I'm a sucker for a good Taylor Swift song. As a 32-year-old middle grades educator I feel confident enough to put that in writing, especially in this venue. The weeks before I began teaching outside of Houston, Texas, were filled with anxiety about what was waiting for me in my classroom. One way I dealt with the growing anxiety was through whistling. Before coworkers even knew my name, they knew me as "the whistler." The day before school started, I wandered the empty hallways taking in the atmosphere while whistling the tune of Taylor Swift's Love Story. It seemed fitting. I was a nervous bundle of excitement. My first classroom mirrored what I had in my middle school, with desks in rows, a cup of pencils, and small crates for students to turn papers in. I did well in middle school. Why not provide for my students a classroom environment like what I had? While whistling the final verse—you know, the part where Romeo says "Marry me Juliet, you'll never have to be alone" (the part that brings in all the feelings—my math department chair stuck her head in my classroom door and said "Moulton, you're whistling now, but you won't be after the year is over."
Talk about Bad Blood
Determined to just shake that off, I persevered into the first few weeks of school trying to fit my predominantly Hispanic, high-poverty, English language learning students into my white south Florida parochial school opinion of what a middle school should look like. "Mr. Moulton, Esme doesn't speak English," one of my students proclaimed while I attempted to brute-force-math my way into the creation of a productive learning environment. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be overwhelmed, out of my element, and out of ideas this quickly. I failed to recognize that what I had been looking for had been there the whole time! My students yearned for a connected relationship with their teacher and each other; one where we shared who we were with each other while crafting an environment where I could learn from them and where they felt comfortable expressing themselves.
Where am I From?
Ever-present in my interactions with students were my personal cultural and historical experiences. I grew up on two different ends of I-95 on the east coast. I was born in Maine and carry that with me no matter where I go. Middle school and high school took place in south Florida. A northerner transplanted to the fertile citrus groves of the Indian River. Regardless of the location, my family's Catholic faith had an impact on life in and out of school. My classmates were overwhelmingly white and upper middle class. College brought some incredible learning experiences and expanded my view of the world and who lives here, but the most growth took place in that classroom in Texas.
Working With not On
There was definitely a learning curve, and the patience my fabulous students displayed was admirable. So much of my first few weeks was introducing myself to students. There was no reciprocity. Absent from my efforts to present myself to students was any intentional effort to get to know them. Where were they from? How did they make sense of the world? Why did I assume that this wouldn't affect what happens in my math classroom?
I hit the reset button, allowed myself to be vulnerable, and apologized for the broken environment I had created in my class. We started over in an attempt to work with each other on math, life, early adolescence, and making sense of the world. This took an intentional choice of being present at school and in the community. During the school day it meant escaping the confines of the teachers' lounge during lunch for walks through the cafeteria, intentionally saying every students' name in class each day, and making sure to acknowledge and say hello in the hallways during transitions. After school it meant jumping into pickup basketball games, visiting with the gamers club, and opening up my room to whoever needed a space to avoid the humid and hot Houston temperatures or just a place to hang out.
Navigating Outside Influences
The vocabulary needed to work through the complexity of negotiating my personal history with my students was not part of the alternative certification program that granted me entry in a middle grades classroom. The students and I were participating in a system that dictated how we interact in the world, whether we acknowledged it or not. It may or may not have been an intentional choice by the alternative certification program to spend so little time on guiding future educators in the development of authentic and caring classroom communities, but it definitely affected my classroom.
This, by far, wasn't the only time that some outside source affected the experiences in my classroom. Budget cuts, scripted curriculum, societal views of immigration, beliefs about students' families, and many more unspoken, unacknowledged, or covert systems played a role in the experiences of the members of my classroom, myself included. We didn't know we were navigating them but we still did with a desire to honor and respect each individual throughout that journey. Assuming that life outside the classroom could be left at the door and students could enter some sort of blank space devoid of real problems just couldn't happen.
Community Contexts in Middle Grades Education
Now, I am a teacher educator and I teach a class called Community Contexts in Middle Grades Education. The co-creators of this class and I noticed that there was a gap in understanding between our future teachers and the students they taught in their field placements. What is disguised behind a name that seems to imply going out to learn about communities begins with an abundance of self-exploration about personal cultural and historical experiences that definitely color perceptions of the world. Three course questions guide the learning and my continued educational journey:
- Where am I from and how do my cultural and historical locations influence how I perceive and interact with the world?
- How will I discover where my students are from and how their cultural and historical locations influence how they perceive and interact with the world?
- Why is it important for me to consider that we are participating in a network of systems?
What I have witnessed throughout the process of the class is our future teachers developing a deeper, more nuanced view of who middle grades students are and that even though they may get clumped together as a mass of hormones and immaturity they are incredibly diverse in historical and cultural experiences. These future teachers, through structured conversations and shadowing assignments where they must become a seventh grader (including taking tests, running a mile in PE, and all other things the student is doing), are amazed at how connected middle grades students are to their communities and what's going on in the world. Middle grades students are passionate about societal injustices and adamant about being part of a solution. It is amazing what can be accomplished when adults stop talking and truly and empathetically listen to the wisdom of middle grades students.
Living in the world as connected and engaged middle grades educators requires a commitment to being all in and investing in the success and story of our students. These stories will include the influence of larger societal forces. They will require a constant personal reflection on beliefs about people, places, and things and how those beliefs impact our ability to work with our students. The stories of our students need audiences, validation, and consideration of how to incorporate them into our classroom settings. Doing our part as middle grades educators requires a suspension of judgement and an adoption of the mantra that my normal is not your normal and that is ok. Once we have taken on the privilege of working with middle grades students we must commit ourselves to co-writing the ballad that guides the dancers in our classroom. What results may not be typical, conventional, or polished, but it is our song written and performed by all the voices and experiences in our classroom.
Matthew Moulton is a former math department chair and teacher who currently is pursuing a Ph.D. in educational theory and practice with an emphasis in middle grades education from the University of Georgia. He teaches classes on middle grades curriculum and community contexts and works directly with future middle grades teachers.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2017.