The ABCs of Middle Level Education

Music in the Middle Grades

30 May 2017

Music in the Middle Grades

Grow Music Education and Get Loud about Music in Your Middle School!

With the new AMLE2017 conference song and video up on the interwebs, music is on my mind. Music is everywhere. In our cars. In our phones. In our classrooms. In our homes. Music is even with me as I write this blog (thank you, DJ Shadow). And, of course, music is a part of everything we do in the critical middle grades. How so?

First, we have a unique sonic vantage point when it comes to music. Most people only hear musicians after they have already practiced countless hours, played numerous songs, recorded multiple albums, rehearsed on many stages, etc. Middle school educators get to see and listen to students learn instruments for the first time. Is it always pleasant to the ears? Is it always satisfying to the listening palette? Not necessarily, but music in the middle grades is about the process as well as the product. And there's no need for auto-tune here. We get to experience art and artists taking shape every day. And that's all thanks to the outstanding band, chorus, and orchestra teachers that we have in our buildings on a daily basis. Thanks to their dedication, our students are celebrated for the notes they play or sing on a score, not just for the scores they make on a test. Thanks to their passion, our students have another joyous reason to come to school every day. And thanks to their positive outreach, families see our schools are great places where their children are celebrated as musicians, singers, performers, creators, and artists.

So now what? If you want to increase attendance at your school, increase the number of music and art opportunities you offer on a daily basis. While we want all of our students to be academically driven, some kids are more propelled by the arts. And music class is what keeps them coming to school! And do the same thing if you want to increase grit, resilience, and social-emotional awareness in students. Students in band learn that it's not about one person, one instrument, or one section that makes the band work; it's about collaboration and cooperation. It's about trying again and again even when it sounds rough the first time. And it's also about supporting your fellow musician—because we're all trying to make this piece of music sound great. That takes positive social-emotional behavior, patience, and tolerance—all life skills we want to instill in our young adolescents. And I'm speaking from firsthand knowledge. As I've mentioned before in other blogs and articles, I might not have survived my junior high school years if it weren't for my band teacher and my beloved low brass friend, my tuba. And my own seventh grader has been able to struggle, succeed, and create with the trombone thanks to exceptional band teachers at his school. It's given him another handhold on the mountain of early adolescence. Something else to help him say, “Hey, I've got this!”

Music is also part of the critical middle grades because it's the perfect metaphor for what we do on a daily basis. Take a guitar, for example. In its essence, a guitar is a box of wood and some strings. What makes it truly sing is when those parts are put together. For the strings, each of them has a specific note it plays (E, A, D, G, B, E), and that's nice; but what makes it really cook is when they are tuned and played together. That's also the essence of interdisciplinary teaming. Each teacher on a grade level can be good at teaching his or her content area (ELA, SS, Sci, Math, Art), and that's nice. But what makes a grade level really cook is when teachers are put together on interdisciplinary teams across the content areas so they can build relationships, create artistic teaching and learning, and really get to know their audience (students and families). Will there be some disharmony and discord when a team is first put together? Of course! It's the same with an instrument. Like guitar strings, getting every person in tune takes time and a patient, listening ear. Again, there's no such thing as auto-tune in the middle grades! And will the interdisciplinary team always remain in tune throughout the year? Of course not. That's why we build relationships with each other and check in and tune up every day during common planning time. And when we play our middle grades music in harmony, our students are the audience that benefits every time.

Continuing the guitar connection, I also think about the role of the amplifier as it pertains to what we need to do in middle schools. An amplifier, of course, amplifies the music created by a guitar. Without an amplifier, a guitar on its own is nice; but what really makes it cook is when it is plugged into the amplifier so it can sing louder, prouder, and more voluminously across the landscape. What's the middle grades connection? With the amplifier, I contend that we can't just play our middle grades music quietly in our schools. That's nice work, but more people need to hear our song. We need to plug in our pedagogical guitars, crank up the volume, and let the whole community, district, state, and world know all the amazing stuff we're doing! Many people in our communities think they know the middle school song and what it's all about, but we need to play them the new critical middle grades tune! We need to get loud and proud by publishing our stories in the local papers, getting on radio and television stations, websites, community posts, etc. In other words, we need to do more than show up—we need to get voluminous and step up!

So how are you celebrating music in the middle grades and helping the music of teaching and learning grow in your school on a daily basis? How are you getting loud and proud about your middle school?


Major and Minor Characters in the Story of School

18 May 2017

Major and Minor Characters in the Story of School

5 Tips to Support Students and Staff in the Grand Narrative

Homework vs. no homework. Soft skills vs. hard skills. Chunky vs. smooth peanut butter. BYOD vs. low tech. Axe body spray vs. breathing normally. Ugh. I typically avoid writing or speaking about binary relationships because nothing is ever that simple. Especially not in the critical middle grades. Young adolescents and their ever-shifting nature force us to see the subtle, often contradictory shades of life. And while that can be frustrating at times (especially for people who want fast decisions), I think it's pretty cool. Life should be about thoughtfulness and exploration. So here's the binary relationship that I would like to discuss on today's ABCs blog with two letter M words: Major vs. Minor. These terms appeal to me from an interdisciplinary perspective—but specifically with language arts. How? And how do they relate to middle level education?

