The ABCs of Middle Level Education
Boo! Mediocrity: Now, that's Scary!
With Halloween happening today, I am thinking about my fears. What scares me? In terms of education, being mediocre frightens me. Accepting mediocrity scares me. Middle schools and young adolescents don't need mediocrity. They need outstanding. They don't need tepid. They need vibrant. They need learning that lights them up with combustible joy and excitement. As Yeats once put it, “Education is not the filling of a bucket; it's the lighting of a fire.” So how do we get and keep young adolescents on fire? It's a challenging question for a number of reasons but we need to keep scratching at the answers.
First, in many ways, teaching means we row on pedagogical waters along with testing, which by its very nature is individualistic, numerically-based, and even competitive. Therefore, it's a delicate journey to bring outstanding teaching and learning based on collaboration, inquiry, creativity, communication and critical thinking all the time in the middle grades—because we don't want to sell our students short.
While we pump them up about being in our classes and lighting them up for learning, we also need to provide them the proper intellectual currency they need for future mandatory assessments. While we progressively implement performance-based assessments to demonstrate mastery and use unique seating arrangements to facilitate cooperative-learning, we also need to prepare our students for the row-based, silenced, and, frankly, isolating environment that is standardized testing. For as much as we want to rage against that machine (credit to Zach de la Rocha), we are bound to its mechanisms.
Bringing outstanding can also be a challenge because we are bound to each other, and this is especially true in the middle level where interdisciplinary teams are a key ingredient. Teams, PLCs, and collaborative grade level work should be liberating, uplifting, and informative adult-learning structures; the discourse in these structures should be respectful as it pushes, rekindling as it is fiery, rejuvenating as it creates conflict—as long as the talk, the words and the work drive us forward to help kids. We need to bring outstanding to that work, as well.
Unfortunately, what provides the challenge is that some team members are satisfied with just showing up. Their pedagogical embers are barely smoldering, and in fact, they don't care to have them stoked, prodded, or relit—and it's difficult to tell if they were ever on fire! How do we get those folks to bring outstanding to team meetings so conversations about teaching and learning can grow? Part of the answer is building team and grade level meeting constitutions together early in the school year and revisiting the norms of those constitutions often, so everyone is on the same sheet of music singing the same song. Can there be discord and disparate voices in the chorus that challenge the tune? Of course. But it has to be passionate, reasonable, respectful and driven by the needs of the audience we serve–our students and families.
The second part of the answer is knowing how to have critical conversations with the folks who disregard the constitution and who are satisfied with tepid—and then being brave enough to have those conversations. This also means that administrators driven by outstanding must support your team's work, the team's constitution, and the team's efforts to bring everyone on board—or to get certain people off the bus. That's how outstanding happens sometimes.
In addition, being outstanding every day in the classroom can be difficult because of the nature of who we serve. Sometimes, students can be enthusiastic and open to learning, and at other times, they can behave like fickle carpenters who build and tear down walls around themselves, blocking, silencing, and refusing our every effort to infuse enthusiasm into learning. But maybe the answer to bringing outstanding in the classroom begins with questions: What pushes students to grow jaded about school? What chipped away at that natural enthusiasm they had as children? What will happen if we let that continue? Will they become so embittered about learning that they drop out mentally or physically? Will they become dependent on a system to continue their education instead of being excited, independent learners who remain curious beyond grades and test scores? If so, is it okay not to bring outstanding to our students in the middle grades? I don't think so.
Ultimately, I think outstanding is the best tool we have to crack the veneer of disenchantment that some of our students (and teachers and administrators) carry. In other words, bringing outstanding may be challenging for all of the aforementioned reasons, but our young adolescents desperately need us to try. The alternative of tepid mediocrity is too frightening to accept.
Openness Media Connection
Here is an interdisciplinary, photographic connection to this week's blog about Openness. Enjoy the savory delights!
Parking lots, with all of their lines and divisions, attempt to bring order to the world of wheeled things. They tell us where to go and where to stop. I took this picture of a parking lot because they also make me think about openness in schools. They reflect the characteristics in This We Believe that state that effective middle grades schools are “inviting, safe, inclusive, and supportive of all” while they also possess “organizational structures that foster purposeful learning and meaningful relationships” (pp. 31-33). How do we make that happen? If we know that young adolescents (and those who teach and serve them) flourish when there is a healthy balance of structure and freedom... If we know that they blossom when consistency and spontaneity are wedded... If we know that they grow when there are points of demarcation and free spaces for exploration... then how do we ensure that our organizational structures are making that happen? How do we ensure that we aren’t just drawing rigid lines to control students for adult ease and convenience?
