The ABCs of Middle Level Education
Leadership Lessons to Help Middle Schools Blossom and Grow
It's finally spring—and time for blossoming, growing, flourishing, and mulch. That's right, mulch.
For anyone unaware of the joys of mulch, mulch comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors, and you can buy it in large bags or even have it delivered in one large heap to your home. Regardless of its character or mode of delivery, mulch is a special item that reminds me of leadership in the critical middle grades.
So here are key mulch facts and school-based implications:
1. Mulch can keep weeds from growing. One of the key reasons why people put down mulch is to stamp down weeds that want to rise up through the soil and steal nutrients from other plants. Mulch acts like a thick, stifling blanket that cuts off their access to sunlight, air, etc. If you don't do that, weeds can grow and overtake your glorious spring flowers just as they are beginning to blossom. What's the leadership connection? Being an effective middle grades leader means that you know where potentially negative issues are growing, and you know how to handle them. You don't wait for them to go away on their own—because if you do, their roots will spread out and snuff out the positive growth you and your faculty are trying to accomplish. Strong leaders go to the issue, get their hands in the dirt and deal with those weedy issues. And that means getting your hands in the mulch, spreading down a healthy layer of positivity, consistency, and urgency, and checking in on the health of your other flowers. Mulch can't be spread from the front office!
2. Mulch can beautify your garden. In addition to helping with weed issues, putting down mulch is also a great way to refresh your flower beds, garden plots, and other spaces in the great outdoors. It's a way to communicate to the world, "Hey! That's not just fresh mulch! We've got pride over here in this yard!" So what's the leadership connection? Putting down mulch is like spreading fresh, positive communication, and an effective middle grades leader needs to know when and where to get it out there for the school, community, and world to see. Highlighting great instructional practices. Giving shout outs to exceptional volunteers. Spotlighting outstanding student successes. This kind of work is especially essential during the spring, after those long winter months have taken their toll, and the end of the school year is just beyond reach. Therefore, as a strong middle grades leader, you can't wait for others to spread that spirit-lifting mulch. That mulch should be in your hands!
3. Mulch can cover up unseen issues. One cautionary note about mulch and how some folks use it. Mulch has been utilized by some people to hide garden blemishes, uncut roots, holes, etc. Instead of fixing the problem, they simply throw a big chunk of mulch on it, so it isn't visible to someone walking by. It gives the illusion that everything is fine—until someone trips on that root or cracks an ankle in that hole. So what's the leadership connection? The mulch of leadership can stave back negative forces and it can promote and spread positivity, but it should not be used to cover up real issues. As aforementioned, when a middle level leader sees a potentially troubling issue, he pr she needs to get out there and spread the mulch from an ethic of care and an ethic of pragmatism—not an ethic of avoidance. Strong leaders tend to issues because they genuinely care about how they might impact students, teachers, and other stakeholders. And they also tend to issues because they understand how those issues can affect the pragmatics and logistics of the school. Hence, as a middle grades leader, you need to spread that mulch with passion and purpose!
4. Mulch can catch on fire. While this aspect seems implausible, I've seen it happen firsthand. In Georgia, humongous mulch mountains often sit by the highway, waiting for people to order piles of it for their homes. And in Hotlanta (where temperatures are, well, hot), those giant mulch piles can literally smoke and catch on fire—because the temperature gets so hot that the mulch itself combusts! To prevent this from happening, the company has to regularly cultivate and stir the mulch up, so all that hot air can get out. It's true! So again, what's the leadership connection? First, a strong middle grades leader never lets mulch sit around and smolder. In other words, he or she seeks out opportunities to spread the positivity—instead of hoarding the mulch or waiting for someone else to do it. Second, an effective leader also knows when and how to cultivate the mulch to make sure it doesn't get too settled or stale or fiery! Leaders can find themselves dealing with far more incendiary issues if they become complacent or reluctant to spread that leadership mulch!
So as you tend to your school house this Spring, spread that mulch with commitment in your hands, growth in your mind, and care in your heart—and watch your educational garden grow!
