The 3 Rs for Middle School Success

The 3 Rs for Middle School Success

The importance of focusing on relationships, reflection, and retakes

Is great teaching rocket science?
It's actually far more complicated.

Maslow & Bloom

The middle school years can be some of the most exciting, yet nerve-racking phases in life. Recent studies have identified the vast differences between the young and mature brain and the implications for teaching and learning. Neuroscience clarifies the necessary elements in an environment conducive to cultivating student success.

When it comes to middle school students' success, educators benefit by understanding this principle: to grow Bloom's, we must first cultivate Maslow's. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs identifies the basic needs children require such as food, shelter, acceptance and security, and small accomplishments, in order to have the confidence to fulfill their academic and critical thinking potential. This critical thinking potential is analyzed and described in Bloom's Taxonomy.

In education, sometimes we force-feed academics, yet starve students' basic Maslow needs. If we want to increase students' success, in most circumstances, the process needs to be reversed: we must meet Maslow before Bloom.

Enter the new 3Rs for middle school success.

The middle school brain often has an overactive amygdala and an underactive prefrontal cortex, which means that middle schoolers struggle with emotional regulation, stress, impulse control, organizational and planning skills, causal connection, and rational judgments.

Though reading, writing, and arithmetic are crucial parts of our students' success, with educational neuroscience in mind, consider these 3Rs first: relationships, reflection, and retakes.


In real estate, the three things that determine the value of property are location, location, location. In education, the three things that determine the value of the learning environmentare relationships, relationships, relationships.

Perhaps the most important element in student success is the teacher-student relationship. Dr. Rita Pierson nailed a complex neurological principle in her "Every Child Needs a Champion" TED Talk when she stated, "Kids don't learn from people they don't like."

Though it is of course possible for them to learn from a teacher they dislike, neurologically speaking it is more difficult because when students are negatively stressed, their affective filter increases, which decreases their ability to learn.

How can educators decrease student stress? Build positive relationships with them. Why? Positive relationships increase a positive mindset and, according to Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, when our brains are operating from a positive mindset, the likelihood for learning increases exponentially. A positive mindset increases learning because we are more creative, enthusiastic, cognitively engaged, and nearly all of our body systems function more effectively.

Students who feel valued and have a positive connection with teachers also perform better because kids strive to please those they admire and respect, thereby putting more effort into their assignments. They also are not afraid to seek input and help from people who provide them positive support and guidance, an important component in being successful.

According to Emily Gallagher, author of "The Effects of Teacher-Student Relationships: Social and Academic Outcomes of Low-Income Middle and High School Students," teacher-student connection has a profound positive influence on achievement:

Teachers play an important role in the trajectory of students throughout the formal schooling experience (Baker, Grant, & Morlock, 2008). Although most research regarding teacher-student relationships investigate the elementary years of schooling, teachers have the unique opportunity to support students' academic and social development at all levels of schooling (Baker et al., 2008; Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998; McCormick, Cappella, O'Connor, & McClowry, in press). Aligned with attachment theory (Ainsworth, 1982; Bowlby, 1969), positive teacher-student relationships enable students to feel safe and secure in their learning environments and provide scaffolding for important social and academic skills (Baker et al., 2008; O'Connor, Dearing, & Collins, 2011; Silver, Measelle, Armstron, & Essex, 2005). Teachers who support students in the learning environment can positively impact their social and academic outcomes, which is important for the long-term trajectory of school and eventually employment (Baker et al., 2008; O'Connor et al., 2011; Silver et al., 2005).

Gallagher further elaborates that when there is a teacher-student disconnection, there can be a decrease in achievement:

Although many studies focus on the importance of early teacher-student relationships, some studies have found that teacher-student relationships are important in transition years; the years when students transition from elementary to middle school or middle to high school (Alexander et al., 1997; Cataldi & KewallRamani, 2009; Midgley, Feldlaufer, & Eccles, 1989). Studies of math competence in students transitioning from elementary to middle school have found that students who move from having positive relationships with teachers at the end of elementary school to less positive relationships with teachers in middle school significantly decreased in math skills (Midgley et al., 1989).

See figure 1 for ideas on growing positive teacher-student relationships.

Figure 1 - Ideas for Growing Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

  • Smile, make eye contact, and greet each student by name often.
  • Learn student names, hobbies, strengths, and areas for growth as soon as possible.
  • Spend 60 seconds talking with each student often, as 1 minute of positive conversation with a student is more valuable than 55 minutes of whole class discussion.
  • Clearly communicate that your main goal is to help students be successful in both the Maslow and Bloom areas and describe a variety of ways in which you will give support.
  • Make a positive phone call home about each student in the first month of school.
  • Provide descriptive feedback on assignments that encourage and foster improvement.
  • Play learning games with students such as Vocabulary Bingo or Jeopardy.
  • Admit mistakes and be human.
  • Teach stress management and SEL.
  • Be positive and enthusiastic.
  • Incorporate storytelling into your lessons, as stories create positive emotional connections and increase curiosity and learning.

In addition, students benefit when they have safe and positive relationships with other students. Educators play a large role in facilitating those relationships and providing opportunities for students to learn how to connect with others in a productive way (see figure 2).

Figure 2 - Ideas for Growing Positive Student-Student Relationships

  • Model social-connectedness … teach students to greet others by name and with a smile every day. Show appreciation … have students draw another student's name and write a thank you note to express appreciation for something specific.
  • Model digital citizenship and connect students via social media by using a class Twitter hashtag or Today's Meet and post questions both content and personal interest-related for students to discuss.
  • Play "Have you ever…" as an energizing brain break with students and have them discuss their shared experiences with others so students make connections.
  • Share something you appreciate about a colleague or friend and model for students how to express that appreciation to someone else in class and then practice together.
  • Have students create personal interest posters and post them so they can learn about each other.
  • Incorporate collaborative groups often and explicitly teach students how to show appreciation and respectfully disagree with each other to cultivate relationships and value diversity.
  • Unite students in a goal such as a Penny Drive for Vets or by serving as reading buddies with primary students, as it builds civic duty and increases student confidence when they are united in helping others.
  • Assign students to study/support groups (I call them "Got Your Back" groups) with 4-5 students in each group so they can call each other for help. Some students are too shy or intimidated to do this on their own. Consider establishing community-building expectations for the group such as knowing five positive things about each person in your group.

There is one more relationship that is important to an environment conducive to learning: the teacher-parent relationship. Some parents did not have positive personal experiences in school or with their child's other teachers, so establish a positive relationship with parents early in the school year (see figure 3).

Figure 3 - Ideas for Growing Positive Teacher-Parent Relationships

  • Make a positive phone call home during the first month of school; introduce yourself and ask at least one question about the parent to learn more.
  • Ask caregivers to complete a survey about their child's strengths and interests and one area for growth.
  • Provide resources in both Maslow and Bloom areas for parents to access.
  • Invite parents to attend a "Parent University" night in which you will provide 3-4 specific content and critical thinking strategies they can use to help their middle schooler at home.
  • Provide quick facts or "Neuro Nuggets" about the young brain to parents and share some of the differences between the young and mature brain and methods to positively enhance healthy brain development during the middle school years. Helpful topics for parents to know more about may be related to sleep and exercise needs, stress management, digital citizenship, etc.

A colleague once made an important distinction for me and it has influenced how I view my role as an educator. She said, "Students do not work for us, we work for them." Many educators lack this mindset and, therefore, misunderstand what our mission is: to create an environment that students want to be part of, and that environment is rooted in relationships, relationships, relationships.


Much research has documented the benefit of setting goals and reflecting on what worked or didn't in meeting the goal. Middle schoolers benefit from goal setting because it helps to develop executive function skills in the prefrontal cortex and reflect on which strategies are working.

Help students reflect on their social (Maslow) and academic (Bloom) strengths and areas for improvement and develop a plan to increase success with small, achievable goals. This will allow for several quick and easy successes. Social strategies such as making eye contact and smiling at others they walk by in the halls or academic strategies such as studying and quizzing each other for 10 minutes daily can be specific strategies to use in their success plan.

In addition, help students establish a few long-term social and academic goals that require more patience and effort, such as joining a team or club to make more friends or using specific study methods to improve a low grade.

Setting goals, identifying small strategies to implement, and reflecting on strengths and areas for improvement are powerful components to increasing students' success because goals without strategies and reflection are just wishes.


When I first started teaching, I never allowed students to redo an assignment or test because I thought that made the class too easy and students wouldn't take it seriously. When discussing the topic with a colleague, he told me that he didn't allow retakes as he was preparing kids for the "real world" in which there are no retakes. With my limited experience in working with adolescents, his sentiment sounded reasonable.

However, after working with students for years, I noticed that 10-20% of my students weren't ready to demonstrate proficiency on an assignment or test the day it was given. They simply hadn't developed enough understanding (neural connections) with the content to be successful.

When I allowed students a few extra days or weeks to practice the content and redo an assignment or test, they would have much higher levels of mastery simply because they had more time to learn and connect with the content. In other words, they were afforded the luxury of turning the light bulb on, and their competence and confidence greatly improved.

To qualify for a retake, a student would need to complete a few extra practice assignments or watch a review video to allow more time to practice the content. The retake quiz or assignment also looked a little different than the original. Some teachers only allow certain assignments to be revised while others may allow all of them to be. Either way, to grow a "growth mindset" students have to be allowed to revise their mistakes and demonstrate their proficiency, even if it takes a little longer.

If you think you are preparing kids for the "real world" by not allowing retakes, consider this: all major tests, from driving tests to the bar exam, allow retakes. Perhaps a more important life lesson is allowing students to analyze, reflect, and learn from their mistakes so they don't repeat them.

Establishing a positive middle school environment is both an art and a science that blends Maslow and Bloom principles of relationship, reflection, and retakes. When we address these 3Rs, we cultivate the healthy foundation that blooms students' competence, confidence, and comprehension.

