Ensuring students’ social-emotional needs are met
As we head into the seventh month of the epidemic, with return to school buildings being delayed across the United States, middle school students face ever increasing social-emotional and academic challenges. With students experiencing the various incarnations of school (homeschool, remote, hybrid and brick and mortar learning), it’s never been more important for teachers to focus on the whole child and ensure that students' social-emotional and academic needs are being met.
Now more than ever, it’s critical that educators make sure students feel connected to one another while continuing to learn. As Education Dive noted in April 2020, students “will return to school with collective trauma, higher anxiety levels and more stress after dealing with everything from child abuse and neglect to unemployment and loss of life.” This is especially true for middle school students, who are in a unique developmental moment in their lives. By intentionally incorporating a holistic, whole child approach to instruction, middle school educators can provide meaningful support to their students while also meeting academic goals.
In January 2019, the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development released From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope, a report seeking to “accelerate and strengthen efforts to support the whole learner in local communities through recommendations for researchers, educators, and policymakers.” In presenting this report, the Commission reinforced that “overwhelming evidence demands that we complement the focus on academics with the development of the social and emotional skills and competencies that are equally essential for students to thrive in school, career, and life.”
Supporting Social-Emotional Needs
While a whole child approach is important throughout a student’s educational journey, middle school is a critical moment. During this time, adolescent brains are going through rapid development, making it even more important to support self-regulation, instill a growth mindset, and incorporate students’ social-emotional needs into the school day.
Over the last few months, COVID-19 has had an incalculable impact on the world, resulting in an even stronger need for educators to support students beyond their academic growth. Middle school students are already experiencing significant physical and emotional growth. The additional stress and trauma of school closures, losing time with friends and family, and coping with incredible uncertainty increases the need of a holistic approach that meets their social-emotional needs.
Curriculum and Instruction
To ensure students continue progressing on both academic and social-emotional fronts, it’s critical that educators are intentional about their curriculum and their approach to instruction. As Helen Brandon wrote in an article for AMLE earlier this year, understanding “the developmental characteristics of adolescents provides the foundation for a developmentally responsive curriculum that meets their needs and is flexible to their learned experience. Curriculum created within the walls and outside of the walls of the school should embrace this experience.”
The idea of incorporating a whole child curriculum may seem less important than meeting rigorous academic demands. Fortunately, this perspective has largely shifted over the last two decades. In a 2011 piece on the history of social emotional learning, Edutopia acknowledges the change in mindset. “Teaching the soft skills, traditionally associated with conflict resolution and character education, has evolved from being considered ‘wishy-washy’ to being an integral part of educating the whole child.” A holistic approach requires that educators use various learning modalities that incorporate appropriate content, collaboration, and empathy. Fortunately, many curriculum providers have recognized the need to provide resources that blend academic and social-emotional learning.
Holistic Curriculum in Action: The Read to Lead Approach
During this challenging time it is essential that teachers have access to curricula that allows for reading and writing skill development, supports problem solving, develops empathy, encourages growth mindset and offers the opportunity to create deep connections in a variety of learning environments.
Read to Lead is a free and proven game-based learning platform that invites students to “be the boss” in a virtual workplace. Students read closely through their virtual workday, and must think critically, lead a diverse team, and solve complex workplace problems. The interactive reading experience provides educators with a proven model and tools for developing literacy, life, and career skills. The program puts students in a leadership position in a virtual workplace and engages them holistically through relevant and relatable scenarios. Importantly, it allows teachers to more easily improve reading and writing skills, and meet the social-emotional needs of their middle school students, all on one tool.
In addition to the learning games, Read to Lead provides educators with the data they need to monitor student progress, as well as numerous corresponding lesson plans, activities, and projects to differentiate the learning experience. Because it’s a free digital platform, Read to Lead supports educators in meeting the instructional and social-emotional learning needs of students in all classroom environments, from brick and mortar to hybrid and remote.
It’s never too late to start implementing a holistic approach to instruction. The lasting effects of COVID-19, coupled with the realities of the adolescent experience make it critical that educators include social-emotional components in the core curriculum. To learn more about Read to Lead and how the program fits in a whole child approach, visit rtlgames.org.
An interview with authors Penny Bishop and Lisa Harrison
Middle school educators entering the profession today are seeing a slightly different landscape than the one we had in mind when AMLE last published its foundational position paper, known over the years as This We Believe, outlining an evidence-based vision for successful middle schools. Think back to the year 2010 for a moment. Were you working in the same role you have now, or in an earlier stage of your career? What do you remember about the conversations and attitudes surrounding middle school education back then?
