Portland Progressive Middle School (7-8 grades) | Onyx Class

Twelve and Thirteen year-olds at Summa Academy

Onyx students doing group math
Step into the Onyx classroom and you might hear murmurs as students practice their speeches, or see them spread around the room, absorbed in their reading. Later in the morning Mr. Ley moves among the students, helping each with algebra and geometry. On some afternoons, you will find students debating current events. In every endeavor Onyx students learn to self-govern. As their abilities to accept responsibility grow Onyx students gain mastery in Academic Excellence and Emotional Intelligence. This prepares them well for the academic and the social climate of high school. 

Life as an Onyx student:

  • Academics are rigorous and students work in autonomous groups with clear and concise instructions.
  • Careful attention is given to the developing sense of self-governance.
  • Transition to high school is mentored with special classes, e.g. test-taking techniques, organizational skills, leadership development.
  • Organization and planning skills are emphasized with openness to letting students discover what ideas work best for them.

Mr. ley

Mr. Ley

When I became an educator, I told myself that I would only teach at a school where I could put my teaching philosophy into practice. No other profession can impact the lives of so many, so powerfully, for so long. An educator’s gifts are for a lifetime, and their benefits beyond enumeration. Analogies could never do justice to the value of an educator, but I will attempt with these five.

An educator is like…

  • A Physician - to listen carefully, consider thoughtfully, regard respectfully, and assess a person’s needs; to be skilled in current practices and research; and to follow up with frequent progress monitoring.
  • A Chef - to create a safe and comfortable place where everyone can be at ease; to have the freshest, most up-to-date educational ingredient; to create a learning menu that is enjoyable to every sensibility; to arrive early and stay late so the next day is as delectable as the former.
  • An Archaeologist - to show a hidden world, and provide the perspicacity to admire its foundations; to become not the one who unearths lost treasures, but rather a purveyor of the passion for exploration… and shovels.
  • A Hardware store - to stock tools for every personal improvement project; to be knowledgeable in their use; to create new tools when necessary.
  • A Bridge Builder - to allow us to move from wherever we are today, to wherever we wish to go tomorrow; to make accessible to everyone what was previously accessible to no one; to strengthen ourselves and our community, and improve our world in countless ways we too often take for granted.

Math with middle school
At Summa Academy I am able to embody all of these. The developmental insights of Natural Learning Relationships provide precision in developing my curricula, thus enabling me to blend Academic Excellence and Emotional Intelligence. It is this developmental framework that allows me to grow with my students. It is rare in life that a person’s work environment matches their calling, their sense of meaning. Summa is that for me.

Academic Excellence

6th grader with her Playscape design.

Our Onyx students are ready for academic challenges. Summa education meets them in their need for this challenge. Language Arts includes reading, writing, and listening. It also includes media literacy, psychological analysis of character, and creative writing. Mathematics studies range from beginning algebra to advanced geometry, depending on the needs of the student. Themes dominate humanities. Investigations often cross lines across history, anthropology, geography, and psychology. The themes reflect students’ interests thus ensuring spirited participation. Through experimentation and research, Onyx students investigate the small (molecules) to the large (environment), and many things between (genetics, astronomy, etc.).

Onyx students graduate prepared for high school. In addition to test taking techniques and practice tests, note taking, assignment tracking and organizational skills, executive function and leadership training, Summa’s educators create curriculum to build the specific skills needed by each student so they can meet the challenge of any high school they chose to attend. Transition proceeds smoothly, leading to a successful start to life as a high school student.

At Summa Academy, parents are integral to successful education. Educator and parent collaborate on the Personal Learning Plan at the beginning of the year to ensure strengths and challenges are well understood. The educators track progress with bi-weekly student notes that are shared with parents. Three times a year, parent/educator conferences focus on a detailed summary assessment of the academic proficiencies accomplished that term. As the year progresses and a student grows personally, socially, and academically, parents see this progress as additional proficiencies are added to the assessment.

Emotional Intelligence

Social/emotional intelligence is important as students enter middle school.

Onyx students embark on a serious quest to develop autonomy. This quest for self-government extends into peer and family relations as well as academic skill mastery. Significant changes in both brain and body herald a new sense of self. New powerful emotions arise. Summa educators, with their great knowledge of Natural Learning Relationships child development and brain research, appreciate the strength of these emotions. They foster Emotional Intelligence by creating a classroom of sensitive respect for the ideals and perspectives of each student. Through self-reflective and peer group engagement, students learn to assess their emotional experience. They realize that their strong desire for freedom must include acceptance of responsibility; and that their surge of personal power has the greatest benefit when applied to mutually enriching relationships. Judgment of self and one another dissolves; diversity is acknowledged and accepted. Students realize that growth in Emotional Intelligence is critical to mastery of self, to authentic autonomy.

Successful peer relationships are critical for Academic Excellence and Emotional Intelligence. Onyx students begin each day with a half hour of group interaction designed to increase appreciation of one another. Similarities and differences are explored. Conflicts resolved, strengths noted and ideas shared. Games and activities are introduced that lead to meaningful exploration of values.

Deepening Emotional Intelligence is nurtured and mentored throughout the curriculum. Student’s journal, exploring the relationship between psychology and emotion, and reflect on the impact of their emotions on decision making. Curriculum topics often bring forth strong emotional responses. Summa educators use these moments as forums for students to clarify their perspective on fairness and justice.

Experiential Learning

Every day Onyx students enjoy experiential learning. They debate, give speeches, role play historical scenarios, and perform scientific experiments. Often creative insights arise in these moments. For example, during one role play, some students took on the character of coal miners in 1880 Pennsylvania. Others were mine owners. Each group spent time with their coworkers. Then they met to negotiate a labor agreement. A vigorous debate ensued. The owners maintained their rights to the lion’s share. The miners argued that resources should be shared equally. During a particularly heated moment one of the miners asked a question: “Is there enough for everyone to share equally and have adequate income?” Everyone stopped, realizing they hadn’t evaluated coal as a resource. In that moment they realized that to successfully defend a position research is very important, and this appreciation of the importance of research has stuck with them.
Onyx students work together on an art project.

Physical Activity

Onyx students on a ropes course at camp Westwind on the Oregon Coast.

Brain research shows that morning physical activity promotes cognitive and behavioral competence. The entire school does thirty minutes of physical exercise together each morning. Activities vary, and students usually have two activities to choose from, an inside activity (e.g. dance, martial arts) and an outside activity (e.g. volleyball, soccer). Onyx students also have concentration based active stations in the classroom that they can engage between academic lessons (e.g. balance boards).


Every week Onyx students come together with the Emerald students (ages 9-11) to participate in formal art class. Both well-known and lesser-known artists are studied and their stylistic innovations sampled. Art projects vary, and technique and creativity are valued. In addition to the formal art class, the budding artists often engage in other artistic projects throughout the week. Using Summa’s large art studio they enhance their skills as they learn by doing. Mediums we explore are range from stone to clay, wood to paint, watercolor to charcoal. With the Onyx students project management is also emphasized as they learn to master the artistic process from conception to show. Students are proud of their work, and are given the chance to display it in the lunch room at the end of each section.

A Day in the Life of the Onyx Student

Onyx self-expression Jackson Pollock style.

9:00-9:30 Interpersonal Learning
9:30-10:00 Physical Activity
10:05-10:50 Language Arts
10:50 Outside Body Break
11:00-11:50 Mathematics
11:50-12:30 World Language alternating with Music
12:30-1:20 Lunch/Recess
1:25-2:15 Science alternating with Humanities
2:15-3:15 Project-based Learning (Student Council on Weds.)
3:15-3:30 Wrap-up and debrief of the day
3:30 Pick-up