The ABCs of Middle Level Education
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?
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.