The ABCs of Middle Level Education
Your Altitude is Connected to Your Attitude
What does it mean to be brave? Bravery has many different connotations in the middle grades. First, as most of us who work with young adolescents know, if you go to any party, picnic, or public place and tell people that you work with middle grades kiddos, the response we get is a mixture of bewilderment, bemusement, and “Whoa. I could never do that. You’re so brave.” Brave. As if we are literally waging war on some unimaginable front. Brave. As if we are desperately trying to defeat a foe bent on destruction and mayhem. Brave. As if we have signed ourselves up for a lifetime of harsh conditions, misery, and disappointment. Brave. And when they say “you’re so brave,” we often play along and perhaps even share a wild tale from the “front lines” to confirm their suspicions about working with young adolescents.
Maybe we say, “Oh this one kid I had once…”
Or we utter, “You’re never going to believe this kid in my class…”
And sometimes we smirk, “This kid drives me crazy--you’ve got to hear this one…”
Now, I’m not immune to this kind of talk, but here’s the charge: I think we should battle against that talk— because it disrespects our kids and our profession. Instead of buying into that negative narrative, we need to combat that deficit rhetoric.
Okay, so how do we talk about bravery in the middle grades then? Let’s start by talking about what we get to do—instead of what we have to do. We bravely get to work with awesome kids. We bravely get to collaborate with awesome teachers. We bravely get to ask awesome questions. We bravely get to see awesome gains. We bravely get to face challenges that no one else faces. We bravely get to hear awesome jokes that no one else hears. So let’s tell it clear: the work we bravely get to do doesn’t come from a subtractive, desperate, combative place. It comes from a place of hope, possibility, and opportunity. We are brave because we value and understand young adolescents and admire the fact that they question and challenge us at times. And we are brave because we want our students to have the tools—the social-emotional, academic, behavioral, and moral currency—they need to be successful, happy, and well. So the next time somebody calls you brave for working with young adolescents, explain your bravery like that—from a place of duty, responsibility, joy, and honor to do the work. So yeah, I get to work bravely in a middle school—what do you do?
And how about the bravery that our kids show every day? Instead of telling wisecracks and disparaging stories about them just to get a laugh at a party, we should be celebrating their bravery, too. They are bravely changing more rapidly than at any other time in their lives. They are bravely navigating social worlds in our hallways, buses, classrooms, locker rooms, cafeterias, and in cyber realms, as well. They are bravely trying to determine how they fit in, why they stand out, or why they blend in so much that no one notices them at all—even at home. They are bravely asking really serious questions and looking for really meaningful answers in a world that sometimes doesn’t take them seriously. And despite all of that evidence of bravery, people still talk about young adolescents being wild, aimless, mischievous, or “off the chain” because they are “swimming in a sea of hormones.” There’s nothing respectful or brave in that kind of reductionist talk. Reducing the brave work of young adolescents to exaggerations, caricatures, or cartoonish metaphors is erroneous, harmful, and disrespectful. Our students are brave explorers, researchers, and leaders who deserve to be celebrated, not devalued, scoffed at, or mocked. So the next time somebody says you’re brave for working with “those kids,” be brave and talk about your kids—your scholars—from a place that sees them with purpose, passion, and potential. So yeah, I get to work with brave middle school kids—what do you do?
So be brave.
So be brave by standing up if you hear someone belittle middle school.
So be brave by talking positively about the middle grades.
So be brave by talking positively about what you get to do.
So be brave by celebrating the students and educators you get to work with.
So be brave.
What Do You Accept and Expect in the Middle Grades?
We’ve worked our way through the letters R and O since we started in September with this blog, and we’ve examined words that fit into the fabric of middle level education. Feeling good? Feeling challenged? Because now we’re on the move—to the letter B. In many ways, I think B is the most important letter in the alphabet because it represents a continuation, a succession, an order forward. It’s true that A starts the alphabet, but B shows you that it will move forward—just like the critical middle grades. We can’t just deliver a “Step A” talk about why we need to support young adolescents and then step away. Our duty to the students we serve is how we approach “Step B” and beyond. It’s like Thanksgiving. Anyone can be thankful on that day—that’s when you’re told to be thankful. It’s like the letter A at the start of the line of gratitude. The true test is how we maintain that thankfulness on the next day—like the letter B. So for our students, teachers, staff, and communities, it's about how we move beyond the promise of our letter A and step up and act from letter B and beyond.
