Middle School

Your student takes her first intrepid steps into adulthood during middle school.

These years find adolescents engaging in focused, critical thinking and deepening their emotional and social awareness.

Parents often approach their students’ middle school years with apprehension (if not outright dread), expecting them to look like a version either of their own adolescent experiences or those we see all too often in pop culture: physically awkward, socially cliquish, rife with the growing pains that distract from academic work and from the equally critical work of healthy self and social development. (Let’s be real — concentrating on the Pythagorean Theorem while navigating the confusing new realities of adolescence requires Herculean effort!) Most of us somehow just survived, much less thrived, through these years — intellectually disengaged, emotionally perplexed, and socially intimidated.

At MSR, you find a very different reality: young people excited about school, really being (and becoming!) themselves, puzzling through and appreciating each other’s differences, focusing, competing, performing, critiquing, and inventing — while also meeting and regularly surpassing the highest academic standards.

We know it can sound too good to be true. But when you think about the way we approach education, the difference starts to make sense. We take a more complete approach to ensuring that your student is ready to achieve and succeed in high school, ensuring not only that he’s academically prepared but that he also enters these intensive college-prep years confident in who he is, comfortable in how he relates to peers and adults, deep into the discovery of what he’s passionate about, and precociously competent in his ability to manage and direct his own work.

As the ground shakes beneath his feet, we apply all that we know about middle schoolers in general and about your child in particular to make sure these years solidify rather than disrupt your student’s sense of himself as docent of his own learning and engineer of his own authentic and fulfilling life. Because, ultimately, MSR is here not just to help your student prepare for the future, we’re here to help him practice a way of life now that will shape how he lives and works for the rest of his life.

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Third Plane of Development

(Grades 7 to 12)


During the Third Plane of Development (ages 12–18), students move from focusing on the “What?” questions of early childhood and the “Why?” questions of their elementary years to the “How?” questions of adolescence and early adulthood: How do I apply what I’ve learned so far? How do I fit in? How do I contribute and achieve my best? How do I channel my passions into my higher purpose? How will I make my mark? They’re ready to actively explore and discover their unique place in society and to test their unfolding sense of self in the external world: Who am I as a thinker, a maker, a colleague? Who am I as a friend, a collaborator, a contributor, a leader? Who am I as a fully engaged member of society?

To take on this work, your student needs:

  • more space — both physical and social — apart from parents to safely exert her expanding independence (Dr. Montessori especially emphasizes the importance of outdoor spaces where students can explore while feeling connected to and grounded in nature);
  • more opportunities to discover and express herself through authentic and creative work, healthy social interactions, and even financial self-sufficiency;
  • more external structures and assessments to support self-management and -organization (e.g., letter grades, a bell schedule, a subject-specific rotation of courses in Middle School, followed by regional competitions, national exams, workplace evaluations in Upper School);
  • more occasion to test and evaluate herself and take on more responsibility in the world (i.e., real-world internships, independent community service projects, other leadership roles beyond home and school).

* While Maria Montessori never officially designed a post-elementary educational curriculum, MSR’s Middle and Upper Schools build upon the thinking she shared about adolescents’ particular developmental needs, and embody the time-proven Montessori philosophy and values.

Middle School Course of Study

As at every level, MSR seeks to remove the artificial barriers that tend to separate “school work” from its authentic context — life!

So while your student masters all the traditional subjects through our interdisciplinary curriculum at MSR, he also applies his academic learning through real-world projects (by nature interdisciplinary, personal, and interpersonal as life experience teaches us), so that every school day helps him grow his intellect, develop his humanity, and strengthen his sense of autonomy.

Take, for instance, our students’ yearlong “Architecture as Activism” project, and imagine your student taking part: researching, designing, and presenting plans for the development of a real school — in this case, MSR’s innovative new Upper School. With his full imagination and interest engaged, he strengthens his conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills through applying his expanding knowledge: creating scaled blueprints for a geometrically sound structure (math); designing sustainable, green buildings with the latest technology for energy and water conservation (science); and researching, drafting proposals, planning relevant site visits, and presenting plans to the Board of Trustees (English).

But learning isn’t limited to the usual academic subject areas. Consider just a few of the supra-academic skillsets your student develops in this single project. He connects with and consults experts, exercising personal initiative and self-confidence. He confidently and persuasively presents his ideas to a group of influential decision-makers, practicing self-expression, -presentation, and again -confidence. He builds and balances a budget, employing self-discipline, organization, and prioritization. He applies design thinking to creative problem-solving. He figures out where he can best contribute to the team and how to work together on, plan for, and commit to a complex, long-term project, gaining self-awareness and practicing collaboration, planning, and persistence. He balances competing needs and desires within the community and reconciles them with his own values, preferences, and ideas, developing empathy and skills in diplomacy and conflict resolution.

