The ABCs of Middle Level Education
What We Should Do So All Students Succeed
Access: Why would we look at middle level education through the lens of access? What effect does access have on specific stakeholders—including ourselves? How does access (or lack thereof) affect teaching and learning in the critical middle grades? What do we do when we have an "access gap" in our schools? How many questions can I string together before I get to the point? Now that all of these musings and queries are simmering in your cognitive stew pots, let's stir them around and see what we get. Shall we?
First, questions about access are important for us to consider if we are going to fulfill the promise articulated in This We Believe that our school environments must be "inviting, safe, inclusive and supportive of all" (p. 14). Access in an amazing middle school translates into consistent efforts towards equity for all students and stakeholders—in terms of resources, chances, and opportunities to grow and succeed. The opposite, exclusivity, creates an atmosphere that benefits, provides for, or celebrates only a selected few. And while those students reap the benefits and enjoy the spotlight, others languish, disconnect, and learn that they are not worthy or not worth the trouble. And with young adolescents in particular, this can be the beginning of their dropout mentality and narrative. Why should I care to come to school if no one really cares about me and what I'm about? They aren't even thinking about me at all, so I'm out. They might not say this out loud, but you know you can see it in their body language and in their silence.
So how do we change this narrative and close the access gap? Shifting a school from an atmosphere of exclusivity to inclusivity takes an equal mix of recognition, action, and determination. To recognize the access issue, we must first see our school through the eyes and hearts of the disconnected and marginalized. For example, let's look at access to recognition. When a leadership team looks at the school's academic celebration program, for example, that team needs to determine if all students have access to it and needs to figure out how all students can be celebrated. Is it just for kids who get Honor Roll, Super Honor Roll, and Perfect Attendance each semester? Our middle school administrative team asked that very question, recognized the problem, and decided on an action. We reshaped our honor roll program by creating a monthly recognition initiative that celebrated more students in four key areas: Academics, Arts, Athletics, and Altruism. And we told teachers, staff, and students that anyone can earn this monthly distinction; for instance, an "at-risk" student who created a great poster project about paramecium could get an Art award in science. A student struggling in ELA could get an Altruism award for the simple, profound act of holding a door open for others. Because we were profoundly determined to make this program work, we had profound results: more students were celebrated, more families were honored for their work on the homefront, and more school spirit was generated because more kids felt appreciated and had access to the spotlight.
Now let's look at access to extracurricular offerings. When a Student Activities department looks at the school's clubs and sports program, that department should determine if all students have access to it and figure out how all students can enjoy healthy, engaging activities that promote involvement, physical wellness, and team-building. That's why many schools are retooling their competitive extramural programs and adding non-competitive, inclusive, fun intramural sports that rotate every quarter... because athletics in the middle grades shouldn't be relegated to the kids who make the team. That is also why many schools are including clubs and activities during the school day—instead of after school... because clubs in the middle grades shouldn't be available only to the kids whose families can pick them up at school when clubs are over. All students deserve access to great opportunities to connect and grow with their teachers and peers.
Last but certainly not least, let's look at access to success. Specifically, in the areas of academic achievement and mentorship, a school leadership team should explore whether or not there are access gaps in those areas. Homework, for instance, is considered a critical formative assessment tool that we often use to evaluate student progress and understanding. No surprise there. And when we think about access in terms of our homework assignments, it can be tempting to imagine that our young adolescents go home at the end of the day to all the resources they need to continue learning, studying, and doing our assignments. That is a dangerous assumption—and one that furthers the access gap. While there are countless students who go home to environments that have ample resources to help with homework (materials, time, family members, quiet, technology, etc.), there are many students who don't. Their after school time looks and feels very different. So when a grade level, interdisciplinary team, or leadership team discusses the topic of homework, it should do so through the perspective of an under-resourced student and explore the purpose, nature, and effect of homework overall. Is the achievement gap with homework widening because of an access gap? In addition to homework, students may also have limited access to strong, consistent, positive-minded mentors that can help them achieve. That's why advisory programs are a Tier 1 Intervention on the RTI/MTSS pyramid; they are universally awesome for all young adolescents because they give all students equal access to adult advocates and mentors every day. A school leadership team should, therefore, examine the vision, tenets, and practices of its advisory program to determine if it is fulfilling its aimor if it is allowing the access gap to continue.