Our first B word is “Be.” Now when it comes to that word, let me confess. I battle with “Be” all the time. Be and I are frenemies in many ways—especially when it comes to middle level education. It even tears me up as a Beatles fan because they told me to “Let it Be,” but I just can’t hold fast to that philosophy all the time. My trouble with Be is the result of many years as a teacher in the middle grades. Let me explain. Without sounding like a bitter cynic in the lounge, I have watched educational trends, reforms, fixes, and fads knock on the school house door, unpack their bags, hang up their clothes, use our dishes, take up our time—only to have them pack everything back up and move on. Without even a wave and a “goodbye” —their presence cloying to everything but not really changing anything substantially. Whenever I see that happen to a school or a school system, I think about “be”. As a teacher and an administrator, I just wanted to be. Many days, I would close my door and say out loud, “Man, just let me be.” I wanted to be trusted to use my knowledge and expertise about teaching and learning with the students I was serving without having to worry about the latest trend or mandate hovering like a spectre in my class. Just let me be. I wanted to be accepted as the teacher and administrator I was without having to constantly reinvent myself to fit into someone else’s pre-packaged method for lesson planning, observing, or improving. Just let me be. I also wanted to be exceptional for my students and families: to be able to ask the big questions with my students; to dig enthusiastically into the critical, cognitive soup with my fellow teachers and administrators; to push back against the fences that have been erected in our school houses. Just let me be. You all pop the hood and keep fooling around with the wires and gaskets. I’m going to be over here helping kids. Just let me be.
And speaking of kids, when I saw new edicts and changes sweep through the hallways I also thought to myself, “Man, just let them be.” I also wanted my students to just be because I knew that they would also flourish if we would build our school building on a foundation of “Be.” With everything that young adolescents are going through that is unsettled and shifting, they need consistency and routine. They just need to be. They don’t need schools that are constantly instituting new expectations, rules, and programs—especially those that don’t put students first. They need schools and classrooms where joy is abundant, active learning is safe, achievement in every area is expected, and their voices, choices, interests, and needs are acknowledged and used to make change. If that isn’t happening, I fight for just letting them be.
But my battle with Be isn’t a simple one. While I have the urge to just let teachers be and to let students be, I also know that we can’t just let it be. That’s not how improvement happens. We have to be/lieve that teachers and students in the middle grades can be/come something more. We have to believe, for example, that a student can become better at math. We have to believe, similarly, that our colleague can become better at teaching it. We have to believe that an administrator can become better at restorative justice so students learn from missteps. We have to believe, as well, that a parent can become better at understanding and supporting his or her young adolescent child. We can’t simply watch idly as the tepid water of mediocrity washes over and mutes our desire for consistent excellence in the middle grades. Perhaps our battle with Be should start with figuring out why we push, challenge, insist, encourage, prod, nudge. And perhaps the battle with Be could be won when we acknowledge that if we rest on the current versions of ourselves—teachers, students and administrators—we may never become who we were meant to be.
- What do you believe about letting it be?
- Have you become the person you are or the person you should be?
- How do you help students and fellow educators be more?
Supporting everyone in the middle grades isn't easy, but it's worth it.
Today's word is odyssey—so here's a quick Cliffs Notes review. In Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, the main character, Odysseus navigates his way home through punishing seas, tempestuous storms, and loathsome creatures, and once he arrives at his doorstep, he must face more challenges from suitors who want him out of the picture. So what does this tale have to do with middle level education? How is the middle school journey like an odyssey? As we grow professionally and as we value young adolescents and prepare to teach them, it's important to take note of a simple fact: everyone's got an odyssey. Everyone is trying to get through something.