Some things that make young adolescents so much fun to work with are likely the same, such as the resilience, sense of humor, and desire to grow that we see in our students. But as each unique class of middle schoolers passes through, they build on the growing young people who came before them.
Supplemental materials for This We Believe had been added over the years, but AMLE’s membership realized the overall vision could use some updating to reflect the growth and positive change taking place in the middle school concept and the community as a whole. Dr. Lisa Harrison of Ohio University and Dr. Penny Bishop of the University of Vermont took on the monumental task of updating the text to keep up with a changing world. Now that the new edition is on the cusp of being released in conjunction with #AMLE20, Drs. Harrison and Bishop shared their thoughts on what readers can expect!
What inspired this updated edition of The Successful Middle School: This We Believe?
AMLE had received feedback from current teachers, teacher educators at universities, and researchers in the field of middle level education that it was time to revisit the document. The use of social media and technology as well as the trends of globalization and accessibility were making a huge impact on the human experience, particularly in youth, and those new experiences are centered in the new edition.
Both Dr. Bishop and Dr. Harrison noted that views on equity and diversity were in particular need of updating, “not to say that equity wasn’t considered in the previous editions, but it wasn’t highlighted in the way we wanted it to be,” Dr. Harrison said, acknowledging the growing racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of the U.S. population and middle schools in particular. Middle school education is changing to be not just developmentally responsive, but culturally responsive.
How is this edition different from the prior edition?
Again, there is a much stronger emphasis on equity and diversity. Dr. Bishop added, “I think the field of middle level education has long focused on and advocated for the particular developmental needs of young adolescents, and this edition really strives to couple that focus with a more nuanced perspective on who young adolescents are and what their various social identities are.” The curriculum section reflects this change, calling for curricula that are challenging, exploratory, integrative, relevant, and now diverse.
Whereas the ideas of educators respecting and valuing young adolescents were present in the previous edition, these ideas are also more centered in their own section. “We’re understanding that youth are bringing experiences. It’s not just that we’re teachers and we need to educate them...but it’s more so this collaboration of meeting students where they’re at and helping them to advance,” said Dr. Harrison. For the first time, the new edition also includes representations of student voice throughout the text in the form of artwork, poetry, and testimonials submitted by middle schoolers around the world as part of our Student Voice campaign.
A new section on policies and practices has also been added, exploring what it might look like to have policies and practices that are unbiased, fairly implemented, and student-centered. Some topics in this area include using student data for equitable discipline and making sure school policies are not contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. Last, educators expressed a need for more coverage on school safety, particularly around shootings. This edition provides insight on social-emotional support for students in these situations in addition to the focus on their physical safety.
Another important distinction is that unlike the last edition that stood as a position paper with a companion volume on research and resources, this one includes more integrated research in endnotes so readers can dig deeper without having to search out other materials.
What audiences will benefit from this new edition?
Though the primary audience for this edition is middle school practitioners and those who study middle level education, AMLE hopes that young adolescent students receive the ultimate benefit. Because the concepts function more like a philosophy than a set of strict guidelines, teachers should find them useful for personalizing classroom best practices for their particular students.
From a school leadership standpoint, Dr. Harrison points out that this edition is useful for school leaders to align a holistic mission, vision, and curriculum to create the best school environment for their students. When all stakeholders are working according to these principles, administrators will be able to give teachers the kind of support they need to support the students in turn.
In what ways do you expect educators to use the book in their schools or districts?
Based on what we’ve seen with previous editions, Drs. Harrison and Bishop expect that this new edition will be embraced and used in a number of creative ways, supplemented by professional development resources that will help educators integrate the philosophy into their schools. AMLE envisions the new edition to be a living multimedia resource, offering multiple, frequently updated ways for its members to interact with and adopt the text.
One such resource will be a book study that middle school teams can complete together. Reading the book in groups is an extremely useful way for teachers to strengthen community among themselves while assessing areas they can improve on individually to transform their own practice. In planning professional development, school leaders can view the main characteristics as different domains they might want to strategically support teachers in. Administrators can ask “What do we want our teachers to be able to do?” and use this volume as a guide to build programs that reflect those capabilities.
Practitioners can also use The Successful Middle School to engage with community partners and families to create a shared understanding of best practices. “We really see it as something that can be used in sort of this 360 degree way: working with teachers, parents, families, and kids, that could be a really useful focus for conversations about where we are and where we want to go,” said Dr. Bishop. For instance, leaders might ask students to consider the characteristics and give feedback on where they are meeting the mark and where they can improve practice. Clearer connections to research in this volume will make it easier for these conversations to influence policy. Perhaps the most exciting application for the new edition will be the companion school improvement assessment, scheduled to release later this fall, to help schools accomplish just that.
