The ABCs of Middle Level Education
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?
A Prefix that Fixes
We've checked out Red. We've reviewed Relationships. Now we've got "Re-." True, it's a prefix and not, therefore, a complete word in itself ... but work with me because young adolescents need the "Re-". And, in fact, there are so many words for middle level education that can don the prefix "re-" that the prefix itself really needs its own time in the spotlight. "Re-", which of course means “again”, is precisely what our young adolescents need from us—because early adolescence is a time for second chances. It's a time when kids stumble, fall, and get down about themselves, questioning their worth in the world when they mess up. So they need opportunities to "re-".
Perhaps the "re-" word that resonates with me the most as it reflects the middle grades is “revision.” Typically, we think about revision as something students do in ELA class when they are creating a second draft of something. But revision means to “see again”, and I contend that it is a cross-content, social-emotional, positive-behavior, college-and-career-readiness school-wide action that students need every day. Yes, students need chances to redo assignments and retake tests, but it's not to replace grades or balance grade sheets or get parents/guardians off our backs. Students need redos and retakes to help them fix a narrative, a story. The story about themselves. Think back to your days as a young adolescent. Did you see yourself as a major or a minor character in the story of school? Were you a protagonist or an antagonist in that narrative? Did it vary class to class? Day to day? What kind of rekindling, resuscitation, revitalizing, retaking, redoing, reminding, revising and many other re- words supported you when you stumbled and fell as a young adolescent? I can tell you honestly that I needed all of them.
"Re-" is also an important prefix for middle level leaders to acknowledge, take in their hands, and incorporate into the cultural soil of their schools.
Not only do students need second chances in the middle grades, but teachers need them, too. Teachers who work with young adolescents are superheroes: especially flexible, nimble, and thoughtful, and able to make instructional adjustments in a single bound! And all of that depends on what their students bring to the table socially, behaviorally, and more. Every day, every minute of every day, can feel like you are riding a thin-wheeled bike in soft sand. Some days you're moving forward, but the handlebars are wobbly, the tires are shifting, your legs are cranking like crazy, and you're pulling a cartload of pre-teens behind you! On other days, you are on well-paved ground pedaling with ease through lessons and interactions with your bright and beaming kiddos riding shoulder-to-shoulder with you.
In other words, teachers need second chances—because the daily and hourly landscape working with young adolescents can be unsteady and unpredictable. So middle school leaders (whether they are administrators, grade level chairs, team leaders, or district supervisors) should keep "re-" in mind when they are doing their walk-throughs, observations, and evaluations. No teacher's worth and pedagogical goodness can be captured in one 30-minute observation and transferred to a triplicate form. Middle grades leaders must give more time and more "re-". It takes leaders who walk by classes and stop in just because. It takes leaders who provide specific, supportive feedback in a face-to-face way with teachers. It takes leaders who understand that learning happens when risks are taken, mistakes are made, and time for reflection is provided. It takes leaders who acknowledge the reality of middle level education and who understand the power of "re-".
So how do you support "re-" in your classroom and school? If it's a key ingredient in the middle grades, is everyone in the pedagogical kitchen using it in the recipe for all students and teachers? How do you know?
Time to bask in the warm, effervescent glow of another R word as it pertains to middle level education! Here it is: Relationship. It is almost impossible to think about middle level education and not simultaneously think about the power of relationships. More learning happens when we spend time cultivating relationships. As the familiar saying goes (and it rings especially true in the middle grades), “Students care to learn when they learn that we care.” That means that we need to question how we get to know our students. And this means more than digging into files in vaults or the LMS to gather numerical data, attendance reports and disciplinary histories. It means developing a relationship with the world of your incoming students. What environment, what media, what stimuli, what influences and influencers, what learning are they experiencing beyond your classroom walls? This doesn’t mean you have to embrace your students’ world—just shake hands with it and develop a friendly relationship. When you do this, you may find that you judge students less for their fashion sense, their sense of humor, and their somewhat senselessness. You may even find that you can relate to them—because you were once a young adolescent, too! And when students get a whiff that you genuinely understand where they’re coming from and you care about where they’re going, they’re going to be more apt to learn from and with you.
