What's best for students? I hear this question repeatedly in schools, yet day-to-day responsibilities often seems to get in the way of answering and fulfilling this promise. Best practices tell us that the more involved students are in their learning, the more they will grow. For this reason, we spend countless hours in professional development learning how to better implement these ideas in our classrooms. But is that all there is to developing the whole child? Of course not!
In today's world it is more important than ever to work with communities and parents to diligently attempt to address the cognitive, social-emotional, and physical developmental needs of all young adolescents. This can be especially challenging for communities and families contending with issues of poverty.
We live in a world that glamorizes athletes, rappers, and movie stars, and many middle school students aspire to follow in their footsteps. Unfortunately, many young adolescents are unaware of different life and career options. It therefore becomes imperative that we create and provide them with opportunities to learn about themselves, what they enjoy doing, and ways to enact their dreams and goals. Rich opportunities for a variety of experiences help young adolescents become well-rounded adults. The following examples describe rich experiences that students at our school experience and enjoy as a result of the collaborative efforts of our school community.
On college day, staff members are asked to wear a college shirt from their alma mater. Teachers share a brief presentation about their college experience, including pictures and statistics about their school. Teachers who themselves came from a background of poverty are encouraged to share ways they paid for college. Displays throughout the school should highlight schools that teachers attended so that students have a reference point where they can go for more information. Throughout the entire school, students see evidence that college is a possibility for each of them.
Guidance counselors begin this process by administering career interest inventories. Data are then used to generate a list of careers about which students wish to learn more. School officials then work to find community partners that fit these categories, and pay careful attention to find speakers with whom a multicultural population can identify. Finding a variety of speakers from all walks of life ensures that students are able to relate to the speakers.
College Campus Visits
If you live near a college campus, make an effort to visit with your students. Some students do not have background knowledge or experiences pertaining to college. In fact, many may be first generation college students one day! Remember to include visits to technical schools as these are just as relevant as four-year degree institutions. We make a real effort to work with our local university each year to make this happen for our students.
School morning announcements provide an opportunity for schools to have a PSAT question of the day. These problems can then function as a warm-up in classes as students and teachers work together to solve the problems.
Physical Education Experiences
General physical education classes naturally offer opportunities for engagement and physical health. For example, classes may learn how to square dance, line dance, or perform their state dance. Students might also participate in fundraising/charity events such as Hoops for Heart or Jump Rope for Hearts. After -school activities such as Girls on Track or a similar boys' group have a critical impact on self-esteem for participants. These programs have a counseling component that addresses positive body image. Our Girls on Track program has seen great success in helping many of our participants have better body image and stress management. An additional benefit is that girls are able to develop relationships with students from other grade levels.
Fine Arts Experiences
This student studied perspective in photography and then went on the hunt for ways to "show what she knew."
Studies show that students who participate in musical experiences, such as band and chorus, perform significantly higher in school. I believe this also applies to other artistic experiences. For this reason, it is critical to save these programs in our schools. Performance poets can provide workshops on writing poetry. Experts in clay and metalwork allow students to create pieces that can be left behind as a legacy. Artists in Residence are inexpensive ways to provide access for all students to quality artistic events. We frequently offer opportunities for students to attend plays. We have also had a performance poet from the Kennedy Center work with our students to create poetry of their own. A local, well-known sculptor has taught our 8th grade classes for the past two years how to make metal sculpture for our school. As a result, we now have a legacy piece of sculpture created by students as well as four beautiful benches on display in our school. Students are quick to educate you on how it was made and what part they played in its creation!
Clubs can be periodically worked into the school day schedule to allow for creative experiences for all students. Students should be given a choice of clubs. Sponsors should be encouraged to provide rich opportunities for their groups. We have never had such excitement in our school as we did when we began this initiative. Teachers and students alike were ready for these new opportunities. An added bonus of club day is that our attendance on those days is almost 100%. No one wants to miss club day!
Men of Distinction/Ladies of Distinction
These groups are dedicated to teaching students social skills and life skills that they may not have access to elsewhere. They discuss appropriate dress for different occasions, or practice interviewing each other for their first jobs. Both groups spend time discussing social topics of interest to students, and are encouraged to take on leadership responsibilities within the school. These are "catch me" programs for many of our at-risk students. Families are eager for their students to participate, and these clubs fill up quickly.
Students who are given multiple, diverse opportunities for expression are happier, healthier, and better educated. All young adolescents benefit from rich experiences, yet students of poverty have fewer of these opportunities. It therefore behooves us to provide relevant, purposeful opportunities for student growth and expression in our schools. When we ask ourselves, "what is best for students," we must remember to think beyond the core curriculum. As middle level educators we believe in educating the whole young adolescent, but what does this mean? It means that we work to nurture the soul as well as the brain.
Liz James is an assistant principal at South Middle School in Lancaster, South Carolina. As a first generation college graduate, her passion is for encouraging children of poverty to believe in a better future for themselves and their families
Published in AMLE Magazine
, November 2016.