All middle school educators are invited to dig into the new edition at the #AMLE20 virtual conference this October. Each attendee will receive a complimentary copy mailed to them prior to the conference. School leaders can also purchase bulk copies in advance of launch this October.
An African American first-year teacher on perseverance and an unwavering focus on student success
The 2%. No, I am not referring to the milk. No, I am not referring to my phone battery. The 2% indicates the percentage of African American male educators in America. As most people are aware, African American males are severely underrepresented in the education system. This past year, I joined the 2%, and with this opportunity came grave responsibility.
I will always remember the weight that I felt on the morning of the first day of teaching. I was so overwhelmed with the fear of not being adequate for my students, being one of the few that looked like me, and not being treated fairly. But most of all, I questioned if I was what my students would need.
I also felt as though I would be under a microscope within the school and that I would have to prove myself to other colleagues, parents, and even some students because of my age and the color of my skin. All my worries and doubts slowly went to the back of my mind the moment I watched my students eagerly trickle into the classroom. I could see on their faces that they knew I was not like their other teachers.
Although I could see my students looking at me as the “cool and young” teacher, I was some of my students' first male teacher or first Black male teacher. When I looked into their hopeful eyes, I knew this year would be monumental for them.
Within a couple of weeks, I noticed that many teachers were making comments about the group of students that were placed in my class. They made comments like, “I can’t believe they would give a group of students like that to you” or “good luck with that class.” It didn’t take long for me to realize that the students who were placed in my class had been labeled as some of the problem students within the grade level. I didn’t come to this realization based on the students’ actions, but merely by the comments of my coworkers.
The question that settled in my mind was, “Why was I being asked to be a disciplinarian first and a teacher second?” The unapologetic answer is… I am a Black male. Although these “troubled” students were placed in my classes and my coworkers tried to influence my view of these students, I realized that I understood what the students needed. They needed love. They needed someone not to judge them for what they did last year. They needed an authority figure that didn’t yell. They needed me.
It had not been long since I sat in the same seats at the very same school of my students. I was able to relate to them in ways that other teachers could not.
Although I was happy to help all students (even those not in my class), some coworkers viewed me as their hallway disciplinarian. Having students sent to me from other classrooms to discipline or counsel created a challenge for me. There were times when I was forced to make a decision to continue teaching the lesson, assist this student in need, or say no to the teacher. What would you do? Are you a teacher who sends your “troubled” students to a teacher that you have deemed a disciplinarian? As a Black male teacher, I learned quickly how to deescalate a situation with a student and get to the root of the problem. I knew that the child wasn’t a troubled child or a problem child, the child was encountering a problem or was troubled by something.
If previous teachers looked at the students that I taught as if they were a problem, then the students probably believed them. So, I wanted to make sure my students knew they were capable of reaching their full potential. I decided to go into my classroom and tell my students something similar to what Rita Pierson stated in her TED Talk. I told them they were special and placed within MY classroom because they were the best of the best. We came up with a classroom chant: when I said, “we are” my students replied with “the best.” Simple. Reciting this chant with my students invigorated them to be their best.
Although data isn’t everything, my students' scores grew the most in the whole school. I realized that the highest priority for my students was forming relationships and building their confidence. After that, everything else fell into place. I saw their attitudes change before my eyes. They were excelling in their academics and reaching their full potential.
They believed that they were the best and they became the best.
Although I feel as if I am under a microscope as a Black male teacher, I persevere each day so my students will see my strength. I strive for my students to see me as an encourager and someone who is approachable, and caring; rather than a teacher they are afraid of. I aspire to change the narrative and show my students a positive example of a Black male and not the stereotypes they see when they turn on the television.
Brian Bowman is a fifth grade science and English language arts teacher at Wells Elementary School, Macon, Georgia.
Published in AMLE Newsletter
, August 2020.
Lessons learned about humanity, what’s essential, and being prepared
Managing the shift to online instruction at the outset of a pandemic brings to mind the truth that we can hardly call this a “shift.” It was more of a drastic change and philosophical realignment in response to a very present need. It is no more a shift than suddenly ripping off of a bandage can be called a subtle gesture. Sadly, this period of transition and challenge is not yet over.
As I write this, the CDC has recently issued new guidelines for the possibility of holding face-to-face classes in the coming fall semester, and the reaction is wide and mixed. Word is coming soon about how the new school year will take shape, and I am sensing the possibility of last-minute changes as we begin a new school year with COVID-19.
