The seventh- and eighth-grade years are a cohesive unit at Falmouth Academy, a two-year preparation for the work of high school. In seventh grade, students have looked at world civilizations on a large scale and examined what people believe and how those beliefs shape behavior. In the eighth grade, their examination is on a personal level. What are society’s rules and expectations? How do I fit in? It is a “year of living deliberately,” as eighth graders learn how to do more for themselves, rather than relying on teachers and parents for direction.
Eighth graders start the school year reading Annie Dillard’s thoughts on the value of small things, then move on to Thoreau and Emerson in preparation for their two-day trip to Mt. Monadnock. There, they challenge their bodies with the climb to the summit and challenge their minds with nature writing and reflection.
The remainder of their English curriculum continues the exploration of the individual’s role in society through novels, poetry, and creative writing and culminates in Declamation Day. For this day, each student commits to memory a poem, speech, or story and presents it to the class. Students also write a paper that combines an analytical and a personal response to the piece that they have chosen. Selections have included speeches by Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, poems by Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Maya Angelou, passages from the Bible, and an excerpt from a Japanese warrior’s manual. Students have declaimed in English, French, Hebrew and German. The challenge of performing these declamations successfully for their classmates is always a rewarding culmination of the eighth-grade year.
Meanwhile, in their U.S. history class, eighth graders study parallel themes. As part of their evaluation of historical leaders and the qualities that made them good or bad, they study Benjamin Franklin’s list of thirteen virtues for becoming a better person. As Franklin did, they make a list of qualities they’d like to improve in themselves and, following his pattern, they spend a week working consciously on each of their goals.
Students assume the personae of members of the Constitutional Convention, and discuss the terms of that august document, giving them a personal stake in the kind of government the Constitution created. Throughout their historical study, they examine war. Why has the U.S. gone to war? What have been perceived as legitimate reasons for fighting? These approaches encourage them to begin thinking critically about political issues, both historic and current.
The eighth-grade U.S. history course culminates in an arts-in-humanities project in which the students choose a Civil War-era leader (a politician, a soldier or a reformer) to research for a written and oral presentation. At the same time, they create a terra-cotta bas relief portrait of the leader, part of the eighth-grade portrait theme.
While the seventh-grade curriculum is built in carefully directed, incremental steps, eighth graders are expected to take on more responsibility for the progress and quality of their work. In mathematics, for example, the classes are now sectioned so that students of varying talents will find an appropriate challenge. In English, U.S. history and physical science, they are given more long-term projects than they had in seventh grade. They have more independent work. They assume more responsibility for editing and re-writing papers. Their teachers tend to coach rather than to direct. The level of responsibility given to eighth graders serves as a bridge to the expectations of high school work.
In eighth grade, students build on the solid thesis paragraphs they learned to write in seventh grade and begin to fashion a complete essay. Through expository writing, literary analysis, and self-analysis, they learn to integrate quotations, to marshal evidence to support their thesis statements, to argue against another opinion, to compare and contrast. Particularly in history and Physical Science, they are refining their research skills—locating sources, taking notes, finding main ideas, examining how an author introduces and reintroduces the main idea, and documenting their work. In U.S. History, they have their first opportunity to work with primary sources as they write essays analyzing historical figures and events.
Eighth-grade French and German classes continue to focus on listening comprehension and speaking skills. At the same time students are called on to use the repertoire of vocabulary and grammar they’ve built to create more extensive and more personalized writing. They have less of the “fill-in-the-blank” work that supports introductory foreign language study and more opportunity to develop freedom of expression, through writing thematic paragraphs, creating travel brochures, and writing descriptions and letters.
The quantity of writing eighth graders are asked to do also increases. Both the frequency of written assignments and the length of assignments grow. The writing curriculum is designed to help eighth graders grow into competent freshmen who will meet the expectations of high school with confidence.
The increased refinement of writing in the eighth grade is paralleled by more diligent analysis of material, whether for an essay on The Lord of the Flies, a study of a delegate’s contributions to the Constitutional Convention, or an examination of the data a science fair project has produced. They begin to look beneath the surface of the text or the numbers to a more in-depth investigation of what it all means and how it supports their conclusions. Lab reports in science reflect a more detailed analysis of data, with more advanced work on data manipulation and presentation forms, including graphing. During the course of the year, each eighth grader begins to develop confidence in moving from simplistic, literal thinking to more complex, abstract thinking. As the year ends, they are well prepared for the level of writing and analytical skills they’ll need in high school.
Eighth graders continue to explore character, leadership, and self-awareness through a study of portraits guided by their English, history, and art teachers. Just as the written word reveals more when analyzed carefully so, too, do portraits, both verbal and artistic. A field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston helps students learn to evaluate the details in Colonial portraits to reveal the subject’s class, political position, trade, family status and even personality.
One arts-in-humanities project for eighth graders is a two-media self-portrait. In English class, each student writes a personal essay exploring a relationship or central event that has helped to shape his or her character. Meanwhile, they are working with FA’s fine arts teacher to create a pencil self-portrait. Here, too, they are taught to look at the details—the shape of their lips, the freckles, the placement of their eyes and eyebrows, the shadows of their cheekbones, the sweep of their hair—and the result is a striking collection of portraits in which the individuality of each student is remarkably and accurately portrayed. The annual display of the eighth graders’ self-portraits and essays is one of the most eagerly anticipated art shows on the calendar.
We put these portraits and essays in archives to be revisited by the students late in their senior year, when they create another self-portrait in the medium of their choice. The final art show of the year displays both the seniors’ eighth-grade and senior-year portraits and provides students, their teachers, and their families with a revealing and often touching look at how the graduating seniors have grown in five years.