The ABCs of Middle Level Education
And Say Hello to the Letter A for Amazing Middle Grades!
We've checked out several B words that relate to the marvelous, magnificent middle grades, but before we bid adieu to this letter, here's a list of other B words that are worth our time and consideration. What's on your list?
- Binary: Students should be empowered to make learning choices, and they should be working alongside others to grow, to flourish, to explore, to be challenged, to set goals, to stumble, and to achieve... without the divisive binary of "I'm the teacher, you're the student." They need to see teachers and administrators as learners, too.
- Burger: Education is a process of assembling and constructing to meet unique learning needs and tastes (while also fostering a learning community), and a food that resembles that process is the burger. It can be tailored to fit the learning palette, while also offering opportunities to stretch/push it. Some learners (including teachers, staff, and administrators) may want a plain burger of learning, but they actually need it with mayo and pickles—so adding those pieces to the meal is essential to helping them expand and grow.
- Because: Do the right thing, the best thing, the most helpful thing, the kindest thing for the young adolescents and the people we serve just…. because. Yes, more praise or more pay may be reasons to do more, but we should remain driven by the power of just because. Doing the right thing for others for no reason at all can show our students (and other adults around us) that a learning community grows when service and kindness aren't mandated—they just happen.
- Back: Back has so many meanings with the critical middle. We need to always look back and remember what we were like as young adolescents. We need to encourage our students and families to give back to their schools and communities. And we need to have each other's backs when times get tough. Our young adolescents need adult advocates that they can fall back on as they navigate their tempestuous seas.
- Blinders: What sets a true middle school apart is that its teachers and staff always have their eyes open—for the good stuff and the rough stuff. Even when it would be easier to do so, no one puts their blinders on. No one shuts their door and says, "None of my business." They are looking for changes in students, so they can respond proactively and celebrate early and often. They are watching their fellow teachers so they can support one another and also grab/steal/borrow their great pedagogical tricks.
- Boom: At an effective and amazing middle school, learning is engaging, differentiated, and filled with BOOM! Young adolescents need curriculum that is integrative, exploratory, challenging, relevant, and explosive. Like asteroids that make huge impacts on the earth, our teaching should leave indelible impressions on the lives of young adolescents we serve.
Now we get to the start of it all. The letter A. First, the sound of this letter is perfect for the middle grades. It can resemble a celebration, an epiphany, an exclamation that someone has just learned something wonderful—as in, "Ay, I got it!" Or it can cut through the air like a stinging rebuttal, a tense refusal, a sharp accusation—as in, "Ay, leave me alone!" In other words, just the sound of this letter illustrates the potential triumph and challenge of middle school.
And in terms of the shape of the letter, it looks like teaching, learning, and leading in the middle grades, as well. There is goal at the top, a climb to meet that goal, and a supportive handhold in the middle to help us as we ascend. In fact, that middle bar also steadies us if we should descend in the other direction after we reach our goal. As an English Language Arts and Reading teacher, to me the letter A resembles the classic plot diagram that begins with the setting and characters, moves to the rising action, reaches the climax (a word that you need to use cautiously with young adolescents), and finally moves on with the falling action, resolution, and denouement. This diagram can be used to help our students examine decisions they need to make or to assist them as they examine actions they've already made. What goal do they want to reach? Who is going to be a protagonist to support them? Who is going to be an antagonist to challenge them? What internal and external conflicts can they anticipate and how can they meet them? How will they know when they've reached their goal? How will they celebrate and reflect once they've attained it so they can grasp the themes and the enduring understandings? That's what the A is all about in sound and sight.
What "A" words will show up in the weekly blogs to come? Stay tuned to find out, AMLE friends and neighbors!
7 Nautical Tools Every Middle School Needs
My contribution to the #oneword2017 movement is boat. Hang with me on this. As a former middle school teacher and administrator and as the parent of 9- and 12-year-old boys, I always have my antennae up for safety—because it seems like young adolescents are attracted to potentially dangerous situations. My sons, for instance, are always on the move. They jump on the couch, on the bed, on the chairs–if they can jump on it or off of it, they’re doing it. They also run at breakneck speed in the yard and then tackle each other with wild abandon. Many days, I would like them to just slow down and take a break. But then I think about boats. A wise philosopher once said that “A boat in harbor is safe—but that is not what boats are for.” That is very true. A boat is meant to get out there on the water and find new destinations, explore the world, and stay active. Will the waters always be calm and steady? No. Will the course always be certain? No. Do boats make me think about what we’re supposed to do as middle level educators? Absolutely. In fact, let’s take a moment to analyze this nautical metaphor through the lens of middle level education and early adolescence. Like boats, amazing middle grades schools need these seven items:
1. Rudder: An amazing middle school remains steadfast in rough seas, and young adolescents (and those that serve them) need to know that the boat’s aim is true. When we know the boat has a steady rudder, we set bold courses, ask brave questions, and take productive risks on the open seas of our educational journey—because there is trust. Does your school have a steady rudder?
