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  • Writer's pictureThe Rivers School

Adolescence and Identity Development: Designing Curriculum that Meets Students Where They Are

This week’s post is written by Melissa Dolan ’98, our Middle School Curriculum Leader

When people outside of the school community ask me what I do for a living, and I inform them that I am a middle school teacher, I often receive one of two reactions. The first can best be summed up as, “Yikes!” followed by “I could never do that.” The other reaction implies that I must have some saint-like qualities.

Neither reaction reveals a particularly flattering or accurate view of middle school students, implying that they are either terrifying or impossible to deal with. Yes, no two days are ever the same in a middle school classroom, but that is often because students bring relentless curiosity, a sense of humor, and new ways for us to think about the world on a daily basis.

At the root of the responses I receive from those well-meaning strangers, I believe, is the accurate acknowledgment that adolescence isn’t always an easy time — as some of us recall from our own experiences. However, as neuroscience professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore points out in her recent book, Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain, “We shouldn¹t demonize adolescence — it is fundamental to who we are. … Adolescence is a formative period of life, when neural pathways are malleable.” (That malleability has educational implications that have been explored in this blogspace before.)

Blakemore argues that adolescence is a critical stage in our identity development, stating, “Adolescence is often the first time we give much thought to how our identity affects our lives and the ways in which other people see us.” Furthermore, during this time period, “your sense of who you are — your moral and political beliefs, your music and fashion tastes, what social group you associate with — undergoes profound change.”

The adolescent brain, she points out, “is changing in important ways: we should understand it, nurture it — and celebrate it.”The Rivers middle school curriculum does just that. Teachers deliberately design lessons, projects, and essential questions that allow students to consider “Who am I?” “Where am I from?” and “Who do I want to be?”

In Chris Love’s eighth-grade art class, for example, students recently concluded a multi-week self-portrait drawing process. Because of the level of detail and close observation required to complete the work, Love says, “Throughout the process, you see students learning more about themselves than they knew before.” As part of the background of the drawing, Love has students add symbols connected to a personal theme, such as, “I, too, am Rivers” or this year’s theme, “What’s real for me now?” Love says this aspect of the assignment offers students a platform to speak about where they are and how they feel at a particular moment. As time passes, their response to these prompts reflects feelings that still resonate or that they can recognize as more fleeting — both of which are developmentally appropriate reactions as students navigate this stage of their identity development.

Often, teachers collaborate across disciplines to ensure their exploration of identity in one class complements the work happening elsewhere in the curriculum. In the fall, Love teams up with Spanish teachers Rachel Costello and Nikki Bartlett to learn about the traditional roots and modern celebration of the holiday Dia de Los Muertos through the creation of calaveras. Calaveras, or skulls, are powerful symbols used in the artwork and celebration of the holiday. After learning the traditional and cultural roots, students design their own calaveras with symbols reflecting their identity and heritage. Through the process, they are learning about and applying key skills in each discipline. The teachers have been recognized for their work designing this project; Love will present the project at the National Art Education Association conference held in March.

Earlier in the year, 7th graders created identity timelines in math class to apply their understanding of integers, scale factors, and proportions. The project, designed by Tori Wilbur and Sam Vandergrift, offers a novel twist on the idea of a timeline: students included a series of important events in their lives, but the timeline could not begin with the year they were born — it had to begin earlier than that. This simple requirement led students to consider people and events that came before them that helped shape them into who they are today. When students share the stories they captured in their work, they are developing their ability to speak fluently about various aspects of our own identity and learn about others’ experiences as well.

This project teaches key math concepts while also offering a model of how our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion mission statement comes to life in the classroom. Rivers “believes that developing a sincere appreciation for and understanding of diverse perspectives, experiences, and identities is integral to achieving its broader mission of preparing students to lead and live in a world that ‘needs their talents, imagination, intellect, and compassion.’ "

To introduce the project this year, Wilbur shared timelines created by middle school faculty focused on their own adolescence — without their names attached — and students had the opportunity to offer guesses attempting to match the stories they saw on the timeline with the teachers in the community. In addition to weaving in a sense of fun, this approach highlights the important emphasis our teachers place on demonstrating vulnerability and self-expression. As the DEI mission charges the community to “encourage every individual to be their authentic self,” faculty recognize the importance of modeling the expectations we hold for the students.

The curriculum does not exist in isolation, and other parts of the middle school program reinforce these themes. In the coming days, for example, 6th graders will meet with seniors over lunch at the Head’s House to share the work in their portfolios. This is just one of many opportunities for students to share a part of who they are with others in the community. Moments like these provide students with a chance to pause and reflect during what can sometimes feel like a tumultuous journey toward a more fully developed sense of self.

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