Our Stories

Coming Together; Becoming Whole: The 8th Grade Capstone Trip

May 27, 2021 by Lisa Schopf (Faculty and Staff)

One of the surprises of school life in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the creation of new connections and new opportunities for finding joy across reimagined and redefined horizons – even as we navigated instances of limited or lost opportunity. During Milton’s recent capstone graduation trip, our eighth grade students and their teachers embraced new opportunities to create, wonder, reach new heights, deepen understanding, and bond with each other as they (re)discovered important aspects of themselves. 

Milton’s middle school program includes a unique three-year arc for Israel education designed to help students cultivate a meaningful relationship and connection with Israel, along with an understanding of the history of Israel, the land, and its people. In their final semester, Grade 8 students typically embark on a capstone trip to Israel. This year, COVID restrictions prevented us from traveling to Israel, which was deeply disappointing even as it was not surprising. But that is not the end of the story. Once we came to the conclusion that the trip to Israel was not possible, we began planning a new type of adventure for the eighth graders!  We relocated to Pearlstone’s Retreat Center and created an engaging and unique program tailored to the students and the moment. Each aspect of this week was designed to provide our eighth graders with opportunities to help them feel a sense of closure in their academic and social journey over their years at Milton. Honoring the deep learning our eighth graders complete about Israel by the end of their middle school arc, we framed the week loosely on following the Shvil Yisrael, the National Trail of Israel. Each day had a theme connected to a particular region in Israel which helped inspire our learning and activities. As we met with people in Israel via Zoom, went on challenging hikes, designed prototypes for out-of-the-box innovations, worked on an art installation, participated in the EPIC game (which earns its moniker), and spent time connecting, we came to a wonderful conclusion: Rather than opportunities disappearing, we saw possibilities emerge and unforeseen vistas take shape on the graduates’ capstone trip.

Opportunities to Create

During the trip, the students created a ten-panel art installation for the school and worked on STEM-based innovations. Both endeavors were inspired by the commitment to reach beyond the limits of what already exists and their own comfort zones. On Monday, the eighth graders engaged in an art workshop with noted artist, Jay Wolf Scholssberg-Cohen. Each team of four students imagined and painted images connected to their studies about Israel over their school years. During this immersive experience, students discovered their talent and enjoyment of meaningful artistic expression and bonded with their team of artists. They also saw how their panels contributed to the whole, as ten beautiful and thought-provoking paintings emerged as the result of the students’ joyful and thoughtful creative effort. Later in the week, students made wonderful designs for new initiatives and products that could help others and presented them to guest judges on our own Milton-style version of Shark Tank. Beyond the artistic and innovative realms, students also created on a more abstract level- they created an atmosphere of meaningful and collaborative enterprise that helped us all feel ever more connected and empowered.

Opportunities to Deepen Understanding

The students extended their studies with virtual tours of Tzfat and the Old City; an opportunity to hear from Tzipi Livni and submit questions at the Rabin Lecture; a meeting with the COO of an innovative tech company in Israel; a talk with individuals working to foster peace among Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians through cooperation in environmental initiatives; and a chance to learn more about kibbutz life through a session with Milton’s own Gila Efrati. These sessions helped the students bring their learning about Israel together in a way that emphasized the diversity of people and experiences in the country. 

Opportunities to Bond

On this immersive experiential trip, the eighth graders connected with each other as a whole grade, deepening established friendships as well as broadening their relationships within the grade. During structured activities that included student-led tefilah services, hikes in the woods and through a creek, farming activities, ropes course climbing, Israeli Dance, Krav Maga training, the EPIC game night activity, art and design initiatives, the students connected as they both contributed to our community and encountered new experiences together. And as many of us may remember, so much of what makes these kinds of trips special is the time spent together in a less-structured way, when students can just talk, laugh, and play together. Seeing our students engage in impromptu games of frisbee on the center hill, stroll around the paths together, or play knee hockey brought home how the grade had come together in a beautifully cohesive way. One of the special elements of capstone trips is that they create a space and time for a group to come together and connect more deeply, engaging in experiences that will form the memories that they will become nostalgic over in years to come. Our students had that wonderful experience of coming together with deeper friendships and an enduring sense of community.

Opportunities to Feel Whole

On their last night at Pearlstone, students sat around a campfire and shared reflections and appreciation as they looked back on the transformative time they shared. They enjoyed smores and reminisced about the trip they were currently on as well as the many years so many of them shared together since early childhood. The teachers who were there that evening saw something special come over the students. There was a lightness of joy in each child, and there was also a sense of wholeness in each child. They seemed to have come to a place of feeling centered, happy, connected- in a word, whole. Of course, they have been joyful and whole at times throughout this year, but this week together brought something to our students that is hard to define but so amazing to behold. And it was contagious. The teachers who were with them the whole time and those who made a special effort to come out to see them and run an activity, all felt energized and filled by the time together. It was a powerful and poignant reminder that highlighted an essential facet of our school: Milton is about connections and experiences that allow our students- and our teachers- to imagine, discover, wonder, and create, to help deepen their connections with their world, with each other, and ultimately with themselves.

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