In addition, more achieving happens when we spend time maintaining relationships.
The word “maintaining” means that relationships need to be worked on all the time—not just at the beginning of the year, during the first two weeks of school, or after students complete interest inventories. It means we ask our kids caring, interested questions and listening in a caring way (without judgment). It means we stop checking attendance and shuffling papers and look our students in the eye when we talk to them (without scowling). It means going to events in and out of school on occasion to see what they’re up to (without checking our cell phones). It means standing in the doorway, going out in the hallway, walking around the cafeteria, etc. to see where else students are learning and greeting them warmly and genuinely (without rushing).
Be. There. Every. Day. When you can understand, value and relate to your students’ worlds, you will be more insightful, more ready, and more able to make learning relevant for them. Connecting your content area standards and ideas to your students’ worlds makes more learning happen. Believe it or not, there are commonalities between “Rocky IV” and “The Call of the Wild.” There are similar thematic threads in the life of a paramecium and the life of a young adolescent. There are universalities that can be found in “Star Wars” and “Don Quixote.” You just have to put on those intellectual gloves and start digging with your students. Uncovering and discovering those relationships and points of relevance isn’t something we can do by searching Google or flipping through teachers’ manuals. It takes time, practice and yes, “deep thoughts” to see those relationships between your students’ worlds and your content area, but when you find them and illuminate them for your students, everyone’s light bulbs will turn brightly on—and more achieving will happen.
Finally, more types of relationships blossom when we spend time on relationships. Perhaps the most important product of this work, the most vital relationship of all, is the relationship we (students and teachers) learn to build with ourselves. Our students are constantly standing in shifting sands of their own identity. Even our most assured-looking students aren’t sure who they are on a daily basis; in fact, they aren’t even sure if anyone cares who they are anyways! But when someone shows an interest in who they are and who they can be, when someone takes time to relate to what they love and they loathe, when someone is there just because, our students begin to see themselves as valued and worthwhile and worth working on.
When I was in seventh grade, my ELA teacher assigned challenging work, including memorizing and reciting poems in front of the class. Ms. Meekins would push me to love poetry through a careful balance of perspiration and inspiration. But I did the large quantities of her ELA work because she did something wonderfully small. In addition to being an odd, fashion-challenged tuba-playing 12-year-old, I was also a doodler. I would draw in the margins of my homework when I turned it in to Ms. Meekins. Little doodles of stick figures climbing on the holes in the paper, throwing ropes and rappelling down the pink lines, etc. And when I would get my papers back, Ms. Meekins doodled back. She took the time to create a little reciprocal dialogue with me through art. When she did that, I saw her in a new way. I saw ELA in a new way. And perhaps most importantly, I saw myself in a new way. When Ms. Meekins developed that arts-based relationship with me, I saw that maybe I was worth spending time on.
So how do you develop relationships with your students every day, so they will develop relationships with themselves—beyond your classroom walls?
Minor Threat, Seeing Red and School Improvement
What songs come to mind when you think about early adolescence? What artists helped you navigate those often turbulent waters and also helped you celebrate the wonderful wilds of the middle grades? Who's on that playlist? That's the reason for this post: to build and share songs on my middle grades playlist. Please use the comments section to share yours!
So as a young adolescent in fifth grade, I moved to Virginia Beach and immediately felt the undeniable and familiar sting of being an outsider. I was not a surfer. I was not a skateboarder. I was an overweight tuba player who was out of step with the world. I did not have many friends to lean on. I did have, however, a few musicians that helped me along the way and gave me hope. One of the artists I turned to was Ian MacKaye from a band called Minor Threat out of Washington, D.C. They played fast and angry and honest, and as their name illustrated, they were minors too—just like me. And they didn't fit in either. For this Monday's ABCs post, I took the title of one of their songs, "Seeing Red," because it encapsulated how I felt as a middle school student, and it resonates with me today. I'm a cheerful person most of the time, but I also recognize that anger is a natural element that we all work through—and young adolescents are definitely working through it. What's inspiring is that Ian MacKaye did something creative with his anger. Instead of destruction, he chose construction. With his angst, he made art. As you listen to this one-minute song, read the lyrics and think about your own early adolescence and about the students you serve. Be cautious: it's not a placid waltz.
