An Introduction to Wheeler Middle School from Director Vanessa O’Driscoll

January 16, 2022

Wheeler Middle School Director Vanessa O’Driscoll seated at a table and smiling at the camera.
Wheeler Middle School Director Vanessa O’Driscoll

What happens at Wheeler Middle School? As you’ll learn in the following Q&A with Middle School Director Vanessa O’Driscoll, it’s quite a lot!

Q: How do you describe Wheeler Middle School?
A: Wheeler Middle School is a busy place. As I write this, the students are streaming back into the building from their second outdoor recess of the day. It’s a raw January day, the world is facing unprecedented challenges, and being an adolescent is hard. But these kids are singing, laughing, and chattering over each other with instantly recognizable joy. Now, they head into their next classes, where their focus will shift from the hilarity of their playground antics to the curricular topic of the day. At various points today, some students are working with a small group to create a video clip teaching systems of equations, or building a fire at Wheeler Farm and cooking lunch over it, or collaborating with a non-profit organization that helps refugees acclimate to life in Rhode Island, or using burgeoning geographical skills to discern the location of an international middle school class on a mystery Skype, or staging a Spanish-language fashion show, or sharing original personal narrative poetry collections in self-designed chapbooks, or sculpting a larger-than-life but utterly lifelike bird out of clay, or practicing the 50m butterfly on the swim team, or designing and building digital and paper models of theatrical sets, or collaborating in code in the Aerie game design class, or peering through microscopes looking at teeny shrimp. And two students and their teacher just stopped me in the hallway to excitedly tell me about the 3D model they’ll be making in Tinkercad of a city water infiltration system, used to capture, soak, and filter stormwater before it returns to the water table. Like I said, busy.

A Wheeler student working on laptop that is displaying programming commands for a robot while a small robot rests on the table next to them.
8th-Grade Robotics in the Design-Innovate-Build (DIB) Lab

Q: That’s an incredible amount of activity! You’ve already started to speak to some of this, but across Wheeler, we aim to provide a personalized, rigorous, and joyful education. How is that reflected in the Middle School experience?
A: Our rigorous curriculum features plenty of opportunities to explore and enrich the important mathematical, scientific, reading, writing, and critical thinking skills that adolescents need to be successful as they head off to high school. At the same time, we ask students to develop 21st century skills like curiosity, collaboration, communication, and creativity through inquiry and project-based opportunities in class. Our kids also have the option to select among over 30 Aerie courses, ranging from MathCounts to dance, to current events to art club, to enrich their day with precisely the types of topics into which they want to delve deep. Student clubs like the green team, student council, and girls empowerment, and afterschool programs like lacrosse, swim, soccer, game design, and theater club afford kids a seemingly unlimited buffet of options to find their passion, meet new friends, and explore new experiences.

Two students in the woods at Wheeler Farm. One is holding a large branch while the other cuts it with a saw.
Sixth-graders working together at Wheeler Farm.

Q: While our Middle School students are based at Wheeler’s Providence campus, students also engage in educational opportunities at Wheeler Farm–most notably during the 6th-Grade Farm Program. What are the benefits of learning at the farm, and how does the Middle School take advantage of our city and farm campuses to provide students with a unique learning experience?
A: In 6th grade, each homeroom spends eight weeks in our Farm Program, where they explore the classic skills of a 6th-grade curriculum against the backdrop of 120 acres of fields, woodlands, and ponds. In class they study humanities and STEM, and at recess they build forts, they cook lunch on Fridays, and they go sledding in the winter. They come home exhausted and happy. Seventh-graders return to the Farm for AGILE (All Grade Interdisciplinary Learning Experiences): intensive four-day courses in topics ranging from photojournalism to the history of cryptocurrency. Eighth-graders embark upon a yearlong project in Cityside, based out of the WaterFire Arts Center, working with community partners like the Providence Public Library and A Beautiful Day to enact meaningful, positive change for Providence. Middle School is a short time, but in these three years, Wheeler students get to explore not only the ideas presented in their classes on Hope Street, but also the ferns and grasses of the Farm and local businesses and organizations that drive them toward civic engagement.

Students looking at a map together. There are white beans scattered across the map as part of a population exercise. Two of the students are sitting down at the table while two other students are standing.
Middle School students collaborate during a Global Studies exercise.

Q: And now for a few questions about you: When and why did you decide to join the Wheeler community? What has the experience been like for you?
I came to Wheeler in 2004 and taught 7th-grade English for 16 years. I was also the Dean of Students for the Middle School for six years. In 2020, I became the Middle School Director. What a year to start! I had six normal months and then COVID hit. But I’ve loved this community since I first came for an interview in March of 2004. It’s a vibrant, creative, warm place. We have gotten through these COVID months with the same spirit: the energy that comes from collaboration, creative approaches to designing top-notch learning experiences, and relying on crucial relationship building to be sure we are taking care of each other.

Q: What is your role as Director of the Middle School?
A: As Middle School Director, I help the faculty shape the curricular and extracurricular programming that our kids experience in 6th through 8th grades. Middle School is the joint between the Lower and Upper Schools, and we both rely upon and support those divisions. A great part of my job is working with families as they navigate the complexities of adolescence, communicating not only the big picture of our program, but also having personal conversations about each kid’s journey. And of course, working with students directly is a joy. Helping Student Council plan a dodgeball tournament, or hearing 8th-graders launch a community service project, or watching 7th-graders perform Shakespeare, these are my daily realities. I am so lucky to have them.

A group of students gathered by a whiteboard with notes written on it. One student is erasing something on the board while three others are seated a table and a fourth student stands nearby.
Eighth-graders in the Cityside program plan their project together.

Q: Is there anything else about Wheeler’s Middle School that we haven’t covered but that you would like to highlight?
A: The generosity and creativity of Middle School students can bring me to tears. Our Middle School talent show is one of our favorite traditions. Entirely student-driven, it showcases a wide range of amazingly creative feats: singing, instrumental performances, stand up comedy, poetry, ventriloquism, gymnastics, dance. One year, a new 7th-grader who was also new to the guitar signed up to play. She debuted her rendition of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” which she only very barely remembered how to strum. After a few false starts, and a quivery-voiced admission that she was “so nervous,” she settled in to playing the song one shaky note at a time. Big pauses in between each note yawned above her. At first the whole audience was silent, patient. Then the patience blossomed into something even more beautiful. Gently, slowly, quietly, everyone sang along with her, holding their notes when she needed a minute to reposition her fingers, together working their way through the song. Everyone exploded in applause when she finished, and she beamed. Most of the adults wept. The kids didn’t see it as heartbreakingly beautiful; they just saw it as helping a new friend.

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