Achieving the Vision of This We Believe

How middle schools can meet the essential attributes of middle level education

As middle level teacher educators, one of our primary goals is to prepare teacher candidates to understand and value the essential attributes and the 16 characteristics of middle grades education as described by AMLE’s This We Believe.

This We Believe posits that education for young adolescents should have four central attributes: it should be developmentally responsive, challenging, empowering, and equitable. Here are some ways middle schools can implement this vision.

1. Education for young adolescents should be developmentally responsive.

Because middle school is a critically decisive time in academic development, an adolescent’s experience in school can be a turning point in her or his life trajectory. Middle school modes of structure, programming, curriculum, and instruction can close the gap between the developmental needs of students and their actual potential.

Middle school structure, for example, could be revised to take into account the understanding that young adolescents need, and usually want, to be physically and socially active. In the still-common but outdated model of a “junior” high school, young adolescent students are often expected to sit still for long periods of time, remain attentive, and perform academically with little physical or social activity.

Middle schools that focus on the developmental needs and potential of young adolescents provide structured opportunities for activities that allow students to physically and mentally prepare for the day, engage socially with peers, and release energy. Teachers allow students to take breaks and stretch, and make social interaction integral parts of lessons.

Creative teachers construct lessons that are developmentally responsive. In one science lesson we observed, the teacher used the school as an analogy to help students understand the structure and function of the cell. While this approach may not seem out of the ordinary, this teacher took the students on a walking tour of the school, helping them experience the cell as a physical thing where, for example, the nucleus (school office) controls the other activities of the cell, and the endoplasmic reticula (hallways) transport materials around the cell.

The details and names of these structures may not survive in students’ memories, but those students understand the cell as a physical thing, like a school, with structures appropriate for carrying out specific functions. Such instruction uses students’ own sense of their physical selves in a physical world to develop fundamental understandings of science.

2. Education for young adolescents should be challenging.

The middle school student is increasingly prepared to grasp more complex and abstract ideas. Adolescent development is not accomplished alone; it is supported by the structure of the learning environment and by the educators who have knowledge to share.

Middle schools must not only meet students where they are developmentally, but must also challenge them to develop further. Administrators and teachers must hold high expectations for what young adolescents can do and create opportunities for them to push themselves, essentially raising the bar for their intellectual development.

Active learning, one of the 16 key characteristics of middle level education, is central to raising the bar. Middle level educators challenge students to make decisions about their own learning, for example, by pursuing questions that interest them.

For example, students might investigate astronomical phenomena by considering what they know about the moon and using that information to formulate questions that they could test against available moon data that they collect themselves or gather via the Internet or mobile apps. Students can construct explanations regarding what causes the phases of the moon, and they can evaluate each others’ explanations, engaging in argumentation in ways consistent with expectations of the new Next Generation Science and Common Core Standards.

This approach to scientific inquiry is in contrast with the traditional approach of teaching the scientific method—having students learn a series of steps and carry out a pre-defined experiment to answer a question chosen by the teacher or the curriculum.

3. Education for young adolescents must be empowering.

Early adolescence is a time of uncertainty with respect to self-confidence, peer relationships, and independence. To counteract this uncertainty, teachers provide students with a sense of empowerment over their own learning.

This We Believe calls for middle schools to provide young adolescents with the knowledge and skills for future success and to empower them to imagine and construct their own future learning trajectories. Providing students a voice in the middle level language arts classroom is an effective way to empower them regarding their own learning.

Since young adolescents are social and active beings who want to engage with others during the learning process, teachers might consider adapting the Socratic Seminar method of instruction in which students come to a deeper understanding of a text through dialogue.

Rather than a traditional model of independent reading and answering comprehension questions, students read the text together and discuss a series of open-ended questions and share their thoughts, which leads to a deeper understanding of literature. This method of student engagement with the text can empower and motivate young adolescents by giving them a voice in the classroom.

Schoolwide programming also can be empowering. In a 2010 article in AMLE’s Middle School Journal, Maurice Elias and colleagues describe the Village Key Program, which is designed to recognize good character in students and help them make connections to the community.

The Village Key, a card that students can earn each semester, provides them with discounts to local merchants in the community. Students must meet several attendance and character criteria in order to earn the Village Key. Such programs can be empowering, particularly in low-income communities, as they connect character to positive outcomes within the community, giving students some agency in helping their families.

4. Education for young adolescents must be equitable.

This We Believe calls for creating a classroom environment in which all students can learn. Students come to the classroom with myriad differences, and it is in middle school that many of these differences become more apparent. Middle schools must provide an environment that recognizes and celebrates these differences and creates equitable opportunities for all students.

One curricular approach in language arts that is particularly effective in creating equitable opportunities is reader and writer workshops, most closely associated with the work of Nancie Atwell.

The readers’ workshop, for example, allows students to select their own books and read at their own pace. Further, students are able to choose how they respond to the readings and set their own individual goals for reading. One student may choose to write a letter to the author while another constructs a diorama. The teacher does not assign one method that meets one ability level but rather guides students to select what works best for each, thus giving them the opportunity to set their own challenging goals in a more personal and meaningful manner.

A workshop approach to the middle school language arts classroom is one effective way to meet the unique needs of the student and scaffold learning to better challenge them according to their own development.