The ABCs of Middle Level Education
What Do You Accept and Expect in the Middle Grades?
We’ve worked our way through the letters R and O since we started in September with this blog, and we’ve examined words that fit into the fabric of middle level education. Feeling good? Feeling challenged? Because now we’re on the move—to the letter B. In many ways, I think B is the most important letter in the alphabet because it represents a continuation, a succession, an order forward. It’s true that A starts the alphabet, but B shows you that it will move forward—just like the critical middle grades. We can’t just deliver a “Step A” talk about why we need to support young adolescents and then step away. Our duty to the students we serve is how we approach “Step B” and beyond. It’s like Thanksgiving. Anyone can be thankful on that day—that’s when you’re told to be thankful. It’s like the letter A at the start of the line of gratitude. The true test is how we maintain that thankfulness on the next day—like the letter B. So for our students, teachers, staff, and communities, it's about how we move beyond the promise of our letter A and step up and act from letter B and beyond.
Our first B word is “Be.” Now when it comes to that word, let me confess. I battle with “Be” all the time. Be and I are frenemies in many ways—especially when it comes to middle level education. It even tears me up as a Beatles fan because they told me to “Let it Be,” but I just can’t hold fast to that philosophy all the time. My trouble with Be is the result of many years as a teacher in the middle grades. Let me explain. Without sounding like a bitter cynic in the lounge, I have watched educational trends, reforms, fixes, and fads knock on the school house door, unpack their bags, hang up their clothes, use our dishes, take up our time—only to have them pack everything back up and move on. Without even a wave and a “goodbye” —their presence cloying to everything but not really changing anything substantially. Whenever I see that happen to a school or a school system, I think about “be”. As a teacher and an administrator, I just wanted to be. Many days, I would close my door and say out loud, “Man, just let me be.” I wanted to be trusted to use my knowledge and expertise about teaching and learning with the students I was serving without having to worry about the latest trend or mandate hovering like a spectre in my class. Just let me be. I wanted to be accepted as the teacher and administrator I was without having to constantly reinvent myself to fit into someone else’s pre-packaged method for lesson planning, observing, or improving. Just let me be. I also wanted to be exceptional for my students and families: to be able to ask the big questions with my students; to dig enthusiastically into the critical, cognitive soup with my fellow teachers and administrators; to push back against the fences that have been erected in our school houses. Just let me be. You all pop the hood and keep fooling around with the wires and gaskets. I’m going to be over here helping kids. Just let me be.
And speaking of kids, when I saw new edicts and changes sweep through the hallways I also thought to myself, “Man, just let them be.” I also wanted my students to just be because I knew that they would also flourish if we would build our school building on a foundation of “Be.” With everything that young adolescents are going through that is unsettled and shifting, they need consistency and routine. They just need to be. They don’t need schools that are constantly instituting new expectations, rules, and programs—especially those that don’t put students first. They need schools and classrooms where joy is abundant, active learning is safe, achievement in every area is expected, and their voices, choices, interests, and needs are acknowledged and used to make change. If that isn’t happening, I fight for just letting them be.
But my battle with Be isn’t a simple one. While I have the urge to just let teachers be and to let students be, I also know that we can’t just let it be. That’s not how improvement happens. We have to be/lieve that teachers and students in the middle grades can be/come something more. We have to believe, for example, that a student can become better at math. We have to believe, similarly, that our colleague can become better at teaching it. We have to believe that an administrator can become better at restorative justice so students learn from missteps. We have to believe, as well, that a parent can become better at understanding and supporting his or her young adolescent child. We can’t simply watch idly as the tepid water of mediocrity washes over and mutes our desire for consistent excellence in the middle grades. Perhaps our battle with Be should start with figuring out why we push, challenge, insist, encourage, prod, nudge. And perhaps the battle with Be could be won when we acknowledge that if we rest on the current versions of ourselves—teachers, students and administrators—we may never become who we were meant to be.
- What do you believe about letting it be?
- Have you become the person you are or the person you should be?
- How do you help students and fellow educators be more?
Supporting everyone in the middle grades isn't easy, but it's worth it.
Today's word is odyssey—so here's a quick Cliffs Notes review. In Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, the main character, Odysseus navigates his way home through punishing seas, tempestuous storms, and loathsome creatures, and once he arrives at his doorstep, he must face more challenges from suitors who want him out of the picture. So what does this tale have to do with middle level education? How is the middle school journey like an odyssey? As we grow professionally and as we value young adolescents and prepare to teach them, it's important to take note of a simple fact: everyone's got an odyssey. Everyone is trying to get through something.