Julie Adams is an NBCT and Educator of the Year who taught kindergarten through graduate school for 14 years. She is an international keynote speaker and consultant specializing in neuroscience and best instructional practices for critical thinking, literacy, and engagement. Her best-selling books are #FULLYCHARGED-140 Battery Charging Maslow & Bloom Strategies for Students, Parents, and Staff and Game Changers—7 Instructional Practices that Catapult Student Achievement.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2018.
Author: Julie Adams
Number of views (16702)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
Mixed-Ability and Mixed-Grade Literature Circles

Mixed-Ability and Mixed-Grade Literature Circles

Building community, reading comprehension, and student leadership

Tying shoes. A simple activity that's typically performed one or more times daily. Once people learn how to tie shoes, they can do so almost without thinking. One of my favorite activities to do with teachers and students is to teach them how to tie their shoes in a different way, one that is supposedly quicker and more efficient. The task challenges thinking. It builds community with groups of educators who know each other and those who are meeting for the first time. Once groups move through this simple process, they are already successful at thinking outside the box.

Working through a challenge to learn something new stimulates the brain and teaches people of all experience and expertise levels that all people are capable of doing something differently. Challenging what has always been done and being willing to take a risk encourages and promotes the innovative thinking that is needed for teachers to effectively teach all students to read.

Adolescence is a time when learning reading skills is critical to student success in high school and college. Reading for pleasure is encouraged throughout elementary school, but by the time students reach fourth grade, the amount of reading at home, and the interest of students to do so starts to wane if not embraced by the community, parents, students, and teachers. Two years later, when they enter middle school, students are approaching the tipping point. Of course, at any time in one's life, one can renew a love for reading, but if teachers can reach students during adolescence, the chance to instill a love for reading is greater.

Involving students in authentic conversations about fiction and nonfiction texts encourages students to read critically and builds enjoyment. The challenge for teachers is to find impactful texts, utilize age-appropriate discussion strategies, and create a safe environment where different perspectives are respected and appreciated. The more thought-out, developed, and practiced, the more effective the classroom discussion process will be.

Literature circles have been used in classrooms for several years. The traditional format is to assign a chunk of reading to a group of 3–5 students and have them discuss the text through assigned tasks or roles. The format is relatively basic, but there are several variations that accommodate the needs of all types of students. As with any instructional strategy, successful implementation requires preparation, establishment of routines, and practice. Moving beyond a traditional experience to include mixed-ability and mixed-grade activities extends the experience for teachers and students.


When preparing for mixed-ability and mixed-grade literature circles, establishing a purpose for bringing classes together and determining common instructional practices are first steps to take to ensure an efficient, effective, and engaging experience for teachers and students. The overall purpose may include goals such as building community, working on reading comprehension skills, developing higher-level discussion habits, and motivating students to read in and out of the classroom.

When combining classrooms, an initial focus should be on building community. One way to build classroom and school community is focusing on a topic all students can find value in such as growth mindset. Locating a variety of texts, including nonfiction and media formats, adds to the interest levels and skills students engage in to analyze materials. Beginning in individual classrooms, teachers can establish functional groupings and model reading, speaking, and listening strategies students need to complete basic comprehension and analysis tasks. Teacher teams decide which tasks are necessary for their students. For example, tasks could include teaching students a common before-reading strategy such as identifying text features and predicting what the text will be about, a common during-reading strategy such as sketching the main ideas of the text, and a common after-reading strategy such as finding textual evidence to support conclusions made by the author. These tasks provide all students with exposure to common reading strategies and tools to be successful. Once groups are formed and classes mixed, teachers can provide students with opportunities to extend beyond these tasks or opportunities to receive scaffolded support.

Establishing Routines

Part of the preparation of mixed-ability and mixed-grade literature circles is the establishment of routines. Teachers should never assume students are going to know how to interact in a group, discuss a text, read a text, move from one seating formation to another, or move to and interact with other classes and students. Instead, teachers may need to teach and practice these behaviors. It may seem elementary for teachers, but taking a moment to do so may reduce or eliminate classroom management issues.

Students at the middle school level can be socially awkward. This is a part of development, and students are awkward at different moments. One moment they can appear to be inappropriate and immature and the next moment insightful and serious. Providing students with discussion prompts and social responses helps them practice appropriate ways to respond. Likewise, giving them opportunities to do so in a non-graded environment allows them to safely take risks while practicing discussion and group behaviors. For example, a teacher may provide discussion prompts for a text and walk around while students practice using as many of them as they can despite whether or not the discussion evolves. In the same way the teacher can look for listening behaviors such as looking at the speaker, nodding, asking follow-up questions, and providing polite responses such as saying thank you or encouraging other students to contribute. At the end of the model lesson, the teacher can lead a discussion regarding what was observed and what could be improved.

When preparing for mixed-grade and mixed-ability settings, teachers can lead students in the upper grades and classes in leadership lessons. Routines may center around fulfilling leadership roles during discussions and in classes where younger students join. Students of all ability levels in the higher grades are thus given the opportunity to be leaders whether or not they are normally considered natural leaders in their classes. Lower grade teachers can focus on more of the discussion routines so students feel equipped when meeting with higher grade students.


Practice needs to occur throughout the process. Practicing reading, social, and discussion habits in assigned classrooms, mixed classrooms, and mixed groups increases effectiveness when building community through a variety of discussion formats such as:

Pair Groups Discussions—Teachers divide the class in half and send half to another classroom. When the new half enters the classroom, students sit in pairs to practice in order to get acclimated to the new room as well as to older or younger students. Once the comfort levels increase, the pairs can become small groups.

Speed-dating Discussions—Students engage in multiple conversations with multiple people adding to the comfort level of new environments and people. Each conversation is brief as students switch discussion partners every 2–3 minutes. Teachers view students interacting with each other from different classrooms to help decide which partnerships are positive and which ones are not the best fit when considering future literature circle groupings.

Corner Discussions—Students move to an identified corner of the room to discuss topics with a larger group of students based on their answers to specific questions or interests posed by the teacher. Students move to a different corner as new questions and responses are presented. A variety of questions and interests forces the groups to mix and discuss with new people.

Prep Discussions—Students begin the discussion in original classrooms and then switch to mixed discussion groups to give them opportunities to share in a familiar setting before transitioning to a new environment.

Flexible Seating Discussions—In their discussion groups, students are given the option to stand, sit, go into the hall, or sit on the floor.

The conversations in all of these activities can be based on texts students have read in their classrooms. These can be short paragraphs, videos, sound bites, or quotes. Short texts allow for brief discussions and multiple opportunities to connect giving them the skills they need to discuss longer texts in a mixed-ability, mixed-grade setting.


Once routines and expectations have been established and students have had some time to practice in their home classrooms and in an alternative setting, the mixed-ability, mixed-group literature circle format can begin to progress beyond the initial steps of building a community. Teachers can make informed decisions based on observations of discussions and formative assessments tiered toward teaching up to all students. Discussion group formation can be more purposeful according to student needs. Assigned texts can also be more purposeful according to the standards teachers wish to address.

The frequency of meeting is up to the teachers. Initial activities may be brief, so an entire class period may not be needed. Future discussions may occur once a week. The benefit to students is immense. The process builds community amongst students and teachers, develops student leaders, and challenges students to move their understanding forward. Teachers collaborate on effective teaching strategies and discussion of data that transcends a classroom and grade level.

John Helgeson, Ph.D., taught middle school students for 18 years and has presented at local, state, and national conferences. He is currently the secondary English language arts curriculum specialist in the Northshore School District, Bothell, Washington.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2018.
Author: John Helgeson
Number of views (7584)/Comments (0)/
Collaborative, Individualized, and Competitive Learning

Collaborative, Individualized, and Competitive Learning

What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

Collaborative, individualized, and competitive learning are instructional methods that can be used with the project-based learning approach in middle school, with collaborative learning (sometimes known as cooperative learning) likely being the most popular. Project-based learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time investigating and responding to an authentic and engaging learning activity that prompts students to ask complex questions, identify a problem, and formulate a solution (

Collaboration involves two or more students working together and being graded on the collective solution to a problem for the project. The individualized approach involves students working on a project, or a portion of it, independently of each other and being judged using the same criteria. The competitive approach means students work separately on a project, with solutions assessed on the same criteria and the results available for comparisons among students. Competitive can also be used in some instances between groups working on the same project-based learning problem.

This article addresses the advantages and disadvantages of using collaborative, individualized, and competitive learning in the context of teachers matching the usage of each with what they want students to experience and learn. Under certain conditions collaborative, individualized, and competitive approaches can each be effective. As with all instructional approaches, effective use is dependent on teachers' knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. Further, teachers need to understand when to use each of these instructional approaches and how to implement them.

Some experts exclusively advocate the use of one of these three instructional approaches. However, collaborative, individualized, and competitive approaches need not be mutually exclusive of each other. In certain situations they may even be used to complement one another. For example, the individualized approach could be initially used by members within a group to pursue an interest area of the problem being addressed by a project. The results of each student's individualized area of pursuit can then be presented as input to the total group for consideration and analysis for solving the project's problem. Collaboration can then be used within the group to develop a solution to the project's problem. The competitive approach could be used between groups, although this should be considered with caution based on the developmental levels of students.

Collaboration (Cooperative Learning)

Collaboration is an instructional approach often infused into various curriculum programs such as language arts, science, and social studies through project-based learning. Cooperative learning, which has been around for decades, incorporates collaborative learning; both of which stress establishing a learning community environment. Hence, the terms collaboration and cooperative learning are used here interchangeably.

Five principles helpful in facilitating effective cooperative learning groups are: (1) distributed or shared leadership; (2) heterogeneous membership; (3) positive interdependency, recognizing and valuing dependence among each other; (4) social skill acquisition and working effectively with others; and (5) group autonomy from the teacher so that the group solves the project's problem in its own ways (Dishon & O'Leary in A Guide for Cooperative Learning). For cooperative learning groups to be effective, it is important that students develop the motivation to help one another and be provided with ample opportunity to do so. Students should feel that they are responsible and accountable to the group for doing their best.

Table 1 presents the advantages and disadvantages of using collaboration as an instructional approach.

