On one hand, he has the kids reading lines and acting scenes in class. On the other hand, he has found a remarkable online program where students can review the script and get prompts along the way in the form of word definitions and comprehension questions.

By Ted Spear

It’s 8:50 in the morning and Jacqueline Watson and Robert McMillan are sitting cross-legged on the floor with about 60 other middle school kids in a meeting room affectionately known as the “MBC”. Jaqueline is in grade 8 and Robert is in grade 9 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. Jacqueline finds the two minutes difficult because she is the kind of person who, although quiet, is nonetheless hyper-aware of everything going on around her, (including the fidgety grade 6’s beside her). Robert, on the other hand, has figured out a way to zone out for at least 90 seconds of the the two minutes. He also knows that, as a leader at the front of the room, he is supposed to help set the tone.

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 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 school is dismissed at 9:00 am, and everyone departs for their first class. Jacqueline heads off to a double Math block, while Robert 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. Jacqueline and Robert take the same eight courses–Math, Science, Humanities, English, French, Technology, Art, Physical Education–plus a special “Senior Seminar” 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.

Jacqueline 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. Jacqueline 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.

Robert is the kind of kid who likes extra challenges. Adrian, his Humanities teacher, is trying to get the class to understand and explore the whole idea of “imperialism”. They have watched a few short video clips and done some background reading, but now Adrian wants a paper out of them. He explains to the class that he wants the paper to start with a standard definition of what imperialism means, but then wants them to identify and describe their own historical and\or cultural example of imperialism. Adrian gave Robert a hard time on his last paper by marking him lower than Robert had expected. Robert thought he did a reasonably good job on the paper, but Adrian said there wasn’t enough depth and analysis there. He also told Robert that he expected more out of a grade 9 Humanities paper, and more out of him in particular because he obviously has the capacity to dig deeper. Robert has therefore decided that he is going to try and take his game up a notch this time around.

There is a 15 minute break after the double block, so the students scatter like flies. Robert gets along with people easily, so he immediately gravitates to his grade 9 friends who have commandeered the couches in the computer lab. Jacqueline is a much quieter person. She 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 Jacqueline is her French 8 class with Chelsea. This is Jacqueline’s third year in French and the course, and her abilities have evolved over that time. When she came into the class in grade six, there was a big emphasis on a “gesture” approach to French. The students were introduced to a series of action words and corresponding hand gestures, and also had to participate in French plays (e.g. an updated version of the three little pigs) as a way to immerse themselves in the vocabulary. This system worked exceedingly well, as the students gained baseline fluency very quickly and enjoyed themselves along the way. More recently, however, the class has shifted toward a more traditional approach wherein the students are learning the fundamental of French grammar. Jacqueline finds the course difficult because Chelsea still expects the students to speak up in class, which is something she is reticent to do. She still feels that she is picking up a lot, though, by listening to her colleagues and practicing at home.

Robert heads into his English 9 course with Christian MacInnis. Christian is a very ambitious English teacher who wants to stretch his grade 9 students. This term he is introducing them to MacBeth. His delivery and engagement style is multi-faceted. On one hand, he has the kids reading lines and acting scenes in class. On the other hand, he has found a remarkable online program where students can review the script and get prompts along the way in the form of word definitions and comprehension questions. Robert likes both parts of the course. Because he is gregarious, he has no problem adopting the role of MacBeth during the in-class readings. He also likes the online review, however, because it lets him move at his own pace, with truth be told, is a bit slower when it comes to reading Shakespeare.

The last class of the morning for Jacqueline 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 term, she will be doing the infamous pig dissection, which Jacqueline is most definitely NOT 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 Jacqueline 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.

Robert’s last class of the morning is Senior Seminar with Ted Spear, who is also the Head of the School. These classes happen only once a week, but they end up being fairly intense. Ted has told the students he wants to give them an introduction to Western Philosophy, but he has recently changed up how he delivers the course. Whereas he used to walk the students through a 400 page novel entitled, “Sophie’s World” (which was indeed a very good introduction to Western Philosophy), now he is trying to start with the students’ own philosophical investigations as a basis for further inquiry. The students therefore began the year with a web search on “philosophy”, and their findings have become the catalyst for the discussions in class. Robert sometimes finds these discussions frustrating because the kinds of problems that the students discuss rarely yield easy answers. That said, he is always interested in, and sometimes surprised by, the different perspectives of his classmates. Ted has instituted a “hand-off” protocol in the discussions wherein the last student speaking gets to “hands off” to the next participant. This makes the discussion very lively indeed. Robert is not yet sure what exactly he is learning in the philosophy seminar, but he is becoming more capable and confident of digging deeper on questions that, at first, seem reasonably straightforward.

