The ABCs of Middle Level Education
7 Questions & Actions to Build Great Teaching, Learning, and Leading
Put your hard hats on and grab your tool belts, people. It's time to discuss construction in the critical middle grades. As a middle school and high school teacher, I always believed that learning happens as a constructionist endeavor—because it brings together individual mindsets, experiences, and prior knowledge and marries them into a collective understanding about something. To be 110% clear, it's not about creating a mental melting pot that melds everyone's thinking together and dissolves the individual perspective; rather, it's about creating a learning community that builds something together.
The same is true, in fact, for school administration. I always believed that sustained school growth happens when we collaboratively construct a common vision and speak with a common language about what we want to build on the bright landscape ahead. That doesn't mean that we erase or marginalize staff members who have a divergent point of view; rather, we celebrate and honor those differences as we construct. And it sounds messy and complicated. But really, the magic of educational construction in the middle grades should follow a simple formula: YBYS + IBMS=WLMST [You Bring Your Stuff and I'll Bring My Stuff and We'll Learn More Stuff Together]. Clearly, educational construction isn't as simple as bricks and mortar and blueprints, but there are similarities that are worth exploring. So if teaching and learning were like construction, what questions would we ask and what actions would we take to build something great for the students, teachers, and families we serve?
1. What do we want to build and why?
Action: Explore internal and external educational blueprints
and then courageously construct. Use internal blueprints (i.e., school, team, and grade visions; our students and their learning styles and interests; our own interests, vision, and philosophy about teaching and learning) and external blueprints (i.e., content area standards, community norms, and district and state vision and expectations).
2. What resources and tools will we need to build?
Action: Determine and request a stock of educational resources and then courageously construct. Use on-site materials (i.e., books, computers, teammates), off-site materials (i.e., primary source documents, websites, community members), and intra-site materials (i.e., time and emotional and mental currency).
3. Where do we want to build?
Action: Explore the potential internal and external learning environments and then courageously construct. Use internal spaces (i.e., classroom area, hallways, large rooms like the library, connected rooms, cafeteria), external spaces (i.e., outside, bus dock, outdoor playgrounds, community spaces, field trips), and intra-spaces (i.e., reflective space for mental and emotional journeys)
4. What's our building timeline?
Action: Figure out when this can happen and then courageously construct. Use internal chronographs (i.e., professional, classroom, team, grade level, and school calendars and the bell schedule), external chronographs (i.e., testing and district calendars and student and family calendars), intra-chronographs (i.e., personal and emotional calendars)
5. How will we involve everyone in the building process?
Action: Determine the interests, strengths, and challenges of all stakeholders, find roles for the work, and then courageously construct. Give interest and learning inventories to all stakeholders and use that information to decide on the individual roles and teams/groups needed for the work ahead, collaborate with teachers of all students to ensure that accommodations to the work are carefully planned, and inform families and community members and give them specific ways/times that they can be involved.
6. How will we know that we've successfully built something?
Action: Figure out the best ways to measure what's been built and then courageously construct. With all stakeholders, collaboratively construct a rubric that assesses the different elements of the work (i.e., interests and standards covered, social-emotional and behavioral learning elements examined, college and career readiness aptitudes/skills developed) and use that rubric throughout the work to determine progress, process, remediations, and celebrations.
So one last action step to drive it home: deconstruction. As critical participants in the craft of educational construction, we need to deconstruct and inspect foundations, especially as we approach new lists and charts, new experiences, new schools, and (even as this year begins to close) new school years on the horizon. With the construction of a house, if the foundation is cracked, misaligned or sinking, it doesn't matter how well we build the house itself. It's going to fall and fail. Similarly in the world of education, if the foundation upon which we construct teaching and learning isn't both flexible and resilient, that edu-home will falter, too. Therefore, before we practice educational construction, we should ask the hard questions that inspect and deconstruct the foundation of it all.
So as an educational construction-ist in the critical middle grades, what tough, inspired questions are you asking to deconstruct and courageously construct with your teachers, students, families, and community members?
Are Your Students Ready for the 22nd Century?
The four new 22nd Century Cs are here everyone, so buckle up. Get your mental crockpots ready to add these ingredients to the recipe. They are fresh. They are ready. They are now. And they mean no disrespect to the 21st Century Cs that we all know and love: Communication, Critical Thinking, Creativity, and Collaboration. Clearly, those Cs are essential parts of a balanced educational diet for every student—and in particular, for every young adolescent we serve. Yes, our students are communicating more than ever through reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing. In many ways, one single text with a message, a picture, an emoji, and a video link contains more reading tasks than most handwritten essays! And yes, we in the critical middle grades are helping them become more critical thinkers as they embark on those communicative efforts. And yes, we are also providing them more and more opportunities to create and collaborate in our classes through innovative practices like Genius Hour, Coding, Makerspace, and class blogs! In middle school we explode those 21st Century Cs on a daily basis for all students!
