The ABCs of Middle Level Education
All in for Middle Level Education Month!
You can't write an ABCs blog about middle level education with the letter A and not write about Adolescents. Not only are they the reason why we celebrate Middle Level Education Month in March, but they are the main magnificent reason why we do what we do. They are also the reason we don't what we don't. What does that mean? In order to answer that curious question, it's important to remind ourselves about their unique characteristics because they are unlike anybody else on this planet.
In This We Believe (pp. 53-62), we are reminded about the true nature of adolescent achievement. Typically, when we talk about achievement, we discuss grades, added-value, measured progress, and assessment results, but these pages always help me remember that adolescents are trying to achieve in many different areas. Specifically, they are trying to find success in 5 key areas we can't ignore:
- Physical: Adolescents are going through the most rapid physical change of their lives, and they are doing so at irregular rates. That's why we have students in the same school who are already gifted athletes sprinting, throwing, and dancing like professionals as well as students who are earnestly working through the essentials of coordination, balance, and movement.
- Cognitive-Intellectual: Like their bodies, adolescents' brains are also growing and changing at a rapid rate, and that change can be similarly uneven. That's why they tend to act impulsively and make risky decisions without thinking them all the way through. There are changes going on in the frontal lobe; in the myelin sheath; in the synapses; and in the mental processing that affect foresight, organization, time-management and more. In addition, the increase in hormones affects how the brain responds to stress, fatigue, and crisis. That's why we have students who are making tremendous leaps in abstract, divergent thinking as well as students who are working through concrete, sequential thinking. In fact, the only other time that we develop this quickly is birth to three years old.
- Moral-ethical: Adolescents are beginning to see their immediate world and the larger world as the morally complicated landscapes they are. As a result, our students are often at conflict with the world as it is and the world as they think/hope/dream it should be. Their “moral thermometers” are still taking shape as they gauge the ethical temperature of a situation; therefore, in their search for justice, they sometimes are quick to measure others' flaws while they are slow to see those same flaws in themselves. That's why we have students who are able to grasp society's missteps (and its magnificence) and help peers solve conflicts as well as students who are raging because they feel like no one gets them, the world is totally messed up, and they are all alone.
- Psychological: Adolescents are wrestling with issues of identity at all times: figuring out who they are, who they used to be, who they want to be, how they fit in, how they stand out, why they matter, what/who matters to them, and more. As the rest of the world speeds by them with all the answers, it's like they're riding bikes in deep, soft sand: unbalanced, unsteady, difficult. At the same time, many young adolescents cry out for trust to express their identity and independence, yet many times, they aren't quite sure what to do when they are given a wide berth of freedom. They are, in short, both psychologically vulnerable and resilient. That's why we have students who are already developing strong, confident identities, passions and interests as well as students who are working through the gossamer of their selves every minute of every day.
- Social-emotional: Adolescents are examining external social situations that are increasingly complex, and they are trying to navigate those often turbulent waters using internal compasses and other tools that are still developing. That's why they sometimes misread and overreact to verbal and nonverbal language while wearing their hearts like vibrant neon lights on their sleeves. That's why we have students who are able to work cooperatively and be friends with anyone as well as students whose friends turn into frenemies and enemies and back again from homeroom to lunch.
So what does all of this mean to educators and other folks who work with young adolescents? First, awareness is a great first step that leads to service. When we are aware (and we make others aware), we are better able to meet young adolescents' unique needs. Second, positive change for young adolescents begins with that pronoun: we. It's not enough for one person on the grade level, team, or school to talk about meeting the needs of the whole child. It's about we. And us. It has to be a common acknowledgement of and commitment to the fact that young adolescents need learning environments that are “Developmentally Responsive, Challenging, Empowering, and Equitable” (This We Believe, p. 14). Because our students are filled with so much potential and possibility. They can be boisterous. They can be brilliant. They can be challenging. They can be change-agents. They can be demonstrative. They can be dreamers. They can be lazy. They can be leaders. They can be selfish. They can be selfless. They can be wild. They can be wonderful. We embrace the fact that a young adolescent has the potential to make us tear up from laughing or tear our hair out from frustration. We realize that a young adolescent has the potential to make us overjoyed from a sudden epiphany they've had or overwhelmed from their lack of foresight and decision-making. We know that a young adolescent has the potential to make us feel like a distinguished educator who can do no wrong or like an extinguished educator who can do no right. And those of us who work with young adolescents are thankful because all of that swirling potential is what fills our days with such energy and limitless possibility.