Six Final Words to Create a Great School for Young Adolescents!
It's time for us to bid farewell to our good friend, the letter C, for the ABCs blog. Before we move to our next letter, let's take a look back at sensational, scintillating C. We've looked at the magical middle grades through the lenses of Conversation, Cross-Content exploration, Cross-Pollination Professional Development, Courageous Construction, Critical Urgency and a whole slew of 22nd Century Cs. And we've learned a lot, haven't we? But with any list, it's inevitable that words get left out. Not intentionally. Not maliciously. No harm meant, but to pay honor to some of those words, here's a final list of six C words related to middle level education: (what words would you include?)
Confident: As middle school educators, we must be confident in our efforts, in our fellow teachers, in our administrators, in our students—even as we provoke, nudge, and push for change. And as middle school educators, we must continually instill confidence in our students, so they, too, can feel empowered to make positive changes in their lives and in their communities.
Cheese: I am an unabashed fan of all cheeses—in a wrapper, in a tub, in a squeezy can, sprayed on a Cheeto, aged, shredded, etc. Cheese (in whatever form) is a beautifully diverse and accessible tool, and the educational experiences (in all of their forms) we offer young adolescents should be equally malleable, ready, and delightful. However, we should be careful not to lean too heavily on the pre-wrapped cheese when feeding ourselves and others. Similarly, we need to operate with the same caution when using pre-packaged, purchased lessons, curricula, etc. A product that is convenient doesn't mean that it's quality.
Chaos: A couple of thoughts about chaos. First, many people assume that young adolescents desire a chaotic environment. They mistakenly think our students' changing, shifting minds are like wanton tornadic weather systems that enjoy spinning and causing destruction everywhere. Those of us who work with young adolescents know that they seek out and thrive when there is consistency, routine, and structure. Now, they may buck up against our fence lines, but they feel safe because they're there. Second, the ability to work in chaos is one of the most important skills a middle school educator and administrator needs. It's critical to be organized. It's vital to manage time well. But it's equally important to know how to function when nothing is organized and nothing happens according to plan.
Climate: I've read recently that climate grows culture. Basically, the small, daily things we do create the climate in our schools, and over time, those repeated actions foster the school-wide culture. If you want a negative, toxic culture, let the naysayers have their say at every meeting. Let the pessimists push their agendas on us to drive out bold innovations. Let the extinguished educators squash the fire of the distinguished, passionate ones. However, it you want a positive, collaborative culture, don't wait for an administrator to clean it up. Stand up and fight back against those little minds and their little actions by committing acts of hope, teaching lessons of innovation, and spreading words of promise. Through little steps, you can be the one who shifts the culture of the grade level, the ID team, and the school. The kids are watching and waiting.
Comfort: A couple of dichotomous thoughts about this term, too. We definitely need to create comfortable learning environments for our students and ourselves. We all need places where we feel like we can express ourselves freely and take intellectual risks. Spaces where we can collaborate with peers and create progressive stuff. But too much comfort can be counterproductive. If we stay in our comfort zones and we don't push ourselves beyond them, we can stagnate and our cognitive clay can harden. We need to stay impressionable, so new learning can make an imprint. What would happen if we occasionally took a wrecking ball to the prescribed ZPD? What would it look like if we pushed our students and ourselves to new, challenging places despite the levels and labels we've been given?
Conference: There is only one national and international conference devoted to the critical middle grades, and that's the AMLE annual conference. While I know that I may be a little biased, I contend that there is no better conference around to inspire and propel greatness for the middle grades. There is no better professional learning event about middle level education to bring people together, to connect passionate educators, and to grow great schools for young adolescents. If you haven't been to an AMLE conference, now's the time: AMLE2017 will be in fabulous Philly on November 6-8. We have low rates and high impact. We have variety in the types of sessions and great speakers you thirst for. And it's going to be in Philly—need I say more? Get involved and get to it!