As a former (and forever) language arts teacher, I think about school as a grand narrative, a story with so much hope and possibility. And like any story, it has a clear setting, plot lines, conflicts, resolutions, themes, and, of course, characters. Both major and minor. And we like to think that every student and staff member feels like a major character in the story of school—as a valued, contributing person in the narrative. Major characters are vital to the success of a story and to the growth of a positive culture. They get things done and for the best reasons. Unfortunately, that isn't always the case. Some staff members come to school, and they feel like minor characters in the story of school. They've lost their fire. They've lost their passion. They're going through the motions. Perhaps they're even counting down the days and checking out completely. And similarly, some students come to school feeling and acting like minor characters in the story of school. They've lost their spark. They're disconnecting from the class and community. They're almost devoid of emotion. Or perhaps, they're starting to fight back against the story of school just so they can feel involved and noticed. When both staff members and students feel like minor characters, you can feel it in the culture and community of the school. So how do we support staff and students who've adopted the minor-character mindset and help them feel like empowered, valued major characters in the story of school? Here are some suggestions:

1. Use movement, proximity, empathy, and listening skills. In other words, go to those staff members and students, ask them caring questions, and then genuinely listen. Yes, sometimes people just want to be left alone, and I get that completely. However, when solitary reflection/mindfulness turns into pervasive isolation/loneliness, it's not helpful. And if they don't open up like a conversational flower at first, don't judge and give up. Empathize and stick with it. We've all adopted the minor-character mindset before, and it can be hard to get out of it.

2. Ask them for help. Sometimes, all it takes to reignite a fire is one simple spark. In other words, when people feel like minor characters with no relevance or impact, they need to be reminded that they do matter and that they can help—with a short, positive task that gives them micro-success. And then you can build on that, like you would with an ember. If you suddenly push them onto a huge committee or give them a colossal project to do, it may compound their minor-character mindset because they may feel overwhelmed or alone in a crowd. And with students in particular, give them a job or a role in your class—and make it casual. You don't need to tell the world, "Johnny's my helper today!" Make it like a cool, secret agreement that is just for them and that really helps you out. Act like handing out papers is the best thing since sliced bread ("Man, I don't know what I'd do if you weren't here to help me pass out those papers! Thanks!!"). Get excited, be authentic, and start small to change their self-efficacy and sense of agency.

3. Notice the small stuff. When you see that disconnecting staff member or student in the hallway, in the mailroom, in the classroom, wherever, say something. Do something. Wave. Smile. Fist-bump. High-five. Compliment their shoes. Whatever it takes. As someone who drifts in and out of disconnection and discontent, I can tell you firsthand that those simple gestures matter. They pull people out of their inward spiral and remind them that someone cares enough to say, ask, or do something.

4. Develop a team approach. In order to help someone feel like a major character in the story of school, you can't and shouldn't do it alone. Fortunately, middle schools are hooked up for this kind of interdisciplinary teaming work. When you meet together as an ID team, talk about the kids who seem disconnected and figure out ways to reconnect them. Find team-based ways to get those students involved little by little. And at this time of year—as you are discussing transition from one grade to the next—be sure to talk to next year's grade level about the kids who have adopted the minor-character mindset and how they can continue to work with them. And with staff members, you can do the same thing as a team. If someone is starting to check out, talk about what's going on and how the team can reconnect with them and rekindle their fire before they burn out.

5. Collect and act on data. Yes, the D word (Data) has relevance with students and staff members who are feeling like minor characters. Because someone doesn't just wake up one day and think, "Oh boy! I'm going to disconnect and be a minor character today!" It happens over time. Small negative actions, interactions, and setbacks that happen every day chip away at people—until they start to fade out, power down, give up. Fortunately, that's data we can collect and act on. We can figure out when and how those setbacks are happening (and what kind they are), and see if there are trends we can work with. Are the setbacks academic in nature? What class(es)? Which teacher(s)? Are they social-emotional? Who's involved? Who needs to be involved? And that's just the quantitative (numerical) data. The powerful, empowering data happens when we sit and talk with that student or staff member and collect the qualitative data to find the story behind the number story. And once we have all of that important data in hand, we work collaboratively with the student or staff member to develop a caring, consistent plan of action to help them develop a major-character mindset.

So as you examine the characters in the story of your school, think about what you're doing to help all students and staff members feel like major characters in that grand narrative. It can be as simple as a gesture, a task, or a listening ear. So add the "e" to human and be humane to everyone you serve and to everyone who serves your students.


Motivating Young Adolescents: What's Your Recipe?

4 May 2017

Motivating Young Adolescents: What's Your Recipe?

How to Keep Middle Grades Students Motivated in the Edu-Kitchen

If you read last week's moving, marvelously humble post about Mulch, you know that we've moved from the letter C to the letter M in the ABCs blog. Before we put the next M word in the cognitive crockpot, let's use our senses to explore the letter itself and figure out how it marries with the magical middle grades, shall we? The sound of the letter M is perfect from a sonic perspective because it is the sound of wondering, as in "Mmmmm, that's a good question" and "Mmmmm, that's an interesting chicken nugget." As we all know, early adolescence is an amazing age of discovery propelled by curious, quirky, random, exploratory, exploding questions—because it is the wonder years. And we must buckle up for the queries thrown our way and embrace them wholeheartedly! Who needs the mundane question when you can have the magnificent? Who needs the routine query when you can have the remarkable? We need more questions that blow our hair back, make us pause, and cause us to say, "Mmmm, now that's some kind of question!" And the shape of the letter M is also apropos for early adolescence—because it is the wonder years. Look at the letter M. It's like a student's life. They sometimes run right into an emotional/academic/social wall. But then they muster the strength to scale it. And then they stand at the top of the summit, only to slip down into the valley again. But then they gather themselves (with some support, perhaps) and climb and ascend again—to another summit. Finally, they stand at the top of the peak and proudly survey their road ahead, and hopefully realize they are standing on another precarious ledge. The letter M: that's the shape of early adolescence, for sure. Climb. Fall. And climb again.

