Our signature programs – unique and carefully crafted experiences that take students beyond traditional classroom learning – are integral to the Friends' Central approach to education throughout the grades.
Making is grounded in the tradition of constructionism, which believes that we learn best by building knowledge through experience, not through transmission and assimilation.
Community service at Friends’ Central School is part of the School’s identity, culture, and tradition. We believe that caring for our school, local, and global communities serves the guiding testimonies of stewardship, community, peace, and integrity.
At Friends’ Central, teachers understand that when they listen to their students and approach their ideas and questions positively, it teaches students that they can lead, that they can create real change.
Learning in the Natural World
At Friends’ Central School, we have long understood the deep connection between outdoor activities and indoor achievement. Our rolling, green 18-acre Lower School campus with an extensive organic farm, chickens, playgrounds, fields, trees, ponds, and a bird blind, is nature’s classroom. As they are playing and learning outdoors, our students are also developing cognitive, physical, and psychological gains they will need to succeed in our challenging academic environment.
For over 170 years, Friends’ Central educators have celebrated the connection between mind, body, spirit, and the natural world. The time and freedom our Nursery through grade 5 students are given to connect to one another and to the natural world are profoundly important to their well-being. Whether inventing their own games, working in the garden, catching tadpoles, or listening to bird calls in the woods, Friends’ Central Lower School students are soaking in the joys and benefits of time in nature.
Increasingly, science tells us that a child’s physical and mental health are affected by a connection, or lack of connection, to the natural world. Yet, as we raise and educate our children, many of us are living lives that are more and more distant from that connection. This gradual slide away from nature is taking a toll on our kids, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Access to green spaces and expanses are physically calming and inspire open minds. Studies show that the very academic skills we aspire to for our children are enhanced by time outdoors, where creativity, cooperation, problem-solving, and focus are all stimulated. In fact, the gains may be deeper and have a positive impact on areas as seemingly unrelated as language arts and social studies
The Friends’ Central Lower School is strongly committed to thematic education, a holistic approach that unifies diverse subject matter around a central theme, creating a depth of interest and understanding often absent in traditional approaches to curriculum. A new Lower School fall theme is chosen every year and is followed by grade-level themes in the spring semester. The topics selected encourage students to recognize and appreciate the racial, religious, and ethnic diversity of the world in a multicultural approach to education. Hands-on projects like letter writing, newsletters, art projects, model building, and role-playing opportunities set the Friends' Central fall project apart from others.
Learning that is integrated across different disciplines helps students develop deeper comprehension and broader perspectives on facts and concepts. This integration of disciplines illuminates relationships and ways in which disparate aspects of the world are connected – the past and present, geography and culture, the arts, literature, and history. All areas of learning and the stories of all people are connected by common threads.
Lower School teachers work together and in groups to create curricula that excite and inspire the children. Through each course of study, the curriculum is presented in a way that demonstrates the connectedness of information. Teachers integrate students' reading, writing, and social studies, as well as foreign language learning and the arts, around a central theme. This comprehensive study of a topic teaches children that advances in one area can affect many others. For example, historical events from a time period often affect the art, music and literature of the time.
As the Lower School transitions from fall to spring, teachers move from the school-wide themes to grade specific themes. Each teacher and each classroom may approach these themes somewhat differently, but the commitment to thematic education remains. The School prides itself on this thematic approach to education.
At Friends’ Central, we believe in the power of play.
As the pace of the world accelerates, pressure on students and parents has intensified. The way we learn and work is changing, and there is an emerging sense that the only way to prepare our children for their future is for them to work harder and longer. This has resulted in an unhealthy and mistaken belief that joyful discovery cannot or should not be part of the learning process - that good and productive work only takes place in rows with a teacher in the lead.
Pressure to achieve has encouraged many educators and parents to intensify their focus on structured academic rigor and the preparation it implies. From our perspective as a leading educator, and supported by abundant scientific evidence, Friends’ Central School believes that the trend is ill-fated and fundamentally wrong.
When students are allowed to be discoverers and explorers, and when teachers act as facilitators, flexible, entrepreneurial, and creative thinking happens. When children are encouraged to explore without intrinsic goals, they become problem solvers, they gain confidence, they collaborate. When children learn early on that there can be many right answers, they become open minded and intellectually adventurous. Together they engage because they love to learn.
