Leading Learning at the Middle Level

As a young child, I frequently made the trip with my parents from our home in Oregon’s Willamette Valley to visit relatives in a small town in Washington State. I learned at an early age to recognize that we were almost to our destination when we passed a brewery in Tumwater, Washington, that at that time was well-known for its slogan, “It’s the water.”

I recall this slogan when someone asks me what makes the middle level different from elementary and high school. When working with this age group, we may occasionally wonder if it’s what’s in the water that makes the difference, but in actuality, “it’s the students.”

If you asked the man on the street whether someone who studied to be a high school physics teacher would be an effective primary school teacher, most likely, he’d shake his head and say “no.” If pressed for an explanation, he’d probably respond that the teacher wouldn’t understand how young children learn and would be too academic in his approach to teaching.

However, if you asked people if that same teacher could effectively teach middle level students, they likely would answer “yes.” This puzzles me—clearly the general population does not understand the uniqueness of young adolescents.

The Difference in the Middle

While the foundational leadership skills needed may be similar across the grade levels, what makes the difference is the knowledge of young adolescent development and how educators use that knowledge to build a supportive culture that implements best practices in curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Regardless of job position or grade configuration, it is of utmost importance that those who work with middle grades students remember that an effective middle level school is neither a high school for younger students nor an elementary school for older ones. Schools must meet the specific needs of the students who are found at all points along the developmental continuum.

In 1963, William Alexander, considered one of the founders of the middle level movement, called for the introduction of schools for young adolescents that promoted learning by being more responsive to the developmental needs of the age group. Because this developmental piece was lacking in most junior high schools of the day, these schools focused on becoming more responsive to the students’ social and emotional development; as a result, middle level schools gained a reputation for being “soft” on academic rigor.

The fact is, from the beginning, the middle level concept has advocated for high expectations and academic growth—accomplished in a supportive environment that uses strategies appropriate for this age level. In its call for schools that are developmentally responsive, challenging, empowering, and equitable, AMLE’s This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents clearly articulates and strongly advocates for middle level schools that are both academically excellent and developmentally appropriate. Many of the 16 characteristics support the notion that it’s the students who make the difference. Characteristics include:

  • Educators value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them.
  • Leaders are committed to and knowledgeable about this age group, educational research, and best practices.
  • Every student’s academic and personal development is guided by an adult advocate.

If you are unfamiliar with This We Believe, I urge you to get a copy (https://my.amle.org/Shop/Store) and read it…multiple times!

Today’s middle level schools face a great deal of pressure as they work to raise test scores, implement the Common Core State Standards, and comply with other federal, state, and local requirements. Sadly, too often this has swung the pendulum toward an emphasis on academic achievement with less attention given to the needs of the young adolescent. But it can’t be an either/or proposition—if young adolescents are to be held to high expectations in meeting today’s academic standards, decisions about curriculum, instruction, assessment, and school structure must capitalize on a clear understanding of their development.

How does this play out in a school? It begins by asking the question: “Does my school take into account the characteristics of young adolescents and can I find visible evidence that they are at the core of our school’s practices and policies?” Here are a few general ideas to get you started analyzing your school’s effectiveness at being academically challenging and developmentally appropriate.

Leading Physical Growth

Young adolescents are experiencing rapid, irregular physical growth that may cause poor motor coordination; are developing sexually; are experiencing mood swings and abrupt transitions from alertness/high energy to fatigue/lethargy; have increased nutritional demands but are making poor food choices; and need somewhat continuous movement as well as plenty of rest and sleep.

Therefore, it’s important to

  • Incorporate movement into lessons.
  • Assure students they are not the “only one” experiencing physical difficulties.
  • Implement a comprehensive health and physical education program relevant to the specific needs and capabilities of young adolescents.
  • Ensure that all students can experience physical success in some manner.
  • Support and encourage adequate nutrition and hydration.

Leading Social Development

Young adolescents seek approval from peers; do not do well when backed into a corner; are self-conscious in social settings and worry about acceptance; can be argumentative “just because”; may demonstrate great social consciousness at times; may reject adult standards or viewpoints on social issues, follow social trends and fads; and demonstrate extremes of shyness or extroversion.

Middle level schools should

  • Provide appropriate school-based social activities.
  • Promote and model acceptance by adults and peers.
  • Help students find their place in the complex role society expects of them.
  • Allow students to teach and learn from one another.
  • Provide opportunities for students to work/interact with others from socially different walks of life.
  • Include community involvement and service learning in the curriculum.
  • Understand and respect students’ need for social interaction.

Leading Emotional Growth

Young adolescents are experiencing chemical and hormonal changes that affect their emotions. They may overreact to seemingly minor issues; often look like adults but emotionally resemble children; are becoming increasingly aware of themselves, individually and in comparison to others; tend to be unrealistically self-critical and easily offended; need privacy; have an emerging (and sometimes inappropriate) sense of humor; and are basically hopeful.

It’s important to

  • Analyze and respond effectively to the typical behaviors of the age group; decide if students are being “appropriately” inappropriate or defiant.
  • Be an attentive listener and an honest, available role model.
  • Be careful with sarcasm; students don’t always see it as humor.
  • Help students feel skilled and competent.
  • Use praise and reinforcement judiciously and in appropriate ways (focus on the effort, not the outcome).
  • Create an environment of acceptance with students, families, and colleagues.

Leading Cognitive Growth

Young adolescents have a wide range of intellectual abilities; are curious in nature, especially about things that are of interest to them; are more willing to learn material if it seems useful and relevant; are more able to think abstractly; and are sometimes self-centered and have difficulty seeing another’s viewpoints.

Therefore, it is important to

  • Present lessons that build from concrete to abstract.
  • Ask questions that require higher-level thinking (What if… How do you know… Why do you think… How did you arrive at that conclusion… Of what value is this to you?).
  • Encourage risk taking in a supported and safe environment.
  • Actively involve students in the lessons.
  • Be prepared for off-the-wall responses.

There is no question that young adolescents are challenging and often a contradiction in terms—confused and confident, awkward and articulate, passive and passionate—often within a short period of time. We must advocate for them to receive an education designed expressly for them, surrounded by adults who connect with them, challenge them, and care for them.

Asking the Tough Questions

Middle level students deserve teachers and principals who are not afraid to ask the tough questions: Is our curriculum challenging, integrative, and relevant? Do we use varied and appropriate teaching and learning strategies? Do our assessment and evaluation practices promote learning? Are we as a staff adequately prepared to work with young adolescents? What should we keep doing, stop doing, and start doing to better serve our students?

If you cannot find evidence that your school is continually making forward progress in each of these areas, you are doing your students a disservice—because the key to successfully educating middle grades students lies in believing that the answer to “what makes the middle level different?” can only be answered with “It’s the students.”

Patti Kinney, former middle school teacher and administrator and a past president of AMLE, is an education consultant based in Talent, Oregon.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2015.