But the 22nd Century is around the corner! And our kiddos will need new Cs for that bright road forward. With one eye on the rearview mirror of the past, one eye on the windshield of the future, and both hands on the steering wheel, here are the four 22nd Century Cs that I propose for middle level education (and perhaps for all levels of education!):
- Care: To bring diverse hearts and minds together, we need to help our students understand and act from an ethic of care. Too often, we push our students with a lever of pragmatism—with an emphasis on production and efficiency to achieve a tangible goal. And while we need to get things done, tasks accomplished, and products 3D printed, we cannot do so at the detriment of care. We should instill in our students the need for both mindfulness and heartfulness: asking with care, listening with care, being present with care, following-up with care, writing and speaking with care, acting with care, etc. We don't need a packaged curriculum to accomplish that. We simply need to model and practice the art of care ourselves.
- Connection: To build positive bridges forward, we need to help our students understand and act on the desire to authentically connect with others. Sadly, many people in our society have lost the will to connect with others—especially others who have different opinions. It's easier to watch the news channel that aligns with our views. It's easier to stomach a tweet that matches our mindset. It's simpler to have a conversation with someone who has the same views that we have. But that's not how learning happens. Vygotsky knew it back in the day when he explored the concept of ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development): we learn when we stretch ourselves to learn beyond our ZPD. Therefore, we need to fill our students with an unquenchable desire to connect with others—because they are curious and because they care. If we want our students to shake hands with a fellow human being regardless of their differences, we need to teach them the importance of connecting and stepping out of their insular comfort zone and into their open discomfort zone. And we don't need a curriculum or a program to do that. We need to model it in our everyday practice.
- Culture: To create joyous, growth-mindset futures, we need to help our students understand how to create spaces of genuine positivity. Recent studies about the impact of happiness in the workplace from companies like Zappos have revealed that when the culture of the organization is positive and welcoming, people are more motivated and engaged in their work. They like what they do, and they want to do it well! In other words, while we can motivate people through negative factors like competition, greed, and fear, the culture created by such motivational factors is toxic and ultimately poisonous. Our classrooms and schools, therefore, need to be model cultures of joy, positivity, and happiness, so our young adolescent students can flourish and thrive as learners now, and most importantly, so they can know how to create those cultures themselves in future classrooms, schools, and work spaces. And we don't need a curriculum or a program to do this. We need to grow it in our everyday practice.
- Community: To foster truly inclusive learning communities, we need to help our students understand and act on the value of involving all voices in the process. Too often, we operate and separate ourselves into silos that privatize, divide and ultimately limit our own capacity and the capacity of everyone around us. Instead of embarking in the messy work of community-building (which involves another key 22nd century C: compromise), we often like to stay in the safe confines of our own garden plots, tending the rows we know. However, communities form and flourish when we reach out to every stakeholder and involve them in the work. Thus, our schools need to make sure that we are doing more than simply informing parents, families, and business partners about what we're doing; rather, we need to seek out their opinions and insights. We should do this not only because it is critical work in cultivation and community-building. We should do it because it shows our students that they also need to practice this artful, challenging work if they want futures that embrace all voices and push back against the limiting, fence lines of division. And we don't need a curriculum or a program to do this. We need to grow it in our everyday practice.
So how is your school preparing your students to practice the 22nd Century Cs, as well as those in the already distant 21st Century?
How Will You Share Our Critical Story?
Now we begin an exciting journey with the letter C, which is one of the most important letters in the world of middle level education. From the shape of it, it resembles an opening, a welcoming place, a safe harbor—all things that young adolescents want and need. While they may not shout it from the rooftops (because many of them are masters at "saving face" and acting "cool"), our students come to us looking for a steady, open place to land and bring their lives every day. It's up to us to maintain that openness in word, deed, communication, and in our supportive programs.
It's important to note as well that the C is rounded on its foundation, giving it the ability to flex and rock if something hits it suddenly and violently. That aspect of its shape is also important to consider as we think about the developmental responsiveness of our interactions with young adolescents and the initiatives we create to help them. While they must be steady and consistent, they cannot be so rigorous that they are inflexible. Rather, they must be able to bend and respond when the unexpected happens—and our young adolescents definitely bring the unexpected. In short, we have to be able to rock (like the C) when they roar.
