In 1954, Elizabeth Johnson, 6th grade supervisor in a Kalamazoo, Mich., school, sought to empower her students and encourage critical thinking, reflection, and cooperation. To this end, she had her students write a group letter to their parents to provide a "good appraisal of their thoughts and work during their sixth grade year."
This time capsule reveals that the students were heavily focused on multicultural understanding and the ideals of democracy. The students described lessons learned from holding mock meetings of the Inter-American Conference and the Council of the Organization of American States, saying "we could learn to put ourselves in the other person's place and find out about other countries' problems. We tried to remember that if 'one nation is oppressed, then we all are oppressed.'"
A good portion of the letter recaps community connections: a visit from Kalamazoo Mayor Allen, who spoke on democratic practices in the city; talks with a local social worker and dentist; and a lesson with a state committee member who was working on the issues affecting migrant workers.
Post submitted by Ayanna Cooper, who works in the field of English as a second language teaching and learning and is a member of ASCD's Emerging Leaders Class of 2010. Cooper is also a past president of Georgia TESOL, an adjunct instructor, and an advocate for English language learners.
For middle-grades students, learning English as a new language and adjusting to their new environment and school schedule can be quite a challenge but is not impossible. For teachers, knowing where their students' academic language proficiency is helping them learn and become part of the school community is crucial. Increasing bilingual resources provided to students and their families is extremely beneficial.
Socially we can support them through extracurricular activities, such as sports, clubs, and mentoring programs. For example, students may play on the school's soccer team and perform well as an athlete. It provides another way for them to draw on other experiences that allow them to "show" versus "tell" what they know and can do.
What cultural and linguistic factors contribute to the development of English learners who are middle graders? What other ways can we support them both socially and academically?
When the community of O'Fallon, Ill., decided that it needed a second middle grades school to serve a growing population, district education leaders saw it as an ideal opportunity to construct a whole child school from the ground up. In fall 2009, the Amelia V. Carriel Junior High School received its first enrollment of more than 700 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students who, like their teachers, were delighted by the state-of-the-art facility.
ASCD began the Whole Child Initiative three years ago to refocus the conversation among state and national policymakers on more integral ways to view learning and reform education. Nancy Gibson, superintendent of O'Fallon School District No. 90 and a current ASCD board member, explains that Carriel Junior High adopted the whole child design and instructional strategy to meet the academic, physical, psychological, and social needs of its young adolescents. To prevent reducing schooling to a narrow focus on curriculum and test scores, a whole child approach promotes the development of children who are healthy and safe in the school environment, engaged in learning and community life, supported by caring and qualified adults, and challenged academically so that they can succeed in college and the workplace.
Gibson says she used home visits, coffee klatches, and other public meetings to engage parents in understanding the importance of addressing all aspects of students' learning through the whole child education approach. The district serves 3,500 students in five elementary schools and two junior high schools.
School Design Reflects Student Needs
The physical environment of Carriel Junior High reflects the core elements of the whole child approach. "We wanted the building to be designed around educating the body, mind, and spirit: the 'mind' being the academic wing; the 'body' being where physical education, fitness, nutrition, and health are taught; and the 'spirit' being the inner core of the building—which has a theater; rooms for art and music, band, and chorus; and the library," Gibson explains. The school's painting scheme also reflects the different aspects of a student's entire learning experience: blue-green and copper represent the mind, eggplant tones for the body, and gold for the spirit.
Gibson views the school's central core as the hub that ties together all three areas. For example, the combination cafeteria/theater, called a theatorium, seats 500 in three terraces before a stage and also provides a much-needed public space for community groups and school events. For example, last fall the junior high jazz band held a junior high-senior citizens swing dance and jazz concert that had both groups dancing.
Preparing Students for the 21st Century
At the national level, middle grades advocates are reminding policymakers that their grade levels should be recognized as the crucial bridge between elementary school and high school. Because students often become disaffected with school in the middle grades, resources spent on promoting and implementing best practices at the middle school level positively impact high school outcomes, experts say (See the July Education Update article, "Caught in the Middle").
With an eye to their students' futures, O'Fallon school officials sought to promote and hone 21st century workplace skills such as teaming, speaking and presentation, and interdisciplinary studies. Carriel Junior High has 21st century rooms with computer projection screens on the first floor linked to each grade-level wing. With lots of windows to let in natural light and located to face the wooded area and creek behind the school for access to outdoor education opportunities, the oversized 21st century rooms can serve two or more classes for interdisciplinary lessons.
In addition, teachers undergo extensive professional development that combines training in integrating technology and workshops in backward curriculum design and differentiated instruction. The technology training allows teachers to check out and use devices such as interactive whiteboards and tablet PCs and other wireless devices to drive and enhance their lessons in the 21st century rooms, Gibson says.
Interdisciplinary teacher teams plan weekly. To emphasize the importance of collaboration, teachers' personal desks, file cabinets, and computers are located in teacher planning rooms.