Again, as we say adios to the letter C, give this question some thought: What C words do you think relate to middle level education? What words did I leave off? Break out of your comfort zone and add them in the Comments section or on Twitter!
Walk the Walk about Talking the Talk!
Conversation is something that we often take for granted—like air. It swirls around us. We breathe it in. We listen to it as it bends and curves. Our ears hear it. However, even though it is as critical as the air we breathe, we often aren't really listening. By its very definition and etymology, conversation gives us life and purpose—because according to Merriam-Webster, a conversation is an "exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas." And if we look at the etymology of the word, it's even more telling. It derives from the Latin "convertere," which means "to turn around."
Why are the definition and origin of "conversation" so important to middle level education, in particular? They are vital for a couple of key reasons. First, young adolescents are trying to achieve in multiple areas, and one of those areas is the social-emotional one. That's why our students need conversational practice (yes, we're talking about practice) so they can understand what it means to share and "exchange" ideas that may result in a change or "turn" in opinion. Too often, though, the discussions they hear and witness in their communities, on their televisions, in the hallways, etc., aren't civil, balanced, collaborative conversations during which both parties learn something from each other. Instead, they witness power struggles during which each person tries to win the talking war so their opinion is victorious and the other opinion is silenced or relegated to the shadows. How can we create and promote a positive climate and culture in our schools if that is how they see, experience, and do conversation? How can we implement a Positive Behavioral Intervention System (PBIS), if language and conversation are used to divide and conquer instead of to bring together?
The answer goes back to modeling and practice. Teachers and staff need to be sure that they are demonstrating effective conversational strategies so students can hear and see how it's done. Verbal and nonverbal cues. Turn-taking. Summarizing. Body language. Politely disagreeing. Affirming. We are the head cooks in the conversational kitchen, and we should be using those dialogue ingredients liberally for ourselves and for our students. We are the models of conversation. In fact, school may be the only place that gives them strong examples of civil discourse and talk. In addition to modeling, it's about time. Thus, we need to provide opportunities for students to talk with each other in structured and unstructured times—and with our support along the way. We need to ensure that time is afforded in lesson plans for students to converse with each other, and not just at the end of the class (in order to fill up time or because they've earned it). Rather, we should see conversation as integral to teaching and learning in the middle grades. Young adolescents are learning the subtle and not-so subtle nuances of language now. We can't wait until later.
And conversation is also critical for the middle grades because that's how we create and maintain relationships with the young adolescents we serve. Whether it's through homeroom or advisory or another less-structured time in the school day, we need to just talk to kids. We need to ask them good, caring questions about their lives—and then hush. Let them talk. Let them share. Stop talking at your students and start conversing. To see where such a conversation could take me, I recorded an interview with my own seventh grader, Parker, and his fourth grade brother, Holden, for your listening pleasure. I asked them questions about early adolescence, school, and their challenges and triumphs—and Parker asked me questions, as well. Get your ears ready, check out the conversation, and enjoy the totally appropriate middle school ending! And to be 110% clear, my sons and I talk all the time, so please don't think this interview is an isolated occurrence!
So let's devote time to conversation in the critical middle grades and explore an exchange of ideas with our students. What could we all learn? What could we all unlearn?
4 Scientific Ways to Create a Great School
One of the foundational concepts in the critical middle grades is cross-content learning. We create interdisciplinary plans and bridge curricula for a few reasons. First, we know that young adolescents learn more when they can see that something has relevance in another class. Therefore, we may ask our students to graph a character's journey throughout a short story, or we may prompt them to write original word problems in math that incorporate similes. Second, by integrating curricula, we know young adolescents learn more when they can see a content area through a new lens. Hence, we may ask students to react to the Battle of Gettysburg by comparing two paintings of that event so they use the lens of art to re-vision that historical moment, or we may urge them to read Civil War soldiers' letters so they use the emotional lens of primary source documents to see its gravity. Third, we also know that learning beyond the school house doesn't happen in separated content departments; rather, we learn using every discipline throughout our lives and jobs—and we want to prepare our students for that college and career reality.