Bottom line: Every young adolescent we serve deserves access—because the effects are tremendous. When we provide access to all students, it reconnects the disconnected. It rekindles hope in kids who are growing hopeless. It instills purpose in students who are becoming aimless. It shows students who are disenchanted that we care about them. It fulfills the democratic promise upon which our schools were founded.
The Invisible Elevator in Your School, and How to Make it Work
This week, we're checking out Advocacy and Agency in the middle grades. Normally in this blog, we focus on one word at a time, but I'm going to break that rule and offer up a 2 for 1 special. A buy 1 get 1 free. A lagniappe for your cognitive grocery bag. Why? First, because I'm a giver. Second, because I think advocacy and agency are critical pieces of string woven together in the fabric of student empowerment. They can't be pulled apart. When treated with care, their fabric grows and offers security, welcome and assurance for all students. From a foodie perspective, they are also essential ingredients in the recipe of positive student growth that cannot be separated. As we allow them to simmer, their flavors complement each other and provide young adolescents with bottomless bowls of emotional nourishment, warmth, and trust.
While they can't be separated, let's check out each one separately, shall we? Advocacy first. As This We Believe states, an effective and amazing middle school is a place where "every student's academic and personal development is guided by an adult advocate" (p. 35). Yes. Young adolescents thrive when they know there are reliable, consistent, caring adults in their lives. People who care about them beyond their content areas. People who think about them beyond their test scores. People who offer safe harbor when the adolescent seas get rough. People who listen to them when the clouds of worry hover and linger. People who speak up for them when they feel like they have no voice. People who communicate—through both word and deed—that there is no such thing as the forgotten middle. When advocates like this fill our middle schools, young adolescents don't just attend school. They thrive.
How does this advocacy work happen? Through both expected and unexpected actions. Through scheduled, consistent mechanisms like advisory, interdisciplinary teams, and looping, students bloom because they are supported members of a smaller learning community. Advocacy also happens through unscheduled, random acts of caring and relationship-building, making students flourish—because they realize that positivity is a possibility in any class, doorway, hallway, bus dock, and cafeteria table. And to be clear, the goal of advocacy work isn't to create a system of dependency, where students think/believe/feel like they can't progress without an adult holding their hands. Rather, the aim is to foster an environment that encourages students to ask bold questions and explore—because they know they have a safe place to land.
In fact, when young adolescents have advocates in the middle grades, they develop another powerful mindset: self-efficacy in all areas of their learning lives. When adult advocates are active in the middle grades, a student's internal monologue of self-efficacy sounds like this, "My math teacher cares about me and thinks I can do this, so I think I can do this, too. I may struggle, but she's there when I need her. My reading teacher listens to me and tells me that I'm making progress, so I'm going to keep trying even though reading is tough for me. I can do this. I can make this happen. I can achieve more than this. Because my teachers have my back." As students see themselves as actors in their own success, their self-efficacy grows. That's one of the key by-products of advocacy in the middle grades, and that's why it's so essential.
Advocacy also drives agency, which is the invisible elevator that exists in every middle school. Once students gain a sustained sense of self-efficacy (i.e., "I can do this math problem."), they also learn that they have the ability to change their lives beyond the schoolhouse. The empowerment they feel when they fix a run-on sentence, solve a science query, or develop a novel idea in social studies fosters more self-efficacy, more empowerment, and more agency. Indeed, when young adolescents have a sense of agency, they begin to take on leadership roles in their schools and their communities—fixing neighborhood conflicts, solving local issues, developing novel ideas for authentic problems.
How does this agency work happen? Through our daily practice and through larger efforts as well. Agency is fostered when we promote growth mindset, challenge all students, and encourage creativity and purposeful risk-taking. Agency is also grown through larger initiatives, such as service-learning projects. Not only do service-learning projects bring interdisciplinary learning to life, but they also show young adolescents that they can research an issue that matters to them, that they can take action, and that they can have actual impact. This kind of learning also transforms how other people see middle school students; instead of characterizing them as aimless, the community will begin to see them as purposeful and on target. In other words, the invisible elevator of agency has the ability to lift students up and take them to places and levels they once thought unachievable—and to show the world what young adolescents can achieve.