"The best thing you can do is to get professional educators to sit down and talk about kids on a regular basis," says Carriel principal Douglas Woods.
Previously, principals received training to foster professional learning community staff development. The district has also laid the groundwork for a response to intervention model, to start in the fall, that will emphasize teaming, data-based decision making, and collaboration on monitoring and interventions for students.
Seeking School Equity
Edward A. Fulton Junior High School, O'Fallon's other middle grades school that was built 10 years, also underwent a $2 million remodeling to mirror aspects of the new sister school, Gibson says. Fulton students are now clustered into grade-level "houses," and teacher teams have common planning time. Like Carriel, Fulton also has a new communications lab, which will allow students to create television and video projects, and separate grade-level computer labs.
"Our parents wanted equity, and we did too, for the kids," Gibson explains. In O'Fallon both middle grades schools engage parents, expand students' learning opportunities, and provide innovative and creative strategies for reaching and teaching the whole child.
I am one who believes that there is no "muddle in the middle." Middle schools have taken the brunt of the attack from critics of education for as long as they have been in existence. The reason for the criticism is that most critics (and people in general) really don't understand how a middle school child functions and, as a result, misunderstand the purpose and strategies that make middle schools work.
Middle school children are like no other students the average educator will come in contact with. (Is that a chorus of "Amens"?) They are a massive bundle of raging hormones pent up in bodies that are growing faster on average than they have since infancy, struggling to come to grips with the rigors and responsibilities of young adulthood. While all of this is going on, they are fighting for social independence and, at the same time, maintaining a death grip on their families. Middle school students can be summed up in one word: confusing. However, despite the daily challenges and frustrations of working with middle-graders, middle schools do work.
For a middle school to function efficiently and effectively, it needs to have several factors in place. I am not listing these elements as a specific recipe for success, but I believe that they certainly improve the possibility for the success of any school.
A Truly Dedicated Staff
I was told early in my career that the best middle school educators have a little bit of middle school student in them. I believed it then and swear by it now, with a slight modification: I believe it takes a certain kind of teacher to understand the middle school child. As a school administrator, it is my responsibility to make sure that I have a staff that is dedicated to understanding, working with, and ensuring the success of every child in their charge every day.
I have been blessed with a staff that goes above and beyond on their own initiative—calling students at home to go over homework, accepting my open-door policy for parents without complaint (and encouraging parents to attend classes), staying after school or coming in early to work one-on-one with struggling students, and the list goes on and on. I am very proud of the work the teachers do, and they, along with the parents, are the greatest reason for our success.
A great deal of what my staff does is intrinsically motivated and the result of hard work to change the professional climate of the school. Teachers have the support of other teachers and the school's administration, and there is extremely effective communication among all levels of school personnel. Teachers are also afforded the opportunity to see administrators model our expectations when we are invited into classes to teach and coteach. This support allows teachers to feel free to strive for higher standards through innovation and creativity, without fear of undue criticism. We do ask teachers to explain what they are doing, but in the questioning, we create a true professional learning culture within the school that benefits both educators and students.
My school also provides several types of rewards and fun activities for our staff. They can be rewarded with passes to skip certain duties, which administrators will then pick up for them. The administration often cooks for teachers, with appreciation lunches in the teachers lounge, and twice a year we have a cookout on an early-release day. Our teachers and students have also developed a healthy sense of competition, with each grade level striving to achieve higher levels of academic achievement across content areas. In addition, we have pep rallies and teacher–student basketball and dodgeball games. Remarkably, teachers consider these activities as much of a reward as students do.
I consistently tell my teachers that nothing comes from chaos except more chaos. With this idea in mind, when my leadership team and I accepted the challenge of turning around our school, discipline and the curriculum were top concerns.
For all their blossoming independence, middle school students (like anyone else) just want to know what is expected and what their boundaries are. They will test them, but they want to know how far they can go. Once those boundaries are set, all you need to do is enforce them. There will always be those who try to beat the system, but the overwhelming majority of students will stay within the set boundaries.
Freedom and Respect
These principles apply to both students and teachers. Middle school is a time of exploration as students begin to map out definite ideas and plans for their futures and develop their own unique identities. Students have to be allowed to feel like a part of their education and to make some decisions about what they will do in the future.
Giving students this limited freedom and deserved respect will go a long way toward helping them mature and showing them the same respect we expect as teachers. Teachers have to be respected and trusted as professionals to do what is in the best interest of the child within the confines of the curriculum, standards, and policy. Teachers who are given professional respect and freedom will often return results well beyond expectations.
There is no miracle cure for what may ail a middle school, but there is a plan: hard work.
When I arrived at my school, we were in our seventh year of "needs improvement," according to state mandates, and the climate of the school left a great deal to be desired. At the end of my fifth year as principal, our school can lay claim to the following: We have made AYP for three years in a row. We have watched discipline referrals fall to a fraction of the number they were the year before my assistant principals and I arrived. Teachers have become leaders and taken an active role in the successful operation of the school. And, most important, we have all watched young men and young ladies succeed academically and take the initiative to control their futures.