This is true for the teachers and staff in our buildings. We're all working through our own individual odysseys, and we need to treat each other accordingly. Just like This We Believe reminds us, “the school environment is safe, inclusive, and supportive of all” (p. 33-34). That must include the teachers, faculty and staff, too and how we support and include each other. Therefore, perhaps the first step is recognizing who we are. While Odysseus was heralded as a brave soldier, he was also a husband to Penelope and father to Telemachus. Similarly, while we are professionals and artists in the craft of teaching who soldier on in the classroom every day, we are also people—parents, siblings. aunts, uncles, children, former young adolescents. And we all need support in our journeys.
For me, as a first year teacher trying to make ends meet, I could have benefited from that. My odyssey included doing lesson plans in a pretty rough apartment (i.e., cockroaches were my fellow tenants) while also cooking in a short-order “restaurant” every night. I was also trying to make pedagogical ends meet during the day, teaching ninth and tenth grade Basic English—helping students who had never read, written, or spoken English or (even more challenging) helping students who knew English but had developed such a reluctance towards literacy that they hated my class, the work, and me personally. At the end of those early days in the school house, I would often sit at my desk and wonder why I was struggling. Like Odysseus, I felt like I was fighting my way through Charybdis and Scylla with little direction home. And I didn't want to tell anyone or ask anyone for help because I was afraid that other teachers (and administrators) would look at me like I was a failure. That was my odyssey. Fortunately, a duty to serve my students, a supportive grade level, a desire to stay gainfully employed, and an unflappable fear of failure got me through the rough seas—and I kept on teaching, learning, struggling, and growing. And looking back on my own odyssey teaching young adolescents, I wonder, “How do we recognize and support each other along the way? We know about using RTI to help students academically and behaviorally, but do we need an RTI support system for teachers and staff?
How do we provide teachers and staff with a secure harbor for reflection, questioning, and safety when times get tough?"
All of this is also true, of course, for the young adolescents we serve. What's their odyssey? Perhaps for some students their odyssey is the ride to and from school. As educators, we typically pull up to the school house in the safety and calm of our cars; meanwhile, our students arrive after dealing with the bus and the often choppy seas of social interaction, caustic language, and pecking orders that are found there. So how do we recognize that journey and support our students as they transition into our classrooms each morning? Perhaps for some students, their Odyssey materializes in specific subject areas. As we plan our lessons and create assessments, they are working through the self-efficacy they have with our content areas. In other words, their odyssey can be a thorny combination of how they've succeeded in each content area in the past, how they are currently succeeding in each content area, and how they think they will succeed in each content area going forward. How do we recognize that struggle and support our students on that tough cognitive and psychological journey? Perhaps for some students their odyssey is home itself. We can never be too sure about what our students face after school when they walk home and close the door. It's difficult to know exactly, but it's important enough to care. It's vital enough that we acknowledge the reality. It's critical enough that we act on that knowledge in consistent, responsive ways for our students and for ourselves. And it's significant enough to realize that an odyssey is easier when we are there with warm support and a bright shoreline upon which to land.
Celebrating Error is Essential
The familiar adage that we hear about making mistakes is that “to err is human.” It is part of the process of learning and growing. In order to walk, we first had to stumble and fall. In order to ride a bicycle, most of us first toppled and tipped over. But we got back up and walked again, rode again, and tried again. And as educators, we all make mistakes, and then we move forward. As a middle school administrator leading summer school, I once forgot a major chunk of the Pledge of Allegiance while I was reciting it on the morning announcements. As a middle school teacher in Atlanta, I once had to wear my wife's khakis to Back-to-School night because I accidentally packed them in my car instead of packing my own pants. In fact, I have committed enough errors to pack a middle school cafetorium 100 times over--and while I could have simply curled up into a weeping ball, I've always kept going.