Individualized and Competitive Learning

Individualized and competitive learning have many common attributes. Generally, the major difference is that with individual learning the results of a student's work are not intentionally compared to that of other students. With competitive learning, the results of a student's or group's work can be compared.

Individualized learning was popular in the 1970s and was supported by many educators as "freeing up" students to pursue learning and knowledge on their own. Technological advancements over the past several decades have aided individualized education via the wealth and breadth of information available to students independent of teachers. Individualized education can also supplement numerous instructional approaches, in addition to being used independently with middle school students.

Table 2 presents advantages and disadvantages for both competitive and individual approaches. (Advantages only applicable to competitive learning are forthcoming in Table 3.)

The competitive instructional approach has been in use since the inception of public schools. Competition is touted as a key component of capitalism, which is the backbone of the United States' industrial and economic engines. Many business leaders believe competitive learning should be experienced by students in school through various curriculum areas and even systematically taught. Besides using competitive instruction between groups through project-based learning as previously noted, it is frequently used through extracurricular activities such as athletics and academic challenge competitions. Honor rolls and annual awards assembly days are other examples of school activities that differentiate the performance of students in a comparative manner. The new trend of digital badging—where students receive a badge or recognition for performing competency through a computer-based learning activity—also allows for performance comparisons among students, but not necessarily by name.

The competitive approach is sometimes used for a very short segment of learning to supplement other instructional approaches. For example, "KAHOOT!" is a technology-based game made up of multiple choice questions that often has high student interest and is used for quizzes, discussions, and surveys. (To create:; to play:

Table 3 presents the advantages and disadvantages of using competitive learning.

Concluding Comments

Collaborative, individualized, and competitive instructional approaches to learning can be used effectively in middle school, with the caveat that the competitive approach should be well thought out ahead of time and developmentally appropriate for students. In certain situations, two or more of these approaches can be combined. The key to the effective use of collaborative, individualized, and competitive instructional approaches is a function of the teacher's knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of each, skills in determining which approach to use and when to use it, and under what conditions to use each. This should be in the context of the developmental level of students and the specific learning goals pursued.

David E. Bartz is professor emeritus in the Department of Educational Leadership at Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, IL.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2018.
Author: David E. Bartz
Number of views (2676)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
Diagonal Alignment

Diagonal Alignment

A tool to integrate basic skills across the curriculum

In working with teachers on integration and differentiation, there are a few obstacles that are prevalent in almost every group. Logistics in implementing this approach in a system that is currently used is a common hurdle. Another hurdle is trying to integrate curriculums to determine what should be taught. Diagonal alignment is one way to help teach and reinforce basic skills and concepts throughout an entire year. It's based on the idea that there is vertical alignment by subject matter or by grade level each month. Horizontal alignment refers to the sequence of subject areas within a year.

In a typical school, a simple table can be developed that shows basic concepts taught each month in each subject. When the chart is filled out completely, the teachers can see if there are any natural ties between their subject and another subject to encourage integration. Teachers could also look at the chart and choose to rearrange parts of the curriculum to overlap and integrate, or they can create a spiral effect for skills that cross subjects and can be reinforced every few months. An example might be the idea of measurement being taught in math in August, then science reinforces the concept in October. Or social studies is teaching population growth so math develops an exponential growth unit to tie into the social studies unit.

To keep it simple, start with a structure that is simple to use. First have each subject area determine the basic skills that are vital to the subject area or that students traditionally struggle with. The list could include fractions, percentages, and division for math; map skills, chart development, and geography for social studies; the scientific process and measurement for science; reading and non-fiction writing for language arts. Classes such as art, choir, band, and physical education can and should be included when possible.

Once the list of basic skills is decided upon by each subject area, those teachers create a "cheat sheet" for other teachers. The cheat sheet gives key points for the basic skills and the focus in each of the concepts chosen. The subject area teachers also teach a mini lesson of those vital skills to the staff just prior to the school year. The idea is to share expectations and key points for all non-subject area teachers to make sure there is a consistent message.

After the opening teaching session and the cheat sheets have been delivered, the subject areas begin to teach class. The curriculum of the class does not change in the scope and sequence previously used, but there will need to be a place to teach the basic skills and concepts that were shared with the teaching staff. The skills and concepts need to be taught by the subject expert at the beginning of the year so the base is solid and can be reinforced throughout the rotation of the other classes. A sample rotation is given in figure 1, and the term diagonal alignment is evident when you draw arrows from the content area to the class that will reinforce the basic skills the next month. The order is at the discretion of the staff and may be influenced by other content being taught that may lend itself to a natural integration of subject matter.

Figure 1
Content Area
Basic Skills
August September October November
Language Arts LA basic skills Sci basic skills Math basic skills SS basic skills
Social Studies SS basic skills LA basic skills Sci basic skills Math basic skills
Math Math basic skills SS basic skills LA basic skills Sci basic skills
Science Sci basic skills Math basic skills SS basic skills LA basic skills

Using the previous model of scheduling the rotation of basic skills, in the month of September each teacher will begin to work in the basic skills of other subject areas. The basic skills cheat sheet and communication with other teachers will assist in this process. As an example, language arts determined the basic skills they wanted reinforced were non-fiction writing and reading comprehension. In the month of September, the social studies teachers would teach the required social studies curriculum, but they would integrate either one or both of the concepts of non-fiction writing and reading comprehension. Bringing map skills to math, graphing to science, or measurement to language arts could all be done in the first month of diagonal alignment. The impact has begun. After three months of reinforcing these same areas in different aspects of the curriculum the results will be noticeable.

The rotation could repeat in the second half of the year, or if the subject area teachers feel that the skills are now solid, they can move into another need of the base curriculum. This process is a beginning to a more integrated curriculum. The ultimate goal is to be fully integrated when there are natural ties. Better yet, develop a curriculum that starts with the idea of the bigger picture of the whole curriculum and create an innovative approach to deliver to students.

In the current school year, students return to school mid-August and first semester is done at winter break. School concludes at the end of May. That means the months of December and May are wrapping up semesters and a good time to take advantage of an integrated project-based learning model that combines subject areas to create a larger project. Again, this should lead to a deeper level of curriculum development. Targeted differentiation is a model that is used to develop that higher level of understanding for teachers and is another approach to innovate a school curriculum.

The big question that is often posed is "How do I grade this?" The ideal situation is that we use standards-based assessments with the goal of attainment of the standards. However, many schools still use a grading system that is not standards based. The issue then becomes a matter of communication. Common rubrics or allowing the work done in one subject to be used in another subject for a grade would be possible. Each school or staff should determine what works best.

The logistics of any new program could make or break the attempt. It is vital to keep in mind that learning is the most important aspect of integrating content. Whether you grade, don't grade, share, or don't share doesn't really matter as long as authentic learning is happening. Make the logistics work. Find common ground. Help each other reach the basic standards of your subject area. Remember you do not teach math or science, ultimately you teach kids!

Norm Potter is curriculum supervisor at Twinsburg City Schools, Twinsburg, Ohio.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2018.
Author: Norm Potter
Number of views (2923)/Comments (0)/
Grit and Growth Mindset: Deficit Thinking?

Grit and Growth Mindset: Deficit Thinking?

Examining the cultural narrative around these ideologies

As with most things in education, context can be everything. A skill taught in isolation from meaningful context, for example, is rarely learned, and often becomes grist for blaming the student for his lack of learning rather than analyzing the teacher's instructional design. Read a mediocre piece of student writing after five pieces of poor writing in a row, and the mediocre piece will glow brightly in comparison. Now take a look at the last decade's intense interest in developing student grit and a growth mindset. What seems so positive an enterprise changes its hue in a different context, even to the point of doing harm.

To be clear, the intent of grit and growth mindset—"stick-to-itiveness," tenacity, self-discipline, resilience—are all positive attributes for students to develop, unless applied, of course, to the pursuit of destructive habits or criminal tasks. Over emphasis on students' degrees of grit and growth mindset as the keys to their academic success, however, can perpetuate harmful stereotypes, racism, and classism. Before we call for faculty-wide grit and growth mindset programs, we are wise to take a moment, dive deeply, and examine the cultural narratives we perpetuate with students and each other when putting so much focus on these two ideologies.

Very Brief Background

For most educators, it was Carol Dweck, Paul Tough, and Angela Duckworth, catalyzed by the emotional intelligence and self-regulation research from Daniel Goleman, who gave grit and growth mindset traction in the modern classroom. Of course, these themes have been around for centuries with Aesop, Horatio Alger, Homer, and Mabel C. Bragg, who wrote the first popular version of The Little Engine that Could. Recently, however, there is new research vitality in these areas, which boosts their credibility, and we've been fixated on these attributes through a political lens in our national debates, particularly as we discuss immigration, housing loans, medical coverage, and tax codes.

In her Brainology post for the National Association for Independent Schools (2008), Stanford professor and psychologist, Carol Dweck, described the essence of her growth mindset research:

"Many students believe that intelligence is fixed, that each person has a certain amount and that's that. We call this a fixed mindset, and … students with this mindset worry about how much of this fixed intelligence they possess. A fixed mindset makes challenges threatening for students (because they believe that their fixed ability may not be up to the task) and it makes mistakes and failures demoralizing (because they believe that such setbacks reflect badly on their level of fixed intelligence)."

Fixed intelligence students choose to do things that make them look smart, she said, but growth mindset students do things that help them learn, and this dramatically changes their academic trajectories. Dweck added that growth mindset students see, "confronting challenges, profiting from mistakes, and persevering in the face of setbacks," as ways to become smarter, and that it is within their control to achieve higher levels of performance. One of the distinguishing practices that helps teachers discern between the two is whether to ask, "Show of hands: Who got that one right?" when surveying the class after reviewing a homework problem, or to ask instead, "Who had an interesting challenge and was able to resolve it? Let's hear that story."

