More than 400 educators came together during our first-ever Back to School Camp to learn, brainstorm, and collaborate on the complex task that lies ahead: facilitating a safe and engaging return to school for our students this fall. In addition to the live “trail hike” sessions, we made sure to give campers plenty of ways to share their thoughts, ideas, and points of view throughout their time on the trails together. Read on to catch the highlights, insights, and key takeaways that came out of this retreat into the digital wilderness!
Administrators, teachers, and staff chose between two trails. The Adventure Trail headed towards building-wide planning, mapping out a back-to-school strategy, engaging parents in the process, assessment and grading policies, and addressing learning gaps; and the Discovery Trail focused on topics like on-the-ground tactics, training and skill building, resources for remote and hybrid learning, and strategically employing technology. Some of the best conversations happened during job alike sessions, when campers huddled with others in similar roles to discuss questions about their responsibilities.
Around the Campfire
Back to School Camp began and ended with a semi-traditional circle around the virtual campfire—kicking off with scary stories about the biggest challenges we face this fall and how we can turn them into opportunities. We used a word cloud creator to gauge how campers were feeling on the first night, and as you can see, they came to camp feeling anxious, uncertain, nervous, overwhelmed (and a little excited!)
But after three days of collaboration and camaraderie, our campers had drastically changed their tune. The same anxious campers were transformed: they left camp feeling hopeful, inspired, energized (and still excited). Our community was understandably weary after unprecedented challenges this spring, but with the characteristic enthusiasm of middle school educators, we were able to rally together and prepare each other for a smooth start to the school year this fall.
We also created a Padlet map for campers to share words of encouragement, inspiration, and gratitude with other campers during their time on the trails. Click the map to see pictures and postcards from campers all over the world.
We’ve gathered some of the best responses from the map and from the #AMLEcamp hashtag on Twitter:
“Enjoying my time learning from experts, chatting with other MS professionals, and taking time to think about the fall.” Emily Tinawi @ezaboo4226
Listening to Rick Wormeli speaking passionately about assessment and I keep spontaneously applauding at the screen. SO MUCH about assessment in schools is problematic, and we need to explore how to do better! Erin Gaudet @MadameGaudet
Today I got to participate in a session on grading with Rick Wormeli. ! I am so inspired to change the way I do things. I love this... "Grades are not compensation. Grades are communication. They are an accurate report of what happened." Emily Tinawi @ezaboo4226
“Rick Wormeli reminded us to start the year intellectually challenging our students not just reviewing. I think this year it's even more important. Such a good reminder.” Emily Tinawi @ezaboo4226
“First, I want Simone Lewis to be my teacher. Her energy is exactly what students need. Her session on engagement made me so excited for the fall! I definitely have some easy takeaways to hook students in!” Traci Curry @TeachwithTLC
Of course, Back to School camp wouldn’t have been such an inspiring trip without our presenters. Both trails merged on the second day of camp for a few big breakout sessions with Rick Wormeli on assessment, identifying and bridging learning gaps, and addressing cheating concerns, as well as a couple of SEL-focused breakouts with Lori Desautels on PTSD and ACE in student, staff, and parents and strategies for trauma-informed instruction. Campers took brain breaks with group meditation and yoga sessions, and they connected to discuss hyper-relevant topics in job alike sessions and participant-centered unconference sessions. Check out some of the key takeaways from camp:
- Use the technology available to engage students: you don’t have to start lessons in the virtual classroom from scratch. The template lessons available from applications like Nearpod and Flipgrid are a great head-start!
- Relationships with students and your school community are incredibly important, and they do contribute directly to student success. Campers learned practical ways to build these relationships during several sessions; Gail Heinemeyer @glhnms shared this African proverb which illustrates the point perfectly: “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” Maryfrances Baum @MaryfrancesBaum connected better relationships with a decrease in cheating: “Emotion is the connection. Consider why students might plagiarize/cheat. Are we focused more on the grade, the prestige that follows or the competition amongst peers? Are we creating an environment where students feel this is the only alternative?”
- Don’t dismiss the power of the network! Job alike time was one of the most powerful experiences for our campers: when principals, counselors, tech coordinators, fifth-grade math teachers, and others in the middle school community found their peers in similar roles and came together to talk through the challenges they are facing.
