Middle School students preparing archetype essays

Middle school students are working hard tonight to finish the first draft of their archetype essays, 500-750 words tracing an archetype through a single work of literature or popular culture. They will also be performing a children's version of The Odyssey for the elementary school on Friday, and learning about types of metrical feet so that they understand what dactylic hexameter meant for Homer! If you have an old chiton lying around (a Greek tunic or robe) or leather sandals that you don't mind loaning out this week, please send them to school by Wednesday.

Archetypes come to life as Mythology theme comes to a close

Our Mythology theme is ending this week with festive activities related to the archetypes students studied over the past weeks: the Trickster, the Monster, the Sky and the Earth. Among the activities:

  • Students enjoyed a magic show and magic workshop Monday,
  • Elementary students will present short plays to each other  Wednesday and Thursday, and
  • Middle schoolers will  perform a children's version of The Odyssey for the elementary school Friday.

The last theme of the year, after Spring Break, will be Water. This theme will look at water from all different angles: its physical and chemical properties; its different states (liquid, vapor, snow and ice); its role in solutions, in biology and health; where it is found; the importance of the water cycle for climatology; how plants and animals adapt to different amounts of water; how water is transported and how it is used for energy;  how water is polluted; and how it can be conserved. We are planning lots of scientific experiments, speakers and field trips.

"The Vote" Theme Debuts

Our new theme, titled "The Vote," starts this week, will last 9 weeks (through the U.S .presidential election,) and will be tackling questions such as: Why vote? Who can vote? For whom can one vote? How are votes counted? We will study the history of democracy, from Greece to the U.S., contrast its different forms (direct, representative), and compare it to other forms of government. We will look at sample ballots, conduct mock elections, and count votes. And we will follow the actuality of the U.S. upcoming election. During math, we will work on counting, sorting, tabulating, percentages, estimation, prediction, and statistics. During language-arts, we will have units on debate, rhetoric, persuasive essays, respectful discussion,s, and advertising. And we will have presentations by speakers from the community. As always, please contact us with ideas or resources concerning our new theme. This theme addresses K-8 Next Generation Sunshine State Social Studies Standards such as:

  • recognize symbols and individuals that represent American constitutional democracy
  • examine the significance of the Constitution and its role in American democracy
  • evaluate the importance of civic responsibilities in American democracy
  • experience the responsibilities of citizens at the local, state, or federal levels
  • identify democratic concepts developed in ancient Greece that served as a foundation for American constitutional democracy
  • compare different forms of government (direct democracy, representative democracy, socialism, communism, monarchy, oligarchy, autocracy)

Here's what our students learned last year...

Theme-based learning isn't always easy to explain to prospective parents. This helps show how different subjects are incorporated into themes, an approach that has proved to help students make natural connections and better synthesize information. Here's a run down of the 2011-2012 themes:

Happy Accidents

The year started with the eight-week theme Happy Accidents, which showed students how much can be learned (and even discovered!) when you try something, even if it doesn't turn out as you intended. The theme addressed the process of discovery through serendipity, whereby one finds something while searching for something entirely different. Students explored historical serendipitous discoveries in the fields of art, physics, chemistry, biology, and geography; studied chance and probabilities; and went on various treasure hunts.

Activities included:

  • Experimenting with gravitation (Newton and his apple), buoyancy (Archimedes and his bath), electricity and light (Edison and the light bulb), combustion (Priestley and his discovery of oxygen)
  • Learing about natural selection by playing predator/prey games using populations of beans and peas on various backgrounds.
  • Creating art pieces by shaking ink from markers
  • Cooking
  • Writing random stories
  • Following the tracks of Columbus on his discovery of the New World


The seven-week Colonies theme came next. Elementary school students spent the first two weeks learning about animal colonies, choosing to study bees, ants, naked mole rats or meerkats, and teaching each other at the end. The next three weeks focused on either Portuguese, Spanish, English or French colonies, with students exploring why people left their country of origin, what they got where they settled, and what happened to previous inhabitants, again teaching each other at the end. Week six was devoted to a timeline of North American colonies, and the last week to the collaborative design of the students’ own fictitious colonies.

During the Colonies theme, middle school students:

  • Examined mold colonies under the microscope.
  • Studied four different human colonies endeavors: Kibbutzim, the original penal colony of Australia; the colonizing of Irish in America following the Potato Famine; and the failed search for the Fountain of Youth by Ponce de Leon.
  • Contrasted the impact of different colonial powers in the New World.
  • Studied different theories about the 1590 Lost Colony of Roanoke and proceeded to defend the theory they had chosen to study in front of their peers in a game show or talk show format.

