They aren’t little kids anymore, but they’re not quite teenagers just yet. Not really.

Educating seventh- and eighth-grade students requires a unique approach that differs in many notable ways from students both younger and older.

The Need to Explore

Morgan Park Academy is committed to differentiated instruction in all classes, to meet the needs of all learners. That takes on added weight in seventh and eighth grade as we direct students toward a more individualized course of study with more choice in their course selection.

While our entire Middle School curriculum is accelerated, seventh- and eighth-graders may take and receive Upper School credit for more advanced courses in world languages and math.

They also indicate their preferences among several electives. These semester- and year-long courses, modeled after collegiate arts and language courses, offer a more in-depth experience. Students get to select from courses including spoken word performance, visual art, sketchbook, acting, chorus, band, technology, and food science and cooking.

The typical seventh- or eighth-grader has lots of interests that may conflict with one another and may change frequently. As a faculty, we are committed to helping them to explore and hone their interests.

We invite and encourage students to register for multiple activities outside the classroom — to play team sports and participate in performing groups. We have created service opportunities during the school day, so that students may have an active life after school and still serve their community.

With teachers committed to communicating with one another about students’ hectic schedules, we can allow kids to be involved in a number of activities, from athletics to drama productions to chess club to music performance to volunteer pursuits.

Social Life

I often tell Middle School students that we do not require them to be friends with everyone. We do, however, require that students interact with civility and mutual respect. Social times such as lunch and recess are crucial for students to be with friends and peers and navigate personal relationships.

Major hormonal and developmental changes at this age also impact the social life of older Middle School students. Suddenly these teenagers start acting like, well, typical teenagers.

Before our students begin to explore dating relationships or potentially risky behaviors, we want to help them learn to make informed choices. Our advisory and assembly program covers such diverse topics as healthy relationships, personal hygiene, and the importance of sleep.

Leadership and Advocacy

Preparing these students for high school, college, and beyond, we stress the values of leadership, responsibility, and doing the right thing.

Our older Middle School students are seen as leaders by their younger classmates. Often, they lead in very visible and tangible ways: on the athletic field, on stage, as Junior House leaders, as section leaders in our performing groups, or in their academic achievements. Students in the seventh and eighth grades who qualify academically may apply for the National Junior Honor Society, and are asked to provide evidence of their leadership, character and commitment to service.

We also want MPA students to embrace the idea of leading by example, and regularly engage our students in conversation about advocating for others. This happens in the classroom, in advisory group meetings, and in group endeavors; recently, for example, watching “Harriet,” sparked some engaging discussions about what it means to do the right thing and the danger of keeping silent about injustices.

In addition to standing up for others, seventh- and eighth-grade students learn to advocate for themselves, instead of relying on their parents. Our teachers help to foster this, contacting students directly with academic concerns and with service opportunities, either in person, by email, or via myMPA.

The ability to seek help or guidance from a teacher is a valuable life skill. A recent Morgan Park Academy graduate stopped to visit while on break from college. When I asked how it was going, she responded, “Are you kidding me? Working with professors is so easy. I’ve been asking teachers for help since I was in seventh grade.” Our students know how and where to find the help they need.

Though it feels like a long way away, my own young daughters will one day be new teenagers at MPA, and I will be glad to know that they will attend a school where the teachers understand 13- and 14-year-olds — understand their need to try new things, their social ecosystems, and the importance of leading by example.

Certainly, the Middle School years can be bumpy at times, but MPA students are navigating them with lots of help and support.

By Heather Kurut

Mrs. Kurut is the principal of Lower School and Middle School.