The ABCs of Middle Level Education

Music in the Middle Grades

30 May 2017

Music in the Middle Grades

Grow Music Education and Get Loud about Music in Your Middle School!

With the new AMLE2017 conference song and video up on the interwebs, music is on my mind. Music is everywhere. In our cars. In our phones. In our classrooms. In our homes. Music is even with me as I write this blog (thank you, DJ Shadow). And, of course, music is a part of everything we do in the critical middle grades. How so?

First, we have a unique sonic vantage point when it comes to music. Most people only hear musicians after they have already practiced countless hours, played numerous songs, recorded multiple albums, rehearsed on many stages, etc. Middle school educators get to see and listen to students learn instruments for the first time. Is it always pleasant to the ears? Is it always satisfying to the listening palette? Not necessarily, but music in the middle grades is about the process as well as the product. And there's no need for auto-tune here. We get to experience art and artists taking shape every day. And that's all thanks to the outstanding band, chorus, and orchestra teachers that we have in our buildings on a daily basis. Thanks to their dedication, our students are celebrated for the notes they play or sing on a score, not just for the scores they make on a test. Thanks to their passion, our students have another joyous reason to come to school every day. And thanks to their positive outreach, families see our schools are great places where their children are celebrated as musicians, singers, performers, creators, and artists.

So now what? If you want to increase attendance at your school, increase the number of music and art opportunities you offer on a daily basis. While we want all of our students to be academically driven, some kids are more propelled by the arts. And music class is what keeps them coming to school! And do the same thing if you want to increase grit, resilience, and social-emotional awareness in students. Students in band learn that it's not about one person, one instrument, or one section that makes the band work; it's about collaboration and cooperation. It's about trying again and again even when it sounds rough the first time. And it's also about supporting your fellow musician—because we're all trying to make this piece of music sound great. That takes positive social-emotional behavior, patience, and tolerance—all life skills we want to instill in our young adolescents. And I'm speaking from firsthand knowledge. As I've mentioned before in other blogs and articles, I might not have survived my junior high school years if it weren't for my band teacher and my beloved low brass friend, my tuba. And my own seventh grader has been able to struggle, succeed, and create with the trombone thanks to exceptional band teachers at his school. It's given him another handhold on the mountain of early adolescence. Something else to help him say, “Hey, I've got this!”

Music is also part of the critical middle grades because it's the perfect metaphor for what we do on a daily basis. Take a guitar, for example. In its essence, a guitar is a box of wood and some strings. What makes it truly sing is when those parts are put together. For the strings, each of them has a specific note it plays (E, A, D, G, B, E), and that's nice; but what makes it really cook is when they are tuned and played together. That's also the essence of interdisciplinary teaming. Each teacher on a grade level can be good at teaching his or her content area (ELA, SS, Sci, Math, Art), and that's nice. But what makes a grade level really cook is when teachers are put together on interdisciplinary teams across the content areas so they can build relationships, create artistic teaching and learning, and really get to know their audience (students and families). Will there be some disharmony and discord when a team is first put together? Of course! It's the same with an instrument. Like guitar strings, getting every person in tune takes time and a patient, listening ear. Again, there's no such thing as auto-tune in the middle grades! And will the interdisciplinary team always remain in tune throughout the year? Of course not. That's why we build relationships with each other and check in and tune up every day during common planning time. And when we play our middle grades music in harmony, our students are the audience that benefits every time.

Continuing the guitar connection, I also think about the role of the amplifier as it pertains to what we need to do in middle schools. An amplifier, of course, amplifies the music created by a guitar. Without an amplifier, a guitar on its own is nice; but what really makes it cook is when it is plugged into the amplifier so it can sing louder, prouder, and more voluminously across the landscape. What's the middle grades connection? With the amplifier, I contend that we can't just play our middle grades music quietly in our schools. That's nice work, but more people need to hear our song. We need to plug in our pedagogical guitars, crank up the volume, and let the whole community, district, state, and world know all the amazing stuff we're doing! Many people in our communities think they know the middle school song and what it's all about, but we need to play them the new critical middle grades tune! We need to get loud and proud by publishing our stories in the local papers, getting on radio and television stations, websites, community posts, etc. In other words, we need to do more than show up—we need to get voluminous and step up!

So how are you celebrating music in the middle grades and helping the music of teaching and learning grow in your school on a daily basis? How are you getting loud and proud about your middle school?