So how will you and your school celebrate young adolescents (and those who serve them) every day—and especially during the days in March for Middle Level Education Month?
Appreciative Things to do and My Appreciation List
Now that Valentine's Day is behind us, let's talk honestly about love and appreciation. The most important part of Valentine's Day is about what you do after Valentine's Day. It's about how you show your appreciation the next day and every day after—after the flowers have been delivered, the cards have been written, the candy boxes have been unwrapped, and the special dinners have been eaten. It's about the small things we do every day for each other. That's what real appreciation is all about.
So what's this have to do with middle level education? We know the deal: we all need to raise the praise and increase the appreciation in the middle grades. And yes, there are plenty of articles, blogs, posts, and books with practical tips and strategies on boosting morale and keeping faculty members happy and appreciated in schools. Take the time to read them—especially if you think appreciation is an overrated concept. Guess what? It's isn't. In fact, appreciation is super important.
Here's my quick list of things to do to amp up appreciation in our schools:
- Be the example. Spread appreciation around like it's soft butter on a warm biscuit. Like it's sunshine on a cloudy day. Like it's a cold and you are sneezing praise all over the place without a tissue. Leave your own baggage at the curb and genuinely thank someone.
- Get out there. An appreciative email is nice and convenient, but if you really want to show appreciation, go find the person and say it to them. It may be a little awkward at first, but nothing shows appreciation more than when they can hear it in your voice and see it in your face. And if that's just too much for you, call them on the phone.
- Do the expected. Take care of the things that teachers, students, and families are asking you to do and expecting you to do. When you fulfill your duties and responsibilities from a place of love, you show appreciation.
- Do the unexpected. Say the little positive thing to someone in the hallway. Put a glowing note on someone's desk or in someone's mailbox at a random time. Tell a student that you appreciate that they're in your class on some unexpected Wednesday afternoon. Deliver fresh biscuits to every teacher in your building on rollerblades while wearing a "Hot 4 Teacher" sign (something our admin team joyously did after testing…just because). Sometimes, appreciation doesn't necessarily need to be planned out and put on a checklist.
- Listen. Show appreciation in conversations. Instead of thinking about your own response/reaction/rebuttal, actually hush your mind and listen to the words that someone else is saying. And if they're sharing a problem, let them know you hear them and that their problem is real and you get it. Sometimes, people don't want you to be Mr. or Ms. Fix-it. They just want to talk it out with someone who appreciates them.
- Be real. When you raise the praise for someone, get emotional. Get specific. Get genuine. And if the moment arises and you have their permission, get public with your appreciation. Stand up in a faculty meeting and shout your love and appreciation from the rooftops! With that in mind....
Here's my post-Valentine's day appreciation list. What would yours look like?
I love and appreciate (knowing that I'm flawed and might forget someone):
- My wife who taught second grade for six years and now works at an elementary school as an aide for students with severe and profound needs. She busts it every day and does so with grace, care, and kindness. Oh, and she's also been through it all with me and our two boys when I was a teacher and administrator and continues to keep it real with me as I do what I do for AMLE.
- My two boys who amaze me every day with their boundless minds, hearts, and spirits. They, too, have been through it when I was an administrator and continue to rock and roar now that I'm with AMLE. I marvel at the amazing things they say, the awesome connections they make, and the futures that they are creating for themselves every day.
- My parents who showed me through their tireless example what it means to serve and to give back. My father was a US Marine for 29 years and retired so he could get his physical therapist degree and help people in need. My mother was an operating room nurse who worked in the most urgent situations and was on call all the time, but never complained.
- All the schools I attended and all the teachers I had who cared for me, who put up with me, who connected with me, who pushed me, who made me feel like I made difference in the world—and as a military child (not a brat), I attended a lot of schools (both public and Dept of Defense schools): Lilyputs and McGogney Elementary in D.C.; John B. Dey Elementary in California; Pattimura Elementary in Jakarta; Alanton Elementary, Lynnhaven Jr. High, and Frank W. Cox HS in Virginia Beach; Lejeune HS in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina; and JMU and GSU, too. I don't want to call out specific teachers here because I'll probably forget someone, and that's not the point. Every teacher had an impact on me, and I appreciate them.