They ended the theme by exploring the idea of colonialism versus imperialism, using an interactive activity (also used in the upper elementary classroom) in which half of the class incarnated the Republic of Orange and was at odds with the other half incarnating the Republic of the Blue.


The 2010-11 school year ended with a four-week long elementary school theme on Vikings. Students learned about Norse myths, traditions, art, daily life, ships and explorations. The upper elementary students wrote Viking riddle poems, memorized and recited poems by or about Vikings, and created artwork inspired by Norse art.

The middle school students chose to end the school year with a theme on rivers instead. They studied three different types of rivers: alluvial, blackwater and springfed, and organized paddling field trips to local rivers representative of each type.

Five Senses

The 2011-12 school year started with a four-week theme on the Five Senses. Students experimented with their vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste, often by trying to trick their senses. In the middle school, students also heard about the less well-known vestibular and proprioceptive senses and investigated animal senses.


Students spent nine weeks learning about notes, intervals, scales, rhythm, melody, and harmony. They read books about music and musicians, experimented with the physics of sound, practiced ensemble skills, learned to play simple tunes on glockenspiels and/or recorders, and drummed away with Yazid Johnson (thanks to the Parent/Teacher Organization, which provided funding). They sang Halloween songs, French songs, and circle songs. They also heard different types of music and were introduced to different instruments by various guests. The upper elementary class heard about the power of music on memory and sang for local Alzheimer’s patients, while the middle school class voted to include musical excerpts in its Fall drama performance. By the end of the theme, most students had gained enough confidence to think of themselves as musicians and to agree to perform publicly, which the families enjoyed at the school’s Thanksgiving Feast on Nov. 22.


2011 ended with the first half of a seven-week long elementary school theme on China. This theme will continue into January, the end coinciding with Chinese New Year. The theme is organized around the geography of China. The students explore different climatic regions one at a time, looking at the flora, fauna, history and cultures specific to each region, starting with mountains and continuing with rivers, deserts, etc. They practice their own mapping skills, ponder over night and day and time zones, experiment with deformation when studying mountain formation, and with the water cycle when studying rivers. Students learn to write Chinese characters, make Chinese paper cut-outs, build lanterns and dragons, cook Chinese food, read Chinese tales, and play Chinese games during PE.

In the meantime, the middle schoolers are starting a unit on foreign affairs in the context of their Model United Nations project. They study topics such as infant mortality or the treatment of handicapped children in South Korea and Germany. On Feb. 17, they will participate in the 17th annual Tallahassee Southern Model United Nations conference, held at the state Capitol.


Director's Corner: On Parents Education Night and Theme-Based Learning

At our Parents Education night on September 6, we spent a few minutes introducing The Magnolia School integrated theme-based approach: how the staff selects different themes every year and develops collaborative interdisciplinary activities that integrate the big ideas from language-arts, social studies, science and math that we want our curriculum to convey. The concept of theme-based learning is not new. We like it because it is the model that mimics best the natural learning process, whereby the brain learns by making connections between disparate bits of information. It also is a powerful model to prepare our students for the modern world of work, which puts a high value on the ability to synthesize knowledge from different sources, to solve problems and to work with others.

We stressed that it is not, however, an easy model. It is challenging for the teachers who in effect redesign parts of the curriculum every year, unlike what happens with subject-area curricula. And it is challenging for the students who have to think constantly and make up their mind, unlike what happens with rote learning. So it is important to understand that, although theme-based learning may have benefits for every student at small doses, high doses of it are not necessarily the best fit for a particular student's learning style or personality. Some of us are born with an expert brain, a brain that excels at specialization but does not care about synthesis.

Some of us have personalities that thrive at doing what we are told but do not care about prioritizing. Some of us get excellent work done in isolation but do not care for team work. There is nothing wrong with such profiles, and there are still niches in the modern workplace for them. So it is important to regularly review the compatibility between our approach and each student’s style. Complete harmony produces outstanding student performance, a slight mismatch may still be beneficial if it helps opening new horizons, but a clear mismatch will be counterproductive and lead to frustration. A mismatch may be obvious from the start but may also develop as the student grows and changes, hence the importance of regular reassessments.

Other aspects of The Magnolia School's approach to education that we mentioned include:

  • our multi-grade environment, which allows older students to consolidate their skills by helping younger students, but which can also stress some students who have the need to compare themselves to everyone else in the classroom, even students two years ahead,
  • our choice not to test or give grades, instead assessing each student's individual potential and expecting from them the best each can do.
  • and our approach to discipline via respectful problem-solving sessions, based on Dr. Bailey's Conscious Discipline model rather than on reward and punishment models.

Thanks to all who participated. If you could not attend, or have further questions, please talk to your child's teacher or to one of us. Information about our philosophy and educational approach can also be found in the Curriculum Guides that were distributed in your parent folder.