So what drives us to continue despite the possibility of failure, of pain, of embarrassment? What drives our students to come to our classes each day in spite of these daily possibilities? What pushes us as educators to try out new ideas in front of fickle (and potentially resistant) audiences of young adolescents? I think part of the answer comes with the ingredients of support and response. Let’s go back to walking and biking; we sometimes forget about the support we received in those efforts. When learning to walk, someone may have held our hand to keep us upright or placed padding on sharp corners in case we fell. When learning to ride a bike, someone may have held onto the back of the seat or made us wear a helmet in case we crashed. And in both cases, someone probably picked us up, dusted us off, praised our attempt, and gave us another shot. That kind of support and response emboldened us to try again. And in both cases, doesn’t that typify what our students need as they learn and make mistakes in the middle grades? Isn’t that what we need as educators ourselves as we attempt to create dynamic learning environments?
We are also encouraged to try again by what is celebrated. It isn’t the oops that should define us and our students. It’s the getting back up, the learning from the oops, and the keeping on. Keeping on, not in spite of the oops—rather, inspired by the oops. Because oops are awesome. Oops are effort. Oops are risk. So why do we sometimes relegate error to the shadows and only illuminate perfection? What would happen to classroom culture if we put up examples in the hallway of student work that showed the messy and marvelous learning process? Incomplete pre-writes. Scribbled research notes. First attempts with an artistic technique. What would happen to school-wide culture if we took time in faculty meetings and grade level meetings to share instructional strategies that we struggled with? Rough warm-up activities. Unfortunate assessments. Group work gone wrong. First attempts with a teaching technique.
If we celebrated failure as much as we celebrated success, would we all take more risks and learn more—about what we can do, who we are, and what we could be? If we celebrated the uncertain journey to the finish line as much as we celebrated the ultimate victor, would more of us step up and step forward? I contend that moving everyone in the critical middle grades forward begins when we redefine what error is, support our efforts in the complex act of learning, honor the messy challenges and potential triumphs, and do so patiently, calmly, gracefully, empathetically, compassionately, humbly, sensitively, humanly, and humanely. Grit is not grown alone; rather, it is undergirded by guides on the side. Resilience is not raised in isolation; instead, it is reinforced by steady supports along the way.
3 Reasons Why Observation is the Key
Observation is more than evaluation, especially in the middle level. Living and working in the middle grades means that we are constantly observing. From a literacy perspective, this means we are always analyzing text—verbal and nonverbal language. In other words, everything can be read, and we have to be critical participants in the craft of observation in order to reach every student, grow professionally, and create great schools. But what exactly does this mean in terms of improving middle level education?
First, in terms of reaching every student, we need to observe students in every landscape of their learning lives: in our classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, bus stops, locker rooms, and cyber worlds, as well. And we don't do this to police them and play "gotcha"; rather we observe students to understand them. So we can make learning more relevant and effective. So we can get to kids before they implode or explode. So we can notice the trends—the fashionable, the unfashionable, the humor, the anger, the joy, the stress. So we can remember what it feels, sounds, and looks like to be a young adolescent. While our primary motivation for observation shouldn't be to catch students in the act of misdeeds, keenly observing students on a consistent basis (with everyone involved) will drastically reduce your disciplinary referrals. Because you see issues before they become atomic blossoms.
Second, in order to grow professionally, we need to observe ourselves as teachers and leaders—and as learners. Teachers need to observe other teachers in the classroom, and administrators need to observe other administrators. Clearly, it's important to share best instructional practices at an interdisciplinary team meeting—to sit across the table and talk about what's been working with kids. But it's a completely different thing to sit in another teacher's class for an extended amount of time and observe how they put those instructional strategies into practice. Again, we don't observe to police, evaluate, or judge. We do peer observation as professional development because we are professionals developing—and what better way than to get support from other teachers?
In addition, we should closely observe our own verbal and nonverbal language in the classroom and school house. That kind of observation can be eye-opening and mind-altering. Set up a video camera (or your smart phone) and record yourself teaching—and then sit back and observe. Ask key questions about yourself and your pedagogy. What kind of language do you use? What gestures do you use? How much wait time do you actually give? Who do you call on? How do you use movement and proximity? What kind of support do you give? And then repeat the observational process again. If you only video-capture and observe one lesson, that's nice. But to truly know yourself, capture and analyze a week's worth of lessons—in every class. As a school administrator, I did that very thing for an entire semester. I recorded myself in interactions with teachers, staff, and parents, and then I analyzed those recordings for gestures, proxemics, head movement, clothing, etc. As a result, I learned a lot about dramaturgy, multi-modal interaction analysis, and how to survive the dissertation process, but I learned so much more about myself as a language user, a learner and as a school leader. And I learned that observation is a multipurpose tool that we can't simply leave on the shelf or use on sporadic occasions.
