New Middle School Capstone Research Program Adds to 21st Century Tool Kit

New Middle School Capstone Research Program Adds to 21st Century Tool Kit
Gretchen Lee

One of the best things about middle school kids is that though they still have the enthusiasm and curiosity of childhood, they are also in the process of developing the critical thinking and cognitive abilities to really study, research and document the world around them. It is in this sweet spot between wonder and scholarship that the middle school faculty and staff, headed by Dana M. Stern, Head of Lower and Middle Schools and Christine Lebovits, Assistant Head of Lower and Middle Schools, have developed the Capstone Project program for 5th through 8th graders. 
As part of Head of School Jalaj Desai’s mandate to “teach kids how to think, not what to think,” the Capstone Project encourages middle school students to examine their interests and passions. Their goal? To find a meaningful topic or idea they would like to spend time understanding deeply over the course of the year. Students are guided in this discernment process by their Capstone coordinator, an advisor who meets with them to develop the scope and focus of their project. Their year-long project culminates with the submission of a research paper that challenges students with age-appropriate requirements for knowledge and presentation. Students are also encouraged to use their unique gifts and talents to imagine additional ways to share their findings. Art projects and installations, multimedia presentations, podcasts, capsule news stories, pop-ups and other methods for creative expression are applauded and supported. 
Each grade in the middle school is given some minimal direction for their Capstone Project, based on the themes the grade will use to undergird their learning for the year. SRDS educators capitalize on the fifth graders’ enthusiasm for science by suggesting they pursue STEAM-related topics for their Capstone. 6th graders explore the Saddle River Day School Core Value, “Everyone Counts” and seventh graders explore their “Love of Learning.” The 8th graders research topics and provide solutions to environmental issues after learning about the UN Sustainability Goals. Students are given a sketchbook where they record their thoughts and observations. Use of these tools coordinates with instruction in the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and is intended to prepare middle schoolers for the systems they will encounter when they step up to 9th grade. 
Interdisciplinary projects like Capstone, a rigorous, constantly evolving curriculum, and the leadership and vision of Ms. Stern and Ms. Lebovits have driven a significant increase in enrollment in the Saddle River Day Middle School. The SRDS Middle School is well-known for being a tight-knit, supportive community with extensive and varied opportunities for students to stretch their wings, hone their skills and try new things. Parents in and around Saddle River, New Jersey have recognized the value of an SRDS education as a springboard for their children to achieve their academic and life goals. Not only are SRDS middle schoolers well prepared for high school and higher education, they are well prepared for life in a rapidly changing world as well. 

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