Structure is utilized in the middle school experience to build a safe learning environment for our students. Students are placed on teams where they take classes with the same peer group, increasing their comfort level in contributing to classroom discussions. They eat lunch at the same table with these peers, where lunchroom conversations build a support network to help students navigate middle school.
Students return to classrooms after lunch to a world of procedures, including rules for entering and exiting the room, fire drills, and taking roll. Familiar routines allow students to find their place within an academic community and introduce the necessary organizational soft skills that will later drive professional and personal success. Familiarity within the school environment builds a launching pad that supports risk-taking and achievement, where students are expected to give presentations in front of the class, contribute to discussion, dream, and design the future.
On the flip side, teachers have routines as well. We sign in at the front desk daily and habitually reach for the morning cup of coffee. We stand in the hallway with other teachers on our team as students walk to class, where they will hear carefully crafted lessons plans on the subject we have been teaching for 5, 10, 17, or 28 years. We eat lunch in the cafeteria sitting by the same people, wearing the exact same identification badge as our colleagues. We too experience structure and routine to build a safe professional environment. But the question is, as teaching professionals, where is our risk-taking that should accompany this safety net we have so carefully woven?
Does the opportunity for risk occur once a month at a faculty meeting, when an administrator asks a question and the faculty hurriedly looks down before eye contact is made? Or maybe it's at the annual holiday party when we have the opportunity to sit next to the new teacher (but then we don't). Are we asking our students to take risks that we as adults aren't willing to take?
Innovation, creativity, and collaboration aren't only educational buzz words to encourage risk-taking to enhance student achievement … adults need them too.
At the school where I teach, I am lucky to be part of a staff that requires risk not only of its students, but also of its faculty. For instance, our principal decided to institute a club period on Wednesdays for all students to self select an activity they are interested in, where they would collaborate with other like-minded students across grade levels on student-driven projects. Teachers serve as facilitators and join groups they are interested in. On the first day we started this project, our principal mentioned on an announcement that she "knew there would need to be give and take, flexibility, and feedback from students and teachers after the first try." Perfection was not expected.
The next week a survey was sent to faculty and students about the experience. How did the openness about the risk taken by the administration impact the engagement and opportunity of the students and staff? In the words of one student on the survey, they mentioned that the new club period was "glittericously fantabulous." An English teacher is now singing karaoke alongside students in a grade she doesn't normally interact with, and a computer teacher is learning guitar. One faculty member described their experience as "refreshing and invigorating, allowing them to think more creatively about their traditional subject area."
Collaboration and innovation do not always appear on a school-wide scale; risk-taking can happen within an individual classroom as well. As a chorus teacher, I am used to teaching gender specific classes, as vocal development differs dramatically between males and females at the middle school level. Last year I wanted to combine my seventh and eighth grade men's chorus classes, so my younger students would have older peer vocal models to help them through the voice changing process. After approaching administration with the request, the response was that I could try to combine grade levels, but would have to find another teacher willing to deviate and teach an academic course at a time different from the rest of their team.
A reading teacher at the school volunteered to teach an all boys seventh grade reading class, where each student also sang in men's chorus. This was a definite risk on her part, and the students were told that the first nine weeks was a trial period to see how both students and faculty would acclimate. The teacher discovered that she could tailor reading material to appeal to the all male class, and she selected literature that mirrored similar themes utilized in chorus class.
The students formed strong peer and academic connections, which lead to increased retention with all but one student continuing to chorus the next year. In addition, at the end of the school year, the chorus reading class had the grade level's top lexile scores, with all students reading at proficient and advanced levels. The nine-week experiment morphed into a year-long class that proved mutually beneficial for both the chorus and reading classes.
Sure, not all risks turn out with the same stellar results. Consider the time I told my chorus classes we were going to perform Michael Jackson's "Thriller" at the concert, complete with full dance, vocals, a student band, fog machine, strobe light, and glow-in-the-dark necklaces. One week before the show we realized that if we attempted this at the concert we would fail miserably. So we stepped back and punted, turning the project into a music video that we could edit with effects and the students could share on social media. We took a risk and dreamed big, and didn't accomplish what we set out to do. However, the students still learned the content and were able to problem solve on how we could share their knowledge in a format in which they could be successful without setting off the school's fire alarm from using a smoke machine at a concert.
As we begin to settle into our usual routines this school year, it is so easy to continue down the path of the known. The safe and secure environment we have built is important to students and faculty. The most important thing, however, is that we use this community we have worked so hard to create to propel us ahead to where no school has gone before.
Christy Todd is director of choral activities at Rising Starr Middle School in Fayetteville, Georgia.
Published August 2017.