Broadening the liberal arts curriculum
By the time Ascend students enter middle school, they have acquired the requisite academic skills, critical capacities, mental stamina, and engagement in schooling to participate in an uncommonly ambitious course of study.
Ascend’s Humanities Program
In the middle school, students continue to deepen the skills introduced in the lower school, and the curriculum is broadened further. Ascend’s Humanities Program, which begins in grade five, is the natural successor to the lower school literacy program; its primary goals are cultural literacy; critical-thinking, writing, close-reading, and public-speaking skills; and art and music appreciation.
Modeled closely on the practices of the city’s finest independent schools, the Humanities Program allows students to undertake a rigorous interdisciplinary study of great literature from around the world. In-school art galleries and other unique elements create an immersive intellectual culture that inspires students to imagine their role on the world stage. Each year culminates in the study and performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays.
Many selected works connect thematically to museum-quality reproductions of great works of art that hang in specially designed “gallery” spaces throughout the middle school facilities. These gallery spaces are designed for Ascend students to gather outside the classroom to discuss a work of art relevant to a literary work they are studying or a writing assignment they are developing. For example, fifth graders begin the year studying the myth of Icarus and Daedalus. They then study Breughel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” a reproduction of which hangs in a school’s gallery. This study is followed by a close reading of Auden’s famous 1940 poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which was inspired by Breughel’s painting. Students then write their own first-person re-tellings of the myth from the perspective of Daedalus, Icarus, or one of the witnesses.
By emphasizing the development of students’ skills as attentive readers, listeners, and scholars with distinct written styles and unique perspectives, students’ abilities to empathize and communicate with others are deepened.
The goal of the middle school math program at Ascend is to develop scholars who are deft problem solvers, capable of achieving at the highest level of mathematics, and who have a knack for interpreting their world mathematically.
Following a rigorous and vertically-aligned math program that emphasizes the Common Core focus on problem-solving, deep conceptual understanding, and computational fluency, Ascend students develop their own understanding of math concepts. Teachers use inquiry and real-life situations to develop scholars’ skills as critical thinking mathematicians who can apply the properties of mathematics to their own lives.
To develop critical math understanding, the ability to solve problems, and to ensure scholars make sense of algebraic concepts, Ascend’s math program has three elements.
- The standards-based instruction block is based on the New York State initiative EngageNY, which has developed a rich and rigorous mathematics curriculum that puts scholars on track to succeed in pre-algebra, geometry, and first-year algebra. Consistent with the philosophy of the Common Core, the program emphasizes deep understanding and mastery of topics—focusing on depth over breadth. It includes an emphasis on computational skills along with conceptual and strategic thinking processes. The framework covers a relatively small number of topics in depth and is carefully sequenced grade by grade, following a spiral in which topics presented at one grade are covered in later grades, but at a more advanced level.
- In the cognitively guided instruction block, students broaden their work to include both complex Number Stories and real world math tasks. Students spend a period or more studying a single word problem or real world math problem, constructing their own solutions, and—under the encouraging guidance of the teacher—defending their thinking and comparing their approaches. When students see the strategies other scholars devise and discuss their merits, they learn that there is not one “right” way to solve a problem, and thereby deepen their understanding of essential mathematical properties and learn how to use mathematical models strategically to interpret situations.
- To develop the fluency and relational thinking required for success in algebra and other higher mathematics, in the math routines block teachers lead scholars through daily routines that push efficient calculation and relational thinking. Middle school scholars practice daily routines that develop their ability to perform mental calculations, such as finding the percent of a number and solving proportions.
In middle school, Ascend students harness the study of science and technology to explore issues of importance to them, their community, and society.
By learning how to gather and interpret scientific evidence about issues like the safe disposal of waste or the potential regulation of alternative medicine, students begin to appreciate the power, as well as the present limitations, of science. They recognize that science is much more than a set of answers to be learned, but rather a way of asking questions.
In a three-part program in earth science, physical science, and life science, students engage complex and interesting issues that require an understanding of important scientific concepts, processes and the application of evidence, while fostering discussion and debate.
Middle school culture
After completing Ascend’s lower school program, students have developed the social and emotional capacities to thrive in a new environment where they enjoy increasing freedoms and responsibilities. Relying on the Origins Developmental Designs approach in middle school, we build a climate where our students’ desire for autonomy, competence, relationship, and fun are met; where students feel connected, heard, empowered, and safe; and where they are encouraged to begin developing independence of action and character.
The central focus of Ascend’s middle school culture is the development of agency—students’ knowledge that they are in control of their own lives and can act of their own free choices. The scaffolding of the early years is gradually pulled away so that by the time they reach college, students can self-manage with full autonomy.
This capacity will prove essential for further growth in high school, in preparation for life on a college campus. Beginning in middle school, students transition between classes autonomously, take part in daily Advisory meetings, and choose their own elective enrichment classes.
Middle school students have the opportunity to participate in a variety of enrichment activities. The Brooklyn Ascend Middle School after-school program is funded by the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development and includes chess, debate, dance, karate, jazz band and more.