2. Structure: An amazing middle school has a structure that can accommodate everyone and is built with both earnest efficiency and boundless exploration in mind. What makes the middle school boat unique is that its structure is not fixed or static. Rather, it is collaboratively shaped and reshaped, and it contains flexible pieces of the past, present, and future. When we know the boat has that kind of structure, we are comforted when we climb aboard and when we venture onward—because there is security. Does your school have a supportive structure?
3. Patch kits and life vests: An amazing middle school has a plan that responds and provides when plans go awry, when the structure cracks, when the rudder loosens, when the sails tear, or when the passengers lose their way or fall overboard. When we know that the boat has an accessible and responsive patch kit and life vests for all circumstances and all people, we work together more often, more readily, with more care and with more results—because there is safety. Does your school have a responsive patch kit and life vests?
4. Sails, engines, and oars: An amazing middle school has a means to propel itself and its passengers forward depending on the situation. There are times when swift action must be taken, so the engine is engaged. There are times when collaborative decision-making needs to happen, so every oar hits the water and every voice pushes the boat forward. There are times when the boat is guided by winds outside of itself (winds of change, progress, mandates), so the sails are unfurled and those winds are harnessed to move the boat ahead. There are times when all three—engine, sails and oar—are used. When we know that the boat has varying means to propel itself forward, we are impassioned and empowered to do the work we must do for young adolescents—because there is forward-thinking. Does your school have the means to move forward?
5. Destination:An amazing middle school has both definite places it wants to go while also encouraging students, teachers, and staff to go beyond—to explore, quest, seek, connect, and dream. Not only is the map laid out for all to see, but everyone is also a cartographer contributing to the map itself. When we know the boat has defined destinations as well as a commitment to free exploration, we work with more commitment and earnestness—because there is liberation through community. Does your school have destinations and explorations?
6. Compass: An amazing middle school provides all students and staff with the tools they need to find their way in the learning community and beyond. It isn’t enough to just explore new horizons. If we loosen our boat from the safe harbor without a compass to guide us, then we are setting ourselves up for failure. In an amazing middle school, the compass creates a common language and a common way to make sense of the world; it might be a team motto, a vision statement, a mascot, a school-wide way to take notes or organize learning, an SEL program. Whatever it is, when we know that the boat is guided by a common compass, we work with more confidence—because there is direction. Does your school have a compass?
7. Steering: An amazing middle school has the means to move itself in new directions. The ability to move forward is not enough; responsive steering is an absolute necessity for a school to grow, change, and adapt. And the steering mechanism should be accessible and collaboratively-oriented, so not one person dictates the path. That’s why leadership teams should include voices from every team, grade level, department, special area, and more. When we know the boat has steering that helps us change course when needed, we work with more eagerness—because there is possibility. Does your school have responsive steering?
So get in the boat in 2017 and boldly venture forward for every young adolescent you serve. While we don’t want to put ourselves at risk, we should never be afraid to get out there and see the world. Just like the boat is meant to explore, the human body is meant to move, the human mind is meant to examine, and the human heart is meant to explore. No one should be left standing on the shoreline of the future with opportunity lost. Be confident that you can pull your boat out of the harbor and be successful. Show your students and staff that they can do the same each and every day!
For the Record. For Every Student We Serve.
When I was in college, I was a radio DJ at WXJM 88.7FM—although only a handful of listeners would know. I worked the timeslots that felt like the air was made of stars and caffeine: 1am-3am and 6am-8am. During those early mornings, I would hurriedly walk from my dorm room in the dark with my backpack full of CDs, tapes, and records. I was known for playing songs by artists that few people had heard of, playing songs in odd combinations, and playing songs that weren’t on the A-side of the record. What does all of that have to do with middle level education? Stay tuned, listeners!
For those of you who may not be privy to the joys of records and LPs, here’s a quick lesson. The A-side of most records is typically where the artist and record company lined up the singles—those sure-fire, hot hit songs. Those were the songs that jumped up the charts, songs that fans craved to hear, and songs that stuck in your head. And as a music fan and a DJ, I appreciated the cool, hummable melodies of those songs. But for other reasons, I loved the B-sides even more. I wanted to hear the songs that didn’t make it to the A-side. I wanted to hear what made them different. I wanted to discover what the artist was trying out. I wanted to wonder about the crazy magic in those songs. I wanted to check out the risks on the record. So what do records and B-sides have to do with the field of middle level education? Stay tuned for more, listeners! Here comes the answer after this short break!
