Courageous Gardening

The Nature of Middle Level

By: Dru Tomlin

Kudzu is a vine that was imported to the United States from Asia many years ago, and it remains a steady feature of the southern landscape today. It was brought to our shores because people were drawn to its broad, shade-giving leaves and hardy nature.

And while kudzu’s green leaves provide plenty of relief from the sweltering southern sun, its vines, which can grow almost five feet in a day, offer something completely different and wholly harmful. Kudzu wraps around branches, climbs up trees, engulfs bushes, and even swallows up entire houses if left alone.

When I lived in Georgia, kudzu and I spent many hours battling in the backyard. As it tried to envelope and destroy my trees, I ripped at its vines and tore up its roots, despite the fact that the leaves themselves provided comfort from the sun. I had to be brutal with my foliaged foe in order to rescue everything else. Is this same kind of “courageous gardening” necessary to create great schools in the middle level?

Just as kudzu looks beautiful and appears to be helpful, there are programs in our schools that look and act the same way. They may be big events that we’ve always done because of long-held traditions. They may be celebrations we’ve always had because certain parents have always wanted them. They may be extensive field trips we repeat every year because we’ve just always done them.

The roots of these programs run deep. And while we all need events, celebrations, and field trips to keep us excited about learning, do they also take away from learning? Like kudzu, do they look beautiful but behave brutally—climbing through our schools and taking away vital time, resources, and attention?
To create sustained change in our schools, we as middle grades teachers and leaders need to be courageous, to look critically at these events and programs, and to do some essential “courageous gardening.” Examine the leaves. Check the vines. Boldly rip up the roots when necessary. And do all of this work collaboratively.

It takes a team to deal with kudzu because it grows quickly and vigorously. Therefore, doing this work begins by bringing together some important resources: your school’s vision/mission statement, strategic plan goals, school calendar, and leadership team. The vision/mission statement and strategic plan are two critical documents that should be guiding the growth of your school’s “garden.” Any program, initiative, or event should align with them before it is planted.

Likewise, your school calendar should be the looked upon as the garden plot for the year, and its “rows” should be filled with choices that promote and improve the educational lives of your students and teachers.

Finally, your leadership team should be your master gardeners, who should collectively decide what needs to be planted in the garden so every one in the school benefits. And their hands must be boldly and courageously in the work, so they can prune, shape and rip out any program that inhibits the overall health of the school no matter how beautiful it is on the surface or how long it has been a tradition.

So what are you planting in the garden of your school to improve the educational lives of your students and what are you willing to pull from its soil?

This We Believe Characteristics

  • Educators value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them.
  • A shared vision developed by all stakeholders guides every decision.
  • Leaders demonstrate courage and collaboration. 
  • Leaders are committed to and knowledgeable about this age group, educational research, and best practices.

Cherished plants we know
With their roots running deeply
Courageous hands pull.

More on these topics
LeadershipMiddle School Concept
Article tags
Nature of Middle Level


5 comments on article "Courageous Gardening"

In this piece, you liken the programs in a school to a Kudzu plant, and the leadership to the gardener that must “boldly rip up the roots when necessary.” Just like a Kudzu plant, middle school programs can seem wonderful on the surface, but may be a hindrance to productive learning at the core. I wholeheartedly agree with the views expressed in your analogy. As a whole, the leadership team in a school should analyze school programs to make sure they possess educational merit. In this way, the school can use resources and educational opportunities wisely.

9/22/2014 9:59 PM

"The roots of these programs run deep. And while we all need events, celebrations, and field trips to keep us excited about learning, do they also take away from learning? Like kudzu, do they look beautiful but behave brutally—climbing through our schools and taking away vital time, resources, and attention?"

I agree with this article as well, and in the statement above many of these school programs really aren’t helping these students, but it looks pretty to parents, the school board, and the community. Every program that is happening in the school should be helping not hindering students learning. I think that as leaders (master gardeners) in the school they should do some digging and make sure that they are not keeping thing around that are not beneficial to students learning. Even if that means that they have to rip up the kudzu vine and start all over with some fresh soil, at least the students are being educated and recourses and time are being spent well.

9/24/2014 11:29 AM

This article raises an interesting point about cutting "the fat" out of our middle school classrooms. While I agree that we should not waste our time on out-dated traditions that no longer serve a real purpose, I am curious about how a teacher will measure whether or not a "tradition" out-dated, or no longer serving it's original purpose. It seems to me like there are many different reasons for many of the different field trips, book reports, science fairs, and things of that nature. How can a teacher cut something like that and be confident that they are not cutting something that is useful and serving maybe an unseen purpose?

9/28/2014 9:06 PM

I agree with Tomlin. I think that in order to have the best schools we can't be afraid to let go of some of the stuff we still do just because it has always been done. Teachers also shouldn't be scared to adjust programs midway through because it isn't going the way they thought it would. A schools leadership team should also be experts at collaborations. I am a firm believer in ideas that come evolve from group collaboration will ALWAYS be better and more successful than ideas from an individual.

10/5/2014 10:26 AM

I believe that you may be right about certain programs in schools being toxic to the learning environment and may also be wasting our student’s time, but maybe there is an underlining reason that they are in place though. Students spend so much time worrying about school, why can’t they do one activity that may not be in the curriculum? Our students need breaks from the everyday stress of school and homework. A nice field trip to somewhere fun can give them that break and that is important. I do agree with you that there may be too many of these “just for fun activities” that are taking away from the main goal of school, to learn, but for our student’s mental heath, they are necessary.

2/22/2015 12:39 AM

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