And there's no denying that the sound of the letter C is the perfect sound for middle level education. Go ahead, say it. C. It seems to go on for miles and miles, open and expansive and ready to be the water for any vessel. An amazing middle grades school, teacher, administrator, staff member, after/before-school provider, or parent/guardian must behave and be present like the unflappable sea of C for every young adolescent they serve. The kids are counting on us to be the letter C: steady, calm, and a consistent way to carry them onward.
Now that we've covered the letter itself, what will be the first C word that we explore for the middle grades? Create? Construction? Community? Culture? Caterwaul? Cheeseburger? Perhaps critical is the best first word. Why? From my time in the classroom, in the administrative office, and in schools working with AMLE, I think there needs to be a greater sense of urgency about the middle grades. It's an undeniable fact that boatloads of attention (and funds) are paid to the elementary, high school, and higher education settings—oftentimes to the detriment of the middle grades. We are either forgotten, misunderstood, or relegated to the shadows.
But why is that? Are we not worthy of the same degree of attention? Do our students not deserve an equal place on the educational stage? Do our efforts for our young adolescents not require the same funds, policies, and advocacy? I think (and every middle level educator I know thinks) that our young adolescents deserve and require even more than an equal place. They should have a critical place, an elevated place on which we can shine a spotlight on their unlimited potential as well as on their blossoming, unique needs.
But too often we are told to wait. Too often we are told that our kids aren't ready. One prime example happened to me while I was speaking at a conference for college admissions counselors a couple years back, and I have to share it here because it continues to anger me to this moment. It screams to me about the lack of urgency that people feel about the middle grades. At this conference, the exhibit hall space was filled with vendors peddling the latest college and career wares (e.g., technology solutions, college trackers, occupation explorers). As the curious person I am, I walked casually yet earnestly through the hall and occasionally stopped to ask vendors, "So what kind of work do you do with middle schools and young adolescents?" Every single vendor looked at me like I was crazy to ask such a question and then without fail, they responded with, "Oh, those kids aren't really ready for this. We work with high schools and their students." As blood coursed through my veins, I nodded and walked away, resisting the urge to kick their booths down to the concrete floor with my red shoes. Not ready? Those kids? Why does that attitude prevail?
I have a theory. And it's related to storytelling. Despite all of our efforts, our research, and our pleas, the story that continues to be told about middle school is that it is a time of wild flux, crazy change, and unfettered shift for young adolescents. The narrative that most of our society loves to tell is this one: junior high/middle school is a horrible time (because we remember it as a horrible time for us) and middle school kids are aimless people with attitudes, acne, and awkwardness (like we remember ourselves back then) who don't know what they're doing now or what they want to do in the future. So yeah, why should we spend additional time and effort on middle school and those kids? Especially when it feels emotionally better to spend time and money on the story of elementary school and the "cute" and "innocent" characters in that tale, and similarly, when it feels more practical and forward-thinking to invest in the story of high school and the more "stable" and "prepared" characters in that tale.
That predilection and those misconceptions make me both angry and sad. I'm angry that people see middle school and young adolescents that way. Those of us who work with "those kids" fully embrace their uniqueness—because that's what makes them awesome. That's what makes them such a gift to work with every day. So it angers me that people prejudge middle school and then neglect us because they don't see it as a critical age. It also makes me sad because I'm part of the problem. I suppose I haven't done enough to tell the other story of middle school and of young adolescents so people understand just how amazing and critical the story is. Perhaps I haven't done enough to "flip the script" when people talk poorly about our students. I've celebrated middle school throughout Middle Level Education Month like I should, but perhaps I'm only sounding the proud trumpet in the same chamber every day.
So now's the time. It's time to blast the critical song of the middle grades to everyone so they can know what we know and feel what we feel... That middle school, middle grades, middle level education, and young adolescents are most definitely critical characters in the story of education's past, present, and glorious future. Pay attention and pay us mind.
So how, when, and to whom will you share middle level education's critical story?
Awareness, Acting, and More!
Sticking with the letter A, here's an Announcement: It's March, and Middle Level Education Month has officially begun! On behalf of everyone here at AMLE, thank you for everything you do every day to make teaching and learning blast off like a rocket for young adolescents. Thank you for advocating for young adolescents, for your fellow educators, and for the cause of the critical middle grades. Here are some quick ideas to help you celebrate Middle Level Education Month (MLEM):
- Visit www.amle.org/mlem for resources, sample advocacy letters, and tips for celebrating MLEM.
- Tweet a picture of you, your team, etc. with the "I Love Middle Grades" sign to #MLEM17
- Email April Tibbles, AMLE director of communications, at email@example.com or me at firstname.lastname@example.org with details about awesome MLEM celebrations happening at your school!
