Food for Thought: The 16 Characteristics of an Effective and Amazing Middle School

Every one and every school has a story made up of ingredients. When I taught Basic English in Harrisonburg, Virginia, I often had food on my mind. It wasn’t because I was particularly hungry or because I was creating elaborate food-related units for my young adolescent scholars.

Food became a constant part of my life because every day after school, I drove home to go cook in a restaurant. In that culinary work, I found a great way to serve others and practice the art of dicing, sautéing, and shrimp deveining; I also discovered the perfect metaphor for education. And the questions started to simmer as I realized the education–food connection. If lesson planning was a food, what kind of food would it be? If larger school reform was like food prep, what kind of food prep would it be?

I still practice this cognitive exercise and often encourage other people to give it a shot—for two reasons. First, I believe in the power of metaphors and creative thinking. Second, I think that the huge, abstract notion of middle level education can be better understood when we try to connect it to something tangible and concrete.

This is definitely the case for the 16 Characteristics of an Effective Middle School that we find in This We Believe. What would happen if we engaged with each of the 16 characteristics and connected them with the culinary world? What would we learn? What would we gain? What dishes would we cook up in the critical middle level kitchen?

To get to the heart of it all, perhaps this query should be our start: If the 16 Characteristics of an Effective Middle School from This We Believe were a food for middle level education, what would they be?

The best restaurants begin and flourish when all of their cooks create stellar dishes with the same ingredients—and with a shared appreciation of those they serve. The most effective and amazing middle grades schools grow in the same manner. When taken together, the 16 characteristics create a compelling set of ingredients for the entire recipe of middle level education. With these essential ingredients, we can create a great educational meal to meet the cognitive, behavioral, and social-emotional diets of the young adolescents we serve.

In addition, because we value and understand our students, we can also tailor those ingredients so the meal can change and evolve to meet their unique needs as they, too, change and evolve.

Having a common set of ingredients not only helps us respond consistently to students’ shifting realities, it also provides a framework that provides room for teacher creativity and for administrative collaboration—so each school can see what’s missing and can cook up the meal that its students deserve.

So if students need more active learning, a school can add a cup of student choice out of the Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment part of the edu-pantry and watch its classroom menus come alive! If school leaders need to work on organizational structures, they can reach into the Leadership and Organization section and add a twist of creativity to its master bell schedule. If school culture needs to be safer, more inclusive, and more supportive, a school can look in the Culture and Community shelf and stir in a tablespoon of advisory and observe how it positively changes the climate and the overall recipe.

As educational cooks in the middle grades kitchen, we can create great schools for our students, but it means we need to reach up to the top shelf and grab the best ingredients—the 16 characteristics that make an effective and amazing middle grades school. It’s the meal our students deserve.