In the magnificent middle grades we should be training our eyes, minds, and hearts to observe every day. To reach every student. Grow professionally. And create great schools.
Boo! Mediocrity: Now, that's Scary!
With Halloween happening today, I am thinking about my fears. What scares me? In terms of education, being mediocre frightens me. Accepting mediocrity scares me. Middle schools and young adolescents don't need mediocrity. They need outstanding. They don't need tepid. They need vibrant. They need learning that lights them up with combustible joy and excitement. As Yeats once put it, “Education is not the filling of a bucket; it's the lighting of a fire.” So how do we get and keep young adolescents on fire? It's a challenging question for a number of reasons but we need to keep scratching at the answers.
First, in many ways, teaching means we row on pedagogical waters along with testing, which by its very nature is individualistic, numerically-based, and even competitive. Therefore, it's a delicate journey to bring outstanding teaching and learning based on collaboration, inquiry, creativity, communication and critical thinking all the time in the middle grades—because we don't want to sell our students short.
While we pump them up about being in our classes and lighting them up for learning, we also need to provide them the proper intellectual currency they need for future mandatory assessments. While we progressively implement performance-based assessments to demonstrate mastery and use unique seating arrangements to facilitate cooperative-learning, we also need to prepare our students for the row-based, silenced, and, frankly, isolating environment that is standardized testing. For as much as we want to rage against that machine (credit to Zach de la Rocha), we are bound to its mechanisms.
Bringing outstanding can also be a challenge because we are bound to each other, and this is especially true in the middle level where interdisciplinary teams are a key ingredient. Teams, PLCs, and collaborative grade level work should be liberating, uplifting, and informative adult-learning structures; the discourse in these structures should be respectful as it pushes, rekindling as it is fiery, rejuvenating as it creates conflict—as long as the talk, the words and the work drive us forward to help kids. We need to bring outstanding to that work, as well.
Unfortunately, what provides the challenge is that some team members are satisfied with just showing up. Their pedagogical embers are barely smoldering, and in fact, they don't care to have them stoked, prodded, or relit—and it's difficult to tell if they were ever on fire! How do we get those folks to bring outstanding to team meetings so conversations about teaching and learning can grow? Part of the answer is building team and grade level meeting constitutions together early in the school year and revisiting the norms of those constitutions often, so everyone is on the same sheet of music singing the same song. Can there be discord and disparate voices in the chorus that challenge the tune? Of course. But it has to be passionate, reasonable, respectful and driven by the needs of the audience we serve–our students and families.
The second part of the answer is knowing how to have critical conversations with the folks who disregard the constitution and who are satisfied with tepid—and then being brave enough to have those conversations. This also means that administrators driven by outstanding must support your team's work, the team's constitution, and the team's efforts to bring everyone on board—or to get certain people off the bus. That's how outstanding happens sometimes.
In addition, being outstanding every day in the classroom can be difficult because of the nature of who we serve. Sometimes, students can be enthusiastic and open to learning, and at other times, they can behave like fickle carpenters who build and tear down walls around themselves, blocking, silencing, and refusing our every effort to infuse enthusiasm into learning. But maybe the answer to bringing outstanding in the classroom begins with questions: What pushes students to grow jaded about school? What chipped away at that natural enthusiasm they had as children? What will happen if we let that continue? Will they become so embittered about learning that they drop out mentally or physically? Will they become dependent on a system to continue their education instead of being excited, independent learners who remain curious beyond grades and test scores? If so, is it okay not to bring outstanding to our students in the middle grades? I don't think so.
