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New eighth-grade celebration puts focus on the excellence within each student
Posted 05/26/2016 06:04PM

The Middle School years are a time of students figuring out who they are. Taking risks. Trying out new things — sometimes finding new passions, and other times trying, failing and trying again. So to honor the journey that each individual student has taken on Durham Academy's Academy Road campus, on Thursday the faculty recognized eighth-graders' excellence not through an awards ceremony honoring a sliver of the class, but through what was essentially a big goodbye party for all 100 eighth-graders.

"It's important to recognize just how awesome each member of this class is," Middle School Director Jon Meredith said in opening the eighth-grade celebration. "Each one of them has done something, most of them a number of things, that are remarkable over the course of their last four years. It may have been something big and public, it may have been something quiet and kind, they may have overcome a special challenge or just plugged hard at all the hard work it takes to be a successful Durham Academy Middle Schooler."

Thursday's event was a departure from the end-of-year awards ceremony that has been a tradition at the Middle School for many years, and if the wide smiles on the faces of students and teachers are any indication, the more inclusive and festive celebration will be a tradition for a long time. Each grade level was responsible for a different facet of the program, with eighth-graders pooling together photos for a slideshow trip down memory lane; seventh-graders creating a time capsule for members of DA's Class of 2020 to open the final week of senior year; sixth-graders creating a slideshow of photos specific to the honorees' sixth-grade year; and fifth-graders presenting a tangible expression of each eighth-grader's successes — a letter penned by a teacher.

At the close of the celebration, fifth-graders created a human tunnel leading out of Taylor Hall. They cheered wildly as the eighth-graders emerged, each fifth-grader scanning the line for their eighth-grade "buddy," to whom they enthusiastically delivered the letter they'd been clutching.

The tradition of faculty letters to eighth-graders began in 2014, along with a few other changes to the way the faculty recognize excellence. That year, the division also stopped recognizing eighth-grade valedictorians and salutatorians, eliminated a few subjective awards, and introduced "Cavalier Awards," in honor of students' embodiment of DA's mission.

In the years since, "there were still voices on the faculty saying that when we got to the awards ceremony and they considered the kids' reactions during the day ... the way we were recognizing kids didn't seem to be capturing what we wanted to capture," Meredith said, describing a sometimes-sensitive environment during the awards ceremony.

Dr. Gerty Ward, assistant director of the Middle School, chaired a task force examining how the division acknowledges students' accomplishments. She said she was proud of the task force members' hard work leading to the decision to end the awards ceremony, saying "the first couple of conversations were not easy."

One thing that faculty liked about giving out awards was getting together at the end of the year to talk "about all the awesome things that the eighth-graders had done," Meredith said. But it also meant thinking about the negatives, Ward added.

"When you have to winnow down a list, how do you do that? You have to say this positive is better than that positive," she said. "And it makes you think about things that didn't go well for that student — but that's not what Middle School is really about because you have to try new things and can't be afraid to fail. We have to make space for that to happen and not penalize a student or make a student feel like because they tried something new and it wasn't successful, that it affected their future in a negative way."

The task force recommended putting more emphasis on the faculty-written letters going forward, and teachers indeed worked more collaboratively on this year's letters, creating a comprehensive account of students' successes — big and small — throughout their Middle School years.

The letters are clearly cherished by the students. Yearbooks — which students of all ages have eagerly awaited — were also distributed Thursday, yet after the celebration event, eighth-graders were far more fixated on the letters. Forbidden to open the notes until leaving campus, several students held the white envelopes up to the sunlight in hopes of catching a glimpse of the sentiments inside.

"This isn't in the vein of 'every kid gets a trophy' for participating," Meredith said of this year's changes. "They're not being awarded for participating. They're being awarded for doing all of the incredible things that it requires every Durham Academy student to do to have a successful Middle School career. ... When they get into high school and are able to make more choices based on things that they pursue, it's more appropriate to honor them for excellence in those areas."

Rather than waiting until the end of students' Middle School careers to acknowledge successes, teachers and administrators have intensified their focus on recognizing excellence — in all its forms — throughout the year. That means devoting community meeting time to a variety of kudos, from giving athletes opportunities to share their teammates' successes, to recognizing students who have earned objective academic honors, to acknowledging students who have performed small acts of kindness for their community.

"One of the things that [the end-of-year] awards did accomplish was to hold up great examples. This student did these great things, and this is an example that you should try to emulate," Meredith said. "We're trying to still capture that spirit but do it throughout the year and not lump it into a few awards that only a few kids get —because kids demonstrate that greatness in different ways."

View more photos from the eighth-grade celebration on Flickr.

An independent, coeducational day school, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
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