Brain research and educational data clearly point to the fact that children do best and learn best when their education is a blend of the structured and unstructured, of focused work and play. We know that play is essential to creativity, self-expression, and social development and that, ironically, play results in better academic, as well as social, outcomes than more structured or formal classroom preparation.
It would be fair to ask why, if play is so powerful, everyone doesn’t educate this way. The simple answer is that it is harder. In fact, teaching through play requires educators to engage fully with their students and their material constantly. Just as students learn resilience, flexibility, creativity, and social skills through play, teachers have to both have and model these skills every minute of every day. Our teachers embrace this challenge and attend to each of our students as individual learners embarking on individual journeys - together.
Middle School teachers use the surrounding area as an extension of the classroom. Science classes, for example, study the local watershed at neighboring parks. History teachers often use the rich history and cultural offerings of Center City. In addition to day trips, 7th grade students travel each year to Echo Hill Outdoor School on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and students in 8th grade go to Washington D.C.
Mini-courses are a signature program in the Middle School. Teachers design three-day classes that students take in the week before spring break. The courses are interdisciplinary, cross-grade, and involve a special field trip related to the subject. Recent courses have included History of Medicine, Sports Stadium Architecture, and Filmmaking.
All Middle School students participate in affinity groups based on particular aspects of their identity, such as race, gender, or religion. Affinity groups meet regularly to discuss their experiences, develop skills related to identity-formation, and engage in courageous conversations.
Every Monday, the entire Middle School gathers in Shallcross Hall to kick start the week with an engaging and spirited assembly. Oftentimes, the programming is crafted by our very own students, as clubs and organizations give presentations on everything from Black History Month to Climate Change.
Middle School students are well-positioned to take on active leadership roles in the school. Whether they participate in Student Government or the Assembly Committee, students are encouraged to take on greater responsibility and lead their peers both inside and outside the classroom.
Learning through service and instilling a commitment to community service is an essential part of life at Friends’ Central. All Middle School students participate in service projects every Wednesday for about an hour and a half. As we expose our students to a broad range of projects on and off campus, the notion of a world bigger than their own becomes a reality.
Students in the Middle School host an bi-annual Diversity Conference featuring 125 students from local schools, along with our own student body. The day typically features workshops led by FCS teachers and discussions surrounding DEI issues facilitated by students.
8th Grade Showcase
Eighth Grade Showcase is an FCS tradition that celebrates our students’ passion and ingenuity. Each spring, eighth grade students complete a capstone project which showcases a special interest or skill, particularly one that is not displayed in the classroom. Recent showcases have featured a variety of creative pursuits including cooking demonstrations, dance performances, and juggling.
Guest Speakers/Community Engagement
Friends’ Central is incredibly fortunate to be a part of an extended community of scholars, artists, activists, and professionals. Over the course of the year, Middle School students are introduced to a wide variety of topics from outside speakers. Last year students heard from civil rights leaders, filmmakers, photographers as well as a Holocaust survivor.
Students learn best when they feel supported and encouraged. Our approach to education is couched in relational teaching, as students look to teachers for guidance and reassurance. Through strong relationships, teachers are able to nurture a genuine sense of independence and a space where students are safe to be bold.
Middle School students participate in affinity groups based on particular aspects of their identity, such as gender or religion. Affinity groups meet once per month, led by a faculty advisor and two student leaders, to discuss some of the challenges and rewards that come with that particular identity. Each group facilitates an assembly presentation to help educate members of the community. For example, the Christian affinity group talked about assumptions that are often made about all Christians, while our Muslim affinity group taught the student body about four of the most important holidays in Islam.
Echo Hill (Grade 7)
We are standing on the deck of a boat in the light rain, bundled up in our foul weather gear, and a hush falls over the group as we watch a family of deer nibble grass on the shore. Later, it stops raining. Morale is high. So is the volume level as the chorus of students’ crescendos to the chorus of “Call Me Maybe.”
The glow from the sun fades, and the clouds have moved on, revealing the tapestry of stars spread out on the sky. Inside the tent, we wield our headlamps like lightsabers, piercing the darkness with the beams of LED brightness. As we burrow into our beds and tuck in our mosquito nets, the lamps click off one by one. We fall asleep wrapped in the warmth of Annie’s voice as she reads to us from a well-loved copy of Walk Two Moons.