Ultimately, I think outstanding is the best tool we have to crack the veneer of disenchantment that some of our students (and teachers and administrators) carry. In other words, bringing outstanding may be challenging for all of the aforementioned reasons, but our young adolescents desperately need us to try. The alternative of tepid mediocrity is too frightening to accept.
Openness Media Connection
Here is an interdisciplinary, photographic connection to this week's blog about Openness. Enjoy the savory delights!
Parking lots, with all of their lines and divisions, attempt to bring order to the world of wheeled things. They tell us where to go and where to stop. I took this picture of a parking lot because they also make me think about openness in schools. They reflect the characteristics in This We Believe that state that effective middle grades schools are “inviting, safe, inclusive, and supportive of all” while they also possess “organizational structures that foster purposeful learning and meaningful relationships” (pp. 31-33). How do we make that happen? If we know that young adolescents (and those who teach and serve them) flourish when there is a healthy balance of structure and freedom... If we know that they blossom when consistency and spontaneity are wedded... If we know that they grow when there are points of demarcation and free spaces for exploration... then how do we ensure that our organizational structures are making that happen? How do we ensure that we aren’t just drawing rigid lines to control students for adult ease and convenience?
First, define what your school organizational structures are. Typically, these are the elements, policies, etc. that are intended to bring order and control to school life for all stakeholders—but they have the potential for much more. Here are some school structures to examine now and throughout the year:
- Master bell schedule
- Discipline policy
- Homework policy
- Late work policy
- Dress code policy
- Grade level structures
- Teaming structures
- Special Education models (i.e., push-in, pull-out, inclusion)
- Advisory/Advisement structure
- Technology policies (i.e., BYOD, blended learning)
Second, with a collaborative group of stakeholders at your school, ask the following questions for each of these school structures:
- What’s the point of this structure? Why do we have it? Who created it and when?
- If this structure had its own vision and mission statement, what would it be?
- How is this structure moving us forward as a developmentally-responsive middle grades program?
- How are we measuring this school structure to determine if it’s successfully supporting students, teachers, families, etc.?
- How does this structure support current students? How does it hinder them?
- How does it support current teachers and staff? How does it hinder them?
- How does it support current families? How does it hinder them?
- Does this structure reflect the needs of our future students, families, and stakeholders?
- How does this structure help students and families transition to and from our middle school? How does it hinder them?
- How does this structure help with CCR goals and the 21st Century Cs of Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity?
Third, take the responses you’ve gathered and make the following decisions with your staff, considering who will be affected directly and indirectly with each one:
- Leave the organizational structure as it is.
- Revise the organizational structure now.
- Revise the organizational structure later (specific date).
- Remove the organizational structure now.
- Remove the organizational structure later (specific date).
Is any of this work easy? No. Is this the perfect formula? No. It is a framework to create an open dialogue for future change in the middle grades, so our organizational structures are responsive and supportive of all.
Welcome back to the middle grades parade through the alphabet. Don't you feel proud that you made it through letter R? You should. And, once again, because young adolescents are rarely linear in nature, we're going to travel next to the letter O.
Before we get to the words themselves, have you checked out the letter O recently? It is round and ready for anything. Its shape is part of who it is and who we are in the middle level. The O reminds me of a rock that was once peppered by hard angles and coarse lines ... but then it was dropped in a swift current. Over time, those angles and lines were made smooth by that current's rushing water. With that rocky analogy, the O has it right—that's how we succeed in the middle grades and that's how we meet our students' needs. While maintaining our resilience and resolve as educators, we also adapt and change, so we can roll with anything that comes our way. Middle level educators are definitely smooth.
The sound of the letter O is perfect for the middle level, as well. It can be the sound of surprise, which is often what happens when working with young adolescents. Oh, what were you thinking? Oh, that's a really cool idea! Oh, let's talk about why we keep our hands to ourselves. And it can also be the sound of exclamation that we share at the end of a day. Oh, at last! Oh, I tried this awesome strategy in class! Oh, you want to know what Jimmy said in home room? Oh, you aren't going to believe this phone call I got. So in many ways, shouldn't the sound of the letter O be the official sound of the middle grades?