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 Jacqueline, 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, Robert and Jacqueline 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 Robert and Jacqueline belong to. Robert and the other grade 9 students 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. Jacqueline is not that keen about being front and centre for the big opening skit, so she 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 Jacqueline’s turn to attend her senior seminar class with the Head of School. This year is focused on an introduction to ethics, and once again Ted has changed up the way he delivers the course. Using a student-generated web search on “ethics” as a baseline resource, the class has so far explored the differences and convergences between ethics and religion. The class uses the same hand-off discussion technique as the grade 9 seminar, although Ted jumps in frequently to clarify, summarize, challenge, question where needed.

Today Ted introduces an ethical case entitled “Mugging Grandma” as a way to introduce what he calls a utilitarian view of ethics. Jacqueline rarely puts her hand up to participate in the class discussions, but there is a provision in the hand-off protocol where students are encouraged to “pass” to people who have not spoken. That person then has the option to speak, or to pass the discussion onto someone else. Jacqueline gets the invitation to speak, and has to decide quickly what to do. She has actually been thinking hard about the discussion and disagrees with some of what has been said. She elects to voice her disagreement by using a brief counter-example to show why part of what is being proposed is problematic. Ted thanks her for her disagreement — Ted loves people who intelligently disagree–and praises her for using a counter-example to make her point. Although Jacqueline is still not quite sure what a utilitarian theory of ethics is, she is pleased to have made contribution to the conversation.

Robert’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. In the earlier grades Robert got distracted and goofed off during these blocks and consequently did not get much done. When the teachers instituted “silent study” for at least one of the blocks that was better, but still he wasn’t as efficient with his time as he could have been. Now, however, Robert has learned to use every minute he can, particularly since he is also completing a grade 9 Masterworks this year.

Masterworks is a grade 9 graduation requirement wherein students select a topic of their choice, conduct research on that topic for six months with the help of an Advisory Committee, write a 12-20 page paper, and then stand up and publicly present and defend their work in June. The Advisory Committee consists of one staff person and 2-3 external faculty who are interested in the student’s topic. Robert is doing his Masterworks on Black Holes, something he has been interested in for a long time. His challenge is going to be to find a way to explain the phenomenon of black holes to an audience of people ages 11-75. During his homeroom block, therefore, he is doing a web search of black hole graphics for his paper and his final presentation. Although he is nervous about standing in front of 100 people to give his talk, he has watched three sets of grade 9’s before him make their presentations and knows that the school will not let him fail.

The last double block of the day for both Jacqueline and Robert is Physical Education. The 8-9 class is led by Victoria van Schouwen, with assistance from Christian MacInnis. 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. Victoria is a perfect role model for this kind of education because she always tries 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 Jacqueline 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.

Jacqueline’s other favourite course, which she has later on in the week, is art. Adrian van Lidth de Jeude, her art teacher, has this very calming, but determined, way of bringing out the best in his students. When Jacqueline 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.

The art program under Adrian 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. The thread that runs through the program, though, is the continuous cultivation of creativity. Although Jacqueline sometimes gets out of her comfort zone in some of the things Adrian has her do, she feels OK nonetheless doing it in the context of his class.

Robert’s favourite class, which also happens later on in the week, is his double block in Design. In grade six and seven, this involved (among other things) making birdhouses and go-carts. In grade 8 and 9, however, the focus is more on solving design problems, for example, how to create a lighting solution for the back path, how to better manage clean-up, or how to produce something that might be marketable. One of Robert’s favourite design challenges was to participate in a Dragon’s Den-like venue where he had to pitch one of his ideas. He learned that it is not just the idea itself that matters, but the presentation of the idea that matters just as much.

Today’s classes are over at 3:15, but Orion House is on clean-up duty. Jacqueline 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. Jacqueline 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.