Just as importantly, according to Dweck, was the way these two groups perceived effort:

"Those with a growth mindset had a very straightforward … idea of effort—the idea that the harder you work, the more your ability will grow and that even geniuses have had to work hard for their accomplishments. In contrast, the students with the fixed mindset believed that if you worked hard it meant that you didn't have ability, and that things would just come naturally to you if you did. This means that every time something is hard for them and requires effort, it's … a threat[.] … Those with growth mindsets reported that, after a setback in school, they would simply study more or study differently the next time. But those with fixed mindsets were more likely to say that they would feel dumb, study less the next time, and seriously consider cheating."

Duckworth and Tough's, "grit," ideology refers to a person's capacity to work toward long term goals and not give in to short term distractions and temptations, thereby building academic and personal stamina, especially when things are challenging for students. Duckworth and Tough declared that grit was the key to student success and should receive overt instruction.

These are very simplistic descriptions of both ideologies, of course; interested educators should read further on both. The focus of this writing, however, is to make educators aware of the rising racist and classist concerns associated with both approaches, which can be uncomfortable.


In a recent study from researchers at Michigan State University and Case Western Reserve University (Burgoyne, et al, 2018), two meta-analyses indicated that growth mindset practices didn't have the positive academic impact that schools and commercial programs employing those practices claimed they had. The study used grade-point averages, course grades, course exams, and standardized test scores, such as the SAT, as their indicators of growth mindset's impact on academic achievement, and the strong correlations just weren't there. They did say, however, that when there was an impact, it was stronger with children and adolescents than with adults, and that students who had high risks of failing benefited the most from growth mindset interventions. The authors of the study noted, too, that all researchers in the studies did not control carefully for growth mindset specifically, so more research was needed.

The research presented in Duckworth and Tough's books on grit has also received significant critique, finding it lacking proper research protocols (see Kohn, Thomas, Socol, among others), making their conclusions suspect. These concerns themselves are enough to warrant a closer look, but they are not the most compelling reason to question grit and growth mindset, as there is much more in play here.

Respected professor and writer, Paul Thomas (@plthomasEdD) posted the Burgoyne report last month on a blog called, "Debunked!" I responded to the blog, indicating that posting the piece under the title, "Debunked!" was misleading since it wasn't fully debunked in the research study, and that there were some positives with growth mindset worth incorporating with other elements that help teachers create hope, not blame. Thomas disagreed with me, posting his thoughtful response (see References for the URL).

Here is where he convicts me every time and has done so for more than a decade: Thomas points to the deficit thinking that is inescapable with grit and growth mindset—The idea that students who do not demonstrate white, well-resourced definitions of perseverance with curriculum that may or may not be meaningful to them, in a larger system that is often operated with intentional and unintentional bias against their success, and to act upon those perseverance ideals daily are somehow less disciplined than others, diminished in a way, and that teachers must "fix" what's wrong in them, (i.e., personal character and maturity) and not fix their environments and the controlling narratives of those in power that perpetuate this constant diminished state.

Author and educator Richard Cash agrees, referring to deficit thinking as the, "spoken and unspoken assumptions about a student's lack of self-regulation, ability, or aptitude. The most devastating impact of deficit thinking is when differences—particularly socio-cultural differences—are perceived as inferior, dysfunctional, or deviant ... Typically, schools are designed to 'fix' students who are achieving poorly or misbehaving. However, by blaming students, we exonerate ourselves as the possible cause—using the symptom to overlook the source" (June 2018).

Thomas ties it to his critique of grit/growth mindset: "Both growth mindset and grit … mistake growth mindset/grit as the dominant or even exclusive quality causing success in student learning (ignoring the power of systemic influences) and then create an environment in which some students (too often black, brown, and poor) are defined in deficit terms—that they lack growth mindset/grit." He adds, "[S]tudents are better served by equity practices couched in efforts to alleviate the systemic forces that shape how they live and learn regardless of their character."

In a separate post, he argues that it is particularly harmful, yet typically American, thinking to assume that students' success and failure is driven solely by individual character and behavior, when actually, so much of any one individual's success or failure is driven by social forces, environment of birth, and systemic biases. He recommends Sendhil Mullainathan's Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much to clarify this point, as do I—It's a thoughtful read.

Thomas and others claim that growth mindset/grit programs, "disproportionately target racial minorities and impoverished students, reinforcing that most of the struggles within these groups academically are attributable to deficits in those students … linked to race and social class … [which] perpetuate race and class stereotypes, and as a result, work against inclusive pedagogy and culturally relevant pedagogy" (Thomas, 2018).

Thomas promotes author and educator Paul Gorski's assertion that, "Equity literate educators … reject deficit views that focus on fixing marginalized students rather than fixing the conditions that marginalize students, and understand the structural barriers that cheat some people out of the opportunities enjoyed by other people."

At the Equity Literacy Institute, Gorski is clear: "We must avoid being lulled by popular 'diversity' approaches and frameworks that pose no threat to inequity—that sometimes are popular because they are no real threat to inequity." (December 9, 2017) Among Gorski's equity principles in that post are these statements:

"'Equity' approaches that fail to directly confront inequity play a significant role in sustaining inequity.

Educational outcome disparities are not the result of deficiencies in marginalized communities' cultures, mindsets, or grittiness, but rather of inequities.

Equity initiatives focus, not on fixing marginalized people, but on fixing the conditions that marginalize people."

Gorski reminds us that, "Compared with schools with low percentages of students experiencing poverty, schools with high percentages of students experiencing poverty are more likely to have: less access to school nurses and college counselors;

  • more limited access to computers and the Internet;
  • inadequate learning facilities such as science labs;
  • more teacher vacancies and substitute teachers;
  • more teachers unlicensed in their subject areas;
  • less rigorous and student-centered curricula;
  • inoperative or dirty student bathrooms;
  • less access to preventive healthcare;
  • serious teacher turnover problems;
  • higher student-to-teacher ratios;
  • insufficient classroom materials;
  • less access to stable housing;
  • fewer extracurricular programs;
  • fewer experienced teachers;
  • lower teacher salaries;
  • larger class sizes; and
  • less funding.

He adds pointedly, "So, explain to me how we can meaningfully respond to the impacts of these conditions by completely ignoring these injustices while 'fixing' the mindsets, cultures, or grittiness of students or families experiencing poverty."

"Allostatic Load" refers to the, "cost of chronic exposure to elevated or fluctuating endocrine or neural responses resulting from chronic or repeated challenges that the individual experiences as stressful." ( Many teachers are unaware of the negative effects that such allostatic loads, i.e. ceaseless stressors such as the ones listed in Gorski's list above, inflict on our bodies and minds, especially in individuals who live in poverty, are challenged by an alcoholic parent, or who people of color bearing the hourly burden of proving worth, full rights under the law, educating whites about their perspectives, are legitimate/trusted shoppers, and are of benign intent.

In his blog, however, educator/writer, Ira Socol, writes, "[H]igh allostatic load factors do not mean that a child comes to school 'disadvantaged.' Rather, their advantages are simply not respected nor exploited by the school. The damaged children described by the "young Peter's" narration are all brilliant, all incredible observers of their worlds, and are all incredibly capable." (2013) Talking about grit specifically, he adds, "[W]hat Tough and his friends want these kids to possess is willing compliance, not "grit" nor "character."

Author, Alfie Kohn, affirms Cash, Thomas, and Socol in his critique of growth mindset:

"The message of [focusing on the mindsets of individuals] has always been to adjust yourself to conditions as you find them because those conditions are immutable; all you can do is decide on the spirit in which to approach them…. Social psychologists use the term "fundamental attribution error" to mean paying so much attention to personality and attitudes that we overlook how profoundly the social environment affects what we do and who we are… Why, for example, do relatively few young women choose to study or work in the fields of math and science? Is it because of entrenched sexism and "the way the science career structure works"? Well, to someone sold on Dweck's formula, the answer is no: It's "all a matter of mindset." We need only "shift widespread perceptions over to the 'growth mindset'"—that is, to the perceptions of girls and women who are just trapped by their own faulty thinking. This is similar to the perspective that encourages us to blame a "culture of poverty" in the inner city rather than examine economic and political barriers—a very appealing explanation to those who benefit from those barriers and would rather fault their victims for failing to pull themselves up by their mindset." (2015)

In a separate critique of grit, Kohn notes research weaknesses and skewed priorities in Duckworth's work, wondering here about the merits of her goals:

"Duckworth reported that [National Spelling Bee contestants] performed better in that competition if they were higher in grit, 'whereas spellers higher in openness to experience—defined as preferring using their imagination, playing with ideas, and otherwise enjoying a complex mental life—perform[ed] worse.' She also found that the most effective preparation strategy was, 'solitary deliberate practice activities' rather than, say, reading books. … If enjoying a complex mental life (or reading for pleasure) interferes with performance in a one-shot contest to see who can spell more obscure words correctly—and if sufficient grittiness to spend time alone memorizing lists of words helps to achieve that goal—this is regarded as an argument in favor of grit. Presumably it also argues against having a complex mental life or engaging in leisure reading.

"Driving the study of student performance conducted by Duckworth was … [her] belief that underachievement isn't explained by structural factors—social, economic, or even educational. Rather, [she] insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their, 'failure to exercise self-discipline.'"

Poignantly, Kohn poses, "The most impressive educational activists are those who struggle to replace a system geared to memorizing facts and taking tests with one dedicated to exploring ideas…. By contrast, those enamored of grit look at the same status quo and ask: How can we get kids to put up with it?"

What Does All This Mean for Conscientious Educators of Middle School Students?

This is not a call to abandon all efforts to help students develop those positive tenets of grit and growth mindset programs, such as self-discipline, voice, responsibility for one's choices, personal tenacity, initiative, authenticity, and self-efficacy. Heck, this description alone is probably 90% of a middle school teacher's daily job description.

Instead, this is a call to recognize that we are very different people depending on our circumstances, and that those circumstances, some of which are not actually in our control, yet are renewed each year by unintentional and intentional bias in those with power and influence, significantly affect our capacity to act upon the advice and teaching provided. If we were a member of a suspect class in our community and impoverished or even slightly so, wondering how to pay the medical bills, get food on the table, get our brother, Micky, off meth, get Mom out of her depression, and pay the rent, we might not remember to get those 100 index cards for Monday's class or have the capacity to start the four week project on the day it is assigned. And no, we might not be as willing to take creative risks in learning or take one train, two buses, and a complex transfer to get across town for the study group on Thursday. And then to be blamed for our lack of gumption?