You see me and you laugh out loud
You taunt me from safe inside your crowd
My looks, they must threaten you
To make you act the way you do
RED, I'M SEEING RED
You see me and you think I'm a jerk
First impressions without a word
You can't believe your eyes at first
But now you know you've seen the worst
RED, I'M SEEING RED
So today's essential questions:
1. When do you see red and how do you help students when they feel this way?
2. Can poetry and songs be data that schools can collect? What can they tell you about your classroom and school culture?
3. How do we help students work through and deal with anger, so we can improve school culture and climate?
Post your answers, your songs, and your comments. Reach every student. Grow professionally. Create great schools. With AMLE.
I'm Seeing Red! How About You?
So here's the first R word that's on my mind for the world of Middle Level Education. Red. Recently, I’ve taken to wearing red shoes—to AMLE, at workshops, to schools, at the AMLE annual conference. With suits. With dress shirts and ties. Yes, it's true. At the ends of my dress pants are my red Pumas. And when I’m dressed that way, in addition to noticing turned heads and quizzical glances, I also occasionally field the question, “Hey, Dru. Why the red shoes?”
First and foremost, I am a firm believer in discarding firm beliefs—especially those that hold us back. So the red shoes represent change and how change happens. Many folks discuss how to change education to make things better for students, for the profession, and for themselves as professional educators and advocates. In my mind and heart, educational changes and revolutions happen through evolutionary steps forward. Sometimes it can begin with a simple change in shoes. Clothing is a text that can be read. When you look at someone’s shoes, for instance, you analyze the soul of that person through their sole. So I wear red shoes to disrupt and to give people something interesting to read that pushes them beyond their comfort zones. That's why many of our young adolescents make the clothing choices that they do, as well. They are trying to communicate through the text of their fashion about themselves, about their angst, about their fluctuating identities.
But how exactly do the red shoes reflect middle level education? Standing out and stepping out in an unconventional way mirrors what young adolescents are going through. They are trying to fit in while also trying to find their individual identity. They are changing more rapidly cognitively and physically than any other time in their lives (except for birth to three years). Thus, they do things, say things, laugh at things, and try things that stand out and make us scratch our heads in wonder—what were you thinking? Sometimes, their decisions just happen like a sudden pair of red shoes. How do we respond when that happens? Do we invite the red in or do we shut it out?
The shoes also mirror what we should be doing instructionally as teachers and as leaders—to do the expected and the unexpected. That’s why I wear mine with dress clothes. As the son of a United States Marine, I appreciate and respect a sense of decorum and formality; you've got to show up from the floor up. On the other hand, I also believe that we need to push back against the fencelines—even our own—to inspire others to push back, as well. To break cycles of dependence. Cycles of defeatism. Cycles of devaluation. Cycles of declination. The red shoes remind me to question what I'm doing to serve middle level education. Am I just showing up and doing the same old thing? Or am I stepping up and going in a new direction?
The red shoes are also the counternarrative to the conventional story: that we need to conform to the traditional forms of teaching, of learning, of leading. For our students, if we model a red-shoe mentality and spirit, it will inspire them to try something new, too. Too often our students feel like they are minor characters in the story of school. They don’t see themselves as major characters building a powerful plotline—rich with protagonists, antagonists, rising actions, challenges, triumphs, and more—working towards a critical learning goal. Somewhere, they learned that they cannot actively affect the learning community. They were taught that they are merely grade getters, parroting automatons, teacher pleasers, or test takers. They were shown through time that education’s rewards are found in grades, scores, and complicity. Anyone who understands and values young adolescents (and those who teach and lead them) knows that they are so much more than that. They are leaders in bloom. They are questioners in blossoming confidence. They are creators in flux. They are activists in training. So the red shoes help remind me that we have an obligation to defy definition. To declare new statements. To rattle ourselves and our students free from definitions that crowd and confine.
