Polishing Our Sea Glass

When I was a young adolescent, my parents took me and my two sisters, Sally and Betsy, to the shores of Lake Erie. While certainly not a breathtaking ocean with crystal clear waters, Lake Erie was beautiful nonetheless.

My mother, as she grew older, found solace in walking the sandy beaches of Lake Erie. She kept her eyes focused on the sand, looking for sea glass—pieces of broken bottles that had been tossed around for who knows how long, ultimately washing ashore as polished gems.

Although she had thousands of these fragments, she was always adding to her collection. “I think every piece is beautiful,” she once told me. “Look at this one. I don’t have any that are like it.” And she was right. Each piece was unique. She continued to find beautiful piece after beautiful piece and her collection grew.

Those of you who know me, know that I am a self-proclaimed metaphor addict. One day, as I was sitting in my mother’s living room, it occurred to me that middle level students are like pieces of sea glass. Sometimes students feel discarded, tossed around during the day with hectic schedules, slammed against the floors, and wondering when they will finally wash ashore.

However, great teachers and leaders who support true middle level education understand that even the most hardened glass can be polished into a beautiful piece of sea glass.

Polishing Advisory

Mentor Exempted Village School District, which is not too far from the same shores of Lake Erie, has a staff that knows how to polish the glass. Bill Porter, the assistant superintendent, is a former middle level teacher and principal who supervises three middle schools in the district. Each school proudly serves the diverse needs of adolescents, recognizes their imperfections, and embraces their uniqueness. With vast resources across three buildings, educators often collaborate to implement districtwide changes and initiatives to benefit students.

A few years ago, Mentor middle schools were struggling with a “canned” advisory program that consisted of mini-lessons with worn-out plans and outdated topics. Teachers compliantly delivered lessons that were not unique, fresh, or motivating for many students.

Using AMLE’s book This We Believe as a guide, a committee, composed mostly of teachers, set out to reshape the advisory concept. They contemplated what young adolescents needed, were capable of, and would get excited about. They decided that a priority would be maximizing the connections between teachers and the students who thought and behaved so differently from one another and from conventional adult expectations.

As true middle level educators, the teachers at Mentor considered their students’ limitless potential. A Steve Jobs quote about difference-makers aptly fits when we think about the potential of middle school students we are trying to shape:

“Here’s to the crazy ones—the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently—they’re not fond of rules. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things. They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

As the new advisory plan evolved, more than 80% of it centered on the teachers “connecting” with students in deeper ways and in an area of interest by way of a program called 2.5. The 2.5 program is a 25-minute daily block of time between second and third period every day.

During 2.5, students can participate in an activity based on their interests, led by teachers who offer activities they enjoy sharing. For instance, students can opt for a gardening club, a chess club, a book club, scrapbooking, or a sports talk venue, among others. These cross-grade-level gatherings are held four times a week and allow students and teachers to share common interests beyond the classroom. The benefits to these connections, like the students themselves, seem limitless.

At Mentor, students who struggle to connect with teachers in a traditional school schedule are often able to make that connection during 2.5. They also are able to form better relationships with their peers. At the same time, teachers and students recognize new potential in many of the students in their 2.5 groups. Even students who adapt easily to school enjoy a feeling of stronger connectedness.

A 2013 survey of students underscored the actual impact: more than 90% said they liked or really liked 2.5 and wanted it to remain. What stood out most, however, was the value of these connections. So many comments highlighted the development of confidence, maturity, and curiosity in the students. In 2.5, students feel the freedom to explore, risk, challenge, and push limits through the connections and common interests developed. It reinforces for Mentor’s stakeholders the value a special program like 2.5 has in shaping the middle level students who come with so many “beautiful imperfections,” just like the pieces of sea glass that my mom found so fascinating.

As they do with all evolving programs, the educators in Mentor look for opportunities to improve what they do. After studying data and teachers’ observations, a committee recommended some changes for 2.5 to further maximize choices for students. One change is to include parents in the program. The schools will also move 2.5 to the end of the day and rename it 8.5. It’s a change they believe will take that program from “good to great” in the next school year.

Moving Forward

Kerry Rutigliano is in her third year as an English teacher at Mayfield Middle School in Ohio. After spending 12 years at the high school level, Kerry is a relative newcomer to the middle level. She uses a very simple principle that drives her each day: give yourself away to something greater than yourself. Her purpose is inextricably linked to a life of service, a life of giving of her time, talents, and treasures. This message resonates throughout her team, which was assembled when Mayfield Middle School added eighth grade to their middle school three years ago.

As with all evolving teams, her team’s name, purpose, and focus have changed over the years. This past summer, the name was changed to Team Hele, a Hawaiian term meaning to “go, move, travel.” The team adopted Move It Forward as their team anthem to reflect their belief that life is about moving forward; sometimes we are inching, crawling, and grappling to make the slightest bit of progress and other times we are running, sprinting, or hurtling.

Team Hele is made up of core teachers from math, history, science, and language arts; one intervention specialist; one team tutor; and 101 students (this year). These teachers spent an enormous amount of time reviewing practices from previous years, evaluating student data, breaking down curriculum, and creating student programming.

When I asked Kerry about her teammates she said, “I am so fortunate to share the teaching landscape with such an incredible team of zany, passionate, enthusiastic, and compassionate individuals.” Quite simply, she “gets it” and wants to pass it on. The team is more important than any one member.

As middle level educators, we should all know that it’s compassion that keeps us up at night and enthusiasm that wakes us up in the morning. It was the compassion and enthusiasm that led Team Hele to create the GRIT award, which recognizes four or five students each month for being gutsy, resilient, intense, and timely.

At the beginning of the school year the team explained the meaning behind the Team Hele name, the Move It Forward anthem, and the positive attitude it takes to earn the GRIT award. The team discussed how having grit is often a telling and reliable factor in predicting success. They offered examples ranging from NFL greats to spelling bee champions to West Point standouts. They showcased superstars to “everyday Joes” who proved that having grit leads to success.

The students took a 12-question test formulated by the University of Pennsylvania to see how much GRIT they had and then created goals to grow their grit. Students were given the challenge to bring this gritty or resilient attitude to all pursuits throughout the year. And they have!

Seeing a Reflection

As you reflect on your accomplishments during the past school year—whether it’s refreshing an advisory program, establishing a new team, making connections with hard-to-reach students, or tending to your own professional growth—I hope you feel a sense of satisfaction. It’s also important to think about things that maybe didn’t go as well as you had hoped. Reflecting on the year’s successes and failures is not only a good practice, but a necessity if we are to be the best middle level educators we can be.

And moving forward, take the time to recognize the beauty in all your middle level students and to create programs that will allow them to shine like polished pieces of sea glass.

Tom Burton is director of administrative services for Cuyahoga Heights Schools in Ohio. tburton@cuyhts.org


This article was published in AMLE Magazine, May 2014.