Making School Work Right
An update on a district-wide transformation of middle level education and technology for learning
In our article titled "Transforming Middle School Practice Through Instructional Technology," we shared how our district has approached systematic growth by intertwining twin focuses on middle level education and leveraging instructional technology for learning. The first steps of that process began in early 2016 and our article describes progress over the first 12–18 months. It seems appropriate, then, to provide a bit of an epilogue to share what has happened since then.
- Over the last two years, our district has focused intently on building a culture of shared professional learning. Every administrator in the district participated in study and implementation of professional learning communities last school year. That focus continues at all schools this year. Within that context, carefully developed plans for professional learning have become our norm. The Instructional Technology Department has planned and lead extensive professional learning activities for teachers K-12, including PLUs with teacher "ambassadors," school- and grade-level groups, and administrators. We believe that instructional technology can be transformative for a school and district only when the teachers and students using the technology have the learning and supports to do so purposefully and well.
- Our strategic plan stipulated that this Digital Transformation would be undertaken in the context of strong supports for teachers. We have followed that roadmap by adding additional technology coaches. As of today, seven coaches with expertise from PreK to upper level high school math support 21 schools with faculty professional development sessions, co-teaching, co-planning, and coaching. Recent middle grades initiatives include podcasting to provide opportunities for student voice, 3-D printing design contests, and Tech Takeovers, where coaches model technology integration from planning around learning targets to formative assessment to implementation. Coaching takes the professional learning to the teachers when and where they need it.
- When we made the collective commitment to acknowledging the unique learning needs of young adolescents and to serving them appropriately through Middle School Matters!, one of the aspirational commitments was to ensure that each student would be supported by an adult advocate. Today, that discussion has developed into a firm expectation and embedded practice that has spread to high school as well. All students are connected with an advisor in our middle and high schools. The structures we have built to facilitate these relationships have proved the perfect place for much of the other work we know is important. For example, in fifth grade we begin to show students the elective programs available to them across the district. Then student exploration in sixth grade prepares them for interest inventories in seventh grade and participation in a major full-day experiential career day in eighth grade put on by our Chamber of Commerce. When formal four-year planning exercises begin a few weeks later, students enter that process having been exposed to much more of their options than ever before and far better prepared to create a first draft of the learning options they want to explore in high school.
- Another development that provides an outstanding example of the intersection of middle level education and instructional technology is classroom practices such as small group instruction. Elementary teachers are often bemused by the fact that secondary teachers struggle with small group instruction. But we secondary folks are working hard to deepen our understanding of how to implement small group instruction as a powerful tool for student learning. One way this is happening is through schools' development of teacher collaboration tools. In one middle school, teachers created a "digital data wall" in which they collected a wide range of relevant information about student learning: numeric data (like standardized and unit test scores), anecdotal data (Damien has attended two other middle schools in the last six months), and student work. By leveraging technology to make a complex task more organized and manageable, school-level teams have been able to understand students and their learning much better and make effective decisions in support of their learning.
- Since this work started, house systems have taken hold in our system. As of today, three of five middle schools are running full-fledged house systems complete with house names, colors, mascots, and other accoutrements. Although organizing and running a house system requires a good deal of work, schools find them to be powerful in a number of ways. They provide students with "layers of belonging," bring structure to citizenship and service initiatives, and provide ready-made opportunities for students to develop relationships across grade-levels and other classifications. Here too, technology is an integral component, providing the tools and the resources for making things work well.
- While a diploma encapsulates many accomplishments and preparation for some aspects of life beyond K-12 education, we know it is incomplete. The district has adopted the TCS Graduate as our vision for the other skills and experiences that go with that diploma. The six components are Communicator, Global Citizen, Innovator, Leader, Work Ready, and Technologically Advanced, and we are committed to providing opportunities for students to grow in these six areas from Kindergarten on. While the roadmap for the TCS Graduate is evolving, it includes interdisciplinary learning experiences that include collaboration, problem solving, creation of original products, and applied learning with emphases on contexts such as digital literacy, project-based learning, making, or STEAM.
More than three years into the phase of our district's growth marked by the approval of our Strategic Plan, it seems to us that we are just getting started on the work to make school work right for students. Our resolute commitment to bringing cohesion to our work is accelerating our rate of change. We continue to strive to understand young adolescents well and base decisions on that understanding. We are firmly committed to using technology as a powerful tool for transforming teaching, learning, and professional practice. In our case, weaving these seemingly disparate initiatives tightly together keeps us focused on the young people we serve and their learning.
Andrew Maxey, NBCT is the director of special programs for the Tuscaloosa City Schools, Alabama.
Elizabeth Hancock, Ph.D. is the instructional technology coordinator for the Tuscaloosa City Schools, Alabama. firstname.lastname@example.org
Published March 2019.