With all of that said, here is the first "O" word related to middle level education that comes to my mind.
Openness. In the middle grades, openness is a key ingredient. If we are going to truly reach and teach every young adolescent, we need to remain open—not closed. With everything that our students bring to the table, it can be easy to judge them, shut them down, and close our emotional doors on them. Because, sometimes, they push back against us. Because, sometimes, they find our last nerve and poke it and prod it. Because, sometimes, they flare up, shout out, and demand to know why they have to turn in their homework on time, spit out their gum, or pull up their pants in the hallway. So, yes, it can be tempting to be closed when all of that happens. But young adolescents need us to be open. Because they also ask awesome questions and search for the answers to queries that we never even thought to ask. Because they also randomly write you wonderful notes of spontaneous gratitude and stick them on your desk on their way out of class (or 10 years after they were in your class). Because they also hold the door open for you when you're trying to carry your graded papers, your teacher's edition, and your coffee mug all at once from the parking lot. In other words, we have to be open for both the challenging stuff and for their surprising triumphant moments. We have to console them when they are coarse. Lift them up when they are low. Be open when they are obstinate.
We also have to be open to understanding where students come from—physically and emotionally. In terms of where they physically come from, we have to remain open and cognizant of the fact that our kids come from homes and neighborhoods beyond the school walls. So what are their learning lives like after they leave every day? How are they supported once they get there? We have to be open and acknowledge that our classrooms and schools may be the only consistent places our students have.
And as far as where they come from emotionally, I think about the famous philosopher, Rakim (from Eric B & Rakim) who eloquently said, "It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at." While communities, neighborhoods, and geopraphy matter, we have to remain open to the fact that young adolescents live in tumultuous emotional landscapes, too. In other words, they may appear to have it all together on the outside or they may come from a privileged environment, but that doesn't mean they have it all together on the inside. They may be crumbling on the inside. They may be crying, shouting, and yelling on the inside. So we need to be open to that real possibility when we work with and reach every student.
What does openness look like? How do we act on openness? Use the two objects on either side of your head: your ears. Go to your students, ask caring, non-judgmental questions, and just listen. Open yourself to the possibility that you may learn something complicated, complex, real, and wondrous about your students.
So if we want to truly support young adolescents, being open isn't optional. It's imperative. It's necessary.
Get Ready for the Next Letter!
Before I bid adieu to the letter R, I know that I’ve failed with this first list of words. But I’m all right with that. As an educator who believes that knowledge is constructed and created by dialogue with others, I think we should all be wary of lists. By design, any list written by any one person ultimately collapses and disappoints—because (1) no one person can create a definitive list, (2) there is no such thing as a definitive list, and (3) lists — especially those about middle level education—try to quantify and segment something that is boundless and infinite. I know there were a lot of R words that I left out. There were other perspectives I didn’t consider. There were other directions I could have gone. In other words, if you were disappointed and unfulfilled by this list of R words, I get it. And you’re welcome. Honestly, all of this wasn’t meant to satiate and satisfy your every cognitive nook and cranny; rather, it was meant to create a thirst for more and to stir up the mental embers, so you can ignite passion and joy for middle level education. It’s like Yeats said: “Education is not the filling of a bucket. It is the lighting of a fire.” And that’s what we’re supposed to do for the students we serve, right?
With all of that said, here are some other R words related to middle level education (with micro-musings) that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention before we move on to the next critical letter:
- Reflect: we’ve got to give our students and ourselves time to think deeply/differently/divergently about experiences with teaching and learning if we want to be fully engaged in the process (not just the products) of education.
- Remind: because young adolescents’ brains are changing rapidly and their organizational tendencies tend to be inconsistent, guess what? They need reminders—visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile, artful, often.
- Rewind, Remember, Return: as you serve your students, think about who you were as a young adolescent. As difficult as it may be, find your middle school pictures and never forget.