Major and Minor Characters in the Story of School

18 May 2017

Major and Minor Characters in the Story of School

5 Tips to Support Students and Staff in the Grand Narrative

Homework vs. no homework. Soft skills vs. hard skills. Chunky vs. smooth peanut butter. BYOD vs. low tech. Axe body spray vs. breathing normally. Ugh. I typically avoid writing or speaking about binary relationships because nothing is ever that simple. Especially not in the critical middle grades. Young adolescents and their ever-shifting nature force us to see the subtle, often contradictory shades of life. And while that can be frustrating at times (especially for people who want fast decisions), I think it's pretty cool. Life should be about thoughtfulness and exploration. So here's the binary relationship that I would like to discuss on today's ABCs blog with two letter M words: Major vs. Minor. These terms appeal to me from an interdisciplinary perspective—but specifically with language arts. How? And how do they relate to middle level education?

As a former (and forever) language arts teacher, I think about school as a grand narrative, a story with so much hope and possibility. And like any story, it has a clear setting, plot lines, conflicts, resolutions, themes, and, of course, characters. Both major and minor. And we like to think that every student and staff member feels like a major character in the story of school—as a valued, contributing person in the narrative. Major characters are vital to the success of a story and to the growth of a positive culture. They get things done and for the best reasons. Unfortunately, that isn't always the case. Some staff members come to school, and they feel like minor characters in the story of school. They've lost their fire. They've lost their passion. They're going through the motions. Perhaps they're even counting down the days and checking out completely. And similarly, some students come to school feeling and acting like minor characters in the story of school. They've lost their spark. They're disconnecting from the class and community. They're almost devoid of emotion. Or perhaps, they're starting to fight back against the story of school just so they can feel involved and noticed. When both staff members and students feel like minor characters, you can feel it in the culture and community of the school. So how do we support staff and students who've adopted the minor-character mindset and help them feel like empowered, valued major characters in the story of school? Here are some suggestions:

1. Use movement, proximity, empathy, and listening skills. In other words, go to those staff members and students, ask them caring questions, and then genuinely listen. Yes, sometimes people just want to be left alone, and I get that completely. However, when solitary reflection/mindfulness turns into pervasive isolation/loneliness, it's not helpful. And if they don't open up like a conversational flower at first, don't judge and give up. Empathize and stick with it. We've all adopted the minor-character mindset before, and it can be hard to get out of it.

2. Ask them for help. Sometimes, all it takes to reignite a fire is one simple spark. In other words, when people feel like minor characters with no relevance or impact, they need to be reminded that they do matter and that they can help—with a short, positive task that gives them micro-success. And then you can build on that, like you would with an ember. If you suddenly push them onto a huge committee or give them a colossal project to do, it may compound their minor-character mindset because they may feel overwhelmed or alone in a crowd. And with students in particular, give them a job or a role in your class—and make it casual. You don't need to tell the world, "Johnny's my helper today!" Make it like a cool, secret agreement that is just for them and that really helps you out. Act like handing out papers is the best thing since sliced bread ("Man, I don't know what I'd do if you weren't here to help me pass out those papers! Thanks!!"). Get excited, be authentic, and start small to change their self-efficacy and sense of agency.

3. Notice the small stuff. When you see that disconnecting staff member or student in the hallway, in the mailroom, in the classroom, wherever, say something. Do something. Wave. Smile. Fist-bump. High-five. Compliment their shoes. Whatever it takes. As someone who drifts in and out of disconnection and discontent, I can tell you firsthand that those simple gestures matter. They pull people out of their inward spiral and remind them that someone cares enough to say, ask, or do something.

4. Develop a team approach. In order to help someone feel like a major character in the story of school, you can't and shouldn't do it alone. Fortunately, middle schools are hooked up for this kind of interdisciplinary teaming work. When you meet together as an ID team, talk about the kids who seem disconnected and figure out ways to reconnect them. Find team-based ways to get those students involved little by little. And at this time of year—as you are discussing transition from one grade to the next—be sure to talk to next year's grade level about the kids who have adopted the minor-character mindset and how they can continue to work with them. And with staff members, you can do the same thing as a team. If someone is starting to check out, talk about what's going on and how the team can reconnect with them and rekindle their fire before they burn out.

5. Collect and act on data. Yes, the D word (Data) has relevance with students and staff members who are feeling like minor characters. Because someone doesn't just wake up one day and think, "Oh boy! I'm going to disconnect and be a minor character today!" It happens over time. Small negative actions, interactions, and setbacks that happen every day chip away at people—until they start to fade out, power down, give up. Fortunately, that's data we can collect and act on. We can figure out when and how those setbacks are happening (and what kind they are), and see if there are trends we can work with. Are the setbacks academic in nature? What class(es)? Which teacher(s)? Are they social-emotional? Who's involved? Who needs to be involved? And that's just the quantitative (numerical) data. The powerful, empowering data happens when we sit and talk with that student or staff member and collect the qualitative data to find the story behind the number story. And once we have all of that important data in hand, we work collaboratively with the student or staff member to develop a caring, consistent plan of action to help them develop a major-character mindset.

