Courageous Gardening

The Nature of Middle Level

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Kudzu is a vine that was imported to the United States from Asia many years ago, and it remains a steady feature of the southern landscape today. It was brought to our shores because people were drawn to its broad, shade-giving leaves and hardy nature.

And while kudzu’s green leaves provide plenty of relief from the sweltering southern sun, its vines, which can grow almost five feet in a day, offer something completely different and wholly harmful. Kudzu wraps around branches, climbs up trees, engulfs bushes, and even swallows up entire houses if left alone.

When I lived in Georgia, kudzu and I spent many hours battling in the backyard. As it tried to envelope and destroy my trees, I ripped at its vines and tore up its roots, despite the fact that the leaves themselves provided comfort from the sun. I had to be brutal with my foliaged foe in order to rescue everything else. Is this same kind of “courageous gardening” necessary to create great schools in the middle level?

Just as kudzu looks beautiful and appears to be helpful, there are programs in our schools that look and act the same way. They may be big events that we’ve always done because of long-held traditions. They may be celebrations we’ve always had because certain parents have always wanted them. They may be extensive field trips we repeat every year because we’ve just always done them.

The roots of these programs run deep. And while we all need events, celebrations, and field trips to keep us excited about learning, do they also take away from learning? Like kudzu, do they look beautiful but behave brutally—climbing through our schools and taking away vital time, resources, and attention?
To create sustained change in our schools, we as middle grades teachers and leaders need to be courageous, to look critically at these events and programs, and to do some essential “courageous gardening.” Examine the leaves. Check the vines. Boldly rip up the roots when necessary. And do all of this work collaboratively.

It takes a team to deal with kudzu because it grows quickly and vigorously. Therefore, doing this work begins by bringing together some important resources: your school’s vision/mission statement, strategic plan goals, school calendar, and leadership team. The vision/mission statement and strategic plan are two critical documents that should be guiding the growth of your school’s “garden.” Any program, initiative, or event should align with them before it is planted.

Likewise, your school calendar should be the looked upon as the garden plot for the year, and its “rows” should be filled with choices that promote and improve the educational lives of your students and teachers.

Finally, your leadership team should be your master gardeners, who should collectively decide what needs to be planted in the garden so every one in the school benefits. And their hands must be boldly and courageously in the work, so they can prune, shape and rip out any program that inhibits the overall health of the school no matter how beautiful it is on the surface or how long it has been a tradition.

So what are you planting in the garden of your school to improve the educational lives of your students and what are you willing to pull from its soil?

This We Believe Characteristics

  • Educators value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them.
  • A shared vision developed by all stakeholders guides every decision.
  • Leaders demonstrate courage and collaboration.
  • Leaders are committed to and knowledgeable about this age group, educational research, and best practices.

Haiku
Cherished plants we know
With their roots running deeply
Courageous hands pull.