- Each school community needs to involve teachers in the decisions around going back to school and deciding what’s best for their individual school. If you’re feeling lost, know that most things are still undecided right now for schools across the country.
More insights from our speakers:
- "Make an 'F" or zero recoverable. It's recovery from mistakes that matures students, not being labeled permanently for them." Rick Wormeli
- “We must start our days intentionally addressing brain states. Students can't learn if we don't reach their cortex, and trauma affects the brain. Ideas include journaling, morning meetings, art.” Lori DeSautels, Ph.D.
- COVID has created environments with chronic unpredictability, isolation, and emotional and physical restraint. SEL is going to be SO important when we return in the fall (regardless of mode). – Lori DeSautels, Ph.D.
If you’re feeling like you missed out on this adventure, don’t worry. There are still plenty of ways to access the resources and learnings from Back to School Camp. We are here to help!
Examining and transforming our school and classroom practices
Last spring when teachers, administrators, students, and their families had to abruptly leave our brick and mortar classrooms and shift to COVID-19 schooling (Hughes & Jones, 2020), no one knew what we would endure for the next five months or when we'd be back in classrooms again. The effects of COVID-19 reached far and wide and continue to affect us all. Beyond the physical, mental, and emotional trauma caused by the pandemic, it spotlighted existing and ever-widening social class and racial inequities in the US and exacerbated educational disparities that have existed for generations. As schools shut their doors and moved to online platforms, some youth had multiple technology devices and ample time to complete online assignments and participate in daily or weekly virtual school meetings. Others had no devices, were sharing a device with multiple family members, or had limited or no access to WiFi. COVID-19 revealed these social class disparities at a rapid pace, while it also took (and is still taking) Black lives at disproportionate rates. Even with these glaring racial and social class disparities staring us in the face, some of us did not have to acknowledge them if we chose not to.
And then George Floyd was murdered, and no one could look the other way. Eyes that had never chosen to see what was happening opened; discussions that had never taken place in some homes began taking place. All Americans were forced to see, over and over, what Black Americans live every single day—racism, violence, and injustice—and a racial reckoning came into being, an uprising where Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and White people came together in the streets to demand justice for Black lives. This moment was not only about George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery or Rayshard Brooks. It was not only about Tamir Rice or Oscar Grant or Kathryn Johnson, or the thousands of other Black lives that have been taken. Rather, it was, and still is, a 400 year compilation of the terror Black people have endured since they were first forced into this country; and even more, an attempt for Black Americans to declare their own humanity (Lester, 2020).
This is a moment that cannot be ignored, brushed over, or misrepresented in our middle schools and classrooms; everything that has taken place over the past five months will indeed impact our students’ perceptions, lived experiences, and social-emotional well-being this coming year and for years to come. Thus, we invite all middle school educators—whether you work in predominantly white schools, schools with more racial/ethnic diversity, public schools, or private schools—to consider the following as you plan for this academic year so all young adolescents can be immersed in more equitable, justice-oriented spaces when they return.
Dismantling Inequitable Policies and Practices in Middle Level Education
This unique moment calls on all of us to reexamine what we value in middle level education. It asks schools to come together and delve into larger theoretical questions such as, how might we redefine success in our school so it looks and feels more equitable and just for all students, rather than a select few? How might we holistically examine our school policies to identify and dismantle inequitable practices that further marginalize BIPOC and LGBTQ students, as well as students from wage-poor families? As a school, how can we utilize existing data to examine disproportionate disciplinary actions, such as subjective infractions (i.e., who is not behaving the “right” way; who is receiving in-school and out-of-school suspensions and why)? And how might we critically examine our individual responsibility in these practices? Also, knowing that some students seldom (or never) see themselves represented in our school’s existing structures, how might we change these structures so the rich diversity of our students’ race, ethnicity, social class, gender, sexual orientation, dis/ability, religious identity, etc. is included and reflected in our curriculum and instruction, our daily school practices, and our in-school and after-school programs?