So as you examine the characters in the story of your school, think about what you're doing to help all students and staff members feel like major characters in that grand narrative. It can be as simple as a gesture, a task, or a listening ear. So add the "e" to human and be humane to everyone you serve and to everyone who serves your students.


Motivating Young Adolescents: What's Your Recipe?

4 May 2017

Motivating Young Adolescents: What's Your Recipe?

How to Keep Middle Grades Students Motivated in the Edu-Kitchen

If you read last week's moving, marvelously humble post about Mulch, you know that we've moved from the letter C to the letter M in the ABCs blog. Before we put the next M word in the cognitive crockpot, let's use our senses to explore the letter itself and figure out how it marries with the magical middle grades, shall we? The sound of the letter M is perfect from a sonic perspective because it is the sound of wondering, as in "Mmmmm, that's a good question" and "Mmmmm, that's an interesting chicken nugget." As we all know, early adolescence is an amazing age of discovery propelled by curious, quirky, random, exploratory, exploding questions—because it is the wonder years. And we must buckle up for the queries thrown our way and embrace them wholeheartedly! Who needs the mundane question when you can have the magnificent? Who needs the routine query when you can have the remarkable? We need more questions that blow our hair back, make us pause, and cause us to say, "Mmmm, now that's some kind of question!" And the shape of the letter M is also apropos for early adolescence—because it is the wonder years. Look at the letter M. It's like a student's life. They sometimes run right into an emotional/academic/social wall. But then they muster the strength to scale it. And then they stand at the top of the summit, only to slip down into the valley again. But then they gather themselves (with some support, perhaps) and climb and ascend again—to another summit. Finally, they stand at the top of the peak and proudly survey their road ahead, and hopefully realize they are standing on another precarious ledge. The letter M: that's the shape of early adolescence, for sure. Climb. Fall. And climb again.

Now that we've examined M itself, it's time to tackle another M word that connects to middle level education. Let's check out Motivation in the critical middle grades. And yes, we could go down the traditional route and discuss the differences between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. And yes, we could chat about the good and the bad about incentive programs. And yes, we could even wax on about the merits of token economies. But I have an appetite for something more—in fact, I'd like to create a recipe for motivation in the middle grades. Here we go:

  • Preheat the oven because motivation is best created and served up in a consistently warm, caring environment. You can't put a motivational incentive program into a cold, rigid culture and expect it to flourish. But be careful not to crank up the heat too much or you risk burning your students out.
  • 1 Cup of Asking. Rather than assuming what will motivate your young adolescents, take some time to ask them what will inspire them to work and try harder.
  • 2 Tablespoons of Listening and Collecting. Mix immediately with the cup of Asking because nothing builds a young adolescent's motivation more than knowing that someone is actually listening to them—and is actually collecting and/or writing down information about who they are, what they need, what they want, etc. The Collecting ingredient can be added through an informal face-to-face conversation or a "What Motivates Me" survey/questionnaire. Be sure to add this ingredient with care—stir in gradually and genuinely. Don't just pass out the survey and say, "Do this. Because."
  • 2 Tablespoons Family Input. Simultaneously or immediately after you mix in Listening and Collecting with your students, reach out to the families, ask them to contribute to the recipe, and stir in their input. As with students, this can be accomplished through a survey, a questionnaire, and/or a phone call. These home-grown mix-ins not only add local flavor to the motivational recipe, but they also add things students may have forgotten to mention and they increase family engagement and interest in what you're cooking up!
  • 2 Cups Acting. After you've done a thorough job of Listening and Collecting and mixed it all together, let it rise for approximately 2 weeks in a warm, stable classroom environment while you take time to discuss the savory data with your interdisciplinary team or grade level. While these conversations are happening, find consistent, authentic ways to act on the things that motivate your students. Let your data help you determine if/when extrinsic rewards are used, what kind, how frequently, and to whom. Bottom line with the Acting ingredient: if you've listened and collected but just put their information in a filing cabinet or vegetable crisper, you're not really using or acting on that vital information. That's a demotivator for any student.
  • Passionately yet carefully pour all ingredients into a firm, flexible glass pan (for transparency) and place into the warm, preheated oven in your edu-kitchen.
  • Watch, monitor, and check in to make sure that the baking process is happening in a balanced, even way. Work with other team members to ensure that all students' motivational needs are being met. This will also require time to check in, look at the data, and make the necessary adjustments to the recipe, to the oven temperature, and to the expectations.
  • Throughout the school year, serve up the warm motivational baked goods for each and every student with grace, passion, joy, humor, and care!

So what would your motivational recipe look like for the critical middle grades? Are your students eager and hungry about school—or have they lost their appetite?