Moments like these are at the heart of the experience of Echo Hill. Each year that we travel to Echo Hill Outdoor School on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, there is a familiar pattern to the experience. The students arrive with a mixture of nervousness and excitement. They love the food (the famous cornbread usually makes an appearance at the first meal), and they are deeply dismayed that there are no flushing toilets. They battle the elements and their own homesickness. They develop an increased comfort with each other, and their support networks both widen and become stronger. They learn and grow in ways that have a lasting impact on their sense of self.
This trip is one of the major cornerstones of the Friends’ Central seventh grade experience, one that students tend to remember and discuss for years to come. We believe that this is such an important experience for so many reasons. There is the sense of cohesion it brings to each class. There are the environmental messages, presented to the students when they learn about SLOP (Stuff Left On Plate) and how to reduce their impact on the planet. The students experience the power of “challenge by choice,” a method of instruction in which they set goals that will challenge them individually (in keeping with Vygotsky’s theory that the Zone of Proximal Development is the most productive for new learning) and then receive support in meeting those goals. Finally, they practice firsthand the Quaker testimonies of simplicity and stewardship, and they came away with an increased awareness of the comforts they may have previously taken for granted.
We use nets to dredge up pools of muck from the bottom of the swamp, then sift through it with our hands, pulling out beetles and dragonfly larvae and leeches as we chat about how ecosystems change over time. For most of us, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a blissful departure from the lives we lead at home. At the same time, it is a surprising introduction to ourselves, to the people we did not yet know we could be.
Middle School Mini-Courses transport students in grades 6-8 to places and activities centered in and around Friends’ Central and the city of Philadelphia. During the week before Spring Break, the teachers in the Middle School organize a series of workshops – or mini-courses – for the children of the Middle School. Through collaborative and cooperative learning, the students accomplish many goals because of their willingness to take risks and work interdependently. They are able to maximize their own and each other’s learning, while gaining from each other’s efforts. Students are encouraged to think “out of the box,” and to listen to one another, while engaging in a variety of activities and experiences.
Through these mini-courses, the sometimes artificial boundaries between subject matters can be torn down, and students see how all knowledge is interconnected. Education is not, and should not be, limited to merely acquiring information in the classroom; it should also bring that learning to everyday actions and behaviors that produce effective citizens who will contribute to their communities.
Mini-Courses that were offered recently included:
- Good to Know, which showed students many of life's little skills, from changing a tire to building a fire
- Blood, Sweat and Tears: The History of Medicine examined the history of medicine - from ancient times to the present.
- The Big House explored the history and design of the modern prison and the politics of mass incarceration.
- Pompeii included a study of this cataclysmic event in historical, social, and scientific context, with students examining film, documentary, museum exhibition, and both fiction and nonfiction reading.
- In Design, Make, and Market, students designed and built custom ice cream molds to help a local business create one-of-a-kind ice cream wedding cakes.
- In art + science / science + art aesthetics + stewARTship / stewARTship + art, students explored science and art through natural materials, while learning about our environment and local environmental artists.
- In Bridge Over Indian Creek, students worked with the Overbrook Farms community to design, plan, and begin construction of a bridge that was washed out.
- Past and Present Historical Sports Buildings in Philadelphia gave students a look at sports in Philadelphia, featuring trips to Citizens Bank Park, the Palestra, and Franklin Field.
- In Mythbusters, students explored science the “Mythbusters” way, with a signature mix of the scientific method, gleeful curiosity, elbow-grease ingenuity, and, of course, hands-on experiments, letting students put myths to the test!
- The Sports Reporters encouraged students to debate topics and current events around sports, select the all-time best players in each sport, create a “SportsCenter” segment, and travel to a local news station to go behind the scenes of sports coverage.
Service Learning and Clubs
Learning through service and instilling a commitment to community service is an essential part of life at Friends’ Central School. All Middle School students participate in service projects every Wednesday for about an hour and a half. As we expose our students to a broad range of projects on and off campus, the notion of a world bigger than their own becomes a reality. Our students learn to be comfortable in new and different situations, to find commonalities with people different than themselves and, most importantly, they learn that they can make a difference in the School community and beyond.
Click here read more about Middle School Service Projects and Clubs.
Distinguished Lecture Series & Core Teams
Friends' Central School's Distinguished Lecture Series seeks to inspire the next generation of writers, educators, scientists, researchers, policy makers, and thinkers by bringing renowned scholars to campus for courses and a public lecture. A Core Team of Friends' Central students prepares for the lectures in advance and participates in special classes and workshops throughout the year,