Now that we've examined M itself, it's time to tackle another M word that connects to middle level education. Let's check out Motivation in the critical middle grades. And yes, we could go down the traditional route and discuss the differences between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. And yes, we could chat about the good and the bad about incentive programs. And yes, we could even wax on about the merits of token economies. But I have an appetite for something more—in fact, I'd like to create a recipe for motivation in the middle grades. Here we go:

  • Preheat the oven because motivation is best created and served up in a consistently warm, caring environment. You can't put a motivational incentive program into a cold, rigid culture and expect it to flourish. But be careful not to crank up the heat too much or you risk burning your students out.
  • 1 Cup of Asking. Rather than assuming what will motivate your young adolescents, take some time to ask them what will inspire them to work and try harder.
  • 2 Tablespoons of Listening and Collecting. Mix immediately with the cup of Asking because nothing builds a young adolescent's motivation more than knowing that someone is actually listening to them—and is actually collecting and/or writing down information about who they are, what they need, what they want, etc. The Collecting ingredient can be added through an informal face-to-face conversation or a "What Motivates Me" survey/questionnaire. Be sure to add this ingredient with care—stir in gradually and genuinely. Don't just pass out the survey and say, "Do this. Because."
  • 2 Tablespoons Family Input. Simultaneously or immediately after you mix in Listening and Collecting with your students, reach out to the families, ask them to contribute to the recipe, and stir in their input. As with students, this can be accomplished through a survey, a questionnaire, and/or a phone call. These home-grown mix-ins not only add local flavor to the motivational recipe, but they also add things students may have forgotten to mention and they increase family engagement and interest in what you're cooking up!
  • 2 Cups Acting. After you've done a thorough job of Listening and Collecting and mixed it all together, let it rise for approximately 2 weeks in a warm, stable classroom environment while you take time to discuss the savory data with your interdisciplinary team or grade level. While these conversations are happening, find consistent, authentic ways to act on the things that motivate your students. Let your data help you determine if/when extrinsic rewards are used, what kind, how frequently, and to whom. Bottom line with the Acting ingredient: if you've listened and collected but just put their information in a filing cabinet or vegetable crisper, you're not really using or acting on that vital information. That's a demotivator for any student.
  • Passionately yet carefully pour all ingredients into a firm, flexible glass pan (for transparency) and place into the warm, preheated oven in your edu-kitchen.
  • Watch, monitor, and check in to make sure that the baking process is happening in a balanced, even way. Work with other team members to ensure that all students' motivational needs are being met. This will also require time to check in, look at the data, and make the necessary adjustments to the recipe, to the oven temperature, and to the expectations.
  • Throughout the school year, serve up the warm motivational baked goods for each and every student with grace, passion, joy, humor, and care!

So what would your motivational recipe look like for the critical middle grades? Are your students eager and hungry about school—or have they lost their appetite?


Mulch in the Middle Grades!

26 Apr 2017

Mulch in the Middle Grades!

Leadership Lessons to Help Middle Schools Blossom and Grow

It's finally spring—and time for blossoming, growing, flourishing, and mulch. That's right, mulch.

For anyone unaware of the joys of mulch, mulch comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors, and you can buy it in large bags or even have it delivered in one large heap to your home. Regardless of its character or mode of delivery, mulch is a special item that reminds me of leadership in the critical middle grades.

So here are key mulch facts and school-based implications:

1. Mulch can keep weeds from growing. One of the key reasons why people put down mulch is to stamp down weeds that want to rise up through the soil and steal nutrients from other plants. Mulch acts like a thick, stifling blanket that cuts off their access to sunlight, air, etc. If you don't do that, weeds can grow and overtake your glorious spring flowers just as they are beginning to blossom. What's the leadership connection? Being an effective middle grades leader means that you know where potentially negative issues are growing, and you know how to handle them. You don't wait for them to go away on their own—because if you do, their roots will spread out and snuff out the positive growth you and your faculty are trying to accomplish. Strong leaders go to the issue, get their hands in the dirt and deal with those weedy issues. And that means getting your hands in the mulch, spreading down a healthy layer of positivity, consistency, and urgency, and checking in on the health of your other flowers. Mulch can't be spread from the front office!

2. Mulch can beautify your garden. In addition to helping with weed issues, putting down mulch is also a great way to refresh your flower beds, garden plots, and other spaces in the great outdoors. It's a way to communicate to the world, "Hey! That's not just fresh mulch! We've got pride over here in this yard!" So what's the leadership connection? Putting down mulch is like spreading fresh, positive communication, and an effective middle grades leader needs to know when and where to get it out there for the school, community, and world to see. Highlighting great instructional practices. Giving shout outs to exceptional volunteers. Spotlighting outstanding student successes. This kind of work is especially essential during the spring, after those long winter months have taken their toll, and the end of the school year is just beyond reach. Therefore, as a strong middle grades leader, you can't wait for others to spread that spirit-lifting mulch. That mulch should be in your hands!

3. Mulch can cover up unseen issues. One cautionary note about mulch and how some folks use it. Mulch has been utilized by some people to hide garden blemishes, uncut roots, holes, etc. Instead of fixing the problem, they simply throw a big chunk of mulch on it, so it isn't visible to someone walking by. It gives the illusion that everything is fine—until someone trips on that root or cracks an ankle in that hole. So what's the leadership connection? The mulch of leadership can stave back negative forces and it can promote and spread positivity, but it should not be used to cover up real issues. As aforementioned, when a middle level leader sees a potentially troubling issue, he pr she needs to get out there and spread the mulch from an ethic of care and an ethic of pragmatism—not an ethic of avoidance. Strong leaders tend to issues because they genuinely care about how they might impact students, teachers, and other stakeholders. And they also tend to issues because they understand how those issues can affect the pragmatics and logistics of the school. Hence, as a middle grades leader, you need to spread that mulch with passion and purpose!

