Aurora Middle School

“We are thrilled to open a middle school that will engage students of these ages in dynamic ways. Curriculum-based expeditions, outdoor learning, and apprenticeships will extend learning beyond the school walls and ensure that we produce the young minds that our society and the world at large need.” —Abbie Koss, Head of School

Since 1988 Aurora has blazed a trail for K-5 progressive education in the Bay Area and will now extend its mission through the 8th grade, adding grades six and seven in 2021 (and grade eight in 2022).

Middle School Re-Imagined

Our program was designed by a team of leading educators, researchers, and adolescent development psychologists to meet the needs of middle schoolers. Thanks to this, our students experience an integrated educational curriculum, combining advanced academics with personal development through mindfulness; social-emotional learning; and real-world relevance, application, and skill-building.

We know that adolescents best retain information when it is learned in ways that are active and social, and tap into emotion. Conversely, if they are distracted by unprocessed difficult emotions, they will not be able to learn to their academic potential or even close. Following are the pillars of our middle school, informed by extensive research in neuroscience and psychology. Note that Aurora’s middle school program is modeled after San Francisco’s Millennium School.

We’re building a middle school that helps students become kind, wise, and capable adults.

Quests

Every six weeks, students participate in two STEM- and humanities-focused, interdisciplinary “Quests”—the foundation for our academics. Students work in small teams to explore real-world issues, stemming from questions like “Are we alone in the universe?” to “How do I learn?” and “How do we transcend limits?” Students draw from daily lessons in humanities, science and math to explore answers to these questions together. They test hypothesis, gather data, and produce final papers and presentations with their suggestions for social impact.

Assessments

Holistic assessments cover all developmental areas and incorporate assessment by the students themselves, and by faculty, advisors, and outside experts. Clear rubrics are set by our students and their guides/teachers. Our assessments support a growth mindset and include a qualitative narrative that gives deeper information than a traditional report card. The power of authentic assessment from outside experts naturally increases student engagement.

Real-World Learning

Real-world learning takes place in both urban and natural environments. We believe there is a lot to be learned by taking our students on weekly excursions beyond the classroom walls. For us, this involves venturing out into the broader Bay Area community. Wherever we go we’re learning and exploring. It’s amazing what adolescents see when invited to turn off (media, smartphones, expectations) and drop in to the world they will soon inherit.

Forum

The crux of social-emotional learning in action, Forum is a deep advisory period wherein up to 10 students meet daily to discuss where they’re at in the moment. Over their three middle school years, students meet with the same cohort of peers and teacher, developing trust in a safe, supportive space.

» Take a look at a sample weekly schedule.

Teachers

Aurora’s unique middle school model requires a different type of teacher. Instead of being “sages on the stage,” our teachers are “guides on the side.” Our intention is to position brilliant guides in 1:1 sessions, small groups, Socratic debates around Harkness tables, and experiential project-based learning modalities. Guides are as much mirrors, models, and mentors, as they are instructors of content; and the program is designed to optimize their personal coaching relationships with students.

Q&A with Andrea Cartwright, Humanities Guide

What inspired you to become a teacher?
The answer here is simple: good teachers! And a love of learning! As I finished my undergraduate degree in English, I often got the question, “What are you going to do? Teach?” In fact, nothing was more humbling than the prospect of walking in the footsteps of some of the tremendous teachers who helped to shape my life. It is such a tremendous gift to have a hand in shaping the world to come. And, as a practitioner, I find constant joy and energy in the relationships I build with students, families, and other educators. There is always more to learn and new ways to grow.
What excites you about Aurora? About middle school?
I’m excited to join Aurora because the school puts into practice everything we know is best for kids and learning. From Aurora’s focus on social-emotional well-being, to the relationships that staff cultivate with and between students, to the emphasis on outdoor education, and even the schedule—all of these elements prioritize balance and well-being, providing opportunities for students to thrive. I’m also excited to join Aurora because it is a chance to build something new with a wonderful community.

And, I’m excited about middle school because it is such an “exclamation point” in our lives—it is almost everything. Even now as an adult, my middle school years are those I remember the most clearly and feel the most deeply. It’s also a time when we really become ourselves—when we first step into the world as individuals, on our own two feet. I’m excited to be a middle school guide because I know that even more than education is about subjects and skills, it is about learning to be the best version of ourselves. As a middle school guide, I hope to be someone who empowers students to see all of their potential.

Why are you interested in the Humanities?
I love teaching Humanities because it is the study of us. We are the stories we tell ourselves—those that are spoken and those that are unspoken. But even more profoundly, studying the Humanities shows us that we have the power to shape our world through the stories we tell ourselves and others. I’m passionate about the Humanities because they empower us to understand ourselves and each other, to see where we’ve come from, and to envision the world we’d like to create. In addition, the Humanities give us the skills to build that world through critical reading, creative and persuasive writing, and deep listening.
You’ve done innovative work with regard to assessments. Could you tell us about this?
One of my passions as an educator is assessment. By knowing what students know, we can help them to grow. Often, though, school doesn’t measure or provide feedback on the things that matter most: character, values, contributions to our communities, etc. Also, the feedback schools provide is not always actionable or geared towards growth. So, working with a team of teachers, I proposed a grant and lead collaboration to study competency-based assessment; we ultimately wrote a proposal for school-wide adoption and outlined best practices. Something I’m really excited about at Aurora is that the middle school will implement these best practices in ways that will capture a student’s holistic experience; provide accurate, actionable feedback; and empower students to self-reflect and self-direct.
What do you do outside of school?
Outside of school, I love to run, hike, garden, cook and bake, hang out with my family, and take care of our pet chickens (Coffee, Pancake, and Waffles). These days, it’s a lot of visits to parks, the beach, and the library, another favorite place.