- Race: in the middle grades, students become more aware, more interested, more concerned, etc., about ethnicity and race. We must provide space for open and honest conversations about race if we want to support our students, ourselves, our schools, our communities, and our society. Read about it. Listen about it. Talk about it. Understand, acknowledge, and act on your thread in the complex fabric.
- Refuse, Roar, Risk, Rise: if we want to be progressive and innovative (and inspire our students to do the same) we need to refuse the stale diet of mediocrity for ourselves and our schools, take purposeful risks in teaching and learning, and roar proudly as we advocate for the critical middle grades.
- Reach: we are here to reach every student, and every student is our responsibility—no matter what grade level, content area, or responsibility is on the contract or nametag. Our first responsibility is to the students we serve.
- Ruin: there is a Buddhist tradition of creating an elaborate work of art from colored sand (a Mandala) and then destroying it as soon as it’s completed, and I think we need to do that occasionally with lesson plans and school improvement plans—in order to start new and refresh and to recalibrate where we are. If we create great lesson plans, frame them, and pull them out year after year, are we practicing the art of teaching or the artifice of education?
- Read: we need to help our students read both verbal and nonverbal text. Young adolescents not only need support as they read nonfiction and fiction text, but because they tend to misread social cues, they also need help as they read body language and group dynamics.
- Rung: classrooms and schools need to work with their surrounding communities to ensure that all students have access to the rungs they want to reach on the ladders to their future goals. Moreover, we need to instill our students with passion, so they reach up and reach further.
- So what other R words come to your mind with middle level education?
- What letter will we tackle next in the ABCs of Middle Level Education?
- What are your thoughts about all of this? Comment, share, connect!
From Monologue to Dialogue
So now we're ready to tackle Resilience. This R word has been used so much recently in the middle grades that it's almost become passé—whether you call it by its formal name or by its colloquial companion, grrrit. It's about allowing students to struggle and even fail, so they understand how to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and try, try again. There is plenty of merit to this philosophy and plenty of sayings to back it up. Smooth waters never made a good sailor. Tough it out. Rub some dirt on it. Finish strong. Fail forward. What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. Our society and most of our educational framework is built on a puritanical meritocracy, which means, in other words, that folks who work harder will succeed more. But is that always what's best for the students we serve? Especially young adolescents in the middle grades?
Letting students struggle and fail is different from teaching students how to struggle and fail, and too often, we think we are helping students build resilience by doing the former—instead of the latter. When we simply hand out failing grades or deflating comments, we aren't teaching our students how to be resilient. We are punching them in the cerebral gut, dissolving their relationship with us and our content, and showing them that effort is often meaningless. When young adolescents learn this in the middle grades, they grow more and more disconnected from learning (not just schooling). And, in fact, they do learn a form of resilience: a hardening, disenchantment, a steely glare of embitterment. Against you. Against your content area. Against the prescribed mechanisms of learning. With each failure (be it academic, social, or behavioral in nature), young adolescents adopt an internal deficit script that can spiral them downward: Why am I so dumb? What's wrong with me? I'll never get this. Why is everyone else doing so good except me?
So how do we best serve students who are in jeopardy of developing that kind of subtractive inner monologue?
What we should be doing to teach resilience in the middle grades is to be responsive (not reactive) when students fail and to support them when they struggle. Teach them what has been coined "self-compassion" by Dr. Tom Nehmy—how to treat oneself when times get tough. What can you say to yourself when you struggle or fail to positively pick yourself up? What actions can you take to comfort yourself in times of struggle? If you need additional help, who can you get positive help from? Helping students answer these questions is key as we support their resilience and grit development. We have to help each student as they confront the fact that sometimes learning is an independent journey and that they will need to shore up their individual resolve and know-how to negotiate that journey. And we also have to help each student understand that there is nothing weak in asking for help because, just like strong middle schools are built on interdisciplinary teams, strong middle school students are built when they can lean on a teammate in a time of need. Not as a crutch but as a bridge. Not as a label but as a lift.
- So how does your classroom and school house help students develop resilience and grit?
- What are the daily practices that make that happen?
- How does your school help teachers and staff develop resilience so they keep learning, developing, and growing—so they can help students do the same?