Middle School

"Do something every day that scares you" - 8th Grade Student Reflections

By Joe McDonough

“Do something every day that scares you.”


“Do something every day that scares you.” Those were the words from the student council president to her fellow classmates during our 8th grade recognition ceremony at the end of this school year. She went on to tie this advice to the idea of embracing failure as a necessary step toward growth. 

I recall standing there thinking how impressed I was with the level of understanding of the world that she was demonstrating. But, then again, so did so many of her classmates.  

Every June, as the school year speeds to a close, I send out a very brief survey to the 8th graders preparing to leave our middle school. I ask what lessons they have learned, what character strengths they have used to help them navigate middle school, and who they would like to thank. Every year I am amazed at the depth of their responses (see samples at the end).  I then weave their comments into my remarks at the recognition ceremony, making the point to the families, faculty, and friends in attendance that our young people have much to offer us. We just need to ask and listen.

Five days later, our entire middle school, 350 students, fifth grade through eighth grade, gathered outdoors on the football bleachers. It was a beautiful, sun-filled morning for our end-of-the-year Positivity Project assembly. Assemblies have become a cornerstone of our P2 experience, starting with a kick-off event in the first week of school and then quarterly thereafter. There is something special that happens as a byproduct of gathering together as a community to consider a P2-related topic and celebrate each other’s successes. And, this morning was no different.  

I generally know well in advance what I want to talk about at our assemblies, but for some reason, I could not come to a decision for this one.  The night before the event, it came to me–I should ask 8th graders to come down to take the mic and share their wisdom and advice with their younger classmates. The words of the class president came back to me, “Do something every day that scares you.” Anyone with even a little bit of experience in a middle school could probably tell you that the idea of giving 8th graders a microphone to speak to the whole school, unscripted and unapproved, could go wrong! But, I thought about their responses to the survey and knew they had much to give.

Canton JM McKenney Middle School Students 8th Grade Positivity Project

I opened the assembly as I normally would and then briefly told the whole school about the 8th grade recognition ceremony — and how proud we all were of our students for sharing their lessons and for how much they have grown over the past four years.  Then, I jokingly referenced the line about doing something that scared me and just opened it up to the 8th grade students. It took a little bit for the first student to conjure the bravery necessary to start things off, but eventually, there was a whole string of students speaking their piece one by one.

The number of participants was one thing, but the variety of students that came down to share their experiences and their lessons was staggering. It was emotional. I would later hear from several faculty members that they were moved to tears by the sincerity and courage displayed by our students. One girl, who most would consider to be shy, stood and talked about the role bravery played in helping her through middle school. A young man with Downs Syndrome stood and talked about how he learned kindness from his best friend–and then, of course, his best friend got up and talked about how much the friendship meant to him. Over and over, the words of our students hit deeply and resonated with us all.  

Later that day, after our students had departed, we held our annual faculty luncheon. As I addressed the faculty, I talked about the depth of our students’ words and the significance of their actions. I told them that we have known for years that there was something special about our middle school, that there was something so impactful about our implementation of The Positivity Project, but that I had never seen more convincing evidence of our feelings than what we had witnessed our students do during that assembly. We were proud. We were affirmed. We felt buoyed with a sense of confidence generated by the tangible, real-world evidence our students had given us.  

Of course, we will all enjoy summer, but there is a little piece of all of us that is ready to be back with our students to reignite the spark and see where our students will take us next year.

Sample Responses from 8th Graders

As you get ready to finish middle school and head to high school, what lessons have you learned?

  • I’ve learned to treat people kindly.
  • I have learned that it is important to slow down and enjoy the experiences and people around you.
  • I have learned that I am stronger than what my mind tells me and with confidence and the right people around me I can achieve great things.
  • I have learned that the harder you work the more it will pay off. I have also learned that with the right people surrounding me I can do anything I put my mind to.
  • I have learned how to step into other people’s shoes and relate to how they feel in emotional times.  I have learned how to deal with my emotions and how to control them to live a happy and healthy life.
  • Never take things for granted 
  • After the storm is when the flowers bloom
  • Live in the moment. This four word phrase is the motto I lived by in middle school. When I am older I will look back at this time in my life and take it as not only a period of growth of my mental awareness, but also strengthening my relationships with friends, teachers and family.

What character strengths did you use to handle the challenges of middle school?  How have they helped you?

  • Perseverance and Perspective have been major strengths that helped me handle social and educational challenges. Being reminded that things will pass and that I have the ability to grow and learn from them have been incredibly helpful.
  • I have used forgiveness and self-control. They have helped with friendships and to let things go sometimes.
  • Perseverance and bravery. Just never give up no matter how hard something is.
  • Kindness and humor.  Being kind not only makes others feel better but it makes you feel better. And, you need some humor sometimes to get through hardships.
  • I have used perspective to get through these last years. It has helped me be able to see things another way to find a solution.
  • Gratitude. Being thankful for my friends and the opportunities I get to have in school.
  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence has helped me be more happy with life in general. It helped me grow admiration towards so many things.


Joe McDonough
Principal, J.M. McKenney Middle School

Joe McDonough is the principal of J.M. McKenney Middle School in Canton, NY. He has researched and written about the implications of teachers’ experiences of gratitude for school leadership.  He is currently interested in the role perception plays in defining teachers’ experiences within their schools and how these differing experiences may affect school climate and culture.