Two years ago, I had an opportunity to assemble and regularly meet
with a group of ten boisterous middle school girls. These girls were
having numerous conflicts among themselves and with others; they often
referred to these issues as “drama.” I decided to step in. I offered
these students a safe space to work out their differences, to come to a
better understanding of what triggered their quarrels and to take steps
to reduce the drama.

The group met twice a week for 45 minutes during advisory and became
known as “The Aspiring Spirits.” Initially the tension in the room was
palpable, and regular eruptions of anger occurred during the meetings.
But I knew from conversations with these students that, deep down, they
wanted to get past their differences. To address the volatility within
the group, I

  • immersed them in art projects led by local artists and
  • used a cycle of planning, working, and reflecting known as the Reflective Loop in the Developmental Designs approach.

The combination of creative expression and thinking about their
actions before and after they worked yielded productive and positive
work times. In addition, we could get to the bottom of the ill feelings
among the girls more quickly and with less intensity, while allowing
them a measure of autonomy and practice in thinking before acting.

Reflection and arts infusion: an early unit
To document their work and stress the importance of the habit of
thinking before and after doing, I invited Bobby Brown, a local artist
who works a great deal with recycled materials, to lead a journal-making
workshop. He brought beautiful cloth backing with lots of recycled
adornments that the kids creatively worked into their hand-made books.
They used these journals to document writing and photography projects.

While they were engaged in the process of creating their journals-and
while they thought about their progress–I saw some of the
social-emotional strain among the girls start to dissolve. Their
creativity, work ethic, and desire to record worthy moments united them,
at least for the moment. Encouraged, I moved on to prepare other
positive, community-building activities, always reserving time for
written or conversational reflection, to better learn from our work
together and apply these lessons to future work.

Reflection and self-expression
Later that year, I received a grant from our parent-teacher organization
to work with Bobby and his partner, Joan Green, who works on the Dance
Performance Project. Joan and Bobby helped The Aspiring Spirits develop
masks that matched their personalities. They also choreographed dance
numbers to perform with their masks. As before, the girls bonded and had
fewer grievances during this project. We planned and reflected
throughout this second arts
experience. We planned ahead in order to increase the odds that we’d
work together successfully. To clarify behavior expectations, I asked
questions like “As we develop these dance numbers, how should we be
together? Let’s come to some agreements about this.” The girls came up
with the rules. After each session, we reflected. I guided them by
asking things like “How well did we live up to our agreements? Let’s
take a look at how we said we’d treat each other and compare it to how
we did.” The girls were honest. Light bulbs were going on all over the

Growing in service and competence
We participated in a number of important, community-oriented activities
throughout the year, but the most out-standing one stemmed from an idea
raised by our Assistant Principal, Audrey Sturgis. Ms. Sturgis suggested
that we make Thanksgiving baskets for families in our school community.
The girls wrote a plan, took it to each of our classrooms, and invited
students in those classes to bring in a part of the Thanksgiving meal.
For example, the kindergartners brought cranberry sauce, while the 8th graders were encouraged to bring potatoes. The turkeys were donated by Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.

I wrote an article about the success of our venture for our local paper, The Cambridge Chronicle,
so the girls could see the value of their work. They choreographed a
dance and wrote poetic pieces about their experience which they shared
at several of our all-school assemblies. They wrote the plan, and I led
them in reflection afterward.

The Aspiring Spirits concluded the year with a rite-of-passage
celebration with their parents and teachers. Much of this session
centered on reflection. They shared individual and group accomplishments
with everyone, and each girl spent time discussing what she had done
and how it felt to improve relationships with her Aspiring peers. The
girls were moving into 8th grade on a positive note.

Overcoming obstacles
Unfortunately, our entire middle school teaching team left the school
that next year, and, when the new group came, the advisory time that had
been allotted for the girls’ group no longer existed. The girls were so
eager to meet that they voluntarily joined me for lunch twice a week.
Although the core group was the same, several new girls joined us,
making the group a bit unwieldy at times. Without the advisory meeting
structure, we no longer had time to continue our service-learning work.
But the Aspiring Spirits made the best of it, and their actions made it
clear that the community-building and practice of regular reflection
over the previous year had strengthened them. They used the time to
discuss issues that were bubbling up between them and their classmates;
they worked together to determine solutions and took action.

Maturing into leadership
As the year went on, I observed an increased level of maturity in their
capacity for peer mediation. Aspiring Spirits were becoming accomplished
self-mediators, solving problems that arose between group members.
Their ability seemed to combine the formal peer-mediation training
offered to our middle school students with the skills of reflection
gained from our group work.

I invited them to mediate issues between younger students. They set
themselves up in dyads that could work together. They wrote the language
they would use during the mediations and set out to do the work. That
year, we mediated a number of lower-school issues. The Spirits had
become leaders, mentors of younger students, and fence-menders.

As graduation was approaching, the girls became anxious about leaving
the group. During our “move up” meet-ings with the staff at the high
school most of the girls would attend, I told the staff about The
Aspiring Spirits and asked them to support these girls so they might
continue the work they had started in middle school.

At the end of the year we had a pizza party, and each girl was invited
to reflect on something she learned. I was amazed to observe the comfort
with which these young women engaged each other. A year ago, some of
these girls had problems sitting in the same room with each other; now
they were talking about how much they had learned from each other! They
recognized their own growth, and I challenged them to continue their
group in high school.

Gail Ranere Nunes is a counselor at Cambridgeport School in Cambridge MA

This article first appeared in Origins’ Special Issue, Spring 2010