Q&A with Mandy Mudde, Math Guide

What inspired you to become a teacher?
Seeing that look on a person’s face when they understand a mathematical concept—what I call now the “Aha! moment.” When my sister and I were little, we played school together. I always had to be the teacher and not just a teacher, but a math teacher. I would make her take timed tests of addition, subtraction, and multiplication. I got to see her understand these concepts very early on. I do wish I could have given her a more creative way to do math, but that was how I learned it. I also loved explaining my friends’ math homework to them when they were having trouble in high school. My six-year-old sister and high school friends started a lifelong love of seeing the excitement in a person’s eyes as they understand something they have been working on for a while.
What excites you about Aurora? About middle school?
Aurora excites me because it checks all of the boxes I want in a school. I want to be part of a school where social-emotional learning is at the forefront. I want to be part of a collaborative environment where everyone has input and grows from the experience. I want to be part of a community of learners backed by educational research.

Middle school students excite me for their curiosity, undeniable honesty, (sometimes ridiculous) sense of humor, and ability to adapt. I am excited to teach middle school students in a school that is working hard to give them the tools necessary to become their best selves.

Why are you interested in Math?
As a high schooler, I would have said that I love math because it made sense to me at the time. There seemed to always be a correct answer, and I appreciated that at that time in my life. Now that I’ve been teaching math for 13 years, I love math because it is in everything we do. I love looking for patterns in plants, artwork, snowflakes, etc. However, the biggest reason I love math is that I love to help others see and understand mathematics as a creative process. Watching students in a math class collaborate and ask good questions as they solve problems and explore math concepts is what keeps me interested in math. There are always new things to learn!
You’ve designed and implemented math programs in the past (at Bentley and at Nueva). Could you tell us about this?

Creating curricula has become one of my passions. It brings me so much delight to create lessons that cultivate curiosity and joy in my students. Over my 13-year teaching career, I have had the unique opportunity to work with students aged 11 to 18. This opportunity has given me the background knowledge of the standards of the different grades; the strengths and weaknesses in each age group’s mathematical ability; and the importance of certain mathematical truths as students grow and develop as math learners. I can tell them when they are going to see it again. I work hard to keep students asking and answering the questions: What do you notice? and What do you wonder? My goal when creating a math unit is to help a student believe they can invent or discover mathematical ideas for themselves. To do this, I strive to create questions using multiple sources that students can work on collaboratively that lead them to reach their learning objectives.

What do you do outside of school?

Outside of school, I get to spend time with my ten-month-old daughter as she explores the world around her. We love to go on walks around the neighborhood, and we can be frequently seen crawling around one of the lawns at Lake Temescal. I love to read and am currently on a science fiction kick. I love to go on jogs and be part of a race. I’ve done 5Ks, 10Ks, relays, half-marathons, and one marathon. As slow as I am, I love to be part of a group of people trying to complete a set distance together.  

Q&A with Jeri Countryman, STEM Guide

What inspired you to become a teacher?

I was inspired to become a teacher while working on my graduate degree in computer science at Mills College. As part of my program, I wrote a computer science curriculum to teach students how to code their own computer games. I loved teaching those middle school students how to code and problem solve, and they taught me that I had so much to learn about teaching!  

What excites you about Aurora? About middle school?

I’m excited to be a part of a progressive education community that cares about children becoming not only good learners but also good people. I’m also super excited to be a part of the team that will help Aurora grow as we create the middle school. I look forward to the successes and challenges of this new endeavor.

I also love that I get to continue to work with middle school students and to meet them where they are at—as they figure out who they are as young people. The quirkiness, altruism, and sense of humor of a  middle school student is so great!

Why are you interested in STEM?

I’m interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) because they can be used to understand the world we live in and make it a better place. We can use STEM to ask questions and learn about the complexities around us. Also, I think that creating/making is so much fun and builds a multitude of skills, such as collaboration and perseverance.

You’ve designed and implemented STEM programs in the past. Could you tell us about this?

I’ve worked in both informal (science centers and nonprofits) and formal education settings for the past twenty years. I’ve loved creating new programs, learning and iterating as the programs grow. One program was at Chabot Space and Science Center, a STEM program for girls that was funded by the National Science Foundation. We designed this program to give girls the skills and confidence to explore hands-on STEM activities and learn about careers in the STEM fields. The program was replicated across the country through partner organizations such as the Girl Scouts, to bring hands-on STEM activities to more girls. I also created the Innovation Lab program at Children’s Day School in San Francisco. The Innovation Lab is a space for students to make their ideas come to life by designing, brainstorming, prototyping, testing, and iterating. All students from grades 5 to 8 take an Innovation Lab class and use the lab as resources for supporting their learning in their core classes such as humanities, science, math, and Spanish.  

What do you do outside of school?

I love to hang out with my family when I’m not in school. As a family, we like to spend time in nature, whether that’s hiking, camping/backpacking, or paddle boarding together. I also love to garden. In the past year, I built eight raised garden beds for my backyard and have grown tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, lettuce, radish, herbs, strawberries, onions, and beans.

 

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