Monthly Archives: January 2014

Middle School Does Not Suck

When I interviewed for my current position as a middle school principal, there was one fact about myself that I did not make a point of mentioning.  The panel could see on my résumé that I had taught high school for nine years and spent four years as an elementary and high school assistant principal.  What they could not see – and never found out – was that I had never been to middle school.  Any middle school.  I had never had a reason to.  I was home-schooled through 9th grade and had just never gotten around to checking “see what middle schools are like” off my bucket list.

brainAs a career high school educator, I knew all about middle schools though.  Middle school is the holding pen where we store hormones until their brains catch up. Middle school is the place where nobody can think and everybody cuts up.  Middle school is the place where students mysteriously fail to learn the most basic fundamentals of my content area.  Middle school is the place where only very brave (and slightly crazy) teachers work.  Middle school is a place where gum and paper towels in toilets and puberty and puppy-love-turned-earth-shattering-break-up rule the day.  In a word, middle school sucks. Somehow, in spite of my deep-rooted biases, I got the job.

The longer I work in a middle school and interact with my students and collaborate with these amazing teachers, the more convinced I become that the stereotypes about middle school are worse than misleading.  They create an inappropriately imbalanced focus. Maybe my perspective is skewed, but it seems to me that the focus in middle school too often is on minimizing the damage (individually and collectively) until students can be delivered to high school where the road to successful adulthood begins with the installation of a brain.  More plainly, we are content merely to “survive” middle school.  The problem with this approach is that for a great many students, their lack of preparation for high school becomes an obstacle that takes them multiple semesters to overcome.  For far too many, their high school career ends early because they simply can not make the recovery quickly enough.

I say we need to re-imagine – or perhaps just acknowledge – the importance of middle school.  We have placed a huge burden – and most of the focus – on high school in regards to student success.  Graduation rates – high school problem.  Dropouts – high school problem.  Graduates unprepared for college and the work force – high school problem.  Almost without exception, students are required by law to attend school throughout their middle school years.  High schools are often guaranteed only one year with students who start off behind.  Having been a high school teacher my entire career, that time frame is simply not long enough.

I have a new perspective to propose.  High schools make graduates; middle schools make dropouts.

I am not suggesting that we start blaming middle schools and looking for new ways to put pressure on them – like we have been doing to high schools for years.  What we should do is begin thinking of middle school as critically important to each child’s future.  The emotional and physical and social stress of the middle school years is well documented.  What if we saw middle school as the time to stay engaged as a learner, to define a strong identity and to make meaningful contributions to society?

So many have been middle level educators much longer than I have and are already champions of this argument.  To their voices I add these few specific suggestions in no particular order.

1.  Electives are critical.  One unfortunate and very damaging impact of the “accountability era” has been the frequent decision to add remediation and intervention courses to school schedules by removing electives.  This decision is made in spite of the fact that many elective classes might already do what the classes that replace them are supposed to do.  For example, research suggests a link to increased test scores for students who participate in Fine Arts classes.  Incidentally, that same body of research suggests that the benefits of taking these courses extend far beyond raised tests scores.  While some may question the validity of this research and insist that additional time in Language Arts and Math yields better results in those subjects, it is impossible to argue that the benefits of taking highly engaging elective classes are lost by not taking them.  More plainly, students who are enrolled in strong elective classes are more engaged in all parts of the school experience.  The Fine Arts are exceptionally valuable to students who take them, but so are other high-interest courses.  Of particular appeal to students are courses that provide opportunities to combine complicated thinking with real-world applications – such as Robotics and a host of other similar courses.  Although elective classes are critical in high school as well, they might easily be the key to keeping middle school students engaged in their learning at an age when all students struggle to find value in school. If we are to prepare students for the future that awaits them just around the corner, we must recognize the fact that more time on a couple of subjects and more pressure applied will not result in more learning; it might result in less.

