The Nature of Middle Level

During the Tennessee Council of Teachers of English conference a couple of weeks ago, I was walking around the spacious grounds of the event between sessions when I did something regretful and then noticed something in my path.

My regretful action was a common one these days: meandering while looking at my cell phone. Instead of looking around and soaking in the fall splendor of Tennessee, my head was down, my eyes were pinned to e-mails, and my thumbs were fumbling with the touch screen. I stumbled—almost literally—on this turtle that had emerged from a shadowed corner of the courtyard. Fortunately for both of us, we saw each other just in time.

After avoiding this near man-turtle collision, I thought about middle level education. Specifically, I thought about assessment, motivation, and journeys.

Starting with the end in mind, the turtle and its travels brought up thoughts of The Odyssey and the journeys of early adolescence. Odysseus made his perilous voyage home and battled Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla, Charybdis, and the Lotus Eaters, and he learned about himself along the way, even when he faced more problems at his doorstep!

How does that relate to our kids and their lives? Like Odysseus, our students face daily challenges on the journey to learning that we need to recognize and honor. For some, the difficult journey starts on the bus where they have to navigate turbulent social and behavioral waters on their way to school. For others, the challenges start before they leave their own homes. And for others, the trials begin in our schools.
Therefore, once they reach the shores of our classrooms, our students need our steady calm, our welcoming dispositions, and our warm acceptance, so they can gain a firm footing as they walk towards learning.

So is it enough to create the perfect lesson plan that covers key content area standards? Is it enough to craft the exemplary assessment that measures student progress? I would hazard to state that without relationships and students in our minds, lesson plans and assessments are hollow tools, and they alone are not enough. They may quantify the learning experience, but by themselves they only capture a piece of the learning journey.

The turtle, with its speckled head in the sunlight, also made me think about the purpose of assessments and the power of motivation. We all have the terms “formative” and “summative” quickly at our fingertips when we discuss assessment, but how do we use them to help students on their walk to learning?

As a teacher, I frequently checked my students’ progress on the content area standards through questioning, discussion, literature circles, and yes, through quizzes and tests. It was how I figured out where my students were on their journey.

As an administrator, I pored over my school’s benchmark and state assessment results to see trends with grade level groups, gender groups, ethnicity groups, program groups, subgroups, and more. I created graphs and charts to illuminate trends for faculty and staff to use to tweak their plans, focus on specific standards, and provide remediation to certain students.

Despite this, I had students who didn’t grow and who didn’t progress on their learning journey, and it frustrated me. This came flooding back when I saw the turtle and considered his travels that morning. He could have stayed right where he was in the shadows, but something motivated him to move. Something prodded him to come out of his shell and peek his head (and his hope) into the warm sunlight.

The same thing happens in our schools and classrooms every day. Assessments. Measurement. Projects. Exams. To many students, they mean little unless we motivate them. How do we make this happen? While there are no simple solutions, I contend that it starts with relationship-building, relevance, and student goal-setting.

Our young adolescents need schools built on caring as well as structure. They need to see the promise of warmth in us so they are motivated to step forward into the educational sunlight. Our students also need to see the relevance of learning in their own lives so they will continue to walk towards learning with us. This happens with student goal-setting. While it is important for teachers to look at data about students, it is perhaps even more vital that students understand what that data says about them.

We should be transparent with students about their data, and we should help them set appropriate, measurable, and meaningful goals based on that data and based on their hopes and dreams at the beginning of the year, at the beginning of each quarter, and at the end of the semester.

Whenever it happens, it should be happening: students should be sitting regularly with their data and creating goals they care about. Like all forms of literacy, assessment-literacy is a motivational light and an emancipatory compass on the walk towards learning.

This We Believe Characteristics:

  • Educators value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them.
  • Varied and ongoing assessments advance learning as well as measure it.
  • The school environment is inviting, safe, inclusive, and supportive of all.


We measure learning
To shine a light on the path
To guide feet forward.