Middle School, not Junior High

By: Rick Wormeli


We are a middle school, not a junior version of high school. To be effective in our teaching, we are developmentally appropriate for young adolescents, not for 16- to 18-year-olds nor for 8- and 9-year-olds. There is an expertise to teaching middle level students that is different than that needed to teach elementary or high school students, and our classrooms reflect that specific expertise.

16 Characteristics of Successful Middle Level Classrooms

This is a special age group. Who they are as adults has its roots in what they experience right here in middle school. We’re building their future, and our own, with every action. Our teaching needs to be informed, responsive, and purposeful, not haphazard or indifferent. Thankfully, we know what to do.

The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) is one of the best organizations to get up to date information on what works and what doesn’t work in middle level classrooms. To start, let’s remind ourselves of their 16 characteristics of successful middle level education, as listed on their website and in their publication, This We Believe. As we read them, let’s consider what it would look like in our schools if we implemented each one with conviction:

Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment

Educators value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them. Effective middle grades educators make a conscious choice to work with young adolescents and advocate for them. They understand the developmental uniqueness of this age group, the appropriate curriculum, effective learning and assessment strategies, and their importance as models.

Students and teachers are engaged in active, purposeful learning. Instructional practices place students at the center of the learning process. As they develop the ability to hypothesize, to organize information into useful and meaningful constructs, and to grasp long-term cause and effect relationships, students are ready and able to play a major role in their own learning and education.

Curriculum is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant. Curriculum embraces every planned aspect of a school's educational program. An effective middle level curriculum is distinguished by learning activities that appeal to young adolescents, is exploratory and challenging, and incorporates student-generated questions and concerns.

Educators use multiple learning and teaching approaches. Teaching and learning approaches should accommodate the diverse skills, abilities, and prior knowledge of young adolescents; cultivate multiple intelligences; draw upon students' individual learning styles; and utilize digital tools. When learning experiences capitalize on students' cultural, experiential, and personal backgrounds, new concepts are built on knowledge students already possess.

Varied and ongoing assessments advance learning as well as measure it. Continuous, authentic, and appropriate assessment measures, including both formative and summative ones, provide evidence about every student's learning progress. Such information helps students, teachers, and family members select immediate learning goals and plan further education.

Leadership and Organization

A shared vision developed by all stakeholders guides every decision. When a shared vision and mission statement become operational, middle level educators pursue appropriate practices in developing a challenging academic program; they develop criteria to guide decisions and a process to make changes.

Leaders are committed to and knowledgeable about this age group, educational research, and best practices. Courageous, collaborative middle level leaders understand young adolescents, the society in which they live, and the theory of middle level education. Such leaders understand the nuances of teaming, student advocacy, exploration, and assessment as components of a larger program.

Leaders demonstrate courage and collaboration. Leaders understand that successful schools committed to the long-term implementation of the middle school concept must be collaborative enterprises. The principal, working collaboratively with a leadership team, focuses on building a learning community that places top priority on the education and healthy development of every student, teacher, and staff member.

Ongoing professional development reflects best educational practices. Professional development is a continuing activity in middle level schools where teachers take advantage of every opportunity to work with colleagues to improve the learning experiences for their students.

Organizational structures foster purposeful learning and meaningful relationships. The ways schools organize teachers and group and schedule students has a significant impact on the learning environment. Interdisciplinary teams, common planning time, block scheduling, and elimination of tracking are related conditions that contribute to improved achievement.

Culture and Community

The school environment is inviting, safe, inclusive, and supportive of all. A successful school for young adolescents is an inviting, supportive, and safe place, a joyful community that promotes in-depth learning and enhances students' physical and emotional wellbeing.

Every student's academic and personal development is guided by an adult advocate. Academic success and personal growth increase markedly when young adolescents' affective needs are met. Each student must have one adult to support that student's academic and personal development.

Comprehensive guidance and support services meet the needs of young adolescents. Both teachers and specialized professionals are readily available to offer the assistance many students need in negotiating their lives in and out of school.

Health and wellness are supported in curricula, school-wide programs, and related policies. Abundant opportunities are available for students to develop and maintain healthy minds and bodies and to understand their personal growth through health-related programs, policies, and curricula.

The school actively involves families in the education of their children. Schools and families must work together to provide the best possible learning for every young adolescent. Schools take the initiative in involving and educating families.

The school includes community and business partners. Genuine community involvement is a fundamental component of successful schools for young adolescents. Such schools seek appropriate partnerships with businesses, social service agencies, and other organizations whose purposes are consistent with the school's mission.

Extending Our Effort

The era of treating middle schoolers as older elementary children or early high school students is long over. We’ve seen repeatedly how success in the middle years yields direct and positive results in high school and life.


Rick Wormeli is a long-time classroom teacher turned writer and education consultant. He is the author of several books, including The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way (AMLE). He lives in Herndon, Virginia, and is working on a new book on homework.
rwormeli@cox.net
@rickwormeli2
www.rickwormeli.com

Published in AMLE Magazine, January 2016.

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