This is true for the teachers and staff in our buildings. We're all working through our own individual odysseys, and we need to treat each other accordingly. Just like This We Believe reminds us, “the school environment is safe, inclusive, and supportive of all” (p. 33-34). That must include the teachers, faculty and staff, too and how we support and include each other. Therefore, perhaps the first step is recognizing who we are. While Odysseus was heralded as a brave soldier, he was also a husband to Penelope and father to Telemachus. Similarly, while we are professionals and artists in the craft of teaching who soldier on in the classroom every day, we are also people—parents, siblings. aunts, uncles, children, former young adolescents. And we all need support in our journeys.
For me, as a first year teacher trying to make ends meet, I could have benefited from that. My odyssey included doing lesson plans in a pretty rough apartment (i.e., cockroaches were my fellow tenants) while also cooking in a short-order “restaurant” every night. I was also trying to make pedagogical ends meet during the day, teaching ninth and tenth grade Basic English—helping students who had never read, written, or spoken English or (even more challenging) helping students who knew English but had developed such a reluctance towards literacy that they hated my class, the work, and me personally. At the end of those early days in the school house, I would often sit at my desk and wonder why I was struggling. Like Odysseus, I felt like I was fighting my way through Charybdis and Scylla with little direction home. And I didn't want to tell anyone or ask anyone for help because I was afraid that other teachers (and administrators) would look at me like I was a failure. That was my odyssey. Fortunately, a duty to serve my students, a supportive grade level, a desire to stay gainfully employed, and an unflappable fear of failure got me through the rough seas—and I kept on teaching, learning, struggling, and growing. And looking back on my own odyssey teaching young adolescents, I wonder, “How do we recognize and support each other along the way? We know about using RTI to help students academically and behaviorally, but do we need an RTI support system for teachers and staff?
How do we provide teachers and staff with a secure harbor for reflection, questioning, and safety when times get tough?"
All of this is also true, of course, for the young adolescents we serve. What's their odyssey? Perhaps for some students their odyssey is the ride to and from school. As educators, we typically pull up to the school house in the safety and calm of our cars; meanwhile, our students arrive after dealing with the bus and the often choppy seas of social interaction, caustic language, and pecking orders that are found there. So how do we recognize that journey and support our students as they transition into our classrooms each morning? Perhaps for some students, their Odyssey materializes in specific subject areas. As we plan our lessons and create assessments, they are working through the self-efficacy they have with our content areas. In other words, their odyssey can be a thorny combination of how they've succeeded in each content area in the past, how they are currently succeeding in each content area, and how they think they will succeed in each content area going forward. How do we recognize that struggle and support our students on that tough cognitive and psychological journey? Perhaps for some students their odyssey is home itself. We can never be too sure about what our students face after school when they walk home and close the door. It's difficult to know exactly, but it's important enough to care. It's vital enough that we acknowledge the reality. It's critical enough that we act on that knowledge in consistent, responsive ways for our students and for ourselves. And it's significant enough to realize that an odyssey is easier when we are there with warm support and a bright shoreline upon which to land.
Celebrating Error is Essential
The familiar adage that we hear about making mistakes is that “to err is human.” It is part of the process of learning and growing. In order to walk, we first had to stumble and fall. In order to ride a bicycle, most of us first toppled and tipped over. But we got back up and walked again, rode again, and tried again. And as educators, we all make mistakes, and then we move forward. As a middle school administrator leading summer school, I once forgot a major chunk of the Pledge of Allegiance while I was reciting it on the morning announcements. As a middle school teacher in Atlanta, I once had to wear my wife's khakis to Back-to-School night because I accidentally packed them in my car instead of packing my own pants. In fact, I have committed enough errors to pack a middle school cafetorium 100 times over--and while I could have simply curled up into a weeping ball, I've always kept going.
So what drives us to continue despite the possibility of failure, of pain, of embarrassment? What drives our students to come to our classes each day in spite of these daily possibilities? What pushes us as educators to try out new ideas in front of fickle (and potentially resistant) audiences of young adolescents? I think part of the answer comes with the ingredients of support and response. Let’s go back to walking and biking; we sometimes forget about the support we received in those efforts. When learning to walk, someone may have held our hand to keep us upright or placed padding on sharp corners in case we fell. When learning to ride a bike, someone may have held onto the back of the seat or made us wear a helmet in case we crashed. And in both cases, someone probably picked us up, dusted us off, praised our attempt, and gave us another shot. That kind of support and response emboldened us to try again. And in both cases, doesn’t that typify what our students need as they learn and make mistakes in the middle grades? Isn’t that what we need as educators ourselves as we attempt to create dynamic learning environments?
