For almost 100 years, GCDS students have been distinguished by their communication skills. Beginning in Nursery and through Upper School, students are given regular opportunities to stand up in front of their classmates and teachers and share their ideas, reflections, or prepared speeches. With the support and guidance of expert teachers, students learn to develop and use their unique voices. Time and time again, alumni have returned to GCDS telling us that the communication and public speaking skills that they developed at GCDS have helped them to progress in their careers and to advocate for the causes in which they believe.
On a wintry Friday morning in late January, eighth-grade students and teachers filed into the Performing Arts Center while the rest of the Middle School classrooms logged on to Zoom to be there virtually. As it neared 8 a.m., a hush took over the entire division as
Cooper Taylor made his way onto the stage for the week’s Tiger Talk.
For the next several minutes, the audience sat utterly captivated by Cooper’s calm and detailed retelling of accidentally catching on fire in seventh grade, his path to recovery, and what he learned during this harrowing experience.
A relatively new tradition, Tiger Talks have become a rite of passage in the eighth grade. Budding orators explore personal stories and experiences that reflect their values. Using what they have learned about the writing process, every eighth grader crafts a speech and shares compelling tales and youthful wisdom with classmates. After evaluating the message and presentation, teachers ask a group of students to share their speeches with the entire division.
“This ritual’s vibrant energy is quite an exceptional experience for everyone involved. Student voices infuse deeper meaning into what we hold dear—Tiger Pride,” says Michael McGovern, Chair of the Middle School English Department. “In eighth grade, we dig deeper into the characteristics of Tiger Pride as well as the impact they have on the individual and the larger community.”
“Writing this speech helped me to think deeply about what happened,” said Cooper after delivering his talk, which included themes of bravery, gratitude, resilience, and perspective-taking. “I really wanted to make it meaningful and to share something important, for people to take a message away from it.”
This is precisely what a Tiger Talk is meant to accomplish, says Mr. McGovern.
“We teach students the skills to explore significant moments and capture an authentic audience. Once you get past the typical adolescent eye-rolling, they begin to understand that they can make the world a better place through the power of their words. It gives them a sense of efficacy and agency,” says Mr. McGovern.
Middle School is a pivotal time for students developmentally, especially regarding their identity. “Before adolescence, a child often feels defined by others. They’ve been told who and what they are. During adolescence, they are trying to figure out who they are in the context of a community and a society,” says Mr. McGovern.
Like all units of study in Middle School English classrooms, the Tiger Talk unit is the culmination and celebration of intensive reading and writing. Students read, analyze, and discuss mentor texts. They immerse themselves in the writing process by planning, organizing, drafting, revising, and editing multiple pieces. Throughout this process they receive feedback from faculty and peer responders. They practice to be effective. They craft to engage.
“When students leave Middle School, we want them to have a clear, authentic voice as they transition to Upper School, not just in English class, but across the curriculum. They should feel that being readers, writers, orators, and deep thinkers are significant parts of their identity,” says Mr. McGovern.
HARKNESS DISCUSSIONS PROMOTE CIVIL DISCOURSE
In Middle School, strong communication skills begin when students learn and think together through student-led discussions inspired by the Harkness method, a practice of sophisticated and high-level skills in collaboration promoting civil discourse. Student-led dialogue encourages an open exchange of ideas among students while the teacher keeps track of behavior, participation, and the quality of the work. Harkness is not a competition to see who talks the most, and it is not a debate. An effective participant listens and keeps track of their thinking just as much as they speak.
“This is a challenging concept to grasp at this age and to be honest, students need lots of practice. They’re terrible at it at first,” says Mr. McGovern. “It requires that you treat one another’s ideas with dignity and not always think about being right or wrong. It’s about creating a space where ideas can be explored and exchanged with respect. It’s about creating a space where ideas can evolve.”
Students begin to lean into this type of discussion in both sixth and seventh grade. By eighth grade, even skeptical students see how the idea of civil discourse is an effective mode to help progress their understanding—whether the topic is the motivation of a fictional character or a political leader.
“It’s as much about how they treat one another as it is about the actual content,” says Mr. McGovern.
THE WRITING CENTER
By Sarah Lucente, Middle School Humanities Co-Teacher
The Writing Center, physically located in the English department knuckle outside Head of Middle School Flynn Corson’s office, is a place for students to have a conversation about their writing.
They can bring anything from a concern about an essay, a question on a homework assignment, to a creative piece they want feedback on, and a teacher will be there to discuss it with them. The newly revamped Center is staffed with Humanities faculty on a weekly rotation, all of whom ask the students to read their work aloud and to enumerate for themselves what they’re
concerned about, so the teacher can give the most direct and productive feedback.
In addition to being a source of support for students in all of their classes (and not just English—think history research papers and even science lab reports), the Writing Center is a space for students to share their creative ideas and practice more unstructured writing. Periodically, short writing challenges are announced, with winners chosen and given an authentic audience for their work. For the first prompt of the year, students were asked to write a biography of the colorful, giant, abstract giraffe statue outside of the Middle School, and the writing of the winning student, seventh grader Shep O’Keeffe, was put on a plaque for the giraffe, now named Harold. More recently, students have been asked to share a favorite holiday memory, and even for their own suggestions for Writing Center prompts.
TIGER NEWS BROADCAST
by Ethan Parsons, Middle School Student Support Teacher and Video Production Teacher
Tiger News, shown every Monday morning in every Middle School homeroom, is a weekly video bulletin filmed and produced by Middle School students. The broadcast includes general school announcements, the lunch menu for the week, and a space to recognize notable student accomplishments (known as Props!). The students who create the bulletin are part of a video
production class offered every semester. In class, they learn the basics of operating equipment, including the camera, microphones, lights, and editing software.
Students practice their public speaking skills by often being the ones to give these announcements. Although they have plenty of takes to reach the one used in the finished product, they work on the diction and emphasis necessary to convey meaning and importance beyond simply reading the teleprompter. The program builds technical skills and the ability to present information in a clear and dynamic manner.
At the end of the first semester in early February, Middle School students reflected on their achievements and challenges in preparation for student-led conferences. Through one-on-one meetings, advisors worked with advisees to prepare for the conferences with their parents.
As they create presentations on different aspects of their school life, students come to understand themselves as learners and, therefore, become well-positioned to exercise greater agency over their academic experience, now and in the future. In this way, the conferences help to place students in the “driver’s seat” and become self-advocates, which is consistent with Country Day’s broader ambition of providing a student-centered experience that prioritizes the development of transferable academic skills and dispositions.