An independent K-12 school on a beautiful wooded campus, 3 miles from Washington, DC


John Mathews
IS Head
(703) 749-6396

Mary Cahill
IS Academic Dean
(703) 873-6120

Lucia Campisano
Dean of Student Life
(703) 749-6359

Joleen Hyde
Assistant to IS Head
(703) 749-6390

From the Intermediate School Head

Hands-On Learning Empowers IS Students

I recently came across these two quotations nearby one another, and they struck me as being consonant with Potomac's mission to prepare students to lead lives of purpose, achievement, and generosity of spirit. In our work in Intermediate School, we frequently engage in real-world problem solving, where students do more than infer a connection between their work and what happens in the world: What they are doing actually affects their world. Four recent examples leap to mind: 

  • Seventh Grade "Take Action" Project: This year, as part of their summer reading requirements, our seventh graders read Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai and A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. These novels powerfully depict two real-world issues: the struggles faced by refugees and the difficulties of having limited access to potable water. In their English classes, the students were asked to think about what they would do to raise awareness or enact change in relation to these issues if they had the power to do so. The students then undertook projects in response to the questions, "What is something you see around you that makes you want to take action? What do you want to DO something about?" Each student developed a proposal outlining a step-by-step process to make his or her project happen and creating a "pitch" for a committee that will select finalists. The seventh grade class will choose one or two winners from among the finalists, and the selected project(s) will be enacted in our community. We expect to see a real change made by our enterprising students, and we hope to see many of them transfer the knowledge of the change-agency processes that they gained from this experience to other places and issues within their communities.
  • IS "Hands-on Life" Club: One of our new expanded club opportunities is designed to help students build useful life skills. Activities will include basic woodworking, sewing, and cooking. The club members recently made a yummy treat -- Nutella gelato! We even hope to have the children learn how to change a tire -- under proper supervision, of course. In helping our students learn to do these common (but important) activities, we hope to break down the stereotype that "handiness" is the sole province of adults and empower them with skills for their future.
  • Water-Quality Testing in IS Science: Continuing with the theme of the importance of clean water, students in both the Middle and Intermediate Schools learn how to test water for toxins and impurities. While they gain understanding of the mineral and chemical composition of water in our area, the students are also accomplishing something more. The testing that they do is a citizen science effort, the results of which are reported regularly to Chesapeake Bay Field Scope, an organization that uses the data to develop a clearer picture of the success of efforts to ensure clean waterways for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. 
  • Second Story Activities: Our relationship with Second Story (formerly Alternative House) is more than two decades old. On several occasions throughout each school year, Potomac opens its doors to young Second Story clients, and our IS students engage with them in fun activities like a Halloween party, a field day, and a guided walk in the woods. In addition, we coordinate with Second Story to identify needs that the children have, so that we can solicit donations from our community to specifically address those needs. Further, our students have an annual opportunity to visit the Second Story facility to get a first-hand look at the experience of its clients. By acquiring things that are needed and engaging regularly with these young people, we are fostering a reciprocal relationship that educates Potomac students about the value of a life of service. It is our hope that the sincere effort our IS students put into this partnership will lead to an adult life that includes service as a focus.

Each of these initiatives could be described as "hands-on" or "experiential" learning. And each one relates to the advice offered by Emerson and Dewey, offering our students opportunities to develop skills by doing and understand the many ways that learning enriches our lives.

Weaving Service Learning Into Our Students' Lives

Want to turn off the enthusiasm and attentiveness of seventh or eighth graders? Let them know that you want them to "reflect" on a recent activity. We know that adolescents are superb at observing their environment, and we know how incisively and specifically they can critique an activity. We also know that research has shown that reflecting on their actions helps people to internalize their significance and develop positive behaviors. None of this changes the fact that explicitly asking a member of this age group to reflect ensures a lackadaisical response at best, a sarcastic and/or dismissive one at worst. This presents a dilemma for educators when we feel that reflection is essential.

Recently, our eighth graders engaged in their first Community Action Day. The students spent the day serving with five different community partners that address hunger and food insecurity – our specific focus for the eighth grade service learning program. To help ensure that the students would have a valuable learning experience within those few hours of service, we had them engage in preparatory work beforehand, including the Capital Area Food Bank's "Face of Hunger" simulation. It was our hope that this preparation would enable the students to head into Community Action Day with the right mindset. 

While service learning aims to have a positive impact on those we serve and support, these experiences are also designed to benefit our students. We hope that, by seeing the lived experience of others, they will come to understand that there is a huge diversity of humanity outside their Potomac world, and that many of those people can benefit from their time and attention. Ideally, the students will be inspired, hearing a "calling" to serve throughout their lives. Even if this is too lofty a goal, we hope that these young people will think deeply about what they see and do while engaged in service learning and potentially change some of their own behaviors in order to contribute to the greater good. To achieve these goals, we must ask them to engage in meta-conversation; we must, horror of horrors, get them to reflect.