2.  Hands-on learning should be the default approach.  Another victim of the era of high-stakes testing has been an emphasis on hands-on learning.  A great value has been placed on accumulating knowledge in school – and on proving that accumulation via test scores, both at a classroom level and via standardized tests.  What we have valued far less is providing students rich learning experiences aimed at doing.  We are content with reading and writing about decomposition instead of pulling apart a rotting log to see it for ourselves.  Students experience so few hands-on learning opportunities that the ones that they do have become the defining moments of the course – the (single) dissection of a frog in Science; the (only) letter written to the mayor or governor or author in Language Arts; the (possibly somewhat frowned upon) detailed budget created for an imaginary trip in Math; or the (brazenly controversial) class debate about a high interest current event in Social Studies.  Why must we be defensive when we create learning experiences for students?  What makes us think that sitting quietly in neat rows will result in more learning than putting our learning into practice?  I contend that a major purpose of learning is to put that learning into practice in some way.  Further (or perhaps because of that fact) we learn best when our learning is experiential.  If the education we are offering students is to be useful to them, we must stop behaving as if the application of their learning need not happen until they have left us for the “real” world.

3.  Student voice must be nurtured.  Helping students find and use their voice is important at all grade levels.  To students struggling with the physical and emotional maelstrom that is middle school, it is vital.  I have contended elsewhere that school administrators must not only permit but nurture teachers’ voice.  In the same way, for students to reach their maximum potential, they must be co-creators of their own learning experiences.  Students should be permitted to make decisions about their own learning.  Students should be one of the most important “stakeholder” groups, invited individually and collectively to wield real influence on the decision-making process.  Students should be invited to sit on interview committees (as they frequently do at our school).  Students should be given opportunities to express their ideas to real audiences of more than one – they should write and create for more than just their teacher.  Middle school students should treated as if they are capable of complex thinking and their opinions matter.  What better way to prepare students to contribute meaningful to a democratic society than giving them opportunities to make such contributions now?

This post is intended especially for three special groups of people and to each I address these following appeals.

Pre-service teachers: don’t believe the hype.  Middle school is not objectively more challenging than any other teaching.  For every problem unique to middle school, there is a benefit also unique to this age group.  While we have our issues, there is a long list of obstacles that elementary and high school teachers face (unique to each level) that is irrelevant to middle school.  You may personally not be a good fit more middle school.  Don’t go into the decision assuming you are not, however.

Educational decision-makers (board members, superintendents, Central Office personnel): don’t allow our passion for increasing graduation rates lead to decisions that short-change middle school students.  High schools need lots of support and attention.  Elementary schools need to provide students with a great foundation.  Middle schools are incredibly complex organizations serving even more complex human beings.  Do not let simplistic stereotypes drive the decisions you make about us.

Middle school educators: don’t listen to people who don’t know what they are talking about.  You are not crazy for teaching at this level.  You fill an absolutely essential role.  You have the opportunity to keep inspire students to stay invested in their own learning.  For students surrounded by endless hints and clues and outright attacks to the effect that neither they nor their opinions matter, your faith and acceptance makes it possible to believe a different narrative; in spite of all the stereotype and hype and self-doubt to the contrary, middle school does not suck.

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One Focus

During a conversation with an influential member of our community and personal friend this week, I shared in passing my long-held theory that all schools must have a single focus if they are to achieve and sustain excellence.  We spoke about the tendency of many organizations to continually seek new ways to improve (good) by adopting more and more programs (okay) that are never clearly connected to each other (counter-productive).

The problem is not that we are tackling too many of the problems we face nor that we are using multiple strategies to pursue growth.  It is that our efforts are far too often disjointed.  My friend summed up our conversation and our concern in one short phrase: origin_9112507763“We are pushing too many buggies”.  Each time we think of something else important we add a protocol or a policy or a weekly task to our existing list.  When as schools do we have conversations designed to ensure that everything we do is aligned to our overarching purpose?  When do we announce that we will be discontinuing Initiative X because it has served its purpose or is redundant of Project Y?  If schools must do so many different things in order to serve students well (and there is no question that we must), would we not better position ourselves to be successful if we built a conceptual framework to understand how everything we do fits together to support our mission?

I propose that in order to become great, schools need to choose a single focus.  One something that defines who they are.  An identity on which to hang everything that is part of being a school.  I believe that having such a focus is more important that what that focus is.  In other words, while there are plenty of things too narrow to support an entire school culture (like “Clean Bathrooms.  Every Stall, Every Day”) there is not only one “right” focus for schools.  For example, the middle school where I work has chosen a deep and practical understanding of assessment and grading as the focus of our shared learning.  We have chosen to make that area of expertise “the thing” for us.  Because classroom assessment is such a fundamental issue, our learning in this area is impacting every other part of the school culture – it is changing our school.  Although we have chosen this course, I continue to be convinced that we could just as easily have chosen a different path.  Last summer I had the privilege of