It's also a call to recognize that students who are challenged by poverty or being people of color in biased communities don't lack grit or tenacity. They have plenty of it; that's how they survive. We lose all credibility by harping on it as the root to a student's problems. What these students lack are the resources, time, and support needed to maneuver, extend energy, and find hope in the instructional demands placed on them. Socol writes,

"[A]ll the children living and learning in relative affluence are afforded slack by the accidents of their birth: "Slack" is the term identified by Mullainathan and Shafir as the space created by abundance that allows any person access to more of her/his cognitive and emotional resources … this is what kids need. Slack … the moments when necessity is not the sole driver. 'The cost [of 'scarcity'—the primary element in 'grit theory'] is an undue focus on the necessity at hand, which leads to a lack of curiosity about wider issues, and an inability to imagine longer-term consequences. The effect of this scarcity-generated 'loss of bandwidth' has catastrophic results ... ' The Guardian writes in a book review on the topic." (2014)

And in this audit of our own thinking, perhaps we can do as Thomas suggests, "[S]et aside the assumption that low student achievement is primarily caused by a lack of effort and engagement as well as that high student achievement is a consequence of mostly effort and engagement," and that we resist the idea that, " … life for black/brown and poor people is going to be hard so we need to make them extra 'gritty' to survive and excel."

To these ideas, I add these specific responses:

  • Get to really know students and their neighborhoods. Yes, visit homes, attend community events, get informed, and watch more than one news channel or source for more information on challenges to their communities. Let's not make it the student's responsibility to teach us. And, with whatever system works for us, let's remember their personal and family milestones, as they share them with us: birthdays, Quinceañera, bar/bat mitzvahs, Tae-Kwan-do competition, band/Lego/robotic/forensic competition, new graphic comic designed, big sister enlisted in the navy, brother finally out of jail, dog/cat recently died, did four pull-ups in gym class, tried out for the school play.
  • Accept and honor the full individual the student really is, not categorize him in terms of the degree to which he satisfies our description of successful older students from our own cultures. Let's choose to see difference from us and our culture as strength, not something less than preferred, and let these individuals know they make good company. Be genuinely interested in their cultures and hobbies as you can, and find ways to invite that collected knowledge into weekly learning. Students will engage if they feel they are contributing. How might our interactions with students and lesson designs be turning students into passive recipients rather than active creators? Instead of being about sense-making and the delivery of knowledge to students, let's make sure our lessons transition students' learning into personal processing and meaning-making as well.
  • At every turn, give students proof that hope is warranted. Are there word choices, policies, practices, and attitudes from us that come across to students as adversarial ("Gotcha!"), or do we come across in all things as advocates for them as individuals? There are common sense things that engender such hope: Allowing re-do's on both formative and summative assessments for full credit, encouraging divergent thinking and problem-solving with no academic penalty when they don't turn out as planned (only analysis of went awry, then starting over with our full support), discipline done in private, recoverability after cheating or plagiarizing, modeling and facilitating constructive responses to failures and mistakes, zero sarcasm directed at students or situations, complete erasure of earlier indicators of incompetency from later and more current reports of competency (no more averaging of grades), no holding grudges, cognitive coaching instead of judging, teacher follow-through on promises made, student reflective analysis of choices (He made this decision, and it had this result; is that what he wanted to achieve?), daily, visible proof that we will not humiliate the student nor will we let him humiliate himself, and visible proof weekly that progress is being made ("You once here, but look where you are now!).
  • Let's also do an equity, class, and racial audit of our attitudes towards students from cultures different from our own to see them as fully dimensionalized individuals, worth knowing. And let's do the same audit with all audio-visuals in our presentations and classrooms: Students of different colors, religions, cultures, sexual orientations, and socio-economic status portrayed doing thoughtful, competent things, representing the very best of humanity. If it's in sight, it's in mind.
  • Actively investigate and dismantle those inequities that our students face daily, "Changing the conditions," as Gorski says above, "that marginalize people." We can start with equal access laws in our community that limit some students from getting an education or working due to pregnancy or immigration status. Limit or remove learning experiences that require students to purchase materials. We can work on equal pay laws for teenage girls and women in the community, as well as fund girls' sports to the same level we do boys' sports. We can make sure every single student has the necessary technology and in and out of school access to a reliable Internet Service Provider, if it's required by the schools. We can provide child care for all parent meetings. We can provide students interested in taking advanced courses with additional tutoring supports to make a successful go of them, and we can formally teach reading to middle schoolers who may have not been able to learn to read when they were younger. Finally, we can confront and end the bias in colleagues, students, and parents about career and tech ed courses that aren't necessarily associated with university-bound students but are just as intellectual demanding and personally maturing and meaningful as more traditional courses, if not more so.
  • We can avoid automatically blaming our students' inattention in class or lack of academic performance on their personal character flaws as associated in our minds with people of that color, culture, religion, or socio-economic status. We can stop judging students of a certain color, religion, culture, or socio-economic status as less likely to be capable or interested in academic work, simply due to perceived stereotypes of people with that skin color, culture, religion or socio-economic status. One of the greatest gifts we give students is to honor what they bring to learning's table as valuable, not dismiss their circumstance as irrelevant, or to respond punitively when their responses to extended learning demands are different than how those without so many challenges respond to those same demands.
  • We can provide real skill training to all students in middle school on executive function skills and personal self-efficacy. It's the nature of the age, not the class or race, to need these learning experiences at exactly this age. This means we dismantle all practices related to grades and grading to teach self-discipline, timeliness, task analysis, and impulsivity/distractibility control
  • Finally, let's train all teachers in cognitive coaching and descriptive feedback, which both emphasize reflection on decisions, their impact, setting goals, not invoking ego through judgment, active engagement in learning, self-monitoring, being flexible, taking responsibility, and revision from new perspective. You know, that hope stuff.

While growth mindset and grit have many thoughtful advocates we all respect deeply, looking at each ideology's research, principles, and practices with a critical eye is warranted. Considering the critic's concerns with each one regarding race, inequity, and classism is reasonable. With so much dividing us these days politically, culturally, and economically, we can come together here and pull the camera back on these topics to reveal their larger context and have informed discussions. With such perspective, the call to get it right becomes even more urgent.


Cash, R.M. (2018). Reframing deficit thinking: How to change perceptions for the better. Retrieved from

Dweck, C.S. (2008). Brainology. Retrieved from

Gorski, P.C. & Swalwell, K. (2015). Equity literacy for all. Educational Leadership, 72(6), 34-40.

Gorski, P.C. (2018, May 16). If you are still on the "grit" or "mindset of poverty" bandwagon, consider this. Facebook post, retrieved from

Kohn, A. (2014). GRIT: A skeptical look at the latest educational fad," adapted from The myth of the spoiled child, Independent School, Retrieved from

Kohn, A. (2015). The perils of "growth mindset" education: Why we're trying to fix our kids when we should be fixing the system, Retrieved from


Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. Picador.

Sisk, V.F., Burgoyne, A.P., Sun, J., Butler, J. L., & Macnamara, B.N. (2018). "To what extent and under which circumstances are growth mind-sets important to academic achievement? Two meta-analyses." Psychological Science, 29(4), 549-571. doi: 10.1177/0956797617739704

Socol, I. (2014) Grit, Part 2 - Is "slack" what kids need?" Retrieved from

Socol, I. (2013). Paul Tough v. Peter Høeg - or - The advantages and limits of 'research.' Retrieved from

Thomas, P. L. (2018, May 26). More on rejecting growth mindset, grit. Retrieved from

Thomas, P.L. (2017, September 17). Rejecting growth mindset and grit at three levels. Retrieved from

Thomas, P. L. (2016, May 11). Rejecting "grit" while embracing effort, engagement. Retrieved from

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from His new book is Fair Isn't Always Equal: Second Edition (Stenhouse Publishers).

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2018.
Author: Rick Wormeli
Number of views (57039)/Comments (1)/
Renewing Our Dedication to Assessing for Learning

Renewing Our Dedication to Assessing for Learning

Assess with a commitment to compassion, collaboration, and the goal of helping students succeed

It's easy to become jaded about assessment, but I'm going to offer a different view that will hopefully make assessment a tool for learning instead of just an after-the-fact event. We can't always control all of the assessments our students take, so set those outside our realm of influence for a moment. What we can do is approach the assessments we create and choose to give our students with renewed dedication. As I've tried to come to my own philosophy of assessment, I looked to The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. They provide an excellent framework for educators struggling to make sense of the mess that assessment has become in a drill and kill atmosphere that, at the exact same time, is being juxtaposed with the real need for 21st century skills.

Be Impeccable with Your Word

I think one of the most important ways we can use assessment for learning is to demonstrate for students the value of careful and thorough preparation. To this end, I always create the final assessment first, then I print a copy. I keep a clipboard with the questions with me throughout the unit, and I make sure that I clearly teach, reteach, and review each question. As I do so, I put a check next to each question, and I will not administer the assessment until I have three checks. Once I have three checks, I know that I have "covered" everything that will be on the test.

Why is this approach of backwards planning and checks so important? The reason I'm "impeccable" with my word is that I have taken hundreds of tests, and I'd venture to say that on half of them, there are questions or concepts that were not addressed thoroughly, and sometimes not at all. I've heard teachers say that students should be able to infer content, and if inferencing is the skill, so be it. Otherwise, there is no reason to make assessments that don't deliver questions that you focused on and instead measure something other than what you were teaching.

Don't Take Anything Personally

We've all been there. As you are grading an assessment you realize that your question was too vague, or the second choice answer was ambiguous, or the essay really requires them to tap into skills that you haven't touched in months. You have a choice at that moment, and I will freely admit that in my early career I often made the wrong one. I used to make excuses, blame students for not being able to figure out what I'd meant, or become appalled that they couldn't apply a skill. Now though, I don't take it personally. If I'm expecting them to have a growth mindset, I have to demonstrate my willingness to own a mistake.