- And at any time during the month of March, feel free to randomly stand up (in a faculty meeting, on a bus, on the roof of the school, in a crowded restaurant, in a quiet library) and shout out loud and proud, "Hey! I was once a young adolescent! You were once a young adolescent! We were all once young adolescents! And I am proud to be a middle level educator who teaches, leads, and serves young adolescents every day!" (for this last suggestion, be ready to hear waves of applause or to run somewhere safe).
And with every beginning there is also usually an ending. So it's time to bid farewell to the letter A for this blog. It's brought us some good times and some serious times, hasn't it? Ideas about Access and Advocacy, Anger, Appreciation, and Adolescents. Of course, there are A words that I've left out that also relate to middle level education, and before we move on to the next letter, I'd like to pay tribute to those words now.
- Abilities: As middle school educators, we must continually remind our students that they have powerful abilities—abilities that need to be cultivated, nurtured, and celebrated. And as middle school educators, we must recognize and honor our own abilities and push each other to continually hone our pedagogical craft.
- Art: Teaching is an art form, and it demands that we practice it passionately, consistently, and with commitment to the craft. We need to support each other as artists, allowing for creative risk-taking in the classroom and embracing the messy reality that is educational artwork. And as a content area, art should be included in every classroom—not just in art class. Giving students the chance to demonstrate mastery through art is a glorious thing!
- And: Of all the conjunctions I know, I am a huge fan of And. While I'm also a fan of the skepticism of But and Or, I am crazy about And. It represents what young adolescents need and what we need from each other. And is the positive connector. The affirmative bridge-maker. The welcoming water of opportunity that carries us onward. Instead of "You can do this, but you can't do that," what would happen if we said to students and to each other, "We can do this and that. We can dream this and that. We can explore this and that"? And has the power to kick down fences that may limit young adolescents and ourselves.
- Accountability: Oh boy, this one can be a doozy. At the risk of irritating some folks, I have to admit that I don't think accountability in education is such a bad thing. In many ways, it's just another way of saying responsibility. We are responsible and accountable for the educational wellness of our students—just like doctors are responsible and accountable for the health and wellness of their patients. So how did accountability get such an ugly reputation? Perhaps that happened when we started to tie teachers' pay to accountability systems. Or perhaps it happened when high-stakes tests became the paramount accountability measure we used to determine a teacher's and a school's worth. Perhaps we need to take accountability back and reclaim it as a positive, driving force for responsible school work.
- Act: As teachers and leaders in the middle grades, we are wonderful actors. And I don't mean that we put on false personas and read from scripted lines to manipulate people and situations. Rather, I mean that we are talented actors who know how to adjust our words, mannerisms, tones, and even our props for the various audiences with whom we interact. In a 10 minute span, we can unjam a locker, soothe a kid in crisis, email an eager parent, and collaborate with a teammate on a lesson plan. I realize that the Oscars just concluded, but I think middle level educators deserve Academy Awards for the exceptional performances we do on a daily basis. Where's our gold statue and after party? Act also means that effective middle level educators do something when they sense that a child is in crisis or when they realize that a child is struggling in their class. That's the difference between showing up and stepping up. We act and we step up.
- Awards: Speaking of awards, how do we increase recognition so more students are celebrated? It's good to award students for high academic achievement through end-of-the-semester ceremonies. It's nice to hand out certificates for perfect attendance at the end of the year. But typically, it's the same students getting those awards. And the same students not getting those awards are feeling ignored. In addition, how do we increase teacher recognition so more educators are also celebrated? Clearly, it's great to have a way to recognize a Teacher of the Year, but could we do more to shine a light on best practices and best teaching? And, of course, this raises the debate of how awards detract from intrinsic motivation—a topic best left for another time and another blog.
- Awareness: in the middle grades, awareness is a key ingredient—because of the amount and pace of change that young adolescents go through; because of their predilection for risk-taking behaviors; because of their often mercurial emotions that influence decision-making; because of their ardent and sometimes arduous search for identity, acceptance, and belonging. It all happens so quickly that we need to be keenly aware, which means noticing the large, sweeping changes that our students make as well as the small, subtle ones—and then taking the time to act on that awareness. Because when we were young adolescents, we wished we had that support. This also means that we watch out for the adults in our buildings. We need to be aware of teachers who may be dealing with challenges personally or professionally, and we need to act on that awareness. Because when we are struggling in our classrooms or in our lives, we wish we had that support. We deserve it. Our students deserve it.
So there's the final A list of A words for the ABCs blog. What A words would you add that reflect the critical middle grades? And stay tuned, eager readers, for the next letter around the bend for the ABCs blog!