In other words, at MSR, your student begins to master in middle school the crucial-to-happiness life skills that so many young people authentically encounter for the first time post-college. And he gains this experience in ways that fully integrate with and strengthen his academic studies.
Through Intersessions, Occupations, Marketplace, Community Service, and other opportunities for learning beyond the classroom, your student develops essential life skills, building competence and confidence (not to mention his résumé!) in preparation for his next experiences in high school and beyond. These distinctive aspects of our program — deeply integrated with academic learning in traditional subject areas — exemplify the Third Plane principles of the Montessori approach.


Twice a year the regular curriculum pauses for Intersession, a one-week period when students — accompanied by MSR teachers, staff members, and sometimes outside experts or parents — participate in full-immersion, interdisciplinary studies. Through Intersessions your student can fully submerse herself in an area of interest outside of the typical academic studies and encounter new experiences, places, people, and ideas that spark what often become lifelong passions. Some are offered year after year, while others are newly designed to meet students’ unique interests.

A sampling of Intersession projects undertaken in recent years:

  • Trailbuilding – Improve the wooded area around our school by building pathways and outdoor education stations, learning about trail maintenance, mapping, drainage, and the ecosystem.
  • Film! – Unlock the secrets of movie-making by writing, filming, editing, creating special effects, and ultimately producing their own short films.
  • The History and Science of Bookmaking – Learn about the art of mini-comics, calligraphy, rubber-stamping, book binding — even the science of spitballs! — in a fun-filled week of paper and book making.
  • Rockets! – Apply math and physics concepts (algebra, geometry, energy, velocity, acceleration, and Newton’s Laws) to the design and building of rockets, including day trips to the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and the Reedy Creek Observatory at NCSU.
  • Song to Stage – Write original songs, develop vocal techniques, and prepare for a culminating performance on stage with visiting teacher/musician Charles Pettee, guitarist, singer, and mandolin player who has performed in over 5000 shows throughout the world!


Through our Occupations program, MSR initiates your middle school student to the world of adult work in ways that are meaningful and fun, physically, emotionally, and intellectually challenging, valued in the wider community, economically viable, and environmentally and ethically sustainable. She might work as a beekeeper, bookkeeper, or photographer. She might make clay pots, care for the chicken coop, build robots, repair bicycles, or run a sports clinic.
In Marketplace, she takes Occupations to the next level. She sells her wares — including eggs, herbs, homemade pottery, jewelry, and quilts — to the local community at Midtown Farmers’ Market as well as our Fall Festival and other MSR community events. Through these experiences, she predicts sales patterns, practices tracking revenue and expenses, and determines how to reinvest in her business and ensure repeat customers. She gains valuable insight into the world of entrepreneurial work, applying her in-school theoretical learning to real-world situations and, conversely, discovering new motivations to fuel her academic inquiries.


In addition to serving within our school community, students complete 25 hours of service each year, a requirement more typical of a high school program. (MSR implements a gradually increasing requirement through Upper School.) This work doesn’t merely signal the high value MSR places on service to the community, it plays a valuable role in your student’s budding sense of self at this age, his sense of responsibility, generosity, and empathy. He volunteers in structured ways — feeding the hungry at a local soup kitchen, helping beautify local parks and playgrounds at the beginning of each school year, visiting local retirement communities to share good company and cheer with the elderly. And through these acts of service, MSR helps him to forge new connections between his unfolding talents and interests and his maturing self and social consciousness. The Passion Project makes this intention explicit, urging every student to undertake a project of his own design — assisting at an art studio, harvesting and delivering produce for a local farm, organizing a charity ice skating exhibition, building and populating new beehives, or other self-constructed commitment to community.

Middle School Environment

The Prepared Environment is an essential aspect of our pedagogy and curriculum at every level, specifically designed to meet the changing needs of your student as he grows and matures.


In Middle School, we give your child the space he needs — literally! Set amidst 40 acres of forest, streams, and wildlife, MSR’s Brier Creek Campus provides the ideal environment for students in the Third Plane of Development. Our natural surroundings provide expansive space for experiential learning and quiet reflections as your student performs scientific field studies, raises his environmental awareness, or participates in community service.

Meanwhile, our school building, nestled amongst the trees, provides a homelike academic enclave for our middle schoolers — a space apart to safely navigate the passage from childhood to young adulthood. Classrooms are arranged to support the natural flow of focused learning and lively discussion while the refectory, kitchen, labs, and other collaborative spaces make room for community governance gatherings and large projects that extend beyond the walls of the classroom.

The truth is, things can get a little messy: The robotic arm your student is tinkering with might fling ping pong balls in every direction. A mixed media collage project might require a veritable explosion of magazine clippings, paint, and putty. A dance rehearsal might leave muddy tracks all over the common room. And that’s okay! In fact, it’s essential. Because part of your student learning to take more responsibility for his learning and his role as part of a community comes in the form of cleaning up these wonderful messes.

In Middle School, your student participates in managing and maintaining his learning environment as a whole. He helps clean the common room, load the dishwasher, organize and tidy after every exuberant learning session. Together with his classmates, he’s learning how to achieve the order that makes for a harmonious living and working environment. And this skill, as any parent, teacher, colleague, business owner — okay, basically anyone — can attest, goes a long way toward success in life.