We are also encouraged to try again by what is celebrated. It isn’t the oops that should define us and our students. It’s the getting back up, the learning from the oops, and the keeping on. Keeping on, not in spite of the oops—rather, inspired by the oops. Because oops are awesome. Oops are effort. Oops are risk. So why do we sometimes relegate error to the shadows and only illuminate perfection? What would happen to classroom culture if we put up examples in the hallway of student work that showed the messy and marvelous learning process? Incomplete pre-writes. Scribbled research notes. First attempts with an artistic technique. What would happen to school-wide culture if we took time in faculty meetings and grade level meetings to share instructional strategies that we struggled with? Rough warm-up activities. Unfortunate assessments. Group work gone wrong. First attempts with a teaching technique.
If we celebrated failure as much as we celebrated success, would we all take more risks and learn more—about what we can do, who we are, and what we could be? If we celebrated the uncertain journey to the finish line as much as we celebrated the ultimate victor, would more of us step up and step forward? I contend that moving everyone in the critical middle grades forward begins when we redefine what error is, support our efforts in the complex act of learning, honor the messy challenges and potential triumphs, and do so patiently, calmly, gracefully, empathetically, compassionately, humbly, sensitively, humanly, and humanely. Grit is not grown alone; rather, it is undergirded by guides on the side. Resilience is not raised in isolation; instead, it is reinforced by steady supports along the way.
3 Reasons Why Observation is the Key
Observation is more than evaluation, especially in the middle level. Living and working in the middle grades means that we are constantly observing. From a literacy perspective, this means we are always analyzing text—verbal and nonverbal language. In other words, everything can be read, and we have to be critical participants in the craft of observation in order to reach every student, grow professionally, and create great schools. But what exactly does this mean in terms of improving middle level education?
First, in terms of reaching every student, we need to observe students in every landscape of their learning lives: in our classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, bus stops, locker rooms, and cyber worlds, as well. And we don't do this to police them and play "gotcha"; rather we observe students to understand them. So we can make learning more relevant and effective. So we can get to kids before they implode or explode. So we can notice the trends—the fashionable, the unfashionable, the humor, the anger, the joy, the stress. So we can remember what it feels, sounds, and looks like to be a young adolescent. While our primary motivation for observation shouldn't be to catch students in the act of misdeeds, keenly observing students on a consistent basis (with everyone involved) will drastically reduce your disciplinary referrals. Because you see issues before they become atomic blossoms.
Second, in order to grow professionally, we need to observe ourselves as teachers and leaders—and as learners. Teachers need to observe other teachers in the classroom, and administrators need to observe other administrators. Clearly, it's important to share best instructional practices at an interdisciplinary team meeting—to sit across the table and talk about what's been working with kids. But it's a completely different thing to sit in another teacher's class for an extended amount of time and observe how they put those instructional strategies into practice. Again, we don't observe to police, evaluate, or judge. We do peer observation as professional development because we are professionals developing—and what better way than to get support from other teachers?
In addition, we should closely observe our own verbal and nonverbal language in the classroom and school house. That kind of observation can be eye-opening and mind-altering. Set up a video camera (or your smart phone) and record yourself teaching—and then sit back and observe. Ask key questions about yourself and your pedagogy. What kind of language do you use? What gestures do you use? How much wait time do you actually give? Who do you call on? How do you use movement and proximity? What kind of support do you give? And then repeat the observational process again. If you only video-capture and observe one lesson, that's nice. But to truly know yourself, capture and analyze a week's worth of lessons—in every class. As a school administrator, I did that very thing for an entire semester. I recorded myself in interactions with teachers, staff, and parents, and then I analyzed those recordings for gestures, proxemics, head movement, clothing, etc. As a result, I learned a lot about dramaturgy, multi-modal interaction analysis, and how to survive the dissertation process, but I learned so much more about myself as a language user, a learner and as a school leader. And I learned that observation is a multipurpose tool that we can't simply leave on the shelf or use on sporadic occasions.
In the magnificent middle grades we should be training our eyes, minds, and hearts to observe every day. To reach every student. Grow professionally. And create great schools.