Faculty Spotlight: All Things Middle School with Emily Smith

Faculty Spotlight: All Things Middle School with Emily Smith

Emily Smith is the Middle School Director at Sora Schools. I sat down with her to hear about life for students and teachers in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades.

Hi, Emily, it’s so great to meet you. Thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat today. I’d love to hear about your work here at Sora and hear about the middle school.

Hi! It’s so great to meet you too. Yes absolutely. My name is Emily Smith, I am currently the school director at Sora’s middle school. I started at Sora as a STEM expert leading middle school learning expeditions and am now serving in this new role. It would be the equivalent of “principal” at a traditional school.

As a school director, I’m really concerned with the big picture. And I’m really guided by the question: what do I want a middle schooler to leave me with? In essence, the answer is to have the skills to do what they need to do at Sora’s high school. But middle school is also an exploratory place for students, right? Our focus is to emphasize the fun of learning, that learning is a journey, and at school, we are on that journey together. Let’s take some fun expeditions. Let’s see what we can learn. Let’s build our basic collaboration, writing, and critical thinking skills so that when you do move forward into your high school journey, you are successful there. 

A typical day for me at the middle school starts off with an early morning check-in with Angela, our Humanities Expert, and Adam, our STEM expert. This is followed by the “middle school stand-up,” which is essentially a 15-minute roll-call where we greet each other. In a lot of ways though, it’s more than taking attendance: we try to make it fun. When it was just Angela and me, we called it the Angela and Emily show. And with Adam joining the team, that energy continues. The stand-ups are nice because we get to start our school day together.

I want to zoom out and hear about your road to becoming a teacher. And then I want to hear about your learning expeditions at Sora. But first: what got you into education?

I actually went to school for nursing first. I was in college studying nursing and then decided it wasn’t for me. As I was exploring what could come after nursing, I knew I really wanted to help people in some capacity. And that I was very interested in the sciences. And those two things together led me to education and I kind of just fell in love with it. I think what I love most is building those student-teacher relationships. Just being a positive person for a kid, being a soundboard for a student, you know, helping them navigate how to be a good person with regards to collaboration, etc. All that stuff. That’s where I thrive. And I can do that in a school director position, or I can do that in an expert position. But that special dynamic where I can support a student’s growth and also watch them grow? That’s where my motivation lies. Any connection I can make with a student is powerful to me.

Were you always working with middle school students?

Yes, I was always middle school-oriented. When I graduated college, I was a sixth-grade teacher for one year. And then I was an eighth-grade teacher for the remaining seven years that I was teaching at the brick-and-mortar public school before joining Sora. When COVID hit, I became pregnant with my first son. And like many people during the pandemic, I too was making reassessments and having my own epiphanies. 

I was seeing the trajectory of public schools and I just couldn’t get behind the mission. I couldn’t get behind a lot of the things I was seeing. And so, I was kind of falling out of love with it. I quit my job without having anything lined up— just out of the blue quit. And I was focusing on my pregnancy at the time and just kind of looking on LinkedIn came across Sora as a recommendation. And to be honest, when I saw the description, I thought, “This is too good to be true.” You’re telling me I get to work with kids, but I don’t have to make everything revolve around testing? And I can just be a mentor and guide student learning? I reached out to Chris, Sora’s Head of Schools, and poof! The rest is history.

A big part of what draws families to enroll their students at Sora is the same thing that draws teachers to want to teach here. The focus of traditional schools on making everything revolve around testing has been critiqued over and over, for a long time, and I think we all know how bad it is. So the idea that there is a middle school and high school system that is building back in an element of “choice” in education is really exciting to a lot of people. 

For students, “choice” means there are avenues for them to follow their curiosity and receive academic credit for it. For example, in the middle school, experts work with our curriculum designers to create expeditions that hit certain units and abilities. However, if our exploration leads to discussions, ideas, and activities that hit on abilities and units we didn’t plan for, it’s possible the students will receive academic credit for the unplanned stuff at the end of the academic cycle. This tells the student: your curiosity is important and valuable.