First, define what your school organizational structures are. Typically, these are the elements, policies, etc. that are intended to bring order and control to school life for all stakeholders—but they have the potential for much more. Here are some school structures to examine now and throughout the year:
- Master bell schedule
- Discipline policy
- Homework policy
- Late work policy
- Dress code policy
- Grade level structures
- Teaming structures
- Special Education models (i.e., push-in, pull-out, inclusion)
- Advisory/Advisement structure
- Technology policies (i.e., BYOD, blended learning)
Second, with a collaborative group of stakeholders at your school, ask the following questions for each of these school structures:
- What’s the point of this structure? Why do we have it? Who created it and when?
- If this structure had its own vision and mission statement, what would it be?
- How is this structure moving us forward as a developmentally-responsive middle grades program?
- How are we measuring this school structure to determine if it’s successfully supporting students, teachers, families, etc.?
- How does this structure support current students? How does it hinder them?
- How does it support current teachers and staff? How does it hinder them?
- How does it support current families? How does it hinder them?
- Does this structure reflect the needs of our future students, families, and stakeholders?
- How does this structure help students and families transition to and from our middle school? How does it hinder them?
- How does this structure help with CCR goals and the 21st Century Cs of Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity?
Third, take the responses you’ve gathered and make the following decisions with your staff, considering who will be affected directly and indirectly with each one:
- Leave the organizational structure as it is.
- Revise the organizational structure now.
- Revise the organizational structure later (specific date).
- Remove the organizational structure now.
- Remove the organizational structure later (specific date).
Is any of this work easy? No. Is this the perfect formula? No. It is a framework to create an open dialogue for future change in the middle grades, so our organizational structures are responsive and supportive of all.
Welcome back to the middle grades parade through the alphabet. Don't you feel proud that you made it through letter R? You should. And, once again, because young adolescents are rarely linear in nature, we're going to travel next to the letter O.
Before we get to the words themselves, have you checked out the letter O recently? It is round and ready for anything. Its shape is part of who it is and who we are in the middle level. The O reminds me of a rock that was once peppered by hard angles and coarse lines ... but then it was dropped in a swift current. Over time, those angles and lines were made smooth by that current's rushing water. With that rocky analogy, the O has it right—that's how we succeed in the middle grades and that's how we meet our students' needs. While maintaining our resilience and resolve as educators, we also adapt and change, so we can roll with anything that comes our way. Middle level educators are definitely smooth.
The sound of the letter O is perfect for the middle level, as well. It can be the sound of surprise, which is often what happens when working with young adolescents. Oh, what were you thinking? Oh, that's a really cool idea! Oh, let's talk about why we keep our hands to ourselves. And it can also be the sound of exclamation that we share at the end of a day. Oh, at last! Oh, I tried this awesome strategy in class! Oh, you want to know what Jimmy said in home room? Oh, you aren't going to believe this phone call I got. So in many ways, shouldn't the sound of the letter O be the official sound of the middle grades?
With all of that said, here is the first "O" word related to middle level education that comes to my mind.
Openness. In the middle grades, openness is a key ingredient. If we are going to truly reach and teach every young adolescent, we need to remain open—not closed. With everything that our students bring to the table, it can be easy to judge them, shut them down, and close our emotional doors on them. Because, sometimes, they push back against us. Because, sometimes, they find our last nerve and poke it and prod it. Because, sometimes, they flare up, shout out, and demand to know why they have to turn in their homework on time, spit out their gum, or pull up their pants in the hallway. So, yes, it can be tempting to be closed when all of that happens. But young adolescents need us to be open. Because they also ask awesome questions and search for the answers to queries that we never even thought to ask. Because they also randomly write you wonderful notes of spontaneous gratitude and stick them on your desk on their way out of class (or 10 years after they were in your class). Because they also hold the door open for you when you're trying to carry your graded papers, your teacher's edition, and your coffee mug all at once from the parking lot. In other words, we have to be open for both the challenging stuff and for their surprising triumphant moments. We have to console them when they are coarse. Lift them up when they are low. Be open when they are obstinate.
We also have to be open to understanding where students come from—physically and emotionally. In terms of where they physically come from, we have to remain open and cognizant of the fact that our kids come from homes and neighborhoods beyond the school walls. So what are their learning lives like after they leave every day? How are they supported once they get there? We have to be open and acknowledge that our classrooms and schools may be the only consistent places our students have.
And as far as where they come from emotionally, I think about the famous philosopher, Rakim (from Eric B & Rakim) who eloquently said, "It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at." While communities, neighborhoods, and geopraphy matter, we have to remain open to the fact that young adolescents live in tumultuous emotional landscapes, too. In other words, they may appear to have it all together on the outside or they may come from a privileged environment, but that doesn't mean they have it all together on the inside. They may be crumbling on the inside. They may be crying, shouting, and yelling on the inside. So we need to be open to that real possibility when we work with and reach every student.
