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The Prep’s Treehouse offers a virtuous vantage point

As a social studies teacher for grades seven and eight at St. John’s, Jared Rodriguez ’09 is constantly reminded of his own middle school experience. In particular, he recalls that lunch period was sacred. Just as quickly, he notes that he never had access to anything like the Middle School’s weekly Treehouse gathering.

Middle School TreehouseThe concept is simple: To recreate the easygoing interlude that comes with boys climbing up into a treehouse to share their thoughts and swap stories. Every Tuesday inside the Ford Family Student Center, Middle School students flock to a roundtable discussion—during their lunch period—to exchange ideas and observations on a variety of themes and subjects in a staff-moderated setting.

“At its core, Treehouse is a space for kids to engage in culturally diverse conversation about subjects that mean more than just talking for the sake of talking,” says Middle School Counselor Mark Gafur. “Some of our topics are impromptu, some are chosen in light of what’s going on in the world. We also draw upon the curriculum, for example, integrating aspects of social studies and religious studies classes.”

Treehouse topics are wide-ranging. Students who attend Treehouse have pondered gender stereotypes (in sports, the workplace, and even among superheroes), learned about the varied holiday traditions of different cultures, delved into the implications of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and explored why some NFL players chose to kneel during the national anthem this past season.

“Everything we select is developmentally appropriate, and for the most part, the kids are fairly well-informed coming in,” says Gafur. “For the ones who are not, I think they become informed during or by following up on our conversations. Everyone is encouraged to have their own opinion, but we also make sure they understand we have norms, and that when you come into the space, you respect the space and participants. What’s exciting is that these students are able to have a real conversation.”

Since its establishment in the winter of 2017, Treehouse has drawn 15–20 students in both sessions each weekthe first at 11:25 am and the second at noon. Most of the students who began attending in grade six have continued their participation now that they are in grade seven.

“I think Treehouse is inspiring,” says James Maestranzi ’24. “I come because I like all the teachers and I like the stuff we talk about. I get insights.”

In acknowledgement of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and in anticipation of Black History Month, students were asked to offer up a cause that might inspire them to cross a symbolic bridge, like the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, one of the most hallowed places in America's civil rights history and a symbol of racial equality since Dr. King’s marches there in 1965. Using a photo of the Selma bridge for inspiration, students sketched their own “bridge” ideals, raising issues like affordable healthcare and equal pay for women.

“I come because I like to hang out with friends and the teachers are fun,” says Ben McGee ’24. “My interest depends on the subject, but something like building our own ‘Bridge to Selma’ really made me think.”

Hands in the air
Middle School Treehouse

“I think some people think Middle School boys don’t know what’s happening in the world or don’t have an opinion, but there’s a real willingness to share in these sessions,” says Rodriguez. “Hands are up, and that’s what ignites conversation. I think that makes it unique. It’s a half-hour conversation in a micro community, but it continues outside this space and into the greater community.”

Balance is a key component as well. “Sometimes we dig deeper and sometimes we keep it light,” says Middle School Counselor Liz Liwo. “There may or may not be popsicles.”

Throughout Black History Month this February, Treehouse continued to touch upon themes of race and inequality. St. John’s football and track coach Ken McClendon appeared as a guest speaker to share his experience growing up in Denver, Colorado, throughout the Civil Rights Movement. Coach McClendon, 61, related anecdotes about being forced to ride in the back of a public bus with his mother, his chance meeting with American icon Jesse Owens, the race riots of 1967 and ’68, and his memory of his parents embracing in tears upon hearing the news of President Kennedy’s assassination.

“It was a first-hand account of a turbulent time and the kids hung on every word,” says Liwo. “They were so enthusiastic. Every one of them got out of their chairs and shook his hand and thanked him for coming. That was unprompted by staff or faculty. That’s when it really hits home that things like Treehouse are helping our students acquire the tools they need to be thoughtful and compassionate citizens of the world.”

Posted by Mr. Chad Konecky in Character and Leadership on Wednesday February, 28

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