Just this year, the answers I provided for one of the questions in the multiple choice section of my The Outsiders test were convoluted. As I graded paper after paper, the pattern emerged. Everyone seemed to be missing #7. I decided to throw the question out and humbly explain to my students that I screwed up, and I would appreciate their help. All they needed to do was rewrite the question with better answer choices. They enjoyed "schooling" me, and I was able to model the appropriate reaction to making a mistake—and it wasn't to dig in and refuse my fallibility.

Don't Make Assumptions

This can be the hardest part of assessing for learning. What I mean by "don't make assumptions" is to use formative assessments along the way and not rely on the big data of a final exam or state assessment to tell us what we needed to know along the way. We can assume that our students are learning, but if we don't assess them, we are only guessing how well they understand the concept or skill being taught.

I tend to do really quick formative assessments, and I often rely on my own observations as I walk about the room checking in on my students. The best way to be clear about what you are assessing, while also gathering important data points, is to have students do the work for you. For example, in our last essay, I wanted students to make sure they were using sophisticated sentence structure as well as transitions to support their thesis statement. When they finished, they were given a "to do list" that would make their learning clear to me as I circulated. Their task was to highlight in yellow three sentences that used a comma and a coordinating conjunction, to highlight in pink four transition words they'd used, and to bold their thesis statement and bold three pieces of evidence that supported it. I was able to look over their shoulder and immediately know if they were on track or not instead of guessing who was and wasn't doing well with the task. With over a hundred students, this is a practical way to take the guesswork out of their learning too, as they were forced to be reflective, which for middle schoolers isn't always easy.

Always Do Your Best

Finally, after nearly two decades of teaching, I have recognized the harm that deficit grading can do, and I've pretty much eliminated the practice. By "deficit grading," I mean the practice of taking off a point here for not capitalizing and another point here for the indentation not being exactly five spaces. It doesn't mean I ignore those things, but I simply send them back to the students to do again. I assess whether or not students have met the criteria for the assessment, and I don't penalize them for the sloppy or careless mistake. However, I won't accept anything less than their best, so my first round of grading is simply to let them know what they need to work on. They can then check with me or another student who can help them with the problem I have pointed out in my feedback. Is it more work this way? Yes, but it is also more learning, and that is the point.

Assessments are a necessary part of teaching and learning, and if done with genuine compassion, an eye on creating a high-quality product, and a commitment to collaboration, students and teachers can learn from one another. Every time I give students an assessment, I explain that I am seeing what I need to do so that they are successful. Yes, they understand their role, but they also believe that I'm gathering information to make them better, which is exactly what assessing for learning should do.

Amber Chandler is an ELA teacher and the ELA department chair at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, New York.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2018.
Author: Amber Chandler
Number of views (2257)/Comments (0)/
Four Ways to Tweak Group Projects

Four Ways to Tweak Group Projects

Fostering more risk-taking, creativity, and true collaboration

Aiden, an eighth grader, wanted to vent about his latest group project. He had to work with classmates to design an environmentally sustainable home in Vietnam. This involved sourcing local palm thatching and bamboo, understanding the local culture, and calculating measurements. "I'm sure I'll do the whole thing," he told me, sounding both exasperated and a little proud. "I'm the only one who gets stuff done." I knew Aiden was missing the point of collaboration, and I challenged him to come up with three reasons to loosen control. He looked confused. "Why would I want to do that?" he asked. "I'll get a bad grade."

We worry about students who don't pull their weight, but kids who dominate groups lose out too. They don't develop the skills they'll need for a workforce that increasingly values diversity of thought. Companies such as Google know that the loudest voice in the room can impede innovation, and they've been outspoken about their desire to attract people with intellectual humility. The employees who focus on success at all costs often struggle to embrace others' ideas when they're better. As schools incorporate more inquiry-based learning and group work, we can take advantage of opportunities to bolster students' ability to read cues and accept feedback, take risks, and exchange ideas.

"The job of schooling isn't just preparing kids for college," says Scott Murphy, a director of secondary curriculum and districtwide programs for Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. "It's preparing them to have a vibrant career, to work with people from diverse backgrounds, and to communicate and collaborate." "These soft skills can't be 'taught' in the traditional sense," says Tyler Gehrking, a teacher and host of the DisruptED Podcast. "It's chaotic sometimes, and while my natural urge as a teacher is to save them, it's the one thing I can't do," he says. "When you rob students of the struggle, you rob them of the learning." As Murphy adds, "problem-based learning is not the teacher at the front of the room sharing their brilliance—it's teacher as facilitator." Here are four ways educators can help students collaborate productively.

Teach Them to Use Language Differently

Kids are being thrown together without being taught to communicate, says Jeanine Esposito, the managing director and founder of Innovation Builders in Connecticut, an innovation firm for learning institutions. "There's a language," she explains. Teach them to avoid responding to peers' thoughts with a binary yes or no, and to embrace all ideas by saying "yes, and" instead of "yes, but." "When you say 'yes, but,' you've already decided there's something wrong with what the person has already said," Esposito explains. Show them how to ask provocative questions that prompt deeper thinking about a problem. "A magic question is, 'what would have to be true?'" she says. "We're always guessing at what people need by asking what's wrong." For Aiden's group, the question might be, "What would have to be true for us to convince families in Vietnam that we've designed the perfect sustainable home?"

To further spur creativity, use sentence starters, such as, "Wouldn't it be amazing if," or "I wish." You also can try the worst idea exercise. Prompt kids to throw out the worst ideas they can think of, then ask them how they could make them work. The more impossible and absurd the suggestion, the better. "Once you have the worst idea for whatever it is you're trying to solve, take a fresh sheet of paper and come up with two good things about that worst possible solution," Esposito says. Use sticky notes to make it fun, and use anonymity to make risk-taking safe. Students can scrawl dozens of ideas on stickies, tack them to a wall as they brainstorm, then sift through them for workable and inspired ideas.

Focus on Process, not Product

If you want to teach collaboration, emphasize process over product. Otherwise, kids will be driven by the desire for a good grade. Start by administering a strengths and weaknesses analysis such as the Compass Points Activity (see link in Resources at the end of this article). Ask students to discuss what different personality types bring to the table, and what they might need in a group member to balance themselves out. Then have them pair with people who aren't just like them. "Teachers need to be thoughtful about the composition of groups and assign roles thoughtfully," says Susan Cain, author and founder of Quiet Revolution. "It's putting structures in place so it doesn't become 'Lord of the Flies.' Make kids conscious of dynamics and tell them when they need to make adjustments," she adds.

As the project gets underway, use informal peer evaluations to ensure kids notice and shift gears when they're acting too domineering or too hands-off. Make fairly evaluating each other part of the grading process. "If you want me to give my teammates more autonomy, I need to know I won't be penalized if they do something wrong," says Roxanne Moore, a professor at Georgia Tech who has written engineering curriculum for middle school students. "A lot of that is in the grading. If we grade the product and not the process, then our incentives aren't aligned. If we're grading the process more heavily, that changes the incentives entirely. Then the high-achieving kid realizes, 'I have to work with my teammates, and if I don't do the poster myself, it's not going to sink my grade.'"

Build in Time for Feedback and Reflection

Have kids journal throughout the group project. What bugged them? When and why did they clash with teammates? What strengths and weaknesses did the other students bring to the project? What tendencies did they identify in themselves? Where did they fail? How did they regroup after a setback? Were they attentive to the cues around them, or did they have no idea they were turning people off until they saw the written comments? How did working in a group help the end result?

Teach kids the habit of mind of being curious about other people and listening to what they have to say nonjudgmentally, Cain says. "Teach them to ask the question 'why.' 'Why do you feel that way? Where are you coming from?'" Build in time along the way for self-reflection and self-awareness in the context of the group collaboration. You can have students share their observations with the class or keep them private. Either way, the idea is to learn from their self-assessment and others' feedback, and to apply those findings to future group experiences.

"We have to model that none of us have all the answers, and draw from other people's input to become smarter, wiser, and more adaptive than we would have been on our own," says Dr. Ken Ginsburg, a pediatrician and founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "The example I give is, I think red, and I'd never think purple by myself. But if I'm with someone who thinks blue, together we can think purple. That's how innovation occurs, when we can really take constructive criticism."

Define Leadership as Doing What Needs to be Done, Not Taking Charge

Children (and many adults) tend to think of leadership in the conventional sense, as the soccer team captain or the student body president. Make a point of reframing leadership as making an impact or shaping the lives around you, Cain says. "When you define it that way, you leave a lot more room for broader forms of leadership."

On teams, both alpha and more introverted kids can make real contributions, but non-alpha kids often need to be told their way of being is equally potent. Use real-life examples. As Cain notes, "Ghandi was not sociable, but we see him as a transformational leader because of his conviction and dedication, which attracts others to his cause and becomes very powerful in its own right. You can see him handling conflict in a roundabout way—he wasn't bull by the horns. He instinctively looked for less overly conflictual ways of handling things." Underscore that effective teams are comprised of individuals with different temperaments.

Keep in mind that group projects aren't a cure-all, and there can be a downside. "Extroverts need to learn the skill of deliberate practice, of sitting and working on something themselves. Introverts need freedom—they're hungry to do their own thing," Cain explains. One way to address this limitation is by taking a hybrid approach. Before students start collaborating, build in time for individual brainstorming. "One of my favorite teaching methods is 'think, pair, share,'" she says. "Teachers throw out a question, kids first think privately themselves, then discuss with a partner, then the pairs share out with a group. These little tweaks can go a long way." With creativity and intentionality, we can ensure that all group members are engaged and working on their individual growth edges.