Questions such as these are difficult but imperative. They ask us to question why we have done things the way we have for so long and to unlearn what we thought we knew about the purposes of middle level education. This time, this moment, has provided an opening for us to dig in and critically examine how our middle schools can become safer, more equitable spaces for all young adolescents, and especially those who have been historically marginalized.
As schools resume this fall, whether it be in-person, through a hybrid format, or fully online, educators and administrators can thoughtfully attend to cultivating a strong, inclusive community for returning students. While the societal narrative might pressure educators to jump into academics because students are “so behind” due to COVID-19, we can instead channel that urgent energy into designing multiple ways of cultivating community and creating more socially and academically just learning experiences for students to feel safer in our classrooms and ready to learn. When doing this work, it will be important to remember that some students will return having experienced more trauma than others these last five months. There will be students who have lost family members and/or friends to COVID-19; those who continue to watch people who look like them be killed, over and over, because of their race; and others who are relatively new to the critical conversations taking place in our country about the history of racism and police brutality. Even more, we can provide ourselves and our colleagues grace and support because myriad teachers and administrators have also experienced these very same things.
While it might be difficult to acknowledge, there will also be students returning to school who, during COVID-19 schooling, felt safer at home than they do at school every day. Students who spent several months living bully-free due to their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious identity, etc., will be returning to schools that will cause them anxiety and/or trauma. It is of the utmost importance, then, that middle schools be responsive to the individual social-emotional needs of our students. Leading whole group discussions about COVID-19 and the social uprising, for example, might be traumatic and triggering for some students because teachers may not be equipped to lead those discussions in anti-racist, class-sensitive ways, and because sensitive conversations require acquired trust in a community space, something we know as middle school educators takes time to cultivate. With that said, not being prepared to attend to diverse reactions and experiences when they arise could be detrimental to students who might need school as a space to process all that has been happening. Choosing not to take up the difficult work of creating safer spaces and/or learning experiences for students to process, reflect, and inquire into these historical events will cause some students to feel more marginalized and devalued than they already do. We cannot be fully prepared for every scenario that will come our way this coming year, but we can keep in mind that during the span of five short months, each of us experienced a global pandemic and a massive racial reckoning in this country, and we experienced these events in very different ways. It is our ethical responsibility, then, to approach our decisions and interactions in nuanced and responsive ways, rather than through a “one size fits all” model.
Schools might attend to students’ social-emotional needs through an anti-racist lens, for example, and design teaching and learning experiences that allow students to examine the history of racism and classism across the curriculum. Advisory time might be used to engage students in inquiry projects about the history of police brutality, capitalism’s effects on the top 1%, the history of red-lining, the US prison system, and other social issues that are important to students. While individual teachers have the power to create these experiences in their classrooms, this kind of anti-racist social-emotional learning (Weaver, 2020) is more effective when nested within the practices of the entire school. Administrators providing the time, space, and support for teachers to enact these practices will thus be vital to this work.
Our Personal Work (and Responsibility) as More Equitable Middle School Educators
This moment has provided an opportunity to re-envision a more equitable and just middle level education, but we cannot change existing systems and support all students until we begin doing work on ourselves first. In other words, if we can only see some students (i.e., White, middle class) as capable and successful, due to our unchecked implicit or explicit biases and lack of historical knowledge about racism and classism in this country, it will continue to be impossible to break down existing structures in our schools that were designed to only allow some students to succeed.
Again, this is difficult but imperative work, and all of our students can benefit if we begin by examining how our own ideologies and beliefs influence our daily interactions and perceptions. We can ask ourselves questions like, how does my upbringing influence how I interact with students and colleagues who do not look like me, pray like me, live like me, think like me, etc.? What can I do to learn more about communities that are different than my own in asset-oriented ways, rather than deficit-oriented ways? How can I learn more about my students’ assets and bring those assets into my curriculum and instruction? Also, in relation to the grace we ourselves need during this time, we can ask how we are taking care of ourselves during these trying times.
