Middle School House System Builds Community and Fosters Joy

Middle School House System Builds Community and Fosters Joy

By Sloan Magliery, middle school dean of students and language arts, and Lissa Wade, middle and upper school French  

If you happen to be in the vicinity of Wellington’s Middle School Commons at approximately 8:32 a.m. on a Friday, you will likely stop to wonder what could possibly cause 192 adolescents to cheer, whoop, stomp, clap, and laugh so joyfully at such an early hour – particularly if you had been the one to drag them out of bed, quite begrudgingly, not all that long before. The weekly House competition, worth 100 points to the House of the prevailing student, is your answer. The victor might have moved the most Skittles with just a straw from one cup to another, been able to unwrap the most candies while wearing oven mitts, answered the most trivia questions correctly, knocked over the most pins during pumpkin bowling, stacked the highest tower of Solo cups or index cards, won a game of Simon Says, or even been the one to keep a balloon in the air the longest. This bit of friendly competition, infused with lots of joy as kids cheer for and celebrate one another, is what the House system is all about and why we wanted to bring it to Wellington’s middle school.  

The House system has existed in British education since the Middle Ages and has been adopted by more American schools since the success of the Harry Potter series. Think of the Sorting Hat declaring which house Harry, Ron, and Hermione will join: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, or Hufflepuff. In the same way, Wellington middle school students were sorted at random on the first day of school into one of five mixed-age Houses, each with its own color and Wellington-inspired name. As the music played, friends cheered, and 8th grade house captains pulled names from the Sorting Basket, students eagerly awaited the calling of their name to learn which House they would join: Bugle, the purple House of Joy; Duke, the red House of Spirit; Jag, the green House of Courage; Leap, the orange House of Community; or 1982, the yellow House of Creativity.  

Now, in addition to their grade level team and their advisory group, each middle school student also belongs somewhere else: a House of students from all four grade levels that is led by four eighth grade students. Wellington’s middle school has long believed in the importance of building a culture of connectedness for children because we know that strong, trusting relationships are at the core of healthy school climates that foster learning. As Laura Hudgens argues in her article about why every school should have a House system, the structure helps every kid – even those who are new or who struggle to fit in – to feel like they are a part of something and like they have something meaningful to contribute. We believe that people are more connected to one another and more eager to learn and engage when they are excited to show up, so we were particularly intrigued by Hudgens’s description of the House system as “fun with a higher purpose.” This idea is a guiding mantra for us as we have built the House system this year.  

Each Friday afternoon, students gather in their Houses to do an activity together. While singing karaoke, having a dance party, painting rocks for the Buddy Bench, playing dodge ball or Scattergories or Jeopardy, or learning the names and favorite snacks of everyone in their House, students are enjoying the sense of belonging they gain from being in community with their peers from across the middle school. Suddenly, there are far fewer strangers in the hallways, in the Dining Room, at recess – and many more people who you know will have your back and are cheering you on.  

In addition, the five Houses compete for House points – both in fun, weekly competitions as well as for points that are awarded for living out our Wellington values. In designing our House system, we asked ourselves, “What are the behaviors we want to see and affirm in our school?” Our Wellington values answered that question beautifully. When a staffulty member sees a student being themselves or being curious, ambitious, responsible, or empathetic, they reinforce and elevate that behavior by awarding House points. In this way, students learn to cheer for each other and to look for the goodness that each person brings to the team. Points can never be deducted, only awarded, as we aim to lift each other up and emphasize the positives.  

In the weeks leading up to winter break, when anticipation is high and students are often highly distracted by the allure of time off from school, we decided to create a category for a “mystery behavior.” We announced that teachers would be on the lookout for students exhibiting this mystery behavior and award points accordingly. Students were immediately hooked and eager to know what they could do to earn points for this new category. On their way to first period on the day of this announcement, two eighth grade students were spotted singing gleefully in the hallway. A teacher informed them that they had earned points for the mystery behavior. They were beaming with pride and brimming with curiosity. When it came time to reveal the mystery behavior, a student from Duke House guessed correctly that it was about spreading more joy. Surely the teacher who witnessed the two young people singing with confidence and alacrity had her own joy multiplied through the act of doling out points. Everyone wins!  

As our House system progresses through its inaugural year, we are aware of the importance of granting our students agency in fostering these small communities of positive relationships. Having a corps of House captains and vice captains presents an opportunity to build and model leadership skills, an important benefit of the House system. Last spring we invited all rising eighth graders to apply to be leaders. They had to complete an application, sit for an interview, and choose one of two books about leadership to read over the summer, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens” by Sean Covey, or “To Chase a Dream” by Paul Kapsalis and Ted Gregory. Before school started, they joined a group of upper school students in an interactive leadership workshop led by Ted Wiese, a dynamic speaker who travels the country teaching students to make a positive difference in their schools by inspiring them to pursue a lifetime of excellence using successful leadership and teamwork behaviors. His session with this group of emerging leaders was so powerful and met with so much positive feedback that we brought Mr. Wiese back to Wellington to work with all our eighth grade students at the start of the school year so that they could all see themselves as important leaders and role models in the middle school.  

In addition to leadership skills, our 8th grade house captains and vice captains are sharpening skills in other areas too: sportsmanship, communication, problem solving, creativity, and event planning. They put all these skills to the test on the last day of school before winter break when they hosted a combined middle and upper school House bingo party! After setting up bingo cards, pencils, and prizes in the Thomas Family Dining Room, the leaders welcomed more than 300 students and staffulty with party music before spinning the cage and calling the first number. As they checked the winning cards and awarded House-color-themed prizes, players clamored for rounds to continue. It felt as though a new Wellington tradition had just emerged.  

We were inspired by the research that suggests that Houses boost student engagement and therefore have a positive impact on all aspects of a student’s experience at school. Schools that use the House system see stronger academic performance, a reduction in poor behavior, and a stronger sense of community that results in greater well-being and a culture of inclusion. We are already seeing these benefits at Wellington. In its first year, the new House system is generating positive emotions, fostering connections, instilling a sense of belonging, and spreading joy among students, teachers, and families. Building enduring and cherished traditions takes time, and already we have heard students abuzz with ideas for House t-shirts, crests, mottos, murals, chants, and handshakes. We hope what we’ve built this year is just the start of a new Wellington tradition that will live on for generations to come. We invite you to stop by on a Friday morning or afternoon to see it (and hear it) for yourself. Trust us: the cheers are unmistakable, and the joy is palpable.