Compass Points Activity:

Quiet Revolution Resources:

Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is the counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, DC, a therapist at Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and the author of Middle School Matters, (Da Capo Press, forthcoming 2019). She regularly contributes articles on education, parenting, and counseling to The Washington Post.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2018.
Author: Phyllis L. Fagell
Number of views (2148)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
During-Reading Response: Notepassing Discussion

During-Reading Response: Notepassing Discussion

Get all students to participate in class discussion by taking advantage of the fun of writing and passing notes

Reader response compels readers to interact with the text and makes visible for readers and their teachers the depth of text comprehension. This is the fifth in a series on scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching a variety of reader response strategies before, during, and after reading.

The Problem with Class Discussion

Thirty students in the classroom, all of them participating in an academic discussion … an unattainable goal? Most teachers acknowledge that when they hold class discussions, four or five students typically participate, and always the same four or five students. And it can take prodding and questions from the teachers to entice those few students to contribute to the conversation.

Discussion can be defined as students talking about a topic or a text without input or interjection from the teacher, a description most teachers would agree that classroom discussions do not fulfill. How can teachers increase student participation in discussions? And if a teacher can successfully encourage all students to participate in a text discussion, there are still problems:

  • How do they find time for 30 students to discuss one topic?
  • If student groups are discussing simultaneously, how can the volume of talk be contained?
  • How do teachers discourage students from interrupting each other?
  • How do teachers keep adolescents from making inappropriate comments to those whose discussion points are not considered accurate or clever?
  • How can students have the time to construct responses to others?

The Solution

Adolescents love to write and pass notes—secret missives meant for the eyes of one person at a time. And notes allow time to plan a response and the knowledge that the response will be read and considered. Also, the fact that they do not need to look someone in the eye when making a response is comforting to many adolescents. Teachers can effectively employ this technique in their classrooms through a during-reading discussion response strategy: notepassing.

Discussion Lessons

The first step before holding small-group discussions is to teach students how to begin with comments or observations that will initiate discussion. When students merely repeat facts from the text, there is nothing to deliberate. However, when students use facts, quotes, ideas from a text to generate questions, inferences, predictions, or connections, a discussion can ensue—generating conversation by saying, "When the article stated , it made me think of ."

The next steps are to teach ways to develop and extend a discussion when participants agree and when participants disagree.

When students agree with the person initiating the discussion, they typically respond, "I agree," "Me too," or "That's what I was going to say," and the discussion ends there. Students need to brainstorm ways to agree, but to also add comments that extend and continue the conversation, such as I agree AND also thought about… (another example from the text, another text, or from life).

Students also need alternatives to "That's not right." Adolescents typically blurt out comments or employ body language that shows others that their ideas were not considered particularly respected, correct, or smart. Even more importantly, students need to learn tactics to respectfully disagree while effectively continuing and adding to the discussion, such as I think that is true; HOWEVER, I was also thinking…. Or That is a good thought, BUT did you consider…? Once methods of developing discussions have been taught, students are ready to participate in notepassing.

Notepassing Directions for Students (given orally)

  1. Divide into groups of three [the best number for this activity. If there needs to be 1-2 groups of four, those groups may make another pass—see #6.] After you divide into groups, there is to be no talking.
  2. Each student is to individually read the article (or textbook chapter or the next novel chapter).
  3. On a separate sheet of paper, write a two-minute response to the text. Think of something meaningful, significant, or interesting to write about—a good discussion point. Write or print legibly so what you write can be read by others. Then sign your first name. [When the timer signals two minutes, the teacher tells students to finish the sentence they are currently writing and sign their names.]
  4. Within your triad, pass your paper to the right. Write a two-minute response to the comments made by the person whose paper you receive, continuing the conversation as we discussed. Then sign your name. 
  5. Again pass the papers to the right within your triad. Read the two responses. Write a two-minute response to the comments on the paper you receive, continuing and extending the conversation started by the first two responders; then sign your first name. [When the timer signals two minutes, the teacher tells students to finish the sentences they are currently writing and sign their names.]
  6. Return the note to its original owner who will read all the responses. [During this time, groups of four can pass and write one more time if the teacher wishes.]
  7. Your group should now talk about insights or points made in their comments.
  8. THEN each triad prepares to share with the class:
    • The different topics of your "conversations"
    • One point about the text on which you all agree and think is important

Examples of Notepassing Responses

Three different conversations held by a sixth grade triad on a social studies article Shattered Lives by Kristin Lewis in Scholastic Scope, January 2015:

Group 1— Conversation 1

Refugees lives are, well, shattered because of crises, like the Syrian Refugee crisis, happening around the world. For example Dania went from a "spacious four-room home with a beautiful garden that bloomed with olive trees" (6) to hiding in a hole during attacks to having to flee the country to a little garage.
– Alex

I agree that their lives are shattered. Refugees go from having a normal, everyday life, school, friends to fleeing, escaping missiles and the challenge of surviving. Can you imagine? They have to leave everything they know behind and flee for their lives.
– Ava

I totally agree with Alex that refugees get shattered by civil wars and fighting between countries. I agree that one day your life is normal, and then the next day it all changes. And instead of being able to go to school with your friends, you have to try to stay alive every day. And, as well, you never know when the last time you'll see your best friend or family or have a home.
– Evan
Group 1— Conversation 2

In the article, "Shattered Lives," I can make a connection to the three other books I have read this year. In all three books there is a refugee family fleeing due to wars and bad things happening. For example, Dania and her family have to flee the country due to a civil war in her country just like in the books I read.
– Evan

Hi, Evan, I completely agree. In the books A Long Walk to Water and Refugee people have to flee due to wars and violence. The books are rather similar. Also, in Refugee, Mahmoud has to leave because of the Syrian civil war, just like Dania in the article.
– Alex

Yes, refugees face danger and violence. Some face dictators, missiles, and even Hitler. They are forced to flee to just survive. I agree with you, Evan, that all the books we have read have the connection of fleeing and violence and people are forced to become refugees or stay and risk their lives. Refugees face many unimaginable dangers.
– Ava
Group 1— Conversation 3

Refugees are not alone. Many organizations, like the UNHCR, Save the Children, and UNICEF dedicate their lives to helping refugees. For example, Save the Children is working with a government to make sure all refugee children receive an education, even when they have to go to school in shifts.
– Ava

Dear Ava, I totally agree with you that refugees are not alone. For the same reason as the UNHCR, there are sometimes just people who have sympathy for refugees and donate to organizations that help out with refugees.
– Evan

Hey, Ya'll, I agree with both of you. Organizations like UNHCR and UNICEF are helping with many things like education, food, water, supplies, medicine, and even counseling services. I think they are helping in a great way and are making a large impact on many refugees' lives. Hopefully, one day those organizations will be able to reach all refugees.
– Alex

An example of one of the conversations written by ELA students, responding to "The History Teacher" by Billy Collins:

Group 1— Conversation 1

In the beginning of the poem you can see that this history teacher cares about his students very much, for he even explains that the brutal Ice Age was only a "chilly age" where everyone wore sweaters. Although in the fifth stanza it explains how the kids treat others on the playground. If the teacher cares as much as I believe he does, why is he so oblivious?
– Emily

I think this is a very good point because of the interpretation of the poem's tone. I did not notice how the teacher was very concerned with his student's innocence yet still allowed the treatment they receive from fellow students.
– Megan

I see what you mean—why shield them from the reality of the past but allow them to negatively impact the future? If he had told them the harsh truth, maybe they wouldn't be so oblivious to what could happen.
– Cristal

Advantages of Notepassing

After participating in this activity, students were asked to share the advantages they noticed.

  • There was time to think before "blurting out"—time to reflect on answers.
  • You can look back to what someone said.
  • I could revise what I said before passing.
  • Everyone has a turn.
  • I could jot down thoughts before forgetting.

After participating in this activity in their classrooms, teachers were asked to share the advantages that they noticed. These were some of their observations:

  • Everyone participates; in typical discussions only three to five students participate, and it's always the same ones and usually in response to questions I asked.
  • There were none of the typical non-verbal reactions, i.e., eye-rolling.
  • Taking turns is built into the activity.
  • The room is quiet even when 10 group conversations are being held.
  • When writing for two minutes, there is more urgency to start writing, and when students "finish" and see that others are still writing, they tend to add more to what they wrote.
  • Usually students do not write inappropriate comments—there is something about committing to writing.
  • Students are writing comments for other readers, an authentic audience, and an audience other than the teacher.

Notepassing Across the Curriculum

Notepassing can be used as a reader response strategy in any discipline and anywhere there is a catalyst for reflection. Readers can use those reflections to begin discussions with other readers:

  • Poetry, novels, short stories, plays, and informational texts of any length in ELA classes;
  • Textbook, articles, visuals (visual literacy), in social studies;
  • Textbook chapters, articles, or experiments ("reading" an experiential text) in science class;
  • Mathematics concepts or problems;
  • Musical scores, lyrics, or listening to a musical composition (another experiential, or aural, text);
  • Reading visual texts such as anatomy charts, articles, and textbook chapters in health class;
  • Artwork as visual texts in art class.


As a during-reading response, notepassing, similar to other response strategies, causes readers to stop and reflect on what they read. The interactive nature of notepassing begins conversations between readers, and considering text in a collaborative manner promotes deeper and more critical reading.

With notepassing, groups of students have developed a basis for oral conversation, and they discover points to share with the class. If a writing activity follows the text reading, triads have rehearsed their thoughts about the text in a low-stakes activity.

Lesley Roessing taught middle school for 20 years before becoming the founding director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and senior lecturer, College of Education, Georgia Southern University. Lesley has published four professional books for educators. The ideas in this column were based on The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension (Corwin, 2009).

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2018.
Author: Lesley Roessing
Number of views (16013)/Comments (0)/
Let It Go

Let It Go

Create an instructional shift by letting go of these dated mentalities

"Student-centered" is just one set of new buzzwords in the education world. I remember sitting in a professional development session watching a video of students conducting the class with very little input from the teacher. I remember staring at the screen with disbelief. I internally questioned, "Where are those students from?"

I thought to myself, "That school must be nothing like my school. Those students are nothing like my students. There was no way my students would be able to do that."