- So how does your middle school advocate for all students?
- And how does each teacher and staff member advocate for their students?
- Do your students have a sense of agency? How do you know?
- What specific actions, initiatives, and programs are being used to foster agency in your school?
- Who advocates for you—as a teacher, administrator, staff member?
- Do you feel like you have agency over your learning life? Why or why not?
And Say Hello to the Letter A for Amazing Middle Grades!
We've checked out several B words that relate to the marvelous, magnificent middle grades, but before we bid adieu to this letter, here's a list of other B words that are worth our time and consideration. What's on your list?
- Binary: Students should be empowered to make learning choices, and they should be working alongside others to grow, to flourish, to explore, to be challenged, to set goals, to stumble, and to achieve... without the divisive binary of "I'm the teacher, you're the student." They need to see teachers and administrators as learners, too.
- Burger: Education is a process of assembling and constructing to meet unique learning needs and tastes (while also fostering a learning community), and a food that resembles that process is the burger. It can be tailored to fit the learning palette, while also offering opportunities to stretch/push it. Some learners (including teachers, staff, and administrators) may want a plain burger of learning, but they actually need it with mayo and pickles—so adding those pieces to the meal is essential to helping them expand and grow.
- Because: Do the right thing, the best thing, the most helpful thing, the kindest thing for the young adolescents and the people we serve just…. because. Yes, more praise or more pay may be reasons to do more, but we should remain driven by the power of just because. Doing the right thing for others for no reason at all can show our students (and other adults around us) that a learning community grows when service and kindness aren't mandated—they just happen.
- Back: Back has so many meanings with the critical middle. We need to always look back and remember what we were like as young adolescents. We need to encourage our students and families to give back to their schools and communities. And we need to have each other's backs when times get tough. Our young adolescents need adult advocates that they can fall back on as they navigate their tempestuous seas.
- Blinders: What sets a true middle school apart is that its teachers and staff always have their eyes open—for the good stuff and the rough stuff. Even when it would be easier to do so, no one puts their blinders on. No one shuts their door and says, "None of my business." They are looking for changes in students, so they can respond proactively and celebrate early and often. They are watching their fellow teachers so they can support one another and also grab/steal/borrow their great pedagogical tricks.
- Boom: At an effective and amazing middle school, learning is engaging, differentiated, and filled with BOOM! Young adolescents need curriculum that is integrative, exploratory, challenging, relevant, and explosive. Like asteroids that make huge impacts on the earth, our teaching should leave indelible impressions on the lives of young adolescents we serve.
Now we get to the start of it all. The letter A. First, the sound of this letter is perfect for the middle grades. It can resemble a celebration, an epiphany, an exclamation that someone has just learned something wonderful—as in, "Ay, I got it!" Or it can cut through the air like a stinging rebuttal, a tense refusal, a sharp accusation—as in, "Ay, leave me alone!" In other words, just the sound of this letter illustrates the potential triumph and challenge of middle school.
And in terms of the shape of the letter, it looks like teaching, learning, and leading in the middle grades, as well. There is goal at the top, a climb to meet that goal, and a supportive handhold in the middle to help us as we ascend. In fact, that middle bar also steadies us if we should descend in the other direction after we reach our goal. As an English Language Arts and Reading teacher, to me the letter A resembles the classic plot diagram that begins with the setting and characters, moves to the rising action, reaches the climax (a word that you need to use cautiously with young adolescents), and finally moves on with the falling action, resolution, and denouement. This diagram can be used to help our students examine decisions they need to make or to assist them as they examine actions they've already made. What goal do they want to reach? Who is going to be a protagonist to support them? Who is going to be an antagonist to challenge them? What internal and external conflicts can they anticipate and how can they meet them? How will they know when they've reached their goal? How will they celebrate and reflect once they've attained it so they can grasp the themes and the enduring understandings? That's what the A is all about in sound and sight.
What "A" words will show up in the weekly blogs to come? Stay tuned to find out, AMLE friends and neighbors!
