The Successful Middle School: This We Believe

An interview with authors Penny Bishop and Lisa Harrison

By: AMLE


Middle school educators entering the profession today are seeing a slightly different landscape than the one we had in mind when AMLE last published its foundational position paper, known over the years as This We Believe, outlining an evidence-based vision for successful middle schools. Think back to the year 2010 for a moment. Were you working in the same role you have now, or in an earlier stage of your career? What do you remember about the conversations and attitudes surrounding middle school education back then?

Some things that make young adolescents so much fun to work with are likely the same, such as the resilience, sense of humor, and desire to grow that we see in our students. But as each unique class of middle schoolers passes through, they build on the growing young people who came before them.

Supplemental materials for This We Believe had been added over the years, but AMLE’s membership realized the overall vision could use some updating to reflect the growth and positive change taking place in the middle school concept and the community as a whole. Dr. Lisa Harrison of Ohio University and Dr. Penny Bishop of the University of Vermont took on the monumental task of updating the text to keep up with a changing world. Now that the new edition is on the cusp of being released in conjunction with #AMLE20, Drs. Harrison and Bishop shared their thoughts on what readers can expect!

What inspired this updated edition of The Successful Middle School: This We Believe?
AMLE had received feedback from current teachers, teacher educators at universities, and researchers in the field of middle level education that it was time to revisit the document. The use of social media and technology as well as the trends of globalization and accessibility were making a huge impact on the human experience, particularly in youth, and those new experiences are centered in the new edition.

Both Dr. Bishop and Dr. Harrison noted that views on equity and diversity were in particular need of updating, “not to say that equity wasn’t considered in the previous editions, but it wasn’t highlighted in the way we wanted it to be,” Dr. Harrison said, acknowledging the growing racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of the U.S. population and middle schools in particular. Middle school education is changing to be not just developmentally responsive, but culturally responsive.

How is this edition different from the prior edition?
Again, there is a much stronger emphasis on equity and diversity. Dr. Bishop added, “I think the field of middle level education has long focused on and advocated for the particular developmental needs of young adolescents, and this edition really strives to couple that focus with a more nuanced perspective on who young adolescents are and what their various social identities are.” The curriculum section reflects this change, calling for curricula that are challenging, exploratory, integrative, relevant, and now diverse.

Whereas the ideas of educators respecting and valuing young adolescents were present in the previous edition, these ideas are also more centered in their own section. “We’re understanding that youth are bringing experiences. It’s not just that we’re teachers and we need to educate them...but it’s more so this collaboration of meeting students where they’re at and helping them to advance,” said Dr. Harrison. For the first time, the new edition also includes representations of student voice throughout the text in the form of artwork, poetry, and testimonials submitted by middle schoolers around the world as part of our Student Voice campaign.

A new section on policies and practices has also been added, exploring what it might look like to have policies and practices that are unbiased, fairly implemented, and student-centered. Some topics in this area include using student data for equitable discipline and making sure school policies are not contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. Last, educators expressed a need for more coverage on school safety, particularly around shootings. This edition provides insight on social-emotional support for students in these situations in addition to the focus on their physical safety.

Another important distinction is that unlike the last edition that stood as a position paper with a companion volume on research and resources, this one includes more integrated research in endnotes so readers can dig deeper without having to search out other materials.

What audiences will benefit from this new edition?
Though the primary audience for this edition is middle school practitioners and those who study middle level education, AMLE hopes that young adolescent students receive the ultimate benefit. Because the concepts function more like a philosophy than a set of strict guidelines, teachers should find them useful for personalizing classroom best practices for their particular students.

From a school leadership standpoint, Dr. Harrison points out that this edition is useful for school leaders to align a holistic mission, vision, and curriculum to create the best school environment for their students. When all stakeholders are working according to these principles, administrators will be able to give teachers the kind of support they need to support the students in turn.

In what ways do you expect educators to use the book in their schools or districts?
Based on what we’ve seen with previous editions, Drs. Harrison and Bishop expect that this new edition will be embraced and used in a number of creative ways, supplemented by professional development resources that will help educators integrate the philosophy into their schools. AMLE envisions the new edition to be a living multimedia resource, offering multiple, frequently updated ways for its members to interact with and adopt the text.

One such resource will be a book study that middle school teams can complete together. Reading the book in groups is an extremely useful way for teachers to strengthen community among themselves while assessing areas they can improve on individually to transform their own practice. In planning professional development, school leaders can view the main characteristics as different domains they might want to strategically support teachers in. Administrators can ask “What do we want our teachers to be able to do?” and use this volume as a guide to build programs that reflect those capabilities.

Practitioners can also use The Successful Middle School to engage with community partners and families to create a shared understanding of best practices. “We really see it as something that can be used in sort of this 360 degree way: working with teachers, parents, families, and kids, that could be a really useful focus for conversations about where we are and where we want to go,” said Dr. Bishop. For instance, leaders might ask students to consider the characteristics and give feedback on where they are meeting the mark and where they can improve practice. Clearer connections to research in this volume will make it easier for these conversations to influence policy. Perhaps the most exciting application for the new edition will be the companion school improvement assessment, scheduled to release later this fall, to help schools accomplish just that.

All middle school educators are invited to dig into the new edition at the #AMLE20 virtual conference this October. Each attendee will receive a complimentary copy mailed to them prior to the conference. School leaders can also purchase bulk copies in advance of launch this October.


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