It’s 8:50 in the morning and Melanie Peters and Mike Travis are sitting cross-legged on the floor with about 60 other middle school kids in a meeting room affectionately known as the “MBC”. Melanie is in grade 6 and Mike is in grade 7 at a place called Island Pacific School, which is a grade 6-9 middle school located on Bowen Island. They are both sitting on the floor with their colleagues observing two minutes of silence. This is a ritual that the school goes through every day. The grade 9 students–who take a strong leadership role in the school–are in charge “Morning Stretch”, i.e. a series of exercise stretches followed by a quote (volunteered by a student) and then two minutes of quiet. Mike finds the two minutes difficult because he is the kind of person who, although quiet, is nonetheless hyper-aware of everything going on around him, (including the fidgety grade 6’s beside him). Melanie, on the other hand, has figured out a way to zone out for at least 90 seconds of the the two minutes.
After two minutes of silence, another grade 9 student leads announcements by calling on people, including teachers and the Head of School, who have information they need to impart. Today it is another one of the grade 7 student’s birthday, so everyone crowds around her and offers an off-key and slightly twisted version of “Happy Birthday”. The students are dismissed from morning stretch at 9:00 am, and everyone departs for their first class. Melanie heads off to a double Math block, while Mike makes his way to Humanities.
There are eight 45 minute blocks in a day at Island Pacific School, with the first two usually being a double. Melanie and Mike take the same eight courses–Math, Science, Humanities, English, French, Design, Art, Physical Education–plus a special “Practical Reasoning” course taught once a week by the Head of School. They get one double block each for Art and Design, and two double blocks of Phy. Ed. They also get three homeroom blocks a week to check in with their homeroom teacher and catch up on their assignments.
Melanie struggles as a student, so she is nervous again about walking into her Math class. Her nervousness evaporates in about two minutes, though, because Jennifer Henrichsen, her Math teacher, jumps right into the lesson and moves her class along very quickly. Melanie likes the way that Jennifer has figured out a way to work with three different groups of students almost simultaneously by presenting a brief explanation and then helping the students to work on problems at their own pace. She likes the online IXL program that Jen has assigned because it gives her immediate feedback on how she is doing and lets her go at her own pace. She also likes that fact that Diana Ray, her learning assistance aide, is in the room and by her side when she needs extra help.
Mike is the kind of kid who likes extra challenges. Victoria, his Humanities teacher, is trying to get the class to understand and explore the whole idea of “cultural awareness”. They have watched a few short video clips and done some background reading, but now Victoria wants a reflection out of them. She explains to the class that she wants a clear statement of their own perspective, supported by examples to further clarify what they mean. Victoria told Mike that his last reflection did not offer enough detail, so he would need to be sure to include clearer examples this time. Mike thought he did a reasonably good job on the last reflection, but Victoria gently suggested that he could do better.
There is a 15 minute break after the double block, so the students scatter like flies. Melanie gets along with people easily, so she immediately gravitates to her grade 6 friends who like to hang out in the MBC. Mike is a much quieter person, so he goes to the third floor to be away from all the noise and middle-school pandemonium.
The break ends too quickly for the both of them. There are no bells at Island Pacific School; a designated student or a teacher simply yells, “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, let’s Rock & Roll” and the kids swarm into their classes.
Next up for Melanie is her French 6 class with Chelsea. This is Melanie’s first year in French, so it is a pretty steep learning curve for her. Chelsea uses a “gesture” approach to French and has the students perform a number of action plays, so the fluency actually comes pretty quickly. Melanie likes taking the lead role in the plays.
Mike heads into his English 7 course that is also taught by Chelsea. The school is a bit obsessive about grammar, so Chelsea is making sure the students know how to write correct sentences. Mike likes it better when they read novels like “The Giver” that get him thinking about bigger ideas.
The last class of the morning for Melanie is Science, with Pam Matthews. Pam is one of those “Miss Frizzle” kind of science teachers who likes to find ways to have the students jump in and do all kinds of weird experiments to see how science works. Last week she piled everyone onto the bus and took them over the Killarney Lake to muck around in the marsh. Next year, she will be doing the infamous pig dissection, which Melanie is eagerly looking forward to. Today, however, she has the students mixing a bunch of ingredients which will eventually become either bouncing balls or rubbery goop. This is part of a chemistry unit to illustrate the bonding properties of certain compounds. Although Melanie would never have described herself as being interested in Science, she enjoys these classes nonetheless, and she is starting to get intrigued by the possibilities of scientific inquiry.
Mike’s last class of the morning is Practical with Ted Spear, who is also the Head of the School. These classes happen only once a week, but they end up being fairly action-packed. Ted has told the students that the course is essentially an introduction to argument. So far, they have reviewed the material they learned last year on types of claims, deductive arguments, and fallacies. Just recently, though, they have shifted to having a series of mini-debates, where six people argue out a proposition, and the rest of the class make observations notes on individual performances. Mike has been reticent to speak up in these debates, but he like everyone else, has to cycle through the various roles. They have done three rounds of debate to date, so now he is getting used to it.