- Tracy Sonafelt and Betsy Zimmer at Harrisonburg High School back in 1994, my first year of teaching. They made me feel welcomed at the school, while also showing me the ropes. And they never made me feel inept or inadequate—even though I'm sure I did some inept things as a first year teacher.
- My first students back in 1994 in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I appreciate their tolerance as I tried to teach ninth and tenth grade Basic English as a first year teacher.
- Anita Jackson, Jane Jones, Barbara McGuire, Susan Messer, and all of the great folks at Ridgeview Middle School in Fulton County Schools in Georgia, who were there when I first started teaching middle school. Coming from a high school setting and from a different state, I was like a deer in headlights and they showed me how to embrace working with young adolescents.
- Vicki Denmark, who brought me on as a teacher at River Trail MS in Fulton County, who taught me as one of my best professors at Georgia State U., and who showed me what exceptional leadership looks like. I appreciate her wisdom and her guidance at all times.
- Elizabeth Fogartie and everyone at Webb Bridge Middle School in Fulton County. Ms. Fogartie brought me on as an assistant principal and gave me freedom to try new programs and initiatives to help students and teachers—and she also had high standards and expectations that helped me stay in line. And she continues to be a middle grades leader today. All of the teachers and staff at Webb Bridge helped me grow as an administrator with their patience, diligence, and humor. I used to make them homemade cookies to show my appreciation during the school year, but I know there aren't enough cookies in the world to show my appreciation.
- All of the people in the Haynes Bridge Middle School community who supported me during my time there.
- Sherri Black, former principal at Big Creek Elementary School, who took a chance on a middle school educator and brought me on as her assistant principal. Among the many lessons I learned, I appreciate everything you taught me about elementary school life and about speaking with one voice as an administrative team.
- The entire AMLE team—present and former. I appreciate you setting the stage for everything we do in the middle grades and for bringing me on the team. We are a merry band of misfits, and I appreciate each and every one of you. I appreciate how you work so tirelessly to bring great resources to folks everywhere, to serve with grace and joy, and to amplify the voices of middle grades educators everywhere.
- All of the educational consultants I work with at AMLE who really get it. You, who show your appreciation and honor for the cause of education. You, who understand that the real, real, real work is being done in the classrooms and schoolhouses. You, who understand that we're in a privileged position to go out and deliver workshops, have conversations about teaching and learning, and offer suggestions through our content. You, who drive the miles, take the flights, pack the bags, leave your families, plan the sessions, do great jobs—all for middle level education.
- All of the middle level educators out there who are doing the work in the field and serving young adolescents, their families, and the critical cause of middle level education. Because I've been in the classroom and in the administrative office, I know you are busting your hind parts each and every day to make all of this happen.
Again, I know that I may have forgotten someone on this appreciation list—and that's because my brain is addled and also because no list is ever done. So now that Valentine's Day is over, it's time for all of us to show the love and appreciation. So get out there, be real, make a list, and share it with the people who matter and who you appreciate in the critical middle grades.
Two Quick Tips for Helping Students in Anger
With Valentine's Day right around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to write about anger. Sounds about right. Before I was a middle school teacher and administrator, I was a young adolescent. And as I've mentioned on previous posts, my middle grades diet was a balance of happiness and sadness—with a nice dollop of anger thrown in for good measure.
Thanks to some kids (and a teacher or two) who were mean, nasty, and driven to target new kids who didn't "fit in," I was filled with rage on many days as a kid at my junior high school in Virginia Beach. I was, in fact, one of those kids who did good in school and kept quiet, while simmering underneath was a cauldron of anger ready to explode. Hello, nice to meet you. While my anger has created some interesting emotional echoes that I continue to hear as an adult, all of that fiery emotion has also taught me a fruitful lesson about anger and young adolescents (and adults, as well). Saddle up. It's a radical idea: while it's important to teach our students about love and understanding, I also think we need to teach kids about what to do with anger and misunderstanding.