First, there’s a connection with the process of playing a record and working with young adolescents. When you play a record, it’s different from the digital music world we live in today. Today, you scan through your playlist on your phone, find what you want, and hit play/shuffle/repeat. With a record (especially as a DJ on air), you need to (1) find the groove in the LP for the song you want, (2) delicately place the needle on that groove, (3) find the exact spot where the song begins (leaving a little empty sound space), (4) plan what to say to intro the song, and (5) then hit play. It takes patience, time, a careful ear, and a disposition that accepts and embraces flaws. Because the song may start early. The song may start late. The song may be the wrong song or it may have words that may be wrong! There is nothing like an “on air” goof to get the heart racing! Working with young adolescents is very much the same process. How’s that? Stay tuned for even more, dear listeners!
If we think about young adolescents as music, we can’t simply plug them into a USB port, select the instructional song for the day, and hit the play button. Our students are like LPs, and like pedagogical DJs, we have to (1) patiently discover their unique record grooves, (2) take the time to find the music of their shifting lives, (3) carefully put our ears to listen as it plays to us, and (4) be open to the B-sides. Being open to the B-sides with young adolescents means that we need to anticipate and embrace the flaws and the unsettling songs they bring every day, because not every tune is going to be an A-side hit. Of course, our students will have great moments and bright ideas. And like hit songs on the A-side, we need to celebrate those “educational tunes.” We need to let their songs of excellence play for all to hear, and we should crank up the volume loudly and proudly. That’s why, for example, we put up their exemplary work on our boards, walls, and websites: to show them and the whole world that young adolescents can create glorious, melodious songs of learning. We love their hit songs on the A-side! But what about the other side of that record? Stay tuned to hear more, listeners!
We also have to love our students’ songs on the B-side, too. As we relish the harmony, we can’t neglect listening to the disharmony. As we tout the major chords, we can’t ignore the stories in the minor ones. As we hum the polished choruses, we can’t turn our ears away from the flawed, unfinished, discordant ones. That’s because the young adolescents we serve (even our “high achievers”) bring us their B-side songs every day, too. And those B-side tunes are different, and they are important, too. So in addition to turning up the volume on students’ exemplary work on the A-side, we need to honor their mistakes along the way. In addition to celebrating their friendships and leadership on the A-side, we need to be there when they feel friendless and without direction. In other words, our young adolescents need us to turn the record over, carefully drop the needle in the groove, and check out those B-side tunes. Perhaps that’s how we serve our students: by listening to the B-side. Perhaps that’s where we need to be to support their growth in the middle grades. For the record.
4 Ideas to Consider 4 Change
Why does bullying have such a powerful link to the middle grades? How do we begin to unravel this one?
I think understanding bullying and why it has such a powerful link to the middle grades starts by reflecting on your own story with it. It's difficult to pin down when bullying and I got to know each other, but I think it started full force in the fifth grade and continued through early high school. When I was 10, I was at a new school because I had just moved. I was out of shape. I was socially maladjusted. I stood out. So certain kids sought me out with their verbal arsenal, and their weaponry was cruel. One kid called me "Elephant Boy" in front of the class every day. Another one told me to "skip a meal" when he saw me. One girl was dared to go out with me for half a day, and then, of course, she broke up with me at 3pm. I found vile things written about me on walls—all because I didn't fit in. It was pervasive. I felt powerless to do anything about it. I didn't want to tell anyone at home—because how do you tell your dad, a U.S. Marine, that you can't take care of yourself? I didn't want to tell anyone at school—because how do you tell a teacher or a principal about all that stuff and it will only make it worse? I didn't want to go to school anymore—because how can you concentrate in class when you think/know that everyone is secretly laughing at you? But I did want to do something about it. In my mind, I had massive revenge on them all, and I imagined scenarios that made me the victor and destroyer. Clearly, I didn't act on any of my imaginings; instead, I kept it in my brain, found solace in music, discovered peace in writing, and learned from it all. Even now, I remember the names and faces of my tormentors, and oddly enough, there are many days when I thank them. They made me thick-skinned. They made me develop grit and resilience that I would need later as an adult. They helped me prepare for social interactions with certain people. They even supported me when my own son came home from school after enduring the same kind of cruelty. I didn't have the perfect answer for him, but I could listen and respond from a place of care.
So that's my story with bullying. What's yours? How does it affect how you support all students?
Here's how my story has shaped what I think about bullying.