4. Mulch can catch on fire. While this aspect seems implausible, I've seen it happen firsthand. In Georgia, humongous mulch mountains often sit by the highway, waiting for people to order piles of it for their homes. And in Hotlanta (where temperatures are, well, hot), those giant mulch piles can literally smoke and catch on fire—because the temperature gets so hot that the mulch itself combusts! To prevent this from happening, the company has to regularly cultivate and stir the mulch up, so all that hot air can get out. It's true! So again, what's the leadership connection? First, a strong middle grades leader never lets mulch sit around and smolder. In other words, he or she seeks out opportunities to spread the positivity—instead of hoarding the mulch or waiting for someone else to do it. Second, an effective leader also knows when and how to cultivate the mulch to make sure it doesn't get too settled or stale or fiery! Leaders can find themselves dealing with far more incendiary issues if they become complacent or reluctant to spread that leadership mulch!

So as you tend to your school house this Spring, spread that mulch with commitment in your hands, growth in your mind, and care in your heart—and watch your educational garden grow!


The Last C Words for the Critical Middle Grades

19 Apr 2017

The Last C Words for the Critical Middle Grades

Six Final Words to Create a Great School for Young Adolescents!

It's time for us to bid farewell to our good friend, the letter C, for the ABCs blog. Before we move to our next letter, let's take a look back at sensational, scintillating C. We've looked at the magical middle grades through the lenses of Conversation, Cross-Content exploration, Cross-Pollination Professional Development, Courageous Construction, Critical Urgency and a whole slew of 22nd Century Cs. And we've learned a lot, haven't we? But with any list, it's inevitable that words get left out. Not intentionally. Not maliciously. No harm meant, but to pay honor to some of those words, here's a final list of six C words related to middle level education: (what words would you include?)

Confident:  As middle school educators, we must be confident in our efforts, in our fellow teachers, in our administrators, in our students—even as we provoke, nudge, and push for change. And as middle school educators, we must continually instill confidence in our students, so they, too, can feel empowered to make positive changes in their lives and in their communities.

Cheese: I am an unabashed fan of all cheeses—in a wrapper, in a tub, in a squeezy can, sprayed on a Cheeto, aged, shredded, etc. Cheese (in whatever form) is a beautifully diverse and accessible tool, and the educational experiences (in all of their forms) we offer young adolescents should be equally malleable, ready, and delightful. However, we should be careful not to lean too heavily on the pre-wrapped cheese when feeding ourselves and others. Similarly, we need to operate with the same caution when using pre-packaged, purchased lessons, curricula, etc. A product that is convenient doesn't mean that it's quality.

Chaos:  A couple of thoughts about chaos. First, many people assume that young adolescents desire a chaotic environment. They mistakenly think our students' changing, shifting minds are like wanton tornadic weather systems that enjoy spinning and causing destruction everywhere. Those of us who work with young adolescents know that they seek out and thrive when there is consistency, routine, and structure. Now, they may buck up against our fence lines, but they feel safe because they're there. Second, the ability to work in chaos is one of the most important skills a middle school educator and administrator needs. It's critical to be organized. It's vital to manage time well. But it's equally important to know how to function when nothing is organized and nothing happens according to plan.

Climate: I've read recently that climate grows culture. Basically, the small, daily things we do create the climate in our schools, and over time, those repeated actions foster the school-wide culture. If you want a negative, toxic culture, let the naysayers have their say at every meeting. Let the pessimists push their agendas on us to drive out bold innovations. Let the extinguished educators squash the fire of the distinguished, passionate ones. However, it you want a positive, collaborative culture, don't wait for an administrator to clean it up. Stand up and fight back against those little minds and their little actions by committing acts of hope, teaching lessons of innovation, and spreading words of promise. Through little steps, you can be the one who shifts the culture of the grade level, the ID team, and the school. The kids are watching and waiting.

Comfort:  A couple of dichotomous thoughts about this term, too. We definitely need to create comfortable learning environments for our students and ourselves. We all need places where we feel like we can express ourselves freely and take intellectual risks. Spaces where we can collaborate with peers and create progressive stuff. But too much comfort can be counterproductive. If we stay in our comfort zones and we don't push ourselves beyond them, we can stagnate and our cognitive clay can harden. We need to stay impressionable, so new learning can make an imprint. What would happen if we occasionally took a wrecking ball to the prescribed ZPD? What would it look like if we pushed our students and ourselves to new, challenging places despite the levels and labels we've been given?

Conference: There is only one national and international conference devoted to the critical middle grades, and that's the AMLE annual conference. While I know that I may be a little biased, I contend that there is no better conference around to inspire and propel greatness for the middle grades. There is no better professional learning event about middle level education to bring people together, to connect passionate educators, and to grow great schools for young adolescents. If you haven't been to an AMLE conference, now's the time: AMLE2017 will be in fabulous Philly on November 6-8. We have low rates and high impact. We have variety in the types of sessions and great speakers you thirst for. And it's going to be in Philly—need I say more? Get involved and get to it!

Again, as we say adios to the letter C, give this question some thought: What C words do you think relate to middle level education? What words did I leave off? Break out of your comfort zone and add them in the Comments section or on Twitter!


