Guest commentary: Meet the local students helping ‘Rethink Middle Grades’


Matt Amis is director of communications for Rodel, a statewide nonprofit that partners with policymakers, the private sector, philanthropy and practitioners to make systemic changes that can improve students’ lives. Alejandra Villamares is a media and communications specialist with Rodel.

ARiyah Nocks, a junior at Sussex Technical High School, and Yelitza Ortiz-Uscanga, a senior at Sussex Central High School, are studying art and design in school. Last fall, the pair collaborated on a special project — designing a poster for the burgeoning “Rethinking Middle Grades” project.

The pair helped design a profile of a high school-ready student — an important message for future middle-grades students as they work to identify their strengths and interests heading into ninth grade.

Rodel caught up with ARiyah and Yelitza and talked about their experiences working collaboratively with a steering committee of adults on a work-based learning project, thinking back to middle school and where they’ll go from here.

Rodel: Tell us what you do in the career pathway that you’re involved in.

Nocks: In class, we do a lot of bookwork and lessons to learn about just all types of design. It’s not really based on one certain thing. And then, if we’re able to, our teacher tries to help us get certain opportunities. So, with this one, she felt like I was able to work on making a poster for the middle-grades project. It gave us more experience actually working with an organization and just seeing what they expect from a designer.

What struck you in terms of inspiration when you got the project? What was the main message you were trying to get across?

I thought about the message they wanted me to show on it, and then, I just thought of possible ideas. But, probably the first week after I started the project, I had no idea. So I tried to work with my partner, trying to think of some way we could make a poster engaging for middle schoolers, while also trying to give them important information.

So we decided to go for a childish-but-not-childish look. Just like something to give them a fun look while they’re reading something that will most definitely benefit them later on.

How do you think it went?

I mean, I’ve learned a lot. I think I did pretty well actually for this to be my first big project like this. Actually, I loved it, which is why I might stick with this career path. As stressed as I was, I actually like this.

What are other skills that you learned during this process that you think could help transfer over to the workforce when you get to that point?

Honestly, I’ve learned how to better collaborate with other people. We do teamwork stuff a lot in class, but it’s not often. Actually working with somebody from a whole different school and Rodel, of course, and then people from the Department of Education … It put into perspective for me how I have to just put my social anxiety aside and work together and talk to other people and not just wait till they come to me to talk because I’m not a person to actually talk first.

What has been the best part of your whole pathway experience?

Just seeing the finished product. I enjoyed actually sharing it with everybody. I did enjoy the feedback. I enjoyed this actually, getting the whole interview. I’ve gotten actually another interview, too, through my teacher, with a local newspaper. I feel famous!


Rodel: Was this a difficult assignment to wrap your head around?

Ortiz-Uscanga: Oh, my God, very. Because we didn’t want to make it too childish. I’m the oldest sibling of three, so it’s hard not to make things childish when I have siblings who I think of as babies. So it was just finding that balance between “OK, we got to push them more into their teenage years.” So keeping that balanced, definitely, I think was the hardest part of everything.

How do you feel about letting kids in middle school explore more career pathways?

I think it’s an amazing idea. Because, I’m going to be honest, when I was doing my college application stuff — and this is college stuff — I had no idea what I wanted to do or be for the longest time. Because, as a kid, you always get asked, “Oh, what do you want to do? What do you want to be?” And it was so hard answering that question. I don’t think until senior year I really knew what I wanted to do. All I knew was art, and that’s it. And I feel like, in high school, you have all these pathways, but in middle school, you have nothing.

You can’t be just thrown into high school like that and be like, “OK, you have all these choices now.” Because you’re going to middle school with everything being decided for you and limited classes and no kind of choice. And it’s like, “Well, I don’t know what I want to do because I don’t know anything about anything. I don’t know anything about this.”

So, I think, definitely middle school is where it starts. You have to start there. Because I know high school is all about careers. Even though it’s just the beginning, it does count.

Do you feel like this project helped crystallize what you want to do careerwise?

It really did. Because I want to be an art therapist, so more definitely art because I am not leaving it. But also therapist because I’m really into psychology. The study of the mind and human behavior has always been so interesting to me. This is my first big opportunity and has been so fun and just amazing overall.

How did you like navigating the professional business side of it and sort of dealing with the client, getting feedback?

It really helped that I had an amazing partner. I really liked working with ARiyah. She’s literally the best. We definitely did have moments where it’s like, “OK,” because I know one person suggested a duller background or colors, like more earthy tones. And then, me and her were both like, “Hmm, that’s not going to catch anyone’s attention. I’m sorry but no.” But we’re both really proud of what we came up with in the end. But we definitely had moments where it’s like, “I see where you’re coming from, but respectfully, I’m going to have to decline.”

Besides having challenges in getting the older people to get on your page, what were some other challenges that you faced during the project?

I guess really coming up with the final design because we had a Google Doc, and it was like a brainstorming doc, where it was just all ideas. But really making it into one final product is … I guess that’s the crazy part. Because it really is just a process because you go from sketches to thumbnails to rough drafts. And then, you think about color and shapes and fonts and then symbols and stuff and text, and that’s all really important. So it’s just a lot to take in, a lot to account for, I would say.

Nowadays, I sit in at the “Rethinking Middle Grades” meetings a lot, and I just have a lot to say. Because I feel really close to this project overall because, middle school, I strongly believe that’s where it starts.

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