Days, weeks, and months went by. I pushed the video out of my mind and thought nothing more of it. One day, I sat in my eighth-grade classroom watching one of my male students. Leon was facilitating the warm-up activity. He asked the class a question, to which multiple students raised their hands. Leon selected a student, Aaron, to provide the answer. After Aaron presented his response, Robin raised her hand and asked for clarification. Aaron then turned to Leon and asked him to present his journal to the class to demonstrate a model as to how he arrived at his answer.

It was at that moment, when it hit me. My students had become the students in the video. With a few intentional acts on my part and a release of power, my classroom became the model of "student-centered."

"Let it go," the title of this article, is not a tribute to the famous children's movie, but rather a directive to teachers. To create an instructional shift that focuses on students, there are a few mentalities teachers just need to let go:

My-Way-or-the-Highway Mentality
If you're like me, you've wanted to be a teacher since you were a child. At the ripe old age of six, I arranged my stuffed animals in a row and provided instruction on the alphabet using my chalkboard.

Many years later, I recognize a few coherent differences between students and stuffed animals. Children tend to be less content with the idea of sitting silently without moving, watching me write on a board. If your middle school classroom follows the lecture model, you are missing a great opportunity to witness discovery and creativity.

When planning lessons, allow the lesson objective to serve as the final destination. How you and the students get to that destination is based on the questions and comments of the students.

There will be times when a student suggests a method of solving a problem that is not correct. Sometimes it is worth the journey down that road if a child discovers the error on his or her own.

While it is indeed important to plan thorough lessons, be prepared to be flexible. Drifting off-road may be necessary to clarify misconceptions. Allow students the opportunity to drive the conversation. This includes sitting or standing in the front of the classroom, potentially writing on sacred chalkboard. A student's handwriting may not be as neat as a teacher's, but it is extremely rewarding to see students excited to provide multiple models to prove to their solution for finding the sum of two integers.

Superhero Mentality
How long after providing a challenging word problem do you see your students' hands in the air asking for assistance? Early in my teaching career, my students would generally complete about two minutes of independent work before calling for reinforcements. Although I would assist them on a particular question, I learned that when these same students were assessed on the material, they had not mastered the concept. That is when I began to see the value of productive struggle.

These days, during the first week of school, when establishing classroom norms, I ask students if they have ever been lost in the same place twice. After a few puzzled looks, the majority of students will say no and a few charismatic individuals will provide an elaborate example of where they lost their way. I would then ask those who said they have been lost in the same place twice, "Was it easier to find your way the second time?" The answer to that question is always, "Yes."

I use this real-life example to explain why I will not answer every question that is asked. There is value to self-discovery of solutions. When students determine an appropriate method of solving a problem on their own, that knowledge belongs to them entirely. Moving forward, students will rely on their own reasoning and connections to solve problems. That is what is meant by a productive struggle.

Keeper-of-Knowledge Mentality
Gone are the days of teachers and encyclopedias being the only sources of information. At any given moment, a student can look up the value of Avogadro's number or the height of the Eiffel Tower in centimeters. Students literally have information at their fingertips.

Although the knowledge of the teacher still has value, the teacher's role must shift from the imparter of information to a more crucial role. The teacher's job is to teach students how to persevere and think critically. Additionally, students should learn that they themselves, in collaboration with their classmates, know enough to accomplish any task. Students can serve as a great resource for other students, providing models and explaining material in a way they understand. When students are pushed to use their peers as a source of information, true collaboration begins.

Now that you are prepared to let go of your former ways of thinking, please know that students independently running a class will not casually happen overnight. Students must be trained through modeling, clear expectations, and practice. Here are two strategies to begin the process:

Warm-Up Facilitation
Warm-ups are a great place to begin student facilitation. Students do not actually need to know how to solve the question in order to be the student facilitator. The student leader can begin by asking a member of the class to read the question. A follow-up question can be something as simple as, "Does anyone have an idea on how to solve this problem?" It is also helpful if a list of potential questions is placed on the desk next to the projector to support facilitators.

Middle school students naturally love to argue. One strategy is to use this adolescent interest and to shift the culture of the classroom to be more student driven by allowing students to debate concepts. You can establish this culture shift by selecting two student volunteers with opposing views.

Be clear to establish the expectations of the debate. Only debaters are allowed to speak, taking turns and allowing individuals to finish speaking. If students in the audience wish to assist with the argument, they should raise their hand and wait for an original debater to select them for help.

After the first debate, the teacher should have students reflect on the experience. As students analyze what worked well and what needs to be improved, they are shaping the rules for the next debate. A teacher can help students during an argument by asking questions such as, "What previous question have we done in class together that will support your argument?" or "What pictorial model could you create to prove your answer?" These questions gently push students to justify their answer. The more practice students have debating, the more natural justification becomes.

Ultimately, the goal is for students to have ownership of their own learning. For teaching and learning to belong to students, teachers must first let it go.

Vanessa M. Gibson is an instructional lead teacher at James Madison Middle School, Upper Marlboro, Maryland.

Published July 2018.
Author: Vanessa Gibson
Number of views (13772)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
Magic in the Classroom

Magic in the Classroom

The power of reflections and experiences for a professor returning to the classroom

At last year's AMLE Annual Conference for Middle Level Education, I was surrounded by passionate, knowledgeable preservice and inservice teachers, veteran and new administrators, and early career and retired professors. We were enlightened with lively discussions that captured our hearts and minds with stories and data, and we were challenged to think and rethink how we reach out to one another and to our students.

For one of my presentations, I shared a professional activity I had engaged in for a year. I serve a university as a professor in the education department, and I left the university to return to the classroom to teach eighth grade math in a rural county in western North Carolina. The school I joined was in their second year as a middle school and their first year as a one-to-one school.

We were not a high performing school, and our population of children received free lunch and breakfast for all children. In addition, we were considered a full-service school; the support our children received ranged from food to medical assistance to social and emotional advocacy.

I worked on a five-person team of teachers and with faculty, staff, and administrators committed to collaborating to meet the needs of our students. As a school new to the middle school concept, our teachers engaged in teaming, collaborative team projects, advisory, and clubs. The students participated in Battle of the Books thanks to our librarian and Science Olympiad thanks to the science department and other teachers.

Students wrote essays, honored veterans, and participated in talent contests in our community. Two groups of teachers were given the autonomy to set up school-wide support groups. One group of teachers designed and implemented a club for young men and another group implemented a peer tutoring club. My team's students made banners to support Red Ribbon Week and Earth Day.

We were grouped by teams and were set up for professional learning communities by content areas. Our school improvement team created school-wide goals and worked with our PTA to support and celebrate our community.

At the end of the year, our school met growth, and 98% of our Algebra I students passed the end-of-course exam. I worked with dedicated teachers, a dedicated parent teacher association, and supportive administrators who embraced the challenges and opportunities associated with advocating for young adolescents.

My goals were to (1) embrace the experience to glean what is needed in teacher preparation; and (2) serve a school as an educator, walking next to those closest to the field. The following are my takeaways.

Intentional Reflection
My first takeaway involved the power of reflection. I wrote 97 blog posts over the course of the year as part of my professional development plan. For each reflection I listed at least three pieces of advice. I used the 16 characteristics of This We Believe (NMSA, 2010) to label each blog. I wonder how many teachers reflect on their year and use the experiences to begin to plan for future years? I'm thinking—and hoping—that many do! Had I not purposely reflected through the year, many experiences, insights, and aha moments would have been lost. I highly recommend teachers reflect intentionally on their experiences.

Sharing and Learning with Colleagues
It's helpful to find someone to reflect with. Over the course of the year, I reflected with two colleagues intentionally. I drove to work with a colleague at least three days a week. The time we spent driving to and from work became a think tank, a reflection pool of our day, of our students and colleagues, and of our personal insights and dreams.

I also participated in a virtual reflection activity with a friend who teaches science in another state. We focused on "engaged learning" as part of her professional development plan. We celebrated successes, and sometimes just listened; well, actually we all were participant-listeners. I truly believe these two experiences made us more reflective, and gave us uninterrupted time to process our days and our ideas. We all agreed that we are better teachers because we had the chance to debrief, sometimes vent, and to celebrate and advocate for one another.

Keeping the Big Picture in Mind
There are so many facets to teaching, and so many expectations including, but not limited to, college and career readiness, critical thinking, literacy integration, technology, ethics, standards, objectives, civic engagement, social and emotional development, leadership, exploration, lesson planning, differentiation, assessment, parent involvement, homework, projects, communication, grading, collaborative planning, interdisciplinary units, clubs, safety and wellness, teaming, and mindfulness.

Focusing on academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and creating environments that are challenging, empowering, and equitable can seem a bit daunting. Fortunately, there are tools to guide you. I recommend that you use This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (NMSA, 2010) as an overview to give you a framework, a common language, and to remind you of the big picture.

Remember that teaching is a journey to embrace and grow. One thing we often forget is that along with teaching content, our job is to advocate for all of our students, our students' guardians, our colleagues, and ourselves. Find ways to celebrate and appreciate all who advocate for middle school students.

Finally, I hear from administrators, professors, and district personnel who say, "I wish I could go back into a classroom." I would encourage professors, administrators, and district personnel to find a way to become part of a team for a week, a semester, or a year. When I was teaching in Gainesville, Florida, my chair, Paul George, would spend two weeks teaching a social studies unit to eighth graders. He inspired me to seek ways to stay in touch with middle school students.

There is magic in classrooms. The true spirit of middle level education lives in the halls and classrooms and with teams of teachers across this country. Living this experience every day was powerful, inspirational, enlightening, and necessary to me as a professor of education. If not for an entire year, I recommend a semester, or one class for a semester, or work with a team to plan and implement an interdisciplinary unit, to revive your own knowledge and to live the power and spirit of middle level education.

Nancy Ruppert is a professor at the University of North Carolina, Asheville and serves as a trustee and past-president of the AMLE Board of Trustees. She has taught middle school math and science in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, coordinated middle grades programs at Shorter College and Charleston Southern University, and served as president of the National Professors of Middle Level Education (NaPOMLE).

Published July 2018.
Author: Nancy Ruppert
Number of views (7176)/Comments (0)/
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