Conversation: Why Talking with Young Adolescents is Vital!

12 Apr 2017

Conversation: Why Talking with Young Adolescents is Vital!

Walk the Walk about Talking the Talk!

Conversation is something that we often take for granted—like air. It swirls around us. We breathe it in. We listen to it as it bends and curves. Our ears hear it. However, even though it is as critical as the air we breathe, we often aren't really listening. By its very definition and etymology, conversation gives us life and purpose—because according to Merriam-Webster, a conversation is an "exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas." And if we look at the etymology of the word, it's even more telling. It derives from the Latin "convertere," which means "to turn around."

Why are the definition and origin of "conversation" so important to middle level education, in particular? They are vital for a couple of key reasons. First, young adolescents are trying to achieve in multiple areas, and one of those areas is the social-emotional one. That's why our students need conversational practice (yes, we're talking about practice) so they can understand what it means to share and "exchange" ideas that may result in a change or "turn" in opinion. Too often, though, the discussions they hear and witness in their communities, on their televisions, in the hallways, etc., aren't civil, balanced, collaborative conversations during which both parties learn something from each other. Instead, they witness power struggles during which each person tries to win the talking war so their opinion is victorious and the other opinion is silenced or relegated to the shadows. How can we create and promote a positive climate and culture in our schools if that is how they see, experience, and do conversation? How can we implement a Positive Behavioral Intervention System (PBIS), if language and conversation are used to divide and conquer instead of to bring together?

The answer goes back to modeling and practice. Teachers and staff need to be sure that they are demonstrating effective conversational strategies so students can hear and see how it's done. Verbal and nonverbal cues. Turn-taking. Summarizing. Body language. Politely disagreeing. Affirming. We are the head cooks in the conversational kitchen, and we should be using those dialogue ingredients liberally for ourselves and for our students. We are the models of conversation. In fact, school may be the only place that gives them strong examples of civil discourse and talk. In addition to modeling, it's about time. Thus, we need to provide opportunities for students to talk with each other in structured and unstructured times—and with our support along the way. We need to ensure that time is afforded in lesson plans for students to converse with each other, and not just at the end of the class (in order to fill up time or because they've earned it). Rather, we should see conversation as integral to teaching and learning in the middle grades. Young adolescents are learning the subtle and not-so subtle nuances of language now. We can't wait until later.

And conversation is also critical for the middle grades because that's how we create and maintain relationships with the young adolescents we serve. Whether it's through homeroom or advisory or another less-structured time in the school day, we need to just talk to kids. We need to ask them good, caring questions about their lives—and then hush. Let them talk. Let them share. Stop talking at your students and start conversing. To see where such a conversation could take me, I recorded an interview with my own seventh grader, Parker, and his fourth grade brother, Holden, for your listening pleasure. I asked them questions about early adolescence, school, and their challenges and triumphs—and Parker asked me questions, as well. Get your ears ready, check out the conversation, and enjoy the totally appropriate middle school ending! And to be 110% clear, my sons and I talk all the time, so please don't think this interview is an isolated occurrence!

So let's devote time to conversation in the critical middle grades and explore an exchange of ideas with our students. What could we all learn? What could we all unlearn?


Cross-Content School Improvement for the Middle Grades

6 Apr 2017

Cross-Content School Improvement for the Middle Grades

4 Scientific Ways to Create a Great School

One of the foundational concepts in the critical middle grades is cross-content learning. We create interdisciplinary plans and bridge curricula for a few reasons. First, we know that young adolescents learn more when they can see that something has relevance in another class. Therefore, we may ask our students to graph a character's journey throughout a short story, or we may prompt them to write original word problems in math that incorporate similes. Second, by integrating curricula, we know young adolescents learn more when they can see a content area through a new lens. Hence, we may ask students to react to the Battle of Gettysburg by comparing two paintings of that event so they use the lens of art to re-vision that historical moment, or we may urge them to read Civil War soldiers' letters so they use the emotional lens of primary source documents to see its gravity. Third, we also know that learning beyond the school house doesn't happen in separated content departments; rather, we learn using every discipline throughout our lives and jobs—and we want to prepare our students for that college and career reality.

So there it is: the benefits of a cross-content approach are clear. But it begs another question: wouldn't it be beneficial for us to apply the same cross-content, interdisciplinary framework to the world of sustained school improvement? Let's take that question out for a spin, rev up its engines, and try to connect aspects of science to improvement in the critical middle grades (and beyond)!

If you're an eager, passionate educator (and I know you are), take a cross-content look at your school through these four scientific lenses that all begin with the letter C:

  1. Constellations: I wrote about the concept of Constellational Leadership in an AMLE article a little while back, but it's on my mind again for three reasons. First, for sustainable school improvement, it's not about a couple of teacher or leader "superstars"; it's about how we align all of the stars we have in order to create something stellar. Second, when we see a star in the sky, the light we see could be millions of years away. So for sustainable school improvement, it's about seeing the immediate and long-term potential in the stars we have. Finally, this is also the time of year when we assess and evaluate the "brightness" of our stars. For sustained school improvement, it's not always about how bright they are—it's about how they are bright. Different stars shine in different ways for different reasons.
  2. Constructal Law: According to this theory (Adrian Bejan, 1996), flow systems thrive and evolve to provide easier access to imposed currents that flow through it. So a river evolves to provide water with an easier access to flow towards a larger body of water. Lungs and trees are shaped to provide an easier pathway for air to flow in and out. For sustained school improvement, we should see schools as constructed flow systems, as well, that should evolve to ensure increasingly better access for all of our stakeholders. Access to experience and shape curricula. Access to get and give information. Access to challenging, empowering learning experiences. Access to multiple opportunities for success. Therefore, we need to determine how our schools are evolving with equity-access in mind—and how they are impeding that access, as well.
  3. Circuitry: while I'm not a licensed electrician, I've put up lights on the holidays, so I know a thing or two about circuits. Depending on the type of circuit you have, if one bulb is out, the entire string of lights won't work. Fortunately, with the holiday lights, you're given another fuse to put into the bulb to get it going again. For sustained school improvement, it can be a very similar electrical circuit process. This is the time of year when we need to be particularly aware of the wattage of our educational bulbs—our own bulb and the bulbs around us. We may feel burned out. We may feel overheated. We may dim. Just like the string of lights, when one light goes down, it affects the entire circuit. Therefore, we need to be present and vigilant in each other's lives and know when someone needs a lift, a listen, or another fuse to spark their spirit through the school year (and into next year).
  4. Collision theory: This theory posited by Max Trautz (1916) and William Lewis (1918) states that successful collisions between particles happen when there is enough energyalso known as activation energyat the moment of impact to break the preexisting bonds and form all new bonds and result in a product. We can increase the number of successful collisions by increasing the concentration of the reactant particles or raising the temperature. For sustained school improvement, the collision theory spells out interesting parallels for teachers and leaders. To grow our schools and create a collaborative culture, we need to bring together more voices, minds, and hearts into the decision-making. No decisions should be made in isolation—one particle by itself. Rather, we need to increase the number of reactant particles so we can increase our chances for successful, purposeful collisions. Hence, we need to add more people (and more diverse people) to our leadership teams as well as our student and parent councils. We need to provide more time in faculty meetings for people to discuss school improvement goals. Let them be the reactant particles bouncing around and talking without constraints. Will it always result in a perfect product? Not necessarily. Will it be messy? Perhaps. However the process will increase school-wide dialogue and successful collisions. We should be careful about increasing the temperature to create these collisions. Creating a sense of urgency and passion is critical, but teachers and stakeholders already feel enough heat and pressure when it comes to producing results. Heat can be an unpredictable element in the area of sustained school improvement. Use it wisely!

This cross-content, scientific examination of school improvement was a stretch for me, but sometimes to act on a concept in a new way, we need to see it through a new lens. So that's the challenge: invite your faculty and staff to look at your school, your vision/mission, middle level education, etc., using a cross-content lens. It may be just the thing to awaken, heighten, and rekindle their passion for sustained school improvement.


Professional Learning through Cross-Pollination!

30 Mar 2017

Professional Learning through Cross-Pollination!

5 Ways to Create Buzzworthy PD

Spring is in the air. Trees are beginning to bud. Flowers are starting to blossom. And bees are doing their critical work among us, which makes me think about cross-pollination and how it connects with improving middle level education and ourselves through professional learning. While I don't claim to be an expert on bees, I do know how critical they are to what happens during the spring season. Here's what I know about our busy, buzzing pals: new flowers grow because bees jump from petal to petal, picking up new bits of pollen information, carrying it off, and spreading it around. Admittedly, there's more involved to that apiary process, but the connections to middle level education and the professional learning process are powerfully evident. In brief, bees are doing what we should be doing.

First, in This We Believe, the research shows that effective and amazing middle schools should be driven by "ongoing professional development [that] reflects best educational practices" (pp. 30-31). Therefore, just as bees never stop their cross-pollination work, we should be ever-vigilant and ever-mindful as we learn and grow. Great professional development shouldn't only happen on a designated PD day or when the district has brought in an educational consultant from the outside. Rather, buzzworthy professional learning should be something we constantly seek out—to better ourselves and our profession and to model lifelong learning for our students.

And as pedagogical professionals, we should emulate bees and practice professional learning through the power of cross-pollination. What does that mean exactly? That means that we can't just buzz around our own learning gardens, reading the same books and articles, visiting the same sites, talking with the same people, and exploring in the same way. Just as we challenge our students to stretch themselves and make learning engaging and exploratory, we need to push the boundaries of our ZPDs (zones of proximal development) and make professional learning buzzworthy. Here are 5 quick ways to get started:

1. Take peer observation to the next level. Nothing is more powerful than seeing best practices in action, but too often, we only buzz around teachers in our departments or shadow other leaders in our grade levels. So we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate by emailing someone who teaches another grade or subject or someone who leads in another building, and set up a peer observation appointment and a post-observation appointment to discuss what was learned along the way. This can be particularly powerful for the transition process to and from the critical middle grades. Find out what's really happening at the elementary level with literacy. Discover how high school college and career readiness is really evolving. Instead of just guessing or wondering, let's get into each other's learning gardens, buzz around, and bring great ideas back!

2. Make teacher and staff interactions and learning active. It's difficult to get to know everyone in the school house—especially if your school is big and the faculty is large. As a result, we tend to buzz around the same corners and the same people we know, which is comfortable—but there are other folks to know and other places to learn. We also tend to see professional learning as an independent endeavor during which we passively absorb content and deal with it in isolation. So we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate by turning staff learning into an active exploration. Having a large school can be a hindrance with this work, and that was definitely the case for one of the middle schools where I was an administrator. To work on this issue, we created a five-event social staff interaction game called the Pentathlon. Every month, we gave people five things to do that would get them buzzing around the school and connecting in different ways. Walk down another grade level's hallway during your planning time. Visit an art class. Talk with the head custodian about the best part of his day. It was completely voluntary, but those who participated learned a lot about the school, the staff, and themselves. And it improved our school's culture—especially as Pentathletes were crowned each month with banners above their doorways. On another professional learning day, we created "Mix-it-Up" lunch appointments (and "chat and chew" cards) for the faculty, so they could eat with other people in the building, talk in a relaxed atmosphere, and learn from each other. That was cross-pollination through social-interaction in action! And nobody droned on and on about it.