So there it is: the benefits of a cross-content approach are clear. But it begs another question: wouldn't it be beneficial for us to apply the same cross-content, interdisciplinary framework to the world of sustained school improvement? Let's take that question out for a spin, rev up its engines, and try to connect aspects of science to improvement in the critical middle grades (and beyond)!
If you're an eager, passionate educator (and I know you are), take a cross-content look at your school through these four scientific lenses that all begin with the letter C:
- Constellations: I wrote about the concept of Constellational Leadership in an AMLE article a little while back, but it's on my mind again for three reasons. First, for sustainable school improvement, it's not about a couple of teacher or leader "superstars"; it's about how we align all of the stars we have in order to create something stellar. Second, when we see a star in the sky, the light we see could be millions of years away. So for sustainable school improvement, it's about seeing the immediate and long-term potential in the stars we have. Finally, this is also the time of year when we assess and evaluate the "brightness" of our stars. For sustained school improvement, it's not always about how bright they are—it's about how they are bright. Different stars shine in different ways for different reasons.
- Constructal Law: According to this theory (Adrian Bejan, 1996), flow systems thrive and evolve to provide easier access to imposed currents that flow through it. So a river evolves to provide water with an easier access to flow towards a larger body of water. Lungs and trees are shaped to provide an easier pathway for air to flow in and out. For sustained school improvement, we should see schools as constructed flow systems, as well, that should evolve to ensure increasingly better access for all of our stakeholders. Access to experience and shape curricula. Access to get and give information. Access to challenging, empowering learning experiences. Access to multiple opportunities for success. Therefore, we need to determine how our schools are evolving with equity-access in mind—and how they are impeding that access, as well.
- Circuitry: while I'm not a licensed electrician, I've put up lights on the holidays, so I know a thing or two about circuits. Depending on the type of circuit you have, if one bulb is out, the entire string of lights won't work. Fortunately, with the holiday lights, you're given another fuse to put into the bulb to get it going again. For sustained school improvement, it can be a very similar electrical circuit process. This is the time of year when we need to be particularly aware of the wattage of our educational bulbs—our own bulb and the bulbs around us. We may feel burned out. We may feel overheated. We may dim. Just like the string of lights, when one light goes down, it affects the entire circuit. Therefore, we need to be present and vigilant in each other's lives and know when someone needs a lift, a listen, or another fuse to spark their spirit through the school year (and into next year).
- Collision theory: This theory posited by Max Trautz (1916) and William Lewis (1918) states that successful collisions between particles happen when there is enough energy—also known as activation energy—at the moment of impact to break the preexisting bonds and form all new bonds and result in a product. We can increase the number of successful collisions by increasing the concentration of the reactant particles or raising the temperature. For sustained school improvement, the collision theory spells out interesting parallels for teachers and leaders. To grow our schools and create a collaborative culture, we need to bring together more voices, minds, and hearts into the decision-making. No decisions should be made in isolation—one particle by itself. Rather, we need to increase the number of reactant particles so we can increase our chances for successful, purposeful collisions. Hence, we need to add more people (and more diverse people) to our leadership teams as well as our student and parent councils. We need to provide more time in faculty meetings for people to discuss school improvement goals. Let them be the reactant particles bouncing around and talking without constraints. Will it always result in a perfect product? Not necessarily. Will it be messy? Perhaps. However the process will increase school-wide dialogue and successful collisions. We should be careful about increasing the temperature to create these collisions. Creating a sense of urgency and passion is critical, but teachers and stakeholders already feel enough heat and pressure when it comes to producing results. Heat can be an unpredictable element in the area of sustained school improvement. Use it wisely!
This cross-content, scientific examination of school improvement was a stretch for me, but sometimes to act on a concept in a new way, we need to see it through a new lens. So that's the challenge: invite your faculty and staff to look at your school, your vision/mission, middle level education, etc., using a cross-content lens. It may be just the thing to awaken, heighten, and rekindle their passion for sustained school improvement.