7 Nautical Tools Every Middle School Needs
My contribution to the #oneword2017 movement is boat. Hang with me on this. As a former middle school teacher and administrator and as the parent of 9- and 12-year-old boys, I always have my antennae up for safety—because it seems like young adolescents are attracted to potentially dangerous situations. My sons, for instance, are always on the move. They jump on the couch, on the bed, on the chairs–if they can jump on it or off of it, they’re doing it. They also run at breakneck speed in the yard and then tackle each other with wild abandon. Many days, I would like them to just slow down and take a break. But then I think about boats. A wise philosopher once said that “A boat in harbor is safe—but that is not what boats are for.” That is very true. A boat is meant to get out there on the water and find new destinations, explore the world, and stay active. Will the waters always be calm and steady? No. Will the course always be certain? No. Do boats make me think about what we’re supposed to do as middle level educators? Absolutely. In fact, let’s take a moment to analyze this nautical metaphor through the lens of middle level education and early adolescence. Like boats, amazing middle grades schools need these seven items:
1. Rudder: An amazing middle school remains steadfast in rough seas, and young adolescents (and those that serve them) need to know that the boat’s aim is true. When we know the boat has a steady rudder, we set bold courses, ask brave questions, and take productive risks on the open seas of our educational journey—because there is trust. Does your school have a steady rudder?
2. Structure: An amazing middle school has a structure that can accommodate everyone and is built with both earnest efficiency and boundless exploration in mind. What makes the middle school boat unique is that its structure is not fixed or static. Rather, it is collaboratively shaped and reshaped, and it contains flexible pieces of the past, present, and future. When we know the boat has that kind of structure, we are comforted when we climb aboard and when we venture onward—because there is security. Does your school have a supportive structure?
3. Patch kits and life vests: An amazing middle school has a plan that responds and provides when plans go awry, when the structure cracks, when the rudder loosens, when the sails tear, or when the passengers lose their way or fall overboard. When we know that the boat has an accessible and responsive patch kit and life vests for all circumstances and all people, we work together more often, more readily, with more care and with more results—because there is safety. Does your school have a responsive patch kit and life vests?
4. Sails, engines, and oars: An amazing middle school has a means to propel itself and its passengers forward depending on the situation. There are times when swift action must be taken, so the engine is engaged. There are times when collaborative decision-making needs to happen, so every oar hits the water and every voice pushes the boat forward. There are times when the boat is guided by winds outside of itself (winds of change, progress, mandates), so the sails are unfurled and those winds are harnessed to move the boat ahead. There are times when all three—engine, sails and oar—are used. When we know that the boat has varying means to propel itself forward, we are impassioned and empowered to do the work we must do for young adolescents—because there is forward-thinking. Does your school have the means to move forward?
5. Destination:An amazing middle school has both definite places it wants to go while also encouraging students, teachers, and staff to go beyond—to explore, quest, seek, connect, and dream. Not only is the map laid out for all to see, but everyone is also a cartographer contributing to the map itself. When we know the boat has defined destinations as well as a commitment to free exploration, we work with more commitment and earnestness—because there is liberation through community. Does your school have destinations and explorations?
6. Compass: An amazing middle school provides all students and staff with the tools they need to find their way in the learning community and beyond. It isn’t enough to just explore new horizons. If we loosen our boat from the safe harbor without a compass to guide us, then we are setting ourselves up for failure. In an amazing middle school, the compass creates a common language and a common way to make sense of the world; it might be a team motto, a vision statement, a mascot, a school-wide way to take notes or organize learning, an SEL program. Whatever it is, when we know that the boat is guided by a common compass, we work with more confidence—because there is direction. Does your school have a compass?
7. Steering: An amazing middle school has the means to move itself in new directions. The ability to move forward is not enough; responsive steering is an absolute necessity for a school to grow, change, and adapt. And the steering mechanism should be accessible and collaboratively-oriented, so not one person dictates the path. That’s why leadership teams should include voices from every team, grade level, department, special area, and more. When we know the boat has steering that helps us change course when needed, we work with more eagerness—because there is possibility. Does your school have responsive steering?
So get in the boat in 2017 and boldly venture forward for every young adolescent you serve. While we don’t want to put ourselves at risk, we should never be afraid to get out there and see the world. Just like the boat is meant to explore, the human body is meant to move, the human mind is meant to examine, and the human heart is meant to explore. No one should be left standing on the shoreline of the future with opportunity lost. Be confident that you can pull your boat out of the harbor and be successful. Show your students and staff that they can do the same each and every day!