The Odyssey That Begins Middle School

Young adolescents are on a quest to find themselves -- specifically, find the adult they will become. How appropriate that our growing middle school group begins their year with an “Odyssey” trip: an extended adventure (ten days) away from home. This yearly experience of working, travelling, and living away from their families is a landmark experience for many of them. Without their parents alongside as reference points for opinions and assistance, they come to places and experiences they’ve never encountered before. This year’s Odyssey included carrying all their camping gear a half-mile to a forested campground and cooking their meals as a team; having a lesson on sand boarding and giving that a (breathtaking) try; getting up early to feed chickens and milk goats; gardening and harvesting crops that are the livelihood of the farm. On these days and nights of independence, they have to look within themselves to determine their responses -- rather than looking to their parents to take their cues.

Jane Nelson writes in Positive Discipline for Teenagers, “Adolescents have a need to find out who they are, how they are different from their family, how they feel about things, what their own values are, and what they think about things. This process of separation from the family in preparation for an independent adulthood is called individuation.” It makes sense that orienting to who you are, on your own two feet, begins first with the infant/preschooler orienting to her body and immediate surroundings, the elementary child orienting to her family and contrasting that to friends’ families, and the adolescent looking to the larger society of role models and life choices to determine how she fits in that society.

Certainly, this is a time of looking to peers for ideas and inspiration, as well as approval and acceptance. There is an important pendulum swing away from family during this phase of development. Our Montessori-grown group of students is a relatively safe and sound, engaged and proactive group. Both the students and guides work attentively to steer the culture toward the positive, and have passionate, mentoring conversations when the inevitable failures occur. The mixed-ages of the classroom help immensely. Those students returning from the year before help to orient the new ones, and set the cultural and behavioral expectations. It was fascinating and heartwarming to hear how in June, the MMM guides gathered the current eighth graders and asked them to dialogue about how they’d like the classroom culture to improve and change in the coming year. The students themselves came up with strong hopes and expectations of themselves. Over the course of their Odyssey trip this month, the students had three seminar discussions about their ideal learning environment, and created this succinct description for their collective use:

MMM STUDENTS

  • are willing to be positive, optimistic and to be open-minded. 
  • celebrate an environment free of negative words and bullying. 
  • solve conflict with civility. 
  • respect individuality enough not to compare, compete or brag. 
  • consider the effect of words and actions. 
While the MMM Odyssey trip is ten days of camping and farming and getting to know each other, it is also the foundation of a practice of collaborative reflection.

The Odyssey trip often marks the beginning of a parental odyssey, too, because it can be hard to let go of the child that you have nurtured since she was only twenty inches small, to surrender to his growing independence. Jane Nelson writes, “Fear is usually at the bottom of not wanting to let go..... As parents, we do what we can -- but during our children’s adolescence, we have to let go, we have to realize that they must live their own lives. As long as we’re respectful, we may have an influence. But when we try to control, we lose our influence and invite resistance or unhealthy pleasing and poor self-confidence. Letting go is essential to allow children to be what they can be.” Finding the balance between letting go enough, but not too much, is a constantly changing tightrope that we navigate. Our sixth-year’s spring trip to Costa Rica is a first step of parents being out of contact, even phone contact, with their child. This ten-day Odyssey is yet a further step of independence; and in five short years these young adolescents apply to go to colleges, take off on backpacking trips with friends, or depart for international studies. When you begin this parental odyssey yourself, we wish you a backpack of resources such as Jane Nelson’s book and a middle school with healthy mentors, some courage for risks along the way that are breathtakingly delightful, and a group of engaging friends to reflect and collaborate with you on the ideals that steer your course.

Merri Baehr Whipps, Assistant Program Director

Childpeace Montessori School