Middle schools can work, and many of them work extremely well; we just have to take the time as educational leaders to understand them.
Project-based learning (PBL) is being embraced by schools nationally and across grade levels. Educators know that each grade level comes with its challenges as students are in a variety of developmental levels and abilities. However, through practicing 21st century skills in a PBL environment, students can build their social, emotional, and cognitive capacity.
Because the middle grades are a paradigm shift for most students, middle-grades teachers are presented with an exciting opportunity to engage 21st century learners, but they also need to keep in mind that these students need unique scaffolding.
We love a good one-size-fits-all approach. It's uncomplicated and seems to get to the heart of the problem without being bogged down in the details. It gives us focus and helps us know where to invest resources.
The problem is, issues involving humans are rarely, if ever, straightforward and simplistic enough for this kind of approach to be successful. In few cases is this truer than when it comes to the problems we face ensuring the success of each student during the middle grades.
Research has shown that no one factor, such as teacher support or parent involvement, is the key to a winning formula. While many factors are important, each one has only a modest effect. Only when multiple factors come together can we consistently and powerfully support students in making progress.
To further complicate education and development of students during the middle grades, most young people are consumed with trying to determine who they are, who they want to become, and how to establish their independence. Middle school educators are faced with droves of students who resist the one-size-fits-all approach at every turn.
Although we must attend to students' need for freedom, choices, and opportunities to explore and express their identities, these needs cannot trump the academic learning that must occur. To guarantee that we are successfully supporting, developing, and educating students in the middle grades, we must take a "both/and" mentality to maintain an equal commitment to their academic success and personal growth.
Throughout April, we're looking at what research and experience tell us about creating "both/and" middle grade environments where students thrive and educators maintain their sanity. Download the most recent Whole Child Podcast, read and post your comments here on the Whole Child Blog, and e-mail us resources and examples of promising practices.
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Post written by Jillian J. Toews, a guidance counselor at Hesston Middle School in Hesston, Kans., and was featured in the April 2010 issue of ASCD Express.
Making the move from one school to the next often evokes unavoidable emotions in students, ranging from excitement to angst. But Hesston Unified School District 460 in Kansas has found a way to help allay the anxieties over such transitions while building a spirit of caring and generosity among its students. For four years, the district's Transition Buddy Program has used the inevitable move to a new school to help shape Hesston students into thoughtful, compassionate, and empathetic citizens.
The middle grades are a complex, challenging, and confusing time for adolescents and for adults to support and develop! Even so, more and more research points to the importance of this stage of childhood, when young people are grappling to figure out who they are. Helping young people through this process of identity formation is crucial as kids transition physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially.
In this episode of the Whole Child Podcast, we examine how to foster middle grades students' healthy development; create environments that facilitate learning throughout this transitional time; and support those who are working with these students in schools, in the community, and at home. You'll hear from Al Arth, a professor of education at York College in Nebraska, and Caroline Bloxom, principal of Pocomoke Middle School in Maryland.
Throughout his career, Arth has been a strong advocate for middle school education. Among his many accomplishments, he was a founding member of whole child partner the National Association of Secondary School Principals' (NASSP) Middle Level Council, served on the board of directors of the National Middle School Association (also a whole child partner), and developed one of the first doctoral-level middle school programs in the country at the University of Nebraska. Arth is the facilitator of ASCD's Middle Grades Professional Interest Community; join the mailing list by e-mailing email@example.com.
As principal of a multiple-award–winning rural school, Bloxom has created a safe and welcoming learning environment for students by combining a rigorous curriculum with strong emotional support for its student body. Pocomoke Middle School was also featured on NBC's Today show in a segment highlighting the programs and services that are contributing to middle-level success.
It's no exaggeration to suggest that the middle grades represent a critical time in the education of our students. Over the years, I've seen countless students do wonderfully well as elementary school students only to crash and burn in the middle grades. As we try to structure classrooms that offer academic challenges that are both rigorous and realistic, it's helpful to keep in mind some of the things that characterize middle grade students and what we can do to maximize their chances for success both academically and socially.
The middle years are crucial to high school success, when students develop skills for navigating the larger world and discover the direction they want their lives to take. So why, asks noted middle school educator Rick Wormeli, would anyone leave the transition into this phase to chance? Five mind-sets can help educators guide their students on the path from elementary to middle school:
Understanding students' concern about belonging
Empathizing with students
Understanding the characteristics of the age group
Focusing on the positive
Wormeli's article is full of strategies for easing students' transition from elementary school to middle school. One of the strategies that students say is most helpful:
If your middle school asks students to use lockers, take a locker door with a combination lock to feeder elementary schools in the last few months of school. Let students practice opening and closing the lock as much as they want for at least a week.
How are you helping students successfully navigate the move up to middle school?