We are different, so do one thing different –like wearing red shoes. It can be a step towards creating a new story for our students, ourselves and middle level education. So how will you step up and step forward with sole?
Dru Talks with Adolescent Success from Australia
Check out this global podcast from Singapore! I had the honor of talking with the outstanding David Wilcox from Adolescent Success, Australia's leading organization dedicated to supporting young adolescents and the middle years. We chatted deeply about what makes middle level education unique, what inspires the movement, what helps our students, and much more!
Take a listen and leave comments. Where do you stand on David's questions?
Mental Conflict and the Letter R
My middle level mind is racing because it is conflicted about starting with the letter A. Why? One of the first things that any logical middle level educator understands is that nothing is linear or logical in the middle grades. Young adolescents do thrive on routine and structure, but we also need to be ready and aware that their minds and spirits are in a state of rapid growth and flux that defy logic. So beginning with the letter A seems a bit contradictory.
I'm also conflicted because A is often the letter that gets all the attention. It's at the front of the line. It has its hand raised on the front row. It is the natural and normal starting point. But again, any logical middle level educator knows that reaching, teaching, and leading in the middle grades means that we need to connect with every kid at every spot in our classrooms and school houses. Those students who aren't at the front of the class. Those kids who slouch in their seats. Those kids whose hands just don't seem to go up anymore. We need to start with, connect with, grow with, laugh with, and build learning with those kids, too. So starting with the letter A also seems contradictory for that reason. Because of all of that, I'm starting with the letter R.
Before we get to the words themselves, what's the deal with the letter R? For years we've been told about the R's of education—reading, 'riting, and 'rithmatic—but listening to that letter, I can't help but think about how the sound reflects middle level education. The sound of the letter R is feisty. It's chomping at the bit to do something, to get something, to bite back at something. In some ways, it can be angry—but it's an anger driven by love. How is that possible? Those who work with and serve young adolescents love the cause so much and care for the kids so earnestly that we can't stand it when something gets in the way of true progress and service. And while anger can be dangerous, it can also be productive—when it's fueled by compassion and care and when it propels us to do great things. Like Johnny Lydon/Rotten once sang, “Anger is an energy.” Or like Chuck D declared, “I've got so much trouble on mind I refuse to lose.” R is the perfect letter to start with because it symbolizes the acknowledgement that things could be better but we also refuse to acknowledge that the core of middle level education will be diffused or diluted or dismissed.
Not only does the letter R sound like middle level education, but it looks like it, as well. It's got its back straight up and proud. Its head is focused on the road ahead. It's leg is out and stepping in the positive direction. It also reminds me of a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Faith is taking the first step even when you can't see the whole staircase.” That's who we are in the middle level. We have no pause for our cause, and we have faith in our direction forward. That's what the R is all about in sight and sound.
With all of that said about the sound and sight of the letter R, there are certain words that resonate, as well. So get buckled up, everybody. The next four posts will feature an R word related to the middle grades--and then we'll switch to another letter. Which one? Stay tuned. Reflect. Comment. Bring it. Step up. Amp up. Hype up. Chin up.
Stepping Up 4 the Critical Middle Grades
In this blog series, that launches on September 12, 2016, AMLE Director of Middle Level Services Dru Tomlin brings us information, ideas, questions, theories, and ponderings about the middle school concept. Every week, there will be a new post to make use wrestle with questions like, How do we define middle school? How do we explain it to others? What are we putting in our cookie jars?
Using the always tasty alphabet, Dru will stir up questions and conundrums, reach for high branches and deep roots, push against the fence lines and kick the tires, and share how we can reach every student, grow professionally, and create great schools.
And what's your job with this blog? Don't just read it and sit idly by! Comment, contribute, connect, critique and more!