Innovation and Perseverance: The Benefits of Academic Teams at John Jay Middle School

One of the hallmarks of John Jay Middle School is right there in the name. It’s a middle school, not a junior high school. The main difference between the two, Principal Rich Leprine points out, is that middle schools use academic teams to meet the developmental needs of eleven to fourteen year olds.    

Intrepid, Innovation, and Panorama. Grit, Perseverance, and Fusion. These are the teams of JJMS’s sixth and seventh grades. Each is a randomly selected group of about ninety students that rotates through same math, ELA, social studies, and science teachers each day—as opposed to mixing with different students in each class. The eighth grade runs like a junior high: students create more self-directed communities through classroom, club, and intramural activities.  

Each team’s teachers have a common planning period built into their daily schedule, which allows for cross-curricular coordination of topics, themes and assignments, as well as sharing notes about various children and challenges. “The beauty of the middle school concept,” said JJMS Assistant Principal Lisa Kor, “is that no child slips through the cracks.”

“We are committed to the middle level concept of supporting our students’ cognitive, social and emotional growth,” said Leprine. “Teachers use gradewide events like field trips as well as classroom activities to nurture leadership, communication and problem solving.”

In mid-September, sixth graders participated in a full day of on-campus activities with YMCA Greenkill Outdoor Educators. “Small groups of ten students were led through a series of team building activities,” said Assistant Principal Monica Bermiss.  “These games and challenges provided a catalyst for students to work together to achieve a series of common goals.”  

In October, the seventh grade traveled to Mountain Lake Park in North Salem. With trained outdoor educators, they explored trust and coaching while on cables, ropes and wooden beams strung twenty to fifty feet high among trees. The students also faced individual and team challenges on a number of “on the ground” elements constructed of ropes, cables, tires and wood. The final quest was for each group to design and build a catapult out of random household objects to launch a yarn ball for both accuracy and distance.

“I learned that you can use teams in everyday things and approach them as if they were just part of an obstacle course,” said seventh grader Katrina Gallagher.

Mark Grossman and Marcia Daley-Savo, ELA and social studies teachers; Anna Loeb and Kathleen Rutherford, science and math teachers; and Melissa Smythe, special education teacher, are with team Panorama. They are enthusiastic about implementing engaging challenges that require students to develop a comfort with moving forward, solving problems, and pushing innovation to the next level.  

“Earlier this year we made a monster and put it in the hallway. The class had to select an observer, and a reporter, and two builders. The observer went and looked at the monster. She told the reporter, who then gave the information to the builders, who recreated the monster with the class. “More than how to work together, this kind of activity teaches students how to listen to each other,” said Daley-Savo. “This is an essential life skill.”

“I learned that working in a group can be difficult, but if you communicate and work together, you will succeed,” said Logan Baumgartner, a seventh grader.