes and what they have learned through their journey, so that they can continue productively through the next phase, whether it be the next grade or the next division. Thank you for your help in this process.
One of the best parts about Shady Side is the wonderful sense of community that we have, not only in school but also in our parent body. This is particularly well fostered by the Parents’ Association, and all of the great activities and get-togethers that they sponsor. I would particularly like to thank both Debbie Demchak, as this year’s Middle School Division Chair, and Autumn Katarincic who has headed the entire Academy Parents’ Association. With their leadership they have strengthened the bonds that tie us all together, and we here at school are very grateful to them for all of their efforts. They have been wonderfully supportive, consistent and good natured about all of the tasks that needed to be accomplished, and we thank them very much. I would also be remiss if I did not thank Ellen Jones for all of her years as the head of the ever-popular Bagel Days here at the Middle School. Her last child is moving to the Senior School next year, and we will miss her organization and cheerful presence here every Day 6. Bagel Days will continue on, and we just want to thank her for that very bright spot that she and her many helpers create for us on such a regular basis.
As we say goodbye to our Form II students, we also want to bid farewell to a few faculty members. Ann Hemeon, Terence Parham and Muriel Alim will be moving on at the end of the year and we wish them all the very best.
Everyone looks forward to the less structured and more relaxing days of summer, and we here at the Middle School wish you all sunny days and breezy nights. We hope that you get a chance to read lots of good books (the summer reading lists along with instruction letter and logs can be accessed at www.shadysideacademy.org/summerreading!), swing on a hammock and take a refreshing swim. You will hear from us again in August, but until then have a lovely summer vacation.
Amy Nixon has been Head of the Middle School at Shady Side Academy since 2004, having been an English teacher there for three years prior to that. She is a graduate of Princeton University in history, and was the chair of the history department at the Vail Deane School in New Jersey before moving to Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh she also taught history at the Winchester Thurston School, and was Director of the Middle School there. As an alumna, Amy also served on the Board of Trustees at Winchester Thurston, and was the chair of the Board for four years.