1. Maybe we should stop calling it bullying and focus on the learning—because everyone has the capacity for cruelty as well as kindness. There's a person doing that vile stuff, and there's a reason why they are doing it. By reducing the person and the actions to a "bullying" caricature, are we really addressing the issue? Are we really helping bring about behavioral change that helps every student? As an assistant principal in charge of eighth grade for more than six years, I dealt with my share of bullying issues. I handled and signed more triplicate forms, called more families, and talked to more angry, frustrated, sad, and tired teachers and students about disruptive conduct and bullying than I can even count. I interrupted classes and heard the classic, "Ooooh" sound from students as I took one of their peers to my office, so we could talk about bullying and behavioral "infractions" It was never easy. Each time, I wondered how I would feel if I was the student. Each time, I remembered kids who picked on me. And each time, I wondered about the learning—because that's what middle grades behavioral conversations should be about. The learning. In This We Believe, the authors talk about how the "school environment" should be "safe, inclusive, inviting, and supportive for all" (p. 14). So this means making the school supportive for students who behave and for those who misbehave. Supportive for students we conveniently call "bullies" and for those who have been victimized by them. Instead of labeling a kid, turning them into ink and paper, inputting them into a computer system, and giving them a consequence, perhaps there's something else we should do to support their behavioral learning. In my office, we did reflection sheets together; created drawings about their feelings before, during, and after the incident; wrote raps about what happened; and even recreated and role-played. For many students, being in my office for a disciplinary issue was undeniably uncomfortable, but for others, it was the only time when they felt safe and comfortable enough to talk through some of this stuff. These extra, different actions take extra time, but they are worth it. If we don't do them, students who "bully" may simply become adults who do the same thing later on.
2. Remember that we are more than bullying in the middle grades. As a principal, one of the first questions I heard from new sixth grade families (and their kids) was "How do you handle bullying at your school?" It was always a fair question to ask, and I always told them how much I appreciated it. I didn't deny that students often made interesting behavioral decisions as they were trying to figure out their place in the school and in the world at large. And, yes, some of those choices could be labeled as "bullying," and we handled it through very systemic channels from a place of safety, care, and learning. And then I switched the script. I discussed all of the wonderful student leaders we had. I mentioned all of the great service-learning students we had. I explained all of the ways that our students were achieving and giving back to their communities. Because we are more than bullying in the middle grades. Thus, the next time someone asks you about bullying at your school or in your classroom, acknowledge their concern, but then tell them the rest of the story: the positive, limitless, awesome story of our young adolescents.
3. We need to understand why kids act out because of bullying—especially the kids that don't "fit in"—and respond to them before they act out.
Unfortunately, I can write from experience. There is nothing worse than knowing that you have to go somewhere filled with pain. It looms in front of you, and you are filled with dread. When school is that place, you either want to stay home, shrink away, or strike back. You can't skip school because you'll get in trouble at home and you'll also miss class. You can't shrink away at school because everyone is on you, laughing at you, making fun of you. You can't strike back because you'll get in trouble at school, at home, and maybe worse. But then, who cares anyways? If no one cares about me, then I'll make a bigger statement so they'll care. If no one really knows me, then I'll do something so they'll never forget. So when I hear about students who have taken matters into their own hands at school, I'm desperately saddened. And desperately filled with powerless understanding. And there's another connection to This We Believe, that reminds me that in an effective middle grades school, "Health and wellness are supported by curricula, school-wide programs, and related policies" (p. 14). This not only means the physical health of our young adolescents but their mental and emotional well-being, too. Fortunately, the conversation about SEL has increased over the years, so students are learning how to interact positively with others and how to negotiate cruelty when they see and hear it—and when they feel the urge to be cruel themselves. Those programs should continue to grow and shape the way we learn about "bullying"—and act to remove it from our schools.
4. Finally, a bit of plain news for the adults in the room. If we want to change school behavior and bullying, we need to start by reflecting on us—the adults who misbehave and who bully in our schools—because students pick up on what we do and say. For example, how can we expect our kids to follow a Positive Behavior Support plan if there are adults in the building who aren't positive, behaved, or supportive? There is a discipline reward system for students to follow, but there are staff members who don't adhere to those systems themselves. They tell their students to be on time to class and how to behave in the hallways, but they are often late to or unprepared for faculty meetings—with no consequence. They ask their kids to use civil discourse with each other, but they often ignore kind, positive verbal and nonverbal language with other staff members—with no consequence. And there are families that want our schools to be positive, safe places for their children, but they often speak negatively and combatively with our teachers and staff—with no consequence. If we hear fellow teachers and staff members use harmful, "bullying" language with students and each other, we shouldn't turn our ears away. We should have the kind of positive, responsive school cultures that allow us to help them understand that what they're doing is hurtful, and that they can change. In other words, if we want to work on student behavior in our schools, let's be honest and work on adult behavior, too.
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.