3. Explore other social media connections. Learning through online forums like Twitter has greatly expanded the field of professional learning because it connects folks around the world who also care about education. But there may also be a problem with that model because we tend to join the hashtags we know and discuss the topics about which we feel comfortable. For instance, I tend to buzz around #mschat and #satchat every week, which are both exhilarating tweet ups, but I don't check out other chats that may also help me grow. So we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate by joining other tweet ups in other content areas, other states, and other countries around the globe. Google "Educational Twitter Chats" and explore the full calendar that's available. Then schedule a time (maybe with your team) to visit one new tweet up each week or monthto see what other people are discussing and sharing.

4. Reflect and share about learning in different ways. With the pace of our days, typical professional learning can feel like a drive-thru service: quick, convenient, and easily digestible. As a result, it can be difficult to find time to reflect and share about what we've learned—even though we know that those actions are essential to the learning process. So we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate by lingering on the pedagogical petals longer and finding unique ways to reflect on what we've learned. For example, as a middle school administrator, I once had a math teacher who openly admitted that he was in a rut with his teaching. He was organized beyond organized. He had his lessons all planned out. But he wasn't going anywhere. We lingered on his professional learning and discussed his goals and tried something new: reflective journaling. Every week, he wrote his feelings down about what he wanted to try, what he thought about teaching and learning, and whatever else was on his mind. By the end of the year, he had discovered some new things about himself as a teacher because he had lingered, reflected in a new way, and made professional learning buzzworthy for himself.

5. Make PD conferences places for new connections. When we have the opportunity to go to a face-to-face learning event, such as a conference, we may spend time planning out the sessions we want to attend, the learning goals we want to address, and the resources we want to order from vendors. But do we plan out who we want to meet and connect with at the event—beyond the people from our own schools? Michael Fullan talks about the need to "deprivatize" education to help it (and ourselves) grow. In order to do that, we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate with other people at professional learning events. Fortunately, many conferences (like AMLE2017) are providing more time and more ways for attendees to connect, so take advantage of those moments and get engaged with other attendees who have new ideas and solutions. Get email addresses. Grab Twitter handles. Jot down phone numbers. And reach back out to these fellow busy bees after the conference is over. In other words, to make face-to-face PD buzzworthy, do more than fly with the bees from your own pedagogical garden!

So what are you doing like the bees would do to make professional learning buzzworthy for the critical middle grades and beyond?


Courageous Construction in the Middle Grades!

22 Mar 2017

Courageous Construction in the Middle Grades!

7 Questions & Actions to Build Great Teaching, Learning, and Leading

Put your hard hats on and grab your tool belts, people. It's time to discuss construction in the critical middle grades. As a middle school and high school teacher, I always believed that learning happens as a constructionist endeavor—because it brings together individual mindsets, experiences, and prior knowledge and marries them into a collective understanding about something. To be 110% clear, it's not about creating a mental melting pot that melds everyone's thinking together and dissolves the individual perspective; rather, it's about creating a learning community that builds something together.

The same is true, in fact, for school administration. I always believed that sustained school growth happens when we collaboratively construct a common vision and speak with a common language about what we want to build on the bright landscape ahead. That doesn't mean that we erase or marginalize staff members who have a divergent point of view; rather, we celebrate and honor those differences as we construct. And it sounds messy and complicated. But really, the magic of educational construction in the middle grades should follow a simple formula: YBYS + IBMS=WLMST [You Bring Your Stuff and I'll Bring My Stuff and We'll Learn More Stuff Together]. Clearly, educational construction isn't as simple as bricks and mortar and blueprints, but there are similarities that are worth exploring. So if teaching and learning were like construction, what questions would we ask and what actions would we take to build something great for the students, teachers, and families we serve?

1. What do we want to build and why?

Action: Explore internal and external educational blueprints and then courageously construct. Use internal blueprints (i.e., school, team, and grade visions; our students and their learning styles and interests; our own interests, vision, and philosophy about teaching and learning) and external blueprints (i.e., content area standards, community norms, and district and state vision and expectations).

2. What resources and tools will we need to build?
Action: Determine and request a stock of educational resources and then courageously construct. Use on-site materials (i.e., books, computers, teammates), off-site materials (i.e., primary source documents, websites, community members), and intra-site materials (i.e., time and emotional and mental currency).

3. Where do we want to build?
Action: Explore the potential internal and external learning environments and then courageously construct. Use internal spaces (i.e., classroom area, hallways, large rooms like the library, connected rooms, cafeteria), external spaces (i.e., outside, bus dock, outdoor playgrounds, community spaces, field trips), and intra-spaces (i.e., reflective space for mental and emotional journeys)

4. What's our building timeline?
Action: Figure out when this can happen and then courageously construct. Use internal chronographs (i.e., professional, classroom, team, grade level, and school calendars and the bell schedule), external chronographs (i.e., testing and district calendars and student and family calendars), intra-chronographs (i.e., personal and emotional calendars)

5. How will we involve everyone in the building process?
Action: Determine the interests, strengths, and challenges of all stakeholders, find roles for the work, and then courageously construct. Give interest and learning inventories to all stakeholders and use that information to decide on the individual roles and teams/groups needed for the work ahead, collaborate with teachers of all students to ensure that accommodations to the work are carefully planned, and inform families and community members and give them specific ways/times that they can be involved.

