Food for Thought: Four Essential Attributes

As we joyfully create with our pedagogical whisks, ladles, and colanders, we must never lose sight of what we hope our educational meal will be. While the 16 Characteristics of Successful Schools outlined in This We Believe are the key ingredients for an effective and amazing middle grades program, our students deserve more than our adherence to a prescribed recipe. They need us to ask really good questions and be prepared to wrestle with the answers we receive.

For example, what should we keep in our minds and hearts as we serve them up every day? Looking again at This We Believe with these questions simmering in the cognitive crock-pot, the answer is clear. The four Essential Attributes help us set the table for our service, and they provide direction as we support all learners—because young adolescents deserve an education that is:

1. Responsive: Using the nature of young adolescents as the foundation on which all decisions are made. It’s imperative that we understand who our students are, so learning experiences can also be developmentally responsive. Fortunately, by scanning the pages of This We Believe (pp. 53–62) and digging deep into the mental files of our own middle school memories, we can adjust the menu and serve our students more responsively. Our learning environments should be open educational buffets with intriguing options and choices. They should be collaborative spaces where educational meals can be actively co-created with the cooks in the kitchen and with fellow diners. And our classes should be social places where diners can talk about their meals, eat each other’s educational plates, and write their ideas in bold letters on the tablecloths.

2. Challenging: Recognizing that every student can learn and everyone is held to high expectations. We must ensure that every student is challenged as they dine with us. We must push back against the pre-packaged, pre-portioned dishes of mediocrity and menial expectations. Our students don’t just deserve more; they are more. By working together on interdisciplinary teams and with students themselves, we can create educational menus full of great content, rich ingredients, strategies that challenge everyone. When we do that, we create great middle schools that drive up engagement, drive down disruption, and drive learning forward.

3. Equitable: Advocating for every student’s right to learn and providing challenging and relevant learning opportunities. When we ask students to enter our educational restaurants to dine on our daily dishes, we must have equity in mind. Opening our doors means every student has a seat at the classroom table. The joyous mission we face with equity is how to give our students every opportunity, how to provide them with every chance, and how to engage them in learning experiences every day that meet them where they are—while propelling them where they can be.

4. Empowering: Providing all students with the knowledge and skills they need to take control of their lives. The goal of any effective and amazing middle school should be to empower young adolescents so they can sit at any table, take on any challenge, and respond intelligently to anything or anyone on their lifelong learning journey. It isn’t enough that we feed and fill them with exceptional educational dishes—that simply makes them full. Rather, our duty should be to help our young adolescents remain intellectually hungry, to help them use the cognitive and social utensils they need long after they’ve left our doors.