For this Community Action Day, eighth grade Faculty Service Learning Leader Sara Matey and Director of K-12 Service Learning ACE Everett found some brilliant (and slightly surreptitious) ways to achieve this goal. First, advisors led informal conversation about the experience at the service sites on the bus on the way back to Potomac. Their captive audiences had the work fresh in their minds and because the conversation was kept informal, the students were as much chatting about their day as reflecting on the meaningful activity they had just completed. Those discussions primed the pump for the "graffiti boards" the students were asked to contribute to when they got back to campus. 

The students were tasked with adding a sticky note to each of three boards that were displayed in the first floor IS hallway. Each board had a prompt; I was particularly struck by this one: "What is a small action you can take in your own life to continue to address hunger in our community?" The students offered thoughts like donating to food pantries; taking only as much food as they can eat, rather than wasting; finding future opportunities for volunteering with their families; and simply being thankful for the privileges they have. Any of these, if acted upon, will certainly make a difference. This little bit of reflection may yet have a significant impact on our students and on people in need in our community. I'm grateful to those who planned and executed the Community Action Day for making this important learning experience possible.

Social-Emotional Support for Healthy Relationships

In the adolescent years, almost nothing feels more important than having a group of friends. Friends share common interests, enjoy one another's company, and relish the time they spend together. At their best, friends are non-judgmental, supportive, and raise each other's spirits when together. Even though friends sometimes disagree, and arguments can cause rifts that can last what seems to be forever, ultimately the commonalities that bind them usually stand the test of time.

Yet at this period of children's lives, friends do at times drift apart. This is often due to the fact that interests fluctuate -- what connected a child with his or her buddy when they met at age 6 may not be of interest anymore. Also, modes of interaction change; how someone acts toward others might cause a change in the way a long-standing friend feels about him or her. All of this is natural, but it might not be mutual -- one friend may hope to move on, while the other may not. This is an area where sensitivity is important, and parents may see the direction things are heading with more clarity than their children. While you may not feel comfortable intervening preemptively, if you note that your child is going through a friendship fluctuation, you may want to sit down and offer some perspective and support.

When more than two people are friends with one another, a friendship group exists. Friendship groups often raise eyebrows because of the universally negative feeling about cliques. But friendship groups and cliques are not synonymous. It's important to know the key characteristics of cliques so that you can take action if one exists. These characteristics are drawn from this article from 

  • Cliques have a strict code of membership and ways to act.
  • Members of a clique often have no opportunity to interact with those outside the clique -- old friends are no longer able to be accessed.
  • Cliques have leaders who are gatekeepers; they often decide who gets in, who falls out, and how to act while being part of the group.
  • Instead of being based on shared values, cliques are invested in maintaining their status or popularity.
  • Cliques are exclusive, and sometimes perpetrate harm on those outside the group, either through exclusion or direct action, such as insults.

Cliques are hard for everyone. Of course, they are hard for those outside the circle who desire access but do not receive it, but they can also present difficulties for those within. Because the behaviors and interests of the clique are predetermined and antisocial toward outsiders, individuals in the clique often feel conflicted. They may "go along" with behaviors with which they do not agree; loss of membership in the group may feel like the worst-case scenario, so the individual's integrity can be significantly challenged. When a clique emerges, adults often need to step in to curtail the actions of the group and support those who are affected.

What can you do to help those affected by cliques?

  • Keep lines of communication open. Whether your child is being brought down by the actions of a clique of which he or she is not a part, or is conflicted by the actions of a clique of which he or she is a part, offering a supportive ear and acknowledging the tough situation can be very helpful.
  • Brainstorm talking points for what to say in tough moments. While being sympathetic to your child's concern about being kicked out of a clique or damaged by a clique's behaviors, encourage him or her to stick up for his or her principles, to speak honestly and with integrity. Often, the members of a clique need to be reminded of moral principles – and there is at least a possibility that such a reminder will encourage them to cease their unkind and exclusive behavior.
  • Reiterate the value of showing courage. While it could very well be challenging in the short term, being steadfast in the face of social pressure will be rewarded in the end. By showing that he or she is a person whose behavior is shaped by values, your child will ultimately earn friends who are dependable.
  • Inform the school. Cliques sometimes form without the knowledge of the school, but once we are aware and can confirm that a clique is indeed in existence, we can help end the situation through frank and direct conversation. 

But what can you do if your child is the leader of a clique? Here are two articles (from the Wall Street Journal  and from a website called "faith it") that can help you begin a conversation with your child if you identify him or her as a leader of one of these groups.

Navigating friendships and social interactions can be challenging at any age, but for adolescents, the challenges sometimes seem world-shaking. Open communication with supportive adults can help young people find their way through the maze of emotions and practical considerations that these issues generate. We at Potomac stand ready to help our students and parents; please do not hesitate to call upon us if you have concerns or feel that some assistance and support would be beneficial.