6. How will we know that we've successfully built something?
Action: Figure out the best ways to measure what's been built and then courageously construct. With all stakeholders, collaboratively construct a rubric that assesses the different elements of the work (i.e., interests and standards covered, social-emotional and behavioral learning elements examined, college and career readiness aptitudes/skills developed) and use that rubric throughout the work to determine progress, process, remediations, and celebrations.

So one last action step to drive it home: deconstruction. As critical participants in the craft of educational construction, we need to deconstruct and inspect foundations, especially as we approach new lists and charts, new experiences, new schools, and (even as this year begins to close) new school years on the horizon. With the construction of a house, if the foundation is cracked, misaligned or sinking, it doesn't matter how well we build the house itself. It's going to fall and fail. Similarly in the world of education, if the foundation upon which we construct teaching and learning isn't both flexible and resilient, that edu-home will falter, too. Therefore, before we practice educational construction, we should ask the hard questions that inspect and deconstruct the foundation of it all.

So as an educational construction-ist in the critical middle grades, what tough, inspired questions are you asking to deconstruct and courageously construct with your teachers, students, families, and community members?


The 4 New 22nd Century Cs for Education!

15 Mar 2017

The 4 New 22nd Century Cs for Education!

Are Your Students Ready for the 22nd Century?

The four new 22nd Century Cs are here everyone, so buckle up. Get your mental crockpots ready to add these ingredients to the recipe. They are fresh. They are ready. They are now. And they mean no disrespect to the 21st Century Cs that we all know and love: Communication, Critical Thinking, Creativity, and Collaboration. Clearly, those Cs are essential parts of a balanced educational diet for every student—and in particular, for every young adolescent we serve. Yes, our students are communicating more than ever through reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing. In many ways, one single text with a message, a picture, an emoji, and a video link contains more reading tasks than most handwritten essays! And yes, we in the critical middle grades are helping them become more critical thinkers as they embark on those communicative efforts. And yes, we are also providing them more and more opportunities to create and collaborate in our classes through innovative practices like Genius Hour, Coding, Makerspace, and class blogs! In middle school we explode those 21st Century Cs on a daily basis for all students!

But the 22nd Century is around the corner! And our kiddos will need new Cs for that bright road forward. With one eye on the rearview mirror of the past, one eye on the windshield of the future, and both hands on the steering wheel, here are the four 22nd Century Cs that I propose for middle level education (and perhaps for all levels of education!):

  • Care: To bring diverse hearts and minds together, we need to help our students understand and act from an ethic of care. Too often, we push our students with a lever of pragmatism—with an emphasis on production and efficiency to achieve a tangible goal. And while we need to get things done, tasks accomplished, and products 3D printed, we cannot do so at the detriment of care. We should instill in our students the need for both mindfulness and heartfulness: asking with care, listening with care, being present with care, following-up with care, writing and speaking with care, acting with care, etc. We don't need a packaged curriculum to accomplish that. We simply need to model and practice the art of care ourselves.
  • Connection: To build positive bridges forward, we need to help our students understand and act on the desire to authentically connect with others. Sadly, many people in our society have lost the will to connect with others—especially others who have different opinions. It's easier to watch the news channel that aligns with our views. It's easier to stomach a tweet that matches our mindset. It's simpler to have a conversation with someone who has the same views that we have. But that's not how learning happens. Vygotsky knew it back in the day when he explored the concept of ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development): we learn when we stretch ourselves to learn beyond our ZPD. Therefore, we need to fill our students with an unquenchable desire to connect with others—because they are curious and because they care. If we want our students to shake hands with a fellow human being regardless of their differences, we need to teach them the importance of connecting and stepping out of their insular comfort zone and into their open discomfort zone. And we don't need a curriculum or a program to do that. We need to model it in our everyday practice.
  • Culture: To create joyous, growth-mindset futures, we need to help our students understand how to create spaces of genuine positivity. Recent studies about the impact of happiness in the workplace from companies like Zappos have revealed that when the culture of the organization is positive and welcoming, people are more motivated and engaged in their work. They like what they do, and they want to do it well! In other words, while we can motivate people through negative factors like competition, greed, and fear, the culture created by such motivational factors is toxic and ultimately poisonous. Our classrooms and schools, therefore, need to be model cultures of joy, positivity, and happiness, so our young adolescent students can flourish and thrive as learners now, and most importantly, so they can know how to create those cultures themselves in future classrooms, schools, and work spaces. And we don't need a curriculum or a program to do this. We need to grow it in our everyday practice.
  • Community: To foster truly inclusive learning communities, we need to help our students understand and act on the value of involving all voices in the process. Too often, we operate and separate ourselves into silos that privatize, divide and ultimately limit our own capacity and the capacity of everyone around us. Instead of embarking in the messy work of community-building (which involves another key 22nd century C: compromise), we often like to stay in the safe confines of our own garden plots, tending the rows we know. However, communities form and flourish when we reach out to every stakeholder and involve them in the work. Thus, our schools need to make sure that we are doing more than simply informing parents, families, and business partners about what we're doing; rather, we need to seek out their opinions and insights. We should do this not only because it is critical work in cultivation and community-building. We should do it because it shows our students that they also need to practice this artful, challenging work if they want futures that embrace all voices and push back against the limiting, fence lines of division. And we don't need a curriculum or a program to do this. We need to grow it in our everyday practice.

So how is your school preparing your students to practice the 22nd Century Cs, as well as those in the already distant 21st Century?


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