But Robert, in fact, has the more difficult job. He, along with two other grade 9 leaders, has to supervise clean-up. He has learned the hard way that different people behave differently when required to do something they might not normally want to do. Some people are awesome, take up their responsibility, and do an excellent job. Other people do the bare minimum or try to get out of their jobs altogether. This of course creates animosity in the crew, which Robert is expected to address. At the beginning of the year, he thought he would simply be able to tell people what they had to do, and they would do it. He also thought that he, himself, would not have to do any work. Now he has learned that he needs to employ different strategies with different people, and that sometimes the most effective leadership requires jumping in and modelling the behaviour and outcomes you want to achieve.

Today is Thursday, so Robert (but not Jacqueline) will attend an after-school Ultimate practice. Ultimate is the school’s only team sport, and it was selected for a variety of reasons: it is reasonably easy to learn, it admits and encourages co-ed teams, and it can be played at multiple skill levels. Most importantly for the school, however, is that its central operating tenet is something called “Spirit of the Game”. This is an overall culture that sets aside all negative language and cheap shots and instead encourages players to congratulate one another–and even congratulate players from the other team–when something is well played. There are no referees in Ultimate: players call their own fouls and any disagreements are dealt with by the players on the field. At the end of tournament games, the teams create funny and bizarre cheers for the other team.

Island Pacific School has both a junior (gr 6-7) and senior (gr 8-9) after-school team. The Junior team focuses on skill development and is essentially recreational in orientation. The Senior team strives to be a bit more competitive by focusing on play development and fitness. Robert loves the sport and has become a very good Ultimate player. He hopes the team will do well in League play in the spring.

Jacqueline, on the other hand, has chosen not to join the team because running up and down fields is not really her thing. She is looking forward to the winter, however, when Ultimate season is over, and the school starts preparing for the annual musical. Although she does not want to be in the musical itself, she does want to be part of the tech crew that does set development, sound and lighting. She particularly hopes she will be able to work the spotlights because she watched some kids do that last year and thought it would be fun.

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. Jacqueline is looking forward to being part of the production team.

Jacqueline is pretty happy with how things are going this year. She has one or two close friends and manages to get along with most other students in the school. The thing she is most proud of is the community service project she is participating in on selected Wednesdays. Her group has identified a women’s shelter they want to help out, so they are figuring out ways to raise money for much-needed supplies. She is watching the grade 9’s closely because she knows that next year she will have a lot of additional responsibilities. For the time being, however, she is content with the regular challenges of her courses and everything else the school throws at her.

Robert, on the other hand, feels like he has a lot on his plate as a grade 9 student. In addition to his regular academics, which are heating up quite a bit right now, he also has his Masterworks to contend with along with his responsibilities as a mentor and House Leader. Truth be told, he is also has a crush on one of his classmates, so he is trying to figure out what to do about that. And, … as much as Robert likes the school, he is also starting to look forward to the final markers of his time here.

First, he needs to find a way to raise $150 toward his Discovery Week trip to Quebec in the spring. He is really looking forward to that trip because it will be the first time he travels far away without his family. Then, he needs to make sure that he actually pulls off his Masterworks. Although his faculty advisor and his committee are going to keep him on track, at the end of the day it is going to be him standing up there in front of 100 people. Right after presenting his Masterworks he is going to go off on a kayak trip, the first night of which will be his “solo” where he spends the whole night by himself. Although he does not know much about the solo, (because past students keep the details secret), he has watched the grade 9’s come back from the experience being quieter and slightly more contemplative than when they went out.

The final chapter of his time at Island Pacific School will be the Rites of Passage ceremony at the end of the year. The school makes a big deal of telling the kids that they need to cultivate the virtues of wisdom, courage, and integrity. The way they put this into kid language is to say that they want the kids to leave the school with “a head on their shoulders”, by which they mean kids who are knowledgeable (or as Ted says, not breathtakingly ignorant about what is going on in the world), kids who have an inner confidence (that is, a warranted confidence that is earned by virtue of the challenges they have faced), and finally kids with integrity (that is, kids who have principles and stick to them, even when the going gets tough). While Robert is not sure that he can live up to all of that, he nonetheless takes these ideas seriously, and he knows that when he crosses that stage at the end of June he will have given it his best shot.