Schools that take a whole child approach to education are conscious of the intersection between physical space and the academic, social, and emotional development of students. The learning environments we create—the physical along with school climate—can either help or hinder learning, development, teaching, and collaboration.
In this episode of the Whole Child Podcast, we look at what kind of school environments optimize the way students learn, teachers teach, and communities interact and hear from guests who are creating learning environments that facilitate the process of ensuring students are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. You'll hear from
Kristin Cuilla, director of new school development for New Tech Network, who describes how schools and communities are rethinking teaching and learning to create and transform learning environments where students are highly engaged.
Luis Torres, principal of P.S. 55 in the Bronx, N.Y., and a 2011 ASCD Outstanding Young Educator, who will share how he has used nearly every part of the learning environment, from the halls and walls to the neighborhood and community partnerships, to revitalize the school, students, family, and community. Learn more about Torres' work in this interview:
What is your school doing to transform the learning environment in ways that make a difference for students' learning and development?
In this video, education professor Jill Ostrow asks her preservice education students to reflect on the work of Lisa Delpit, an author whose work focuses on education and race, specifically pedagogy that values cultural differences as strengths and teaches disenfranchised students the skills required to succeed in a primarily white and middle-class mainstream society.
Ostrow distills three key points from a presentation by Delpit:
Be humble and recognize that you have much to learn from your students and their communities.
Approach your teaching with a sense of inquiry, framing questions about your students and their needs to guide your teaching.
Be willing to share your story. Other teachers need to know what you have learned and how you have gained your wisdom.
Ostrow says these three points are what teacher research is all about. She asks her education students to deeply consider, as teacher researchers
How will you learn from your students and their communities?
How do you plan to approach your teaching with a sense of inquiry?
How will you frame your questions about students and their needs to guide your teaching?
How will you share your story?
Find this reflection activity, perspectives on multicultural education, and other strategies for culturally inclusive and responsive schools in ASCD Express.
Talking about college, careers, and the workplace can be anathema for students. Whether due to the developmental irrelevance of time, socioeconomic factors, or conditioned apathy, many young people view "The Future" with apparent indifference, seemingly finding it irrelevant to their present. The dilemmas with this reality are myriad, primarily because today schools are inherently future-oriented. The essential challenge here seems to be, "How can The Future be materially relevant for people for whom The Future is developmentally irrelevant?"
As adults, we impose solutions to this challenge according to our own perspectives: Technology integration, project-based learning, and service learning all have loud choruses booming about their relevance in future-teaching. STEM-centric educators pull for their focuses as being the most significant for students. Some educators still believe testing and other forms of standardization are the only way to teach The Future. However, as we know from the continuous pendulum swing of educational trends, all of these do little to jostle the seeming indifference of students toward The Future.
Over the last decade I have been working in communities around the world focused on what Ruthanne Kurth-Schai called "reconceptualizing the roles of young people throughout society." In this capacity I have worked with educators, administrators, support staff, and students in hundreds of educational settings, both in school and out of school, to help students determine the meaning of education for themselves.
Repeatedly I have heard students describe how they arrive to an obtuse, confusing notion of what the purpose of schools is every time they enter the building. Rather than address their confusion, well-meaning adults routinely employ the means of schooling without identifying the ends; worst still, teachers, administrators, and political leaders seem to mix the means and the ends. Students receive testing and curriculum, classroom management and extracurricular activities without ever exploring why these things should matter to them.
I propose that rather than impose meaning on students, adults in schools make meaning with students. Research in developmental psychology has shown us clearly that young people of all ages have the capacity to develop sophisticated understandings of the educational undertakings they participate in. Unfortunately, policy and practice in schools today have not kept up with that research.
In 2005, I wrote a number of publications about meaningful student involvement with the intention of defining a series of frameworks schools can use to promote this deepening of student understanding. Ultimately proposing that schools reconceptualize the roles of students by positioning them as coleaders, coteachers, and colearners, my research for the series showed me that this work is already well under way in a few select educational environments across the country. What I found were K–12 classrooms, educational agencies, and community groups that engage students in making meaning in education. These students are learning to find the meaning in The Future by defining the purpose of schools and partnering with adults to change those places to meet their expectations.