Change Can Happen in Middle Level Education
The past five months have brought some of the most drastic educational changes and racial injustice activism the 21st century has seen. Schools transitioned to virtual learning spaces at the same time mass protests against racism and police brutality took place across the nation and globally. We saw how education can still thrive without the pressures of standardized testing, while we simultaneously reckoned with our history as confederate monuments were brought down. Within a reasonably short time span, we saw swift changes taking place regarding practices that were deeply embedded in our education system and society at large. These changes are a reminder that transformation can and is happening. One such change for the Association for Middle Level Education is the upcoming position paper, The Successful Middle School: This We Believe, which centers on equitable middle school practices and consequently, informed this article. As this school year begins, we invite all middle grades educators to engage with the ideas in the position paper with a sense of renewed hope and agency. The
middle school model is perfectly positioned for this kind of work, and this is our time to lean in and enact change so all students can experience a more equitable, just education.
Hughes, H. & Jones, S. (2020, April 1). This is not homeschooling, distance learning, or online schooling. The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Retrieved from https://www.ajc.com/blog/get-schooled/opinion-this-not-home-schooling-distance-learning-online-schooling/b9rNnK77eyVLhsRMhaqZwL/
Lester, N.A. (2020, June 16). “No, I am not OK.” Thanks
for asking. Teaching Tolerance. Retrieved from
Weaver, T. (2020, June 16). Antiracism in social-emotional
learning: Why it’s not enough to talk the
talk. EdSurge. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-06-16-antiracism-in-social-emotionallearning- why-it-s-not-enough-to-talk-the-talk
Hilary E. Hughes, Ph.D. is associate professor and
graduate coordinator in the Department of Educational
Theory and Practice, at the University of Georgia, Athens.
Lisa M. Harrison, Ph.D. is associate professor and
Middle Childhood Education program coordinator at
Ohio University, co-editor of Middle School Journal, and
member of the AMLE Board of Trustees.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2020.
Ideas from a Canadian school on safe school opening this fall
As school districts across the United States and Canada develop guidelines for school opening this fall, there will be varying strategies required. Most school districts are considering one of three potential strategies:
- Going back to status quo, with everyone back to school along with updated protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
- Using a hybrid with a partial opening combined with some online work.
- Starting the year with online learning.
With COVID-19, student and staff safety are on the minds of school district leaders, parents, staff, and students. Prevention of an outbreak will be at the forefront of all educators’ minds. Here are some strategies that will be employed in Alberta, Canada, that might be useful for comparison to the plans for your district.
Self and Parent Screening
When staff, students, visitors, and volunteers visit a school for work or education, schools/districts we will be using a provincial-approved checklist for a current health assessment. Our school district will have families assess their children before allowing them to go to school. School registration packages that go home before the school year will have a screening document printed on colorful paper, which will also be emailed to parents.
Middle schools will need to record any pre-existing symptoms just in case there needs to be any tracing by the health district. If a child develops symptoms that could be caused by COVID-19 (rather than by a known pre-existing condition such as allergies), the child must be tested for COVID-19 to confirm that it is not the cause of their symptoms before entering or returning to school.
If any staff or students report COVID-19 symptoms they will stay home and be directed to seek health care advice as appropriate as per health district established supports. Our district schools will be posting external signs at entry points to not enter the building if you have any COVID-19 symptoms.
The risk of transmission of COVID-19 is reduced by limiting exposure to others. A COVID-19 cohort, a small group whose members–always the same people—do not always keep two meters apart (Guidance for Cohorts, Government of Alberta, 2020, p. 1), will be a strategy used in our schools. Contact tracing is more feasible when groups are maintained. Middle schools, in which students switch classes with different students and teachers, may need to consider keeping students together in cohorts going from class to class and staying with the same teacher as much as possible. If possible, students should take the same classes together. The size of the cohort will depend on the physical space of the classroom or learning setting. Schools and districts need to prepare for families that have already been cohorting, to be in the same class or to sit beside each other inside the six foot distance typically recommended.
Whether all the students go back at once or partially, physical distancing will be a main strategy that our district will use this fall if we head back to the school building. This includes parent drop off and pick up areas, separate entrances and exits, washrooms, and accommodations in busy transition areas in the hallways of schools. Schools and teachers will need to lay out classes to maximize spacing, such as moving desks right up against the side, front, and back walls of the classroom.