Your middle schooler doesn’t just need physical space, she needs a social space that allows plenty of room for her to express herself, makes it safe to ask hard questions about who she is or how something works, and provides opportunities to practice healthy collaboration with lots of different kinds of people.

At MSR, with a student-teacher ratio of 9:1, an average class size of 18, and an optimal cohort size of 50 students, we strive to balance the variety, diversity, and opportunities that greater numbers allow with the mentorship, free space, tailored learning experiences, and personal connections that only smaller class sizes can ensure. A well-balanced cohort also means your student develops the capacity to appreciate and collaborate with different kinds of people, since it precludes the development of look-, act-, and think-alike cliques so common in larger school environments. Here, your student develops close relationships with an incredibly diverse group of peers, and she doesn’t get pigeonholed as she explores her interests and possible passions.

We also strengthen our social environment through regular, structured, student-led gatherings. Your student participates in regular Community Meetings, a collaborative forum where everyone takes an active role. If she’s the student hospitality manager, she keeps us abreast of visitors to the school. As the business manager, she reports on inventory and cash flow from our Marketplace sales and teams up with the community service manager to report how we’re contributing some of our earnings to serve the larger community. She also attends weekly advisory meetings with a small group of six to eight peers and her advisory teacher.

Her advisor is her anchor for the duration of her middle school experience, providing emotional support, academic guidance, and facilitating of good, old-fashion group fun like creating a Headless Horseman Scarecrow for Halloween. Within this smaller group, her advisory teacher creates a safe space for facilitated discussion about issues ranging from online safety and integrity, to personal identity and expression, to time management and organization.

In other words, your middle school student is surrounded by a community of adults and peers that meets her need for belonging, inspires her toward ever greater independence and personal discovery, and supports her as she navigates her relationships and growing academic responsibilities.


Perhaps the most vital aspect of our learning environment, palpable the moment you arrive on campus, might also be the most difficult to describe. It’s not something you can easily point to: a place, a program, a policy. Rather, it’s a mindset — a community-wide belief in the capacity of our students to set and achieve their own goals; seek out big, meaningful challenges; both fail and succeed spectacularly and safely; and thus learn lessons so deeply that they inform their lives forever.

Over time in this environment, through both practice and osmosis, your student develops the MSR mindset, too. He learns to approach every challenge first with the assumption that he can do it (whatever “it” is) and with an ever growing sense of his strengths and how he learns best.

He may not know how yet, but he knows from experience that he’s capable of learning how to do anything, that with hard work and persistence no problem is too big to take on, and that grappling with complex, interesting problems is part of what brings joy and meaning to work and life.

Middle School Pedagogy

MSR provides a truly complete course of study that integrates real-life learning into every subject area and every subject area into real-life learning.

Visit our Brier Creek campus and you might see a group of students energetically planning an educational excursion to Prague (researching, budgeting, mapping, and scheduling the trip entirely on their own) or working together in the field, collecting data on habitat conditions for the Eastern Blue Bird.

Where are their teachers? Not standing before them, telling them what to do next. Instead, they’re actively engaged beside them, providing the tools, strategies, and support they need to structure and direct their own learning. Your student’s English teacher gives him a copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and says, “I think you’ll really love this, and it might give you some good ideas for your Prague trip itinerary. Let’s talk after you’ve read it.” And his Humanities teacher, seeing the book he’s reading, suggests that he think about how it fits into the different eras in the city’s history — Holy Roman Empire to Soviet Union to the rise of nationalism and the modern Czech Republic. And asks, “Why do you think it’s originally written in German?”

Meanwhile, your student’s algebra teacher, who knows that she’s working on a project to build new birdhouses for the Eastern Blue Bird trail on campus, introduces new math concepts through a series of scenarios that help the students calculate the loss of habitat, the number of birdhouses needed to have an impact on the bird population, the ideal locations, heights, and distances between them, and so on.

At the core of this Montessori approach to pedagogy, known as “student-directed learning,” is the belief that your student is an interpreter, constructor, and creator of knowledge, not merely a recipient. And the most memorable and meaningful learning happens when your student (and her questions, interests, and experiences) are at the center of a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum. This kind of teaching requires the most masterful, most prepared, most actively engaged teachers.

Trained in our time-tested Montessori approach, MSR’s expert teachers plan lessons that implicitly demand students acquire and apply the necessary knowledge and skillsets at every level, and then supportively challenge your student toward deeper inquiry, genuine engagement, and constant skill-building.

Even as this approach builds adult-like independence in our middle schoolers, it also keeps alight the child-like imagination and wonder-filled energy of childhood, ensuring that your student learns to fuel (rather than replace) her personal fascinations with ever more focused, vigorous, and disciplined study.


Students who have successfully tackled serious themes and advanced subject matter, developed critical thinking skills, have learned to independently identify and pursue their own personal fascinations with discipline, and developed a strong and realistic sense of self-reliance are ready to set meaningful and ambitious goals for their future in MSR’s Upper School (grades 9 to 12).