Leadership Program

Classroom Happenings: Purposeful Lessons

The Steward School
Middle Schoolers learn, grow, give back
Spartans know that meaningful connections can happen anywhere. They learn and thrive through foundational skill-building, innovative problem-solving, and the exploration of topics that define our time. A story they read can tie into a cooking lesson or an art project (or both!). An invited speaker can inspire students to think differently or pursue new interests. A classroom discussion can lead to a partnership beyond campus. Just ask our Middle Schoolers. 

This year, Middle School students, faculty, and staff have been partnering with Housing Families First (HFF), a non-profit that works to address and solve family homelessness in Richmond. In the fall, Middle School teachers, under the guidance of Division Assistant Karen Ashworth, prepared meals in the Bryan Innovation Lab kitchen and delivered them to families lodging at HFF. During Community Week, sixth graders packed a hundred snack packs for HFF residents, tucking handwritten messages and colorful drawings into each bag. They also assembled and decorated cleaning supply buckets for HFF families preparing to move into new residences. 

In Advisory, all Middle Schoolers learned about HFF, and “it was empowering for our sixth graders to take the lead in some of the discussions with their older peers since they were already familiar with the organization,” said Middle School English Teacher Shannon Elsea. “In English class, we dug in a bit more into what it means to be unhoused, with one of the goals being to reduce the stigma that often surrounds people who find themselves in these circumstances.” 

Mrs. Elsea’s students engaged in a “book tasting” by selecting which book to read from several that feature characters who face housing instability. “Choosing which book to read empowered students to make intentional decisions about their learning experiences and honored individual preferences, abilities, and interests,” noted Mrs. Elsea. 

After reading their books, students participated in school book clubs in which they discussed what they had read and exchanged ideas. In their World Cultures class, taught by Middle School Social Studies Teacher Craig Redmond-Cilley, students dove into evidence-based writing, learning the finer points of using quality research to support claims. Mrs. Elsea then reinforced those concepts in her writing seminar, having students compose thesis-based essays about their unhoused protagonists. Using text evidence to support a theory is a skill students will use throughout their future educational experiences.

Zoe Smith ’30 read “The Breadwinner” by Deborah Ellis and was deeply affected by the book’s protagonist, 11-year-old Parvana, who is forced to be the breadwinner for her family in war-torn Afghanistan.

In her essay, Zoe wrote, “When it seems all hope is lost, Parvana uncovers mysteries and helps her family in Afghanistan. The Taliban have ruined many lives and although others struggle, Parvana thrives. She is a brilliant, persevering, daring individual with a mind of her own.” Of her World Cultures class, she noted, “It’s important to have the full coverage of information. You never really completely understand a culture or a topic unless you do the research and get as many details as you can.”

Mrs. Elsea said, “It is always important to me that students be as connected as possible to content in other aspects of their school life. Cross-curricular learning tends to be richer and more easily applied to new situations than isolated subjects; students can dig more deeply into concepts and look at things from a variety of lenses.” 


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