What does openness look like? How do we act on openness? Use the two objects on either side of your head: your ears. Go to your students, ask caring, non-judgmental questions, and just listen. Open yourself to the possibility that you may learn something complicated, complex, real, and wondrous about your students.
So if we want to truly support young adolescents, being open isn't optional. It's imperative. It's necessary.
Get Ready for the Next Letter!
Before I bid adieu to the letter R, I know that I’ve failed with this first list of words. But I’m all right with that. As an educator who believes that knowledge is constructed and created by dialogue with others, I think we should all be wary of lists. By design, any list written by any one person ultimately collapses and disappoints—because (1) no one person can create a definitive list, (2) there is no such thing as a definitive list, and (3) lists — especially those about middle level education—try to quantify and segment something that is boundless and infinite. I know there were a lot of R words that I left out. There were other perspectives I didn’t consider. There were other directions I could have gone. In other words, if you were disappointed and unfulfilled by this list of R words, I get it. And you’re welcome. Honestly, all of this wasn’t meant to satiate and satisfy your every cognitive nook and cranny; rather, it was meant to create a thirst for more and to stir up the mental embers, so you can ignite passion and joy for middle level education. It’s like Yeats said: “Education is not the filling of a bucket. It is the lighting of a fire.” And that’s what we’re supposed to do for the students we serve, right?
With all of that said, here are some other R words related to middle level education (with micro-musings) that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention before we move on to the next critical letter:
- Reflect: we’ve got to give our students and ourselves time to think deeply/differently/divergently about experiences with teaching and learning if we want to be fully engaged in the process (not just the products) of education.
- Remind: because young adolescents’ brains are changing rapidly and their organizational tendencies tend to be inconsistent, guess what? They need reminders—visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile, artful, often.
- Rewind, Remember, Return: as you serve your students, think about who you were as a young adolescent. As difficult as it may be, find your middle school pictures and never forget.
- Race: in the middle grades, students become more aware, more interested, more concerned, etc., about ethnicity and race. We must provide space for open and honest conversations about race if we want to support our students, ourselves, our schools, our communities, and our society. Read about it. Listen about it. Talk about it. Understand, acknowledge, and act on your thread in the complex fabric.
- Refuse, Roar, Risk, Rise: if we want to be progressive and innovative (and inspire our students to do the same) we need to refuse the stale diet of mediocrity for ourselves and our schools, take purposeful risks in teaching and learning, and roar proudly as we advocate for the critical middle grades.
- Reach: we are here to reach every student, and every student is our responsibility—no matter what grade level, content area, or responsibility is on the contract or nametag. Our first responsibility is to the students we serve.
- Ruin: there is a Buddhist tradition of creating an elaborate work of art from colored sand (a Mandala) and then destroying it as soon as it’s completed, and I think we need to do that occasionally with lesson plans and school improvement plans—in order to start new and refresh and to recalibrate where we are. If we create great lesson plans, frame them, and pull them out year after year, are we practicing the art of teaching or the artifice of education?
- Read: we need to help our students read both verbal and nonverbal text. Young adolescents not only need support as they read nonfiction and fiction text, but because they tend to misread social cues, they also need help as they read body language and group dynamics.
- Rung: classrooms and schools need to work with their surrounding communities to ensure that all students have access to the rungs they want to reach on the ladders to their future goals. Moreover, we need to instill our students with passion, so they reach up and reach further.
- So what other R words come to your mind with middle level education?
- What letter will we tackle next in the ABCs of Middle Level Education?
- What are your thoughts about all of this? Comment, share, connect!
From Monologue to Dialogue
So now we're ready to tackle Resilience. This R word has been used so much recently in the middle grades that it's almost become passé—whether you call it by its formal name or by its colloquial companion, grrrit. It's about allowing students to struggle and even fail, so they understand how to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and try, try again. There is plenty of merit to this philosophy and plenty of sayings to back it up. Smooth waters never made a good sailor. Tough it out. Rub some dirt on it. Finish strong. Fail forward. What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. Our society and most of our educational framework is built on a puritanical meritocracy, which means, in other words, that folks who work harder will succeed more. But is that always what's best for the students we serve? Especially young adolescents in the middle grades?