Our school currently larger classroom tables, which promote collaborative learning, and these will not be desirable as students now must face the same direction. Desks or chairs with turn up platforms for writing will be best in this new COVID-19 world. We plan to use some cardboard trifolds as protective barriers in classrooms or hallways where physical distancing will be challenging.
Options or Electives
A question during the new school year for districts to decide is whether options or electives will be offered. If yes, cohorts of students could be visited by elective teachers and we will most likely have each cohort class participate in the same option, together. For example, our art specialist would visit a grade 7 class of students to deliver the lesson rather than the students being broken up into various options out of their cohorts. Our students will be disappointed to lose the choice and would rather have a sampling of different options decided by each school. Students would participate in the school-decided option for a length of time and experience the option. If we offer room or equipment-specific options like woodworking, we would move the cohort when the hallways are empty to the woodworking classroom. Band teachers would have to modify their courses to meet the restrictions of COVID with percussion and string instruments rather than brass and woodwind which involve blowing air. Our band instructor will most likely have students take their brass and woodwind instruments home to play online.
If our students are back in school, we will participate in physical activity outdoors whenever possible. The gym would provide some physical distancing and physical education programs would have to further alter the delivery of programs to allow for physical distancing. For example, wrestling classes would be on hold and replaced with activities such as badminton.
Changing for physical education may also be on hold as our locker rooms are very small with sometimes three classes changing at the same time. If our physical education teachers move to changing for physical education, they will develop a staggered changing schedule or not have students change for physical education until it is possible to use locker rooms effectively.
Our Questions Moving Forward
Self-assessment strategies: Will our self-assessment screen include parents taking their child’s temperature everyday before going to school?
Substitute teaching staff: It would be recommended for school districts to hire additional substitutes and possibly assign the same substitutes to the same schools to maintain proper cohorting strategies.
Masks or no masks: One of the more discussed topics during the pandemic has been the use and effectiveness of masks. More recent studies are showing that COVID-19 can be transmitted via the air in fine saliva spray. The New York Times shared the opinion of a group of scientists encouraging the WHO to give more consideration to the role of the airborne spread of COVID-19. If students and staff are indeed back to school, it would be highly recommended for all students and staff to wear masks. The rationale behind this decision stems from providing an extra layer of safety for students and staff members. Just like washing hands is a widely accepted practice to stop the spread of germs, masks will offer the same type of safety for students and staff if we are back in classes. Some physical distancing will prove to be impossible, so most authorities recommend the use of masks in these situations.
In conclusion, schools and districts will be working on obvious strategies such as increased touch point cleaning and having students clean the areas that they finish working in as well as equipment they might have come touched. More research is released daily and we have some strong examples of mistakes and useful strategies used by schools that are open in Australia and New Zealand and those that opened in June in Canada. Stay vigilant and educated for the well-being of our students and staff.
Bill Garner is assistant principal of F. E. Osborne School, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
I am encouraged to look for the silver lining. Last Spring, when schools closed their doors for the 2019-2020 school year, in most cases without proper goodbyes, a silver lining was hard to find.
As schools prepare to open for the 2020-2021 school year safely, I can sense the opportunity that awaits. Perhaps it’s just me trying to cultivate a “growth mindset,” but I choose to find the silver lining this season.
One silver lining is the excellent opportunity schools have to redefine the word “teamwork.” This year, teachers will need to support one another emotionally and instructionally. Practicing proper teamwork means we create a nurturing environment for our students during a time of chaos. Improper teamwork sets teachers and students up for failure. A culture must be created that emphasizes an “All In For Kids” mentality. Together, we are better!
Schools across the nation are providing students and families with a choice: would you prefer a traditional or virtual learning experience? Teachers familiar with in-house teaching and conversations are now asked to modify instruction and collaboration to fit an online format. As education changes, the nature of our discussions must change as well. Pulling from the Flippin Group’s EXCEL at Meetings Model flippengroup.com/emails/EXCEL.pdf and DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, and Many’s Four Essential Questions of a PLC (from Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work, 2010, Solution Tree Press), a Distance Learning PLC Conversation Template was developed to help teachers navigate through topics in an online learning experience.
PLC Conversation Template
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2010). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Anthony S. Golding is assistant principal at Milam Elementary School, Tupelo, Mississippi.