Agents of Change: The 8th Grade Leadership Program

Posted by Rebecca Moore - 21 October, 2015

IMG_57788th graders interviewed Kindergarten students in Mrs. Bernick's class about board games before designing their own games for Second Mile Preschool.
How do you think an 8th grader would answer this question: “How can I, as a local citizen, make an impact on my community?”

It’s actually a pretty difficult question.

Thanks to a generous professional development summer grant, four teachers—Kelly Kessler, Nichole Liese, Ellen Smalley and Shelly Harriman—were able to plan an innovative program that combines community learning with the rigorous researching, writing, and presentation skills that students have acquired throughout their Middle School years.

The 8Lead Project

The 8Lead project really brings our 8th grade, and indeed our whole Middle School, curriculum into focus. This culminating project challenges students to synthesize and practice the many skills learned during their Randolph Middle School years. The emphasis placed on initiative and community involvement and the opportunities for real world, practical experience will provide our students with invaluable experience that reflects what the world will expect of them in years to come.

Clay Elliott, Head of Middle School

 The Mantra

“Four words became our mantra as we planned this year-long experience for our students: interaction, empowerment, active participation, and empathy,” says Mrs. Harriman, Middle School English Department Chair. “We want our students to feel that they have the power to become agents of change not only in their community but in all aspects of their lives. If you care about something, do something. We want them to look around them and find their place. Take a huge idea and turn it into to something manageable that is personally relevant.”

“Middle school students are working on figuring out who they are and what they believe,” says English teacher Nichole Liese. “In this program, we provide an environment where students can explore these opportunities that might make them uncomfortable at first or help them think through new and different lenses. This program helps them develop possibilities for personal involvement that they may not have considered before.”

Making Changes in the Community Year-Round  

A retired teacher who is now a community volunteer shared the story of a former model who became homeless and is now a recovering alcoholic who lives and works at the Downtown Rescue Mission. A parent shared the joys and challenges of having a son who has autism and the advocacy work that she has done in order to raise autism awareness. After hearing Debra Jenkins talk about the work Merrimack Hall is doing to provide day and afterschool programs for children and adults with disabilities, four students stayed on to ask her how they could volunteer their time to help children with special needs.
The team decided that the program would be split into four parts that would loosely follow the four quarters of the school year. 
First Quarter
Their priority for the first quarter was to immerse our students in the issues facing Huntsville, through speakers and field trips. Students would not be able to make an impact if they did not know what was happening in the community.

We wanted them to know what difficulties citizens faced on a daily basis. Our students have met with inspirational people.

Shelly Harriman, Randolph School teacher


Mrs. Harriman continues, “Field trips have included a visit to the HEALS clinic at Martin Luther King Elementary where students were stunned to find that many children do not have access to toothbrushes, toothpaste, or medicine such as Tylenol on a regular basis. They spent time at Hays Nature Preserve to be immersed in the beauty that must be preserved and the importance of conservation. Two seniors came over to speak about the work of the Youth Leadership Council in Randolph’s Upper School and how students have the opportunity to develop community projects and apply for funding through the YLC. This is just a sampling of the experiences our 8th graders have had since August.”


Visiting the HEALS Clinic:

IMG_5776Visiting HEALS and learning about health care for low-income families

Second Quarter

During the second quarter, students will begin to narrow down their ideas, focusing on an issue that “speaks to their heart.” Teachers are not assigning topics. Questions will be developed, answers will be researched, and interviews with experts in the field will be conducted. By the end of second quarter, students will have gained the knowledge needed in order to write a mission statement for their particular cause.

“I’m really excited about the growth that I think the students will experience as they go through this process,” says Middle School Librarian Kelly Kessler. “They will be strengthening their communication skills as they correspond with and interview local experts. They should gain confidence in their abilities to make a positive impact on our community.”

Third Quarter

At the start of third quarter, students will develop an action plan to raise awareness and then they will implement their unique plan. It is worth noting that these plans need to be something other than fund raisers. “It is amazing to think that 86 8th graders will be out in the community acting as agents of change,” says Mrs. Harriman.



“I have been really impressed with the enthusiasm the kids have already shown,” says Ellen Smalley, K-6 Athletic Director. “They are really starting to use the information they have learned from the speakers and field trips and make small changes just at school. This is a huge transition for a middle schooler, but one which will ultimately be crucial for their futures.”




It’s been so exciting to watch them change the way they think and talk about issues in the community now.  I’ve seen them stand up more for their ideas instead of just agreeing with someone.

Ellen Smalley, Randolph School teacher



Fourth Quarter


As part of the culminating project, on April 25, students will hold a Leadership Presentation Fair in the Rhett Fine Arts Center for students, parents, teachers, and members of the community who will be personally invited by our 8th graders.

They will have the opportunity to showcase their learning and educate those attending about the issue that moved them to try and make a difference.


IMG_1336Upper School members of the Youth Leadership Council talk to the 8th grade about community learning. “I feel very fortunate to be part of the fabric of this community at Randolph School where teachers are empowered to help students grow to be meaningful and empathetic contributors to their world,” says Mrs. Harriman.

Students will document their work in their ePortfolios on Canvas throughout the entire process. Reflections, research, notes, pictures, and videos will serve as part of the requirements for the completion of the project.

We will highlight six students as they navigate their way through the process this year. Look for  #8lead updates on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, as well as here and on the Randolph website.

Photos by David Brown, Shelly Harriman, Nichole Liese and Rebecca Moore.

Topics: #8lead, 8th grade, Academics, community, community learning, curriculum, English, Huntsville, interdisciplinary, Middle School, professional development, teachers, the world

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