Do We Still Believe?

Some things we as educators choose to forget: situations and events such as troublesome students, disastrous meetings with parents, or ugly disputes over which grade level gets to read (or has to read) Beowulf. Other memories hang around like the chalk dust that still lingers in our lungs.

Happily, not all of our school-related memories are woeful. Many of them still fill our hearts with joy and can bring tears of laughter within a few seconds.

One of my most treasured memories as an educator comes from the early days of my journey toward becoming a middle level teacher. I was not the best student in high school, so I had to spend one year in a community college to earn the trust of my parents and the University of Northern Colorado, located in the sometimes-pungent town of Greeley, Colorado. (It’s sad that Greeley has gotten a bad rap from the feedlots and the meat-processing plant located a few miles outside town.)

Once accepted by the university, I began to take those introductory classes that kept me awake late at night, struggling to write papers with my shaky freshman discourse skills.

One of these classes, Introduction to Education, was set in a large lecture hall filled with hundreds or thousands of students. (I’m not sure how many. I just know there were a lot of people. After all, I came from a school with only 85 students in my graduating class.) This was the stereotypical intro to education class; so far we had learned about dogs that would produce saliva at the sound of a bell and something about the decimal system.

One day, a guest speaker introduced a bold, new subject: the unique age group called “young adolescents.” He told stories and showed slides that highlighted the interesting characteristics and various developmental stages of this group.

I was amazed as I viewed a slide of two kids standing next to each other who looked nothing alike. They had the same birth month and year, but they appeared to be years apart in development.

After the hour-long sales job, he lowered the boom by saying, “Come teach middle school, there are tons of jobs and you will love it! Plus you can be as crazy as the kids!” I was hooked. After all, I loved my junior high teachers. They are the ones who encouraged me to be a teacher. And being crazy—well, that was right up my alley!

On that day, my middle level education quest began. I was lucky—I even got to take some classes in middle level education. In one of those classes I was introduced to a little green book that changed my life. No, it was not War and Peace. It had a simple title: This We Believe. It was straightforward, it made sense, and it gave me permission to become a wild and courageous middle level educator.

As you might know, this book is the foundational text of the middle level movement. This lively document powerfully outlines the philosophy and understanding of young adolescents and the optimum conditions for educating them. Many a fine middle level school has been designed around this position paper. Strange, though—many middle level educators whom I meet today have never even read This We Believe. Now, I am not blaming anyone for not reading This We Believe. What I am wondering is—do we really still believe in its contents?

The impact of This We Believe had nothing to do with legislation. It was not born out of any political agenda or Department of Education policy. It was the work of a world-wide movement fueled by the passion of several zealots. This handful of advocates believed that the status quo—of the junior high school model of being the farm team for high school— did not work for 10- to 15-year-old students.

It was revolutionary! Yet, how many people today really know the names William Alexander, Donald Eichhorn, John Lounsbury, Conrad Toepfer, Paul George, or Gordon Vars? Do we realize what they went through to transform education for young adolescents? And do we still have the passion to continue that vision? Or have we just become the educational institution we learned to dread?

It is interesting to note how many mandated, policy-driven, and legislatively created education reform movements fail. (I am sure you can think of many just in the last 15 years or 15 months.) When is the last time we created a movement of such impact for students, parents, and educators that did not require a governmental mandate or the signing of a bill? The middle level concept is people-driven, not policy-driven. It began and has stayed alive out of a burning desire to do what is best for this unique age group.

Did we forget the grassroots nature of this movement? Sometimes I think so, when I see some of our own education associations spending resources on policies that have no direct positive effect or sometimes even an adverse effect on middle level education. Lobbying or trying to attend the hippest educational meeting in Washington, D.C., was not what the original middle level movement was all about.

I’m shaken to note that we seem to be slowly losing ground on many of the key indicators of successful middle schools. Is this happening because we are now afraid? Is it too hard to keep fighting for what is best for young adolescents? I know there are tons of great middle level teachers and school leaders still fighting the fight. But have too many of us forgotten the passion of those who broke ground before us? Have we become complacent? Maybe it is time we grade ourselves on how well we are doing on these 10 middle level concepts. Have the grades improved or declined over the years? If they’ve declined—it’s time to ask ourselves why!

Take a few minutes to grade yourself, school, and district, on these middle level concepts:

  1. Teaming
  2. Advisory
  3. Flexible block schedule
  4. Offering of a variety of exploratory or essentials classes
  5. Various forms of assessments
  6. Educators who are trained to teach this age group
  7. Empowerment of students in their learning
  8. Comprehensive guidance programs
  9. Ongoing professional development that reflects best middle level practices
  10. Students and teachers who are actively engaged in the classroom

Are enough schools and school leaders still fighting the fight to keep middle level education moving forward? Or have we waivered on what we believe?

Do you still believe?

Do you want to revive the devotion and fire up excitement? If so, I encourage you to do the following:

  • Express your opinions and feelings to your associations and leadership groups about the advancement or decline of the commitment to middle level education.
  • Get everyone on your staff to read or re-read This We Believe.
  • Look at the 16 characteristics outlined in This We Believe and see which attributes are still alive and well in your school. Pick a few and work hard to make them an embedded part of your school.
  • Send a short e-mail to me about whether or not you still believe and identify elements you have seen middle schools enhance or simply walk away from. (For the first 100 e-mails I receive, I will donate $5 each to the Association for Middle Level Education Foundation.)
  • Use whatever influence you have to help researchers and associations dedicate dollars to identify real middle schools doing well with all areas of the middle level concept. This includes academic, social, emotional, and developmental needs of young adolescents.
  • Speak at a faculty meeting about what it means to be a true middle school. Share that passion at a school board meeting. Remember that the original middle level concept was about individual people expressing a passion.

Finally, we all need to still believe. We must be the voices for young adolescents. If we do not, then we will drift back into the state of just being the farm team for the next grade level or building. Young adolescents and middle level education need this new generation of educators to stand up, as did our forerunners and mentors, and say: “I Still Believe!”

Jack Berckemeyer is an educational consultant based in Colorado.

This article was published in AMLE Magazine, February 2014.