Since then I have worked with hundreds more schools, districts, and state agencies. I have found many good practices, policies, and methodologies to support meaningful student involvement. Download a free module on engaging students as teachers from the new SoundOut Student Voice Curriculum to get students lit up about learning about learning, learning about teaching, and teaching each other.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned about teaching students about The Future is the key to defining why careers, college, and the workplace should matter to students: because students themselves decide it does. Letting learners name their motivation every single time they join a class, do a project, or complete a test and determine how their learning styles need to be met, which teachers can help them learn most effectively, helps them strengthen their conception and understanding of The Future. A growing number of educators are working to embrace this challenge, and in doing this, schools are building meaning into learning and instilling a lifelong love of education into every student. This is welcoming The Future, today.
Ah, middle grades ... a complex, challenging, and confusing time in adolescence. Also a complex, challenging, and confusing age for adults to support and develop! In April we looked at the crucial importance of this childhood stage. Supporting students as they transition physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially is key to ensuring that they are successful and healthy in high school and beyond.
Listen to the Whole Child Podcast with guests Al Arth, a professor of education at York College in Nebraska, and Caroline Bloxom, principal of Pocomoke Middle School in Maryland.
Watch how Pocomoke Middle School has created a safe and welcoming learning environment for students by combining a rigorous curriculum with strong emotional support for its student body.
Explore "The Transition Years" with ASCD's Educational Leadership, and learn what authors recommend as students move from early childhood into elementary school, through the middle grades, and then into 9th grade. Noted middle school educator Rick Wormeli shares five mind-sets that can help educators ease the middle school transition for their students.
Develop a "both/and" mentality to maintain an equal commitment to middle grades students' academic success and personal growth. Author Bob Sullo offers insight, experience, and resources to help educators guide students through the messy process of identity formation and create learning experiences that increase achievement and minimize disruptions to learning.
Equip students with skills for future success early. Guest blogger Jason Flom shares his school's two-part plan to ensure that students leave elementary school with some basic communication and leadership life-support systems.
Create a culture of caring for middle grades students and staff in your district like Hesston Middle School in Hesston, Kans., did through its Transition Buddy Program.
Build student capacity in the middle grades through project-based learning (PBL). Guest blogger Andrew K. Miller shares developmental stages in the PBL process that provide focused guidance and foster student growth emotionally, socially, and cognitively.
Understand the purpose of middle schools and the strategies that make them work. Louisiville, Ga., principal Samuel Dasher shares elements that can improve the success of any school.
Read what educators had to say about the middle grades 20 years ago in the December 1973 issue of Educational Leadership, "Middle School in the Making?"
Share what you love—and what challenges you—about teaching students who are transitioning from kid to adult.
Highlighted in Edutopia's Schools That Work series, Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky., developed its CARE for Kids social and emotional learning program to help students become better learners while developing the skills necessary to become self-aware, caring, and connected to others. Find tips, resources, and how you can replicate it in your school. In this video, students start the day sharing feelings with their peers.
In late March, ASCD held its 2011 Annual Conference in San Francisco, where sessions engaged participants in dynamic, diverse dialogues addressing the challenges of learning, teaching, and leading, including:
Mental health may in fact be the one remaining "health" that stills holds somewhat negative connotations when discussed or highlighted. Simply Google the phrase "mental health," and the results indicate that this particular phrase may still be the "health" outsider.
Young adolescents have specific developmental needs as they negotiate puberty and its effect on their intellectual, social, and emotional lives. Appropriate environments, strategies, and programs provide structure for academic success.
In his book, The Best Schools: How Human Development Research Should Inform Educational Practice, learning and human development expert Thomas Armstrong identifies 12 educational practices that support the social, emotional, and metacognitive growth of middle-grades students and provides school examples from each. These practices are
Safe school climate
Small learning communities
Personal adult relationships
Positive role models
Expressive arts strategies
Health and wellness focus
Emotionally meaningful curriculum
Student roles in decision making
Honoring and respecting student voices
Facilitating social and emotional growth
Too many educators believe that early adolescence is either a time for whipping kids into shape for the academic rigors of high school or a time for patient (if painful) endurance while they go about their tortuous process of growing up. It is neither. There is a great middle area between these two extremes that must be the focus of those who wish to deal with the reality of young teens. Young adolescents live rich and intense lives. To demand that they leave these lives outside of the school boundaries is to commit a serious injustice to them, and it also threatens to deprive society of the gifts these kids have to give. By embracing the passion of early adolescence and using that energy to revitalize the classroom, educators will ensure that these vibrant young voices will sing out their hopes, fears, joys, and sorrows in a way that can benefit not only themselves but the rest of society as well.
Which of the developmentally appropriate practices for young adolescents described in this chapter are most important in your opinion? What other practices would you add to this list?
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.
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.