AMLE’s seminal publication, The Successful Middle School: This We Believe, is a forward-looking document that outlines how schools prepare young adolescent students for not only academic success, but also to be engaged and informed citizens in a vibrant democracy.
There are many indications that middle level educators are grappling with how to meet this latter charge. Among eight grade students, fewer than a quarter scored proficient on the most recent NAEP civics exam and nearly 75 percent reported just low to moderate levels of confidence in their civics-related knowledge and skills. The hard reality is that our middle grade students are navigating a world with increased political toxicity and misleading news, among other distressing trends, while also having many more opportunities—and challenges—to responsible citizenship. Middle school reflects a key forming ground for students to develop the capacities they’ll need to succeed in civic life.
The core purpose of The Successful Middle School: This We Believe (SMS) is to articulate what a successful middle school looks and feels like, supported by research, and to identify the steps necessary to achieve an outstanding learning environment. These environments share common attributes. They tend to be responsive, challenging, empowering, equitable, and engaging. These attributes are achieved through attention to 18 characteristics across three categories: culture and community; curriculum, instruction, and assessment; and leadership organization. While working towards these characteristics, SMS can certainly be leveraged to support powerful education. However, it is equally possible that the present challenges of budget shortfalls, contracts, human resources, and other immediate needs can distract from this core education purpose. The goal of this piece is to draw connections and make those connections explicit.
AMLE was one of the first national organizations to sign on as an Education for American Democracy (EAD) Champion. Developed as a viewpoint-diverse national effort, the EAD Roadmap frames civics and history through an integrated, interdisciplinary, and inquiry-based lens. In this way, the EAD framework aligns with the SMS approach. EAD is neither standards, nor curriculum—it is a framework to consider best practices in implementing civics and history education. EAD’s core design–its Roadmap—features a Pedagogy Companion and resources relating to implementation. Melding together the systemic construct of SMS with the tangible Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy can help middle schools reclaim, rethink, and reprioritize the civic purpose of public education at a key point of students’ physical, academic, social, and emotional development.
The EAD Pedagogy Companion directly supports these goals. The Companion is built on six core principles, each of which contributes to the broad and powerful vision outlined in SMS:
- Excellence for all – EAD teachers commit to engage students’ full and multifaceted historical and civic narratives, approaching their craft with a focus on equity and inclusion for all learners.
- Growth mindsets – EAD teachers support continuous self-reflection and self-knowledge for themselves, their peers, and their students.
- Building an EAD Ready Classroom – EAD teachers focus on a classroom climate that is inclusive and supportive of all students’ potential.
- Inquiry as a Primary Mode of Learning – EAD teachers focus on a spirit of inquiry as the primary mode of learning.
- Practice of Constitutional Democracy and Student Agency – EAD teachers work to model democratic practices and civic inclusiveness and friendship within their classrooms.
- Assess, Reflect, and Improve – EAD teachers leverage assessment and reflection to foster continuous learning cycles within the classroom.
These practices thrive and are complementary with the essential attributes and characteristics outlined in SMS. That said, for schools interested in fully capitalizing on middle school best practices to achieve their civic mission, AMLE highlights the following questions for consideration. Like the EAD Roadmap and the SMS framework, we emphasize that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach or a one right answer to these questions. Instead, it is our hope that the questions facilitate meaningful conversation between school leaders and administrators, educators, parents, and the community to pave the way for powerful, equitable, inclusive, and democratic learning experiences.
Connecting EAD and the SMS Essential Attributes
|SMS Essential Attributes||Planning questions to empower EAD implementation|
|Responsive||How can I empower my staff to cultivate a growth mindset with our students by encouraging continuous self-reflection and self-knowledge?|
|Challenging||In what ways can we cultivate a spirit of inquiry within courses so that students go beyond memorizing isolated facts to engage in deeper reflections on hard questions and pursue civic friendship as they arrive at difficult answers?|
|Empowering||How is the school climate empowering student agency so that students can take greater ownership of their learning and feel like their learning has a broader social impact?|
|Equitable||How are we engaging and honoring multifaceted historical and civic narratives in our schools? How is civic learning inclusive of all learners, including those who have been systematically marginalized?|
|Engaging||What are the pedagogical approaches we are leveraging and the extracurricular opportunities we are supporting that create relevant, participatory, and motivating experiences for all learners?|
Connecting EAD and the SMS 18 Characteristics
|SMS Characteristics of Successful Middle Schools||Key questions to leverage characteristics to empower powerful history and civic learning|
|Culture and Community||● How are we honoring the diverse needs of our students and ensuring that all students feel their histories and backgrounds are honored and valued at our school?
● In what ways are we moving beyond our school walls and engaging families and community resources (both present and virtual) to help students develop a deeper sense of their histories?
|Curriculum Instruction and Assessment||● In what ways are we leveraging inquiry to deepen students’ sense of ownership and understanding of difficult concepts in civics and history?
● How does decision making and student engagement authentically incorporate student perspectives in ways that model the type of society we hope our students will cultivate?
● In what ways do we assess and value the diversity of types of powerful civic learning students demonstrate in our school?
|Leadership and Organization||● In what ways is student voice and perspectives solicited in the operation of the school?
● How can we collaborate with museums, libraries, and other civil society entities to provide deeper, richer, and more relevant connections to inquiry in students’ civic and history education called for by the EAD?
● How are we leveraging on-going, evidence-based instructional training to develop your staff’s capacity to facilitate powerful civics and history education?
● How are we leveraging time and support for staff to facilitate stronger civic learning?
Rather than one-time answers, the questions above highlight an on-going conversation that encourages school communities to go deeper. As each school considers what best fits their individual community’s we encourage considering the following actions:
- LEARN: About the Roadmap and begin to draw connections to your work and best practices in SMS.
- ACT: Develop a school civic learning plan that highlights how your school will measure and achieve your civic mission.
- SHARE: Share your practices broadly.