The ABCs of Middle Level Education
5 Ways to Create Buzzworthy PD
Spring is in the air. Trees are beginning to bud. Flowers are starting to blossom. And bees are doing their critical work among us, which makes me think about cross-pollination and how it connects with improving middle level education and ourselves through professional learning. While I don't claim to be an expert on bees, I do know how critical they are to what happens during the spring season. Here's what I know about our busy, buzzing pals: new flowers grow because bees jump from petal to petal, picking up new bits of pollen information, carrying it off, and spreading it around. Admittedly, there's more involved to that apiary process, but the connections to middle level education and the professional learning process are powerfully evident. In brief, bees are doing what we should be doing.
First, in This We Believe, the research shows that effective and amazing middle schools should be driven by "ongoing professional development [that] reflects best educational practices" (pp. 30-31). Therefore, just as bees never stop their cross-pollination work, we should be ever-vigilant and ever-mindful as we learn and grow. Great professional development shouldn't only happen on a designated PD day or when the district has brought in an educational consultant from the outside. Rather, buzzworthy professional learning should be something we constantly seek out—to better ourselves and our profession and to model lifelong learning for our students.
And as pedagogical professionals, we should emulate bees and practice professional learning through the power of cross-pollination. What does that mean exactly? That means that we can't just buzz around our own learning gardens, reading the same books and articles, visiting the same sites, talking with the same people, and exploring in the same way. Just as we challenge our students to stretch themselves and make learning engaging and exploratory, we need to push the boundaries of our ZPDs (zones of proximal development) and make professional learning buzzworthy. Here are 5 quick ways to get started:
1. Take peer observation to the next level. Nothing is more powerful than seeing best practices in action, but too often, we only buzz around teachers in our departments or shadow other leaders in our grade levels. So we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate by emailing someone who teaches another grade or subject or someone who leads in another building, and set up a peer observation appointment and a post-observation appointment to discuss what was learned along the way. This can be particularly powerful for the transition process to and from the critical middle grades. Find out what's really happening at the elementary level with literacy. Discover how high school college and career readiness is really evolving. Instead of just guessing or wondering, let's get into each other's learning gardens, buzz around, and bring great ideas back!
2. Make teacher and staff interactions and learning active. It's difficult to get to know everyone in the school house—especially if your school is big and the faculty is large. As a result, we tend to buzz around the same corners and the same people we know, which is comfortable—but there are other folks to know and other places to learn. We also tend to see professional learning as an independent endeavor during which we passively absorb content and deal with it in isolation. So we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate by turning staff learning into an active exploration. Having a large school can be a hindrance with this work, and that was definitely the case for one of the middle schools where I was an administrator. To work on this issue, we created a five-event social staff interaction game called the Pentathlon. Every month, we gave people five things to do that would get them buzzing around the school and connecting in different ways. Walk down another grade level's hallway during your planning time. Visit an art class. Talk with the head custodian about the best part of his day. It was completely voluntary, but those who participated learned a lot about the school, the staff, and themselves. And it improved our school's culture—especially as Pentathletes were crowned each month with banners above their doorways. On another professional learning day, we created "Mix-it-Up" lunch appointments (and "chat and chew" cards) for the faculty, so they could eat with other people in the building, talk in a relaxed atmosphere, and learn from each other. That was cross-pollination through social-interaction in action! And nobody droned on and on about it.
3. Explore other social media connections. Learning through online forums like Twitter has greatly expanded the field of professional learning because it connects folks around the world who also care about education. But there may also be a problem with that model because we tend to join the hashtags we know and discuss the topics about which we feel comfortable. For instance, I tend to buzz around #mschat and #satchat every week, which are both exhilarating tweet ups, but I don't check out other chats that may also help me grow. So we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate by joining other tweet ups in other content areas, other states, and other countries around the globe. Google "Educational Twitter Chats" and explore the full calendar that's available. Then schedule a time (maybe with your team) to visit one new tweet up each week or monthto see what other people are discussing and sharing.
4. Reflect and share about learning in different ways. With the pace of our days, typical professional learning can feel like a drive-thru service: quick, convenient, and easily digestible. As a result, it can be difficult to find time to reflect and share about what we've learned—even though we know that those actions are essential to the learning process. So we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate by lingering on the pedagogical petals longer and finding unique ways to reflect on what we've learned. For example, as a middle school administrator, I once had a math teacher who openly admitted that he was in a rut with his teaching. He was organized beyond organized. He had his lessons all planned out. But he wasn't going anywhere. We lingered on his professional learning and discussed his goals and tried something new: reflective journaling. Every week, he wrote his feelings down about what he wanted to try, what he thought about teaching and learning, and whatever else was on his mind. By the end of the year, he had discovered some new things about himself as a teacher because he had lingered, reflected in a new way, and made professional learning buzzworthy for himself.
5. Make PD conferences places for new connections. When we have the opportunity to go to a face-to-face learning event, such as a conference, we may spend time planning out the sessions we want to attend, the learning goals we want to address, and the resources we want to order from vendors. But do we plan out who we want to meet and connect with at the event—beyond the people from our own schools? Michael Fullan talks about the need to "deprivatize" education to help it (and ourselves) grow. In order to do that, we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate with other people at professional learning events. Fortunately, many conferences (like AMLE2017) are providing more time and more ways for attendees to connect, so take advantage of those moments and get engaged with other attendees who have new ideas and solutions. Get email addresses. Grab Twitter handles. Jot down phone numbers. And reach back out to these fellow busy bees after the conference is over. In other words, to make face-to-face PD buzzworthy, do more than fly with the bees from your own pedagogical garden!
So what are you doing like the bees would do to make professional learning buzzworthy for the critical middle grades and beyond?
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?