Letting students struggle and fail is different from teaching students how to struggle and fail, and too often, we think we are helping students build resilience by doing the former—instead of the latter. When we simply hand out failing grades or deflating comments, we aren't teaching our students how to be resilient. We are punching them in the cerebral gut, dissolving their relationship with us and our content, and showing them that effort is often meaningless. When young adolescents learn this in the middle grades, they grow more and more disconnected from learning (not just schooling). And, in fact, they do learn a form of resilience: a hardening, disenchantment, a steely glare of embitterment. Against you. Against your content area. Against the prescribed mechanisms of learning. With each failure (be it academic, social, or behavioral in nature), young adolescents adopt an internal deficit script that can spiral them downward: Why am I so dumb? What's wrong with me? I'll never get this. Why is everyone else doing so good except me?
So how do we best serve students who are in jeopardy of developing that kind of subtractive inner monologue?
What we should be doing to teach resilience in the middle grades is to be responsive (not reactive) when students fail and to support them when they struggle. Teach them what has been coined "self-compassion" by Dr. Tom Nehmy—how to treat oneself when times get tough. What can you say to yourself when you struggle or fail to positively pick yourself up? What actions can you take to comfort yourself in times of struggle? If you need additional help, who can you get positive help from? Helping students answer these questions is key as we support their resilience and grit development. We have to help each student as they confront the fact that sometimes learning is an independent journey and that they will need to shore up their individual resolve and know-how to negotiate that journey. And we also have to help each student understand that there is nothing weak in asking for help because, just like strong middle schools are built on interdisciplinary teams, strong middle school students are built when they can lean on a teammate in a time of need. Not as a crutch but as a bridge. Not as a label but as a lift.
- So how does your classroom and school house help students develop resilience and grit?
- What are the daily practices that make that happen?
- How does your school help teachers and staff develop resilience so they keep learning, developing, and growing—so they can help students do the same?
A Prefix that Fixes
We've checked out Red. We've reviewed Relationships. Now we've got "Re-." True, it's a prefix and not, therefore, a complete word in itself ... but work with me because young adolescents need the "Re-". And, in fact, there are so many words for middle level education that can don the prefix "re-" that the prefix itself really needs its own time in the spotlight. "Re-", which of course means “again”, is precisely what our young adolescents need from us—because early adolescence is a time for second chances. It's a time when kids stumble, fall, and get down about themselves, questioning their worth in the world when they mess up. So they need opportunities to "re-".
Perhaps the "re-" word that resonates with me the most as it reflects the middle grades is “revision.” Typically, we think about revision as something students do in ELA class when they are creating a second draft of something. But revision means to “see again”, and I contend that it is a cross-content, social-emotional, positive-behavior, college-and-career-readiness school-wide action that students need every day. Yes, students need chances to redo assignments and retake tests, but it's not to replace grades or balance grade sheets or get parents/guardians off our backs. Students need redos and retakes to help them fix a narrative, a story. The story about themselves. Think back to your days as a young adolescent. Did you see yourself as a major or a minor character in the story of school? Were you a protagonist or an antagonist in that narrative? Did it vary class to class? Day to day? What kind of rekindling, resuscitation, revitalizing, retaking, redoing, reminding, revising and many other re- words supported you when you stumbled and fell as a young adolescent? I can tell you honestly that I needed all of them.
"Re-" is also an important prefix for middle level leaders to acknowledge, take in their hands, and incorporate into the cultural soil of their schools.
Not only do students need second chances in the middle grades, but teachers need them, too. Teachers who work with young adolescents are superheroes: especially flexible, nimble, and thoughtful, and able to make instructional adjustments in a single bound! And all of that depends on what their students bring to the table socially, behaviorally, and more. Every day, every minute of every day, can feel like you are riding a thin-wheeled bike in soft sand. Some days you're moving forward, but the handlebars are wobbly, the tires are shifting, your legs are cranking like crazy, and you're pulling a cartload of pre-teens behind you! On other days, you are on well-paved ground pedaling with ease through lessons and interactions with your bright and beaming kiddos riding shoulder-to-shoulder with you.
In other words, teachers need second chances—because the daily and hourly landscape working with young adolescents can be unsteady and unpredictable. So middle school leaders (whether they are administrators, grade level chairs, team leaders, or district supervisors) should keep "re-" in mind when they are doing their walk-throughs, observations, and evaluations. No teacher's worth and pedagogical goodness can be captured in one 30-minute observation and transferred to a triplicate form. Middle grades leaders must give more time and more "re-". It takes leaders who walk by classes and stop in just because. It takes leaders who provide specific, supportive feedback in a face-to-face way with teachers. It takes leaders who understand that learning happens when risks are taken, mistakes are made, and time for reflection is provided. It takes leaders who acknowledge the reality of middle level education and who understand the power of "re-".
So how do you support "re-" in your classroom and school? If it's a key ingredient in the middle grades, is everyone in the pedagogical kitchen using it in the recipe for all students and teachers? How do you know?