For teachers, “choice” looks like being able to choose what I want to present to my students in a learning expedition. Most traditional classrooms are going through the motions of, “Checkbox, we learned this, checkbox we learned that.” So many teachers say (and it was like this for me in public school) that it’s often you are teaching to the test. The test becomes what everything revolves around, and we know that there are other ways to measure learning. At Sora, learning experts have a choice in what material they present, how they present it, and how they invite students to engage with the material. This is, in my opinion, the ideal situation to be in as a teacher.

Tell us about your learning expeditions.

My first idea was something called Food Science and it is a middle school fan favorite to this day. I had another expedition called Let’s Vibe that was all about sound waves and music production that included a little bit of coding. Both were very fun experiences.

With Food Science, if you can imagine, I had all the middle school students in the kitchen. In this expedition, they are recording their process of cooking and are also telling me what is happening with the chemistry, for example: what’s breaking down and what’s causing things to rise, etc. They’re looking at different chemical reactions and being able to analyze what is happening in a kitchen. Some kids made YouTube videos and shared their bloopers, which was super fun. 

In the Let’s Vibe expedition, we used a software called Splice to make beats. Together, we looked at the science behind music and talked about the frequency and amplitude of sound waves. What does that mean? How does sound travel? We get into all the different properties of sound waves. Then the students had to create an instrument at home and replicate their beat. They had to compare, okay, this is what it sounds like on a computer versus this is what it sounds like in real life. What are some factors around us that are affecting that? We did a lot of observation and analysis of sound in different situations. So that was fun. The kids had a lot of fun with that.

What drives these relationships?

When you’re huddling with your team in the morning, what are some values that guide your work? You’ve talked about the importance of teacher-student relationships. What drives those relationships at the middle school?

Generally, there are two things we are doing every morning together as educators: We share with each other the amazing things that our students are doing. And we ask: are our students successful in the expeditions? If there is a student who we decide needs extra support, we develop a plan on how to offer that support and how we will do it. As far as what drives the teacher-student relationships? Honestly, I tell you, a big part of it is that Angela, Adam, and myself are intentionally making that a core part of our teaching philosophy. Developing those relationships comes first. And if you can develop that relationship then it absolutely helps your student with whatever we are doing in the learning expeditions. 

What builds a strong relationship? I think a big part of that is, and I say this all the time, bringing a lot of personality and energy into the room. If I can get a sense of personality and energy through this screen, I’m going to connect with that person. Bringing ourselves wholeheartedly as teachers is a huge part of this equation. We show we are invested. Students don’t have to wait long to get a response from a teacher, and if a teacher can’t respond right away they let the student know. Teachers let students know they are available. So like, if you need to chat, here’s my Calendly. Sign up for an office hour and come and see me. They engage in student discussions on the Discord chat. We have a middle school channel that is all about sharing pictures of our pets and we love it.

When it comes to assessing student work and providing that academic coaching at the middle school level, we let the kids bring what they want to bring to us at the beginning of an expedition. So whatever they create, we say: Awesome, you created that! I’m not going to tell you you failed. But I’m going to say what specifically you were great at. This is specifically what you did great on. Now let’s see if we can tap into this a little bit more. Or I’m curious: what would happen if we did this to your project? Do you think this would look cool? 

We are trying to pose questions to kids to try and get them to think critically about their final projects, or what they’re doing throughout expeditions, and how they can take it to the next level? I always say that: how can we take this to the next level and mold it into something that shows our thinking skills a little bit better? You know, we’re seeing a lot of changes in education. Who would have thought you could build relationships through a screen, right? What we’re doing at the middle school level is awesome to see.

What traits define student culture?

So my last question is for parents of middle school students, or maybe proactive middle school students who are looking into Sora themselves: what are the traits or attributes that really define the students who make up the culture in the middle school?

If I think about what a successful middle school student looks like at Sora, it’s somebody who’s open-minded. It’s somebody who is curious. It’s somebody who seeks answers or wants to know more. It’s somebody who’s flexible in their learning, and appreciates feedback, but also wants to be a part of a community and engage with their peers and with the experts. Our students bring an intrinsic motivation with them. And together, these things create a successful learning experience for middle schoolers.

If you’d like to learn more about our innovative high school program, click here to request information about Sora.

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