Lunch is pandemonium at Island Pacific School. The students are given a remarkable amount of freedom to eat (more or less) where they want to eat, and to do, (more or less), what they want to do. While they can’t eat in the classrooms and the computer lab on the second floor, and they have to stay on the property, pretty much everything else is open. The kids therefore fan out in all directions to have their lunch with friends, most of them in pockets outside when the weather is good. The quieter ones, like Mike, typically find a spot upstairs out back to eat with one or two friends, while the active ones eat lunch in two minutes and then either shoot baskets or throw an Ultimate disc for a change of pace. During this lunch, however, Melanie and Mike and the rest of the people in their House have to attend a meeting to plan for their upcoming House Lunch.
All of the school is divided into four houses — Pleiades, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Orion–that consist of students from each grade. While teachers are also assigned to each house, most of the leadership responsibilities fall to the grade 9 students. The houses take responsibility, for example, for cleaning the school at the end of each day, and the grade 9 students are the crew leaders who make sure that the jobs get done. The grade 9 students are also assigned a grade 6 student in their house as a “mentee”, that is someone they will look after and mentor over the course of the year. This usually takes the form of a couple of ice-breaker introduction games with follow-up opportunities to check in to see how the little ones are faring.
Today, however, the topic of discussion is the upcoming House Lunch. Each House hosts a special lunch once a year, and next week it is Orion’s turn, the House that Melanie and Mike belong to. The grade 9 house leaders have come up with the idea of having a 1960’s rock and roll theme, so now they are trying to figure out who should wear what, and what crazy contests should happen after lunch. Mike is not that keen about being front and centre for the big opening skit, so he volunteers to help out with one of the games.
Lunch ends at 1:00, with one of the teachers shouting “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s rock and roll”. This time it is Melanie’s turn to attend her Practical Reasoning class with Ted. The class has already covered Types of claims and deductive argument, and are now just completing their study of informal fallacies. Melanie likes with a partner to come up with bizarre examples of the various fallacies they have been taught. Ted figures that this is a good way for them to see these fallacies in action. She also likes the fact that sometimes she can detect when her parents are committing fallacies , and call them on it.
Mike’s first block in the afternoon is homeroom. He gets three of these a week, and they are meant to be times where he can catch up on assignments. Last year in grade 6, Mike got a little distracted and goofed off during these blocks and consequently did not get much done. This year the teachers have instituted “silent study” for at least one of the blocks, so that seems to be better. They also talk to the students about time management, so he is now learning to be more efficient with his time.
The last double block of the day for both Melanie and Mike is Physical Education. The 6-7 class is led by Christian MacInnis, with assistance from Victoria van Schouwen. Physical Education at Island Pacific School is a bit different: the emphasis is on healthy living with an introduction to physical activities that could be pursued for a lifetime. Christian and Victoria are perfect role models for this kind of education because they always try to get the students to see how regular exercise combined with mindfulness and intentionality of action are the foundation of a healthy life. At present, the students are completing a unit on yoga, which Melanie loves. Although the stretches can sometimes be very difficult, she particularly likes the part where you get to sit silent, concentrating on her posture and breathing. She thinks that yoga is something she would like to carry on even after she leaves middle school.
Melanie’s other favourite course, which she has later on in the week, is art. The art program is an eclectic mix of drawing, painting, sculpture, and improvisational theatre. They even do units on music, sometimes by learning the ukelele, and sometimes by composing rap songs online. Adrian van Lidth de Jeude, her art teacher, has this very calming, but determined, way of bringing out the best in his students. When Melanie creates a piece that she is not proud of, she typically wants to quit and throw it away. Adrian won’t let her do that, however. He requires that she push through and build on what she has already created. On more than one occasion, she has been surprised by what she has been able to do.
Mike’s favourite class, which also happens later on in the week, is his double block in Design. This is a course in which students get to design and build things. Mike was particularly proud of the birdhouse he created in the fall. More recently, his class has just started to learn computer coding.
Today’s classes are over at 3:15, but Orion House is on clean-up duty. Melanie has been assigned the kitchen, which is one of the hardest jobs in the school. Even though the students are supposed to put their dishes into the dishwasher, they often neglect to do this. Melanie therefore has to make sure the dishwasher gets completely loaded and turned on, and invariably has to wash any extra dishes by hand, so the counter is completely clean when she is done. Robert has to vacuum the computer lab rug, which he secretly actually likes doing.
Today is Thursday, so Melanie (but not Mike) will attend an after-school Musical practice. The musical is the brain-child of Christian MacInnis and Adrian van Lidth de Juede. Christian and Adrian work up the initial composition and then workshop it with the students. Depending on who is at the school at the time, there is also usually a cadre of student musicians who make up “the band”. One year the group did Romeo and Juliett, and another year it was the BFG. Both versions were a distinctly middle-school adaptations that were very well received by audiences. Melanie thrives onstage and can’t wait to get her role and start practicing her part. Mike, on the other hand, will likely join the tech crew that handles lighting and sound.
Melanie and Mike are pretty happy with how things are going this year. While it took Melanie a couple of months to get used to the routines of a new school, she is now very comfortable, indeed boisterous, within the community. Mike, on the other hand, prefers the company of just one or two other friends and sometimes just keeps to himself. Although he finds that some activities at IPS tend to push him out of his comfort zone, he also knows that he will get the support he needs when he needs it. On balance, then, they are both happy to be here.