Why would we do something like that? Isn't there enough anger in the world? Why do we need to talk about it in our schools, too? Here's why. We have a problem with how we deal with anger in schools. We tend to treat anger as a deviant, abnormal reaction to the world—and consequently, we tend to treat students who are angry as deviant and abnormal, as well. When we label students like that or tell them to "just calm down" and "get over it" when they're angry, many things can happen.
Here are four consequences that can happen when we just shut down an angry student and dismiss their anger:
- An angry student might just get angrier and do something worse ("You all don't get me. You don't care. You just want me to shut up. Just wait until tomorrow.").
- An angry student might learn that anger is wrong, and therefore, they are wrong and they don't belong—and they drop out mentally or physically ("Man, I knew it. I'll never fit in at this school. I'm never coming back.").
- An angry student might not get any tools or strategies to help them deal with their anger in the future, so they get stuck in the same cycle ("So what if I cussed him out or hit him? What else should I do when he steps up to me next time? I'm going to the same thing.").
- An angry student might become an angry adult who burns more bridges with fiery words and deeds and becomes more isolated and more angry ("You don't agree with me? You're just like everyone else. I'm done with you. I'm going to stick with people who think just like me.")
If those consequences are possible, don't we have the duty and obligation to try something different with anger? If we want to empower young adolescents, increase their achievement in all areas, and create stronger, more positive learning communities, shouldn't we do more to help students deal with anger? Where do we begin? Two quick suggestions.
First, we need to de-stigmatize anger and treat it as the normal, natural emotion we all feel—as kids and adults—and we need to redirect it. I've seen and heard a lot of folks deal with angry students by yelling back at them and getting in their faces to show them "who's in charge," and that's a terrific way to escalate things. It can turn a simmering situation into a volcanic one in an instant. So let's flip that script and ask caring questions, listen, be there, and check our own tone; that's how we can de-escalate and defuse it. Model the emotional expectation you would like to see. As a middle school assistant principal for six years, I had my share of angry kids in my office because they took their anger and lashed out in ways that were destructive to themselves, to others, to their schools, and to their futures. After we completed the disciplinary paperwork and I made phone calls home, we talked about the root of the anger—the facts of the situation—and I always reminded them, "Anger is a very natural emotion. Everyone gets angry. It's what you do with your anger that will make the biggest difference in your life. Artists get angry and create. Writers get angry and write. Musicians get angry and they make songs. Athletes get angry and they take it out on the field, the court, or the track. So what can you do, who can you talk to, what can you create with your anger the next time you feel this way?" In fact, as the parent of a seventh grade boy, I've had to give this same talk with him after he punched a wall in P.E. and broke his hand in anger. Clearly, anger is a reality in the school house and on the home front. What's also a reality is this: when we talk to kids about anger as something that's natural and normal, they will talk about it honestly and work on it with us collaboratively—as long as we continue to follow-up with them and listen.
Second, when working with an angry student, we need to remind ourselves about being this age and we need to check out the characteristics of young adolescents—specifically, their minds and their egos. From a cognitive-intellectual perspective, This We Believe (pgs. 53-62) reminds us that their minds process information and emotions differently, and they are prone to risk-taking behaviors. Therefore, we need to be patient with them as they misread verbal and nonverbal language, act out of anger, and then maybe reflect. We need to give them specific tools about conflict resolution, civil discourse, and mindfulness to support them in their angry moments, so they know how to respond. From the social-emotional and moral perspectives, they are deeply concerned with identity and themselves, and they are constantly trying to figure out where they stand. Therefore, we need to be patient with them and their anger as they do things to "save face" and establish and maintain their identities. We need to help them see other perspectives by sharing our own struggles and missteps and through strategies like role-play, self-compassion, and reflection activities. We need to help them understand that it's okay to be wrong. That you don't have to start hating someone because they aren't your friend right now. That anger can be a constructive tool—instead of a destructive tool. And, of course, we need to remember that young adolescents' unique characteristics don't excuse their anger; they provide us with a lens through which to understand it.
Finally, we must never forget what we were like as a young adolescent and what got us angry, how we dealt with it, and what help we wish we had on that raucous and rocky road.