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June 2, 2018, National Cancer Survivors Day, was a day of hope, as well as a celebratory occasion on which Pingry students were recognized with the Spirit of Courage Award from the Cancer Support Community of Central New Jersey.

Rethinking Final Exams
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At the end of the 2017-18 school year, Pingry Middle Schoolers were not, as you might imagine, hunched over their desks completing final exams—dutifully checking off their last, onerous obligation before diving into summer fun. Instead, they were engaged in a variety of quite different tasks.

Sixth-grade students could be found in the Upper School Commons, gleefully dropping raw eggs down two stories in a range of contraptions designed to cushion their descent—much to the delight of several senior onlookers.

Form I students could be found interviewing faculty and administrators as they searched for a solution to a "Pingry problem" that they identified: insufficient flex time options and lax enforcement of rules for the ever-popular Powerball, for example.

And Form II students? They could be seen listening attentively to pointers from former Governor of New Jersey and EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman.

Taking place over the span of four days in early June, these endeavors—known collectively as Project Week—were not simply an eagerly anticipated replacement to final exams. They were a culmination of many of the less tangible lessons the Middle School prioritizes, including collaboration, problem-solving, responsibility, creativity, resiliency, and curiosity, among others. Highlighting hands-on, multidisciplinary, experiential learning, the inaugural Project Week also put into practice ideas that are a focus of both the Middle School's curriculum and Pingry's 2018 Strategic Plan.

"Research suggests that the kind of hands-on activities central to Project Week help students learn more deeply—they strengthen the encoding of information, require students to retrieve the information, and ask them to refine their understanding by working with that information multiple times," explains Middle School Director Laurie Piette. "This process leads to internalizing and better memory of what was studied over the long term. Also, we really wanted to give students the opportunity to work with each other on topics that are relevant to their lives."

What did each grade do?

Grade 6: STEAM
Students were asked to stretch their creative thinking skills through a number of on-campus activities. A few examples: “Engineering for Kids,” an educational organization, visited campus and presented a program in which students designed coil-powered wind turbines and experimented with ways to clean up after an oil spill; a Physics Design Challenge involved dropping the aforementioned eggs from increasing heights without damaging them on impact; and students learned about and constructed catapults (a project that combined physics and history, especially how the Romans used them). Also on tap was an art/service day, during which students painted rocks with inspirational words and phrases for the organization CancerCare, spent an afternoon clearing trails behind the School, and embraced gratitude and inclusion by writing thank you letters to Pingry staff (such as Facilities, receptionists, and nurses) and welcome notes to rising sixth-grade students.

Grade 7: Learning Effective Leadership Skills
As the rising leaders of the Middle School in 2018-19, these students were tasked with proposing a solution to a perceived Middle School problem, an idea inspired by English teacher Lori Esmond’s assignment for eighth-grade students during the 2016-17 school year. Earlier in the 2017-18 year, Grade 7 students identified several Pingry Middle School issues that they felt could be improved, such as the range of options available to them during flex time. During Project Week, they were placed in groups to address the issues they were most interested in. But first, students began the week by learning about leadership, persuasion, and decision-making skills. They also visited the offices of one of three local municipal leaders: the Mayor of Somerville, Ellen Brain; the Interim Secretary-Director of the Somerset County Park Commission, Geoffrey Soriano; and Bridgewater Municipal Court Presiding Judge William T. Kelleher. Back on campus, they researched their topics, interviewed Pingry faculty and administrators, and crafted possible solutions. Finally, they made presentations—consisting of survey results, videos, and data—to the faculty and administrators.

Update: In September, students learned what changes their presentations inspired. Among them: more options during flex time (access to the John Taylor Babbitt ’07 Memorial Field, Hyde & Watson Gym, and Bristol Gym, as well as quiet spaces for studying); less-structured advisory meetings, to give students more time for discussions with their classmates and advisor; supervision for Powerball; and a new club that will promote random acts of kindness.


Grade 8: Researching/Debating a Current, Newsworthy Issue
Looking to engage in a complex, real-world issue affecting the local community, Grade 8 teachers immersed students in the debate over the proposed PennEast Pipeline, a conduit for natural gas. During their work, students met with former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman to hear about issues she encountered as both Governor of New Jersey and EPA Administrator. Students studied all aspects of the proposed project, from the political approval process to the economic, environmental, and human impact, to aspects of engineering and construction. They traveled to either the PSEG Linden Power Station; Baldpate Mountain in northern New Jersey, which part of the proposed pipeline would cross; or to Pennington, close to the pipeline’s terminus, where students polled local residents. Students also learned the technical and persuasive skills to create effective video Public Service Announcements (PSAs) and then, in small groups, produced PSAs to support their position (pro or con) on the pipeline. Completed videos were presented to the entire grade and to New Jersey State Senator Kip Bateman (who said “every PSA was outstanding”), and the winning presentation was incorporated into the Middle School Closing Ceremony in June.

Photo on main News & Events page: Grade 6 students trek through Pingry's campus trails on a mission to clear and tidy them. 

Contact: Greg Waxberg '96, Communications Writer, gwaxberg@pingry.org