What follows are a few lessons learned and a few reminders I experienced as a teacher educator whose work with undergraduate and graduate students suddenly moved online. While the implications for this sit in my work at the college level, I hope you will find connections in what I’ve shared to teaching at the middle level, as well.
First and foremost, regardless of the programs we have in place and the curriculum we are using, the essence of being an effective educator is practicing humanity. I found this to be the case when I was in the middle school classroom, and I have been reminded about the absolute importance of staying true to this reality at the post-secondary level. Deadlines are not the most important aspect of my classroom work; my students are the central focus.
My move to online instruction was not about who had their cameras on in meetings, how many times students checked in with forums, or even how often students were able to log in. Staying connected is important, but I also recognized that students were now facing challenges they had never anticipated, and these changes had impacts on their schedules that were not always on the surface. While we have had months to visit what the pandemic means, I sense that our flexibility must remain at a high level. We will be remembered for our compassion and understanding much more than our rigorous (and sometimes impossible) lessons in spaces where Internet service is spotty.
I had so many students apologize when due dates needed to be extended, when a message was missed, or when they just felt like they were not able to give the attention to a course the same way they had before. My constant refrain was that apologies were not necessary – and I found myself in the strange vortex of each task seemingly taking twice as long in my own work. Pandemic living and pandemic education is different.
Suddenly the due dates I had carefully plotted out at the beginning of the semester did not seem quite as relevant, and my response was to care for my students first. This is the kind of ethic that teachers can take to their online or onsite classrooms, and it’s a message I hope I continue to model for the future teachers I work with.
Deciding What’s Essential
A sudden move to online learning meant that I needed to consider the reality that my students were now taking all of their classes in digital spaces, not just the ones that were planned that way from day one. As such, I revisited a fully online course I was already halfway through teaching. Rather than simply saying, “Well, it was online to begin with,” I began looking through what was truly essential for my students. This brought to mind my standards-based grading practices that I’ve drawn on for years.
Suddenly the required weekly forum posts that I was asking for seemed less important as I realized that my students were now likely posting on multiple forums throughout the week, and I was just glad to see their faces in digital form. Because of this digital influx, along with the sense that my students were experiencing a myriad of other problems, I made these forums invitational rather than required, and chose to focus on the course materials that needed to be consumed and the assignments that truly gave me a sense of what my students were taking away.
Striving for community is still a goal for online instruction. My questions shifted from inquiries solely focused on readings to more personal opportunities to interact about learning through open-ended stems. This was more about keeping in touch than checking up on readings.
I had been posting narrated presentations and videos from the beginning of the semester for the course, but my hunch was that students were now required to sit through multiple lectures throughout the week, prerecorded for their consumption, alongside lengthy Zoom meetings. Web conferencing tools are wonderful, but we can also work to find times for students to engage in meaningful ways when they are not in front of a screen. I made changes in my plans for some of the last weeks of our course, opting instead to share links to articles and sites that students could explore more independently, and sticking to short recorded videos to convey what I really needed to.
I continue to think through the best ways to make a three-hour course manageable in the world of conferencing technology, and I continue to think about different avenues of expression for what is essential in my lesson objectives.
Planning for What’s Next
All in all, the message that is playing in my mind now is: This is not over yet. As some cry hoax and others continue to stay at home, and as some wear masks and others categorically refuse to do so, my insistence has been and continues to be that flexibility is a key to effective teaching. Flexibility is a word that matters when we are face-to-face, and when we are online. When my students ask me about the most important qualities in a teacher, the word flexibility always springs to mind early in the list. These circumstances are far from ideal. More changes will come as time goes by, and we have no idea what the future looks like.>
My commitment is to continue thinking through creative ways to engage my students and sustain community. Schools are important for that kind of work, and teachers are the ones who are trained to do it well. My work in planning right now is to model engaging online instruction, demonstrating how in-person Plan B can move to another shift if needed, while also noting that we have much advocacy to engage in for equal access to Internet and learning materials for students.
Whatever happens in the future, we will continue learning together. This is simply part of being a member of this profession (really, this species), and creative and inspiring expert teachers will craft invitations and use new tools to make sure that student voices are heard.
As I close, the call for advocacy for those who do not have access to technology has to be part of this conversation. Teachers are engineers, poets, creators, artists, scientists, community sustainers, and, yes, advocates, too. We must remember to tell the stories of the voices we aren’t hearing anymore, or encounter less often, so that our practice in the future is stronger and better.
Jason D. DeHart, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of reading education at Appalachian State University. He taught middle grades English for eight years in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Published in AMLE Newsletter
, August 2020.