iBelong, You Belong, We Belong: A Middle School Mindset

Malala Yousafzai once said, “The best way to solve problems and to fight against war is through dialogue.” Dialogue is defined as “a discussion between two or more people or groups, especially one directed toward exploration of a particular subject or resolution of a problem.” Dialogue is at the core of the Middle School program iBelong, which is also described by Middle School Director, Steve Mathes as a community “mindset.” 
iBelong was founded in 2013 by 8th grade Social Studies teacher, Mr. Fallik, and Middle School Guidance Counselor, Ms. Avalos after an exhaustive study of Miami Country Day campus diversity. MS Guidance Counselor, Mrs. Byrne currently coordinates the program alongside Mr. Fallik. Through purposeful and topic based Coffeehouses, intentional movies with debriefing sessions for both students and parents, and school wide support, iBelong’s mission centers around effective dialogue that enables students to better understand each other and nurture the value of empathy.

At the monthly Coffeehouses, topics such as bullying, anxiety, religions, diversity, learning differences, and holiday traditions are discussed and facilitated by peer counselors. The Coffeehouses provide a platform to share feelings and for Middle School students’ voices to be heard without judgement. “These topics are important because it lets kids know they are not alone,” peer counselor and 8th grader, Nicolas De La Cadena said after being asked to the importance of the iBelong program. 8th grader Carl Louis adds, “It (the Coffeehouses) can properly inform people about the subject or comfort them if they happen to be going through that sort of thing being introduced.” At one Coffeehouse in December, the focus was centered on Holiday traditions. Ms. Byrne, Mr. Fallik, and the peer counselors began by showing a video about the Japanese tradition of eating KFC for Christmas. They then watched a video about the growing number of Jews living in China holding on to their Hanukkah traditions. This led to facilitated conversations by the peer counselors. Students shared traditions like watching movies with their families, blowing out birthday candles, and watching different music concerts. The group then came together and discussed why traditions are important. This safe environment and discussion brings students together as they find similarities and simultaneously interesting differences between them.

Parents need to continue these conversations at home and should be proactive when asking their children about their day. “The home should be a safe space to practice this skill (dialogue). Parents are the primary teachers of values, and we hope that iBelong becomes a part of kids’ value system.” says Mr. Fallik. Suggestions from peer counselors to faculty and parents include being provided a summary of what was discussed in the Coffeehouses, filtering access to certain movies or media, and having current events conversations once a week at dinner. The more parents are aware of the various programming of iBelong, the more conversations will overlap from school to home.

The iBelong cultural mindset in Middle School has yielded, according to administrators, a reduction in bullying incidents across the division. “I feel like the impact of iBelong (has) made our school more outspoken since it marks a symbol of confidence even if you have never been to one. In fact, the title itself gives confidence,” says Louis. Just knowing the program exists has given students a feeling of comfort and acceptance. As for the future of iBelong, there is optimism as the program continues to evolve. “My hopes for the next step for iBelong is to decentralize the coffeehouses. I would like other members of the faculty to conceive of, plan and execute the coffeehouses. I think this will help build community and reinforce the commitment to this initiative in the middle school”, says founder and coordinator, Mr. Fallik.

To learn more about the iBelong program, please reference this informational packet or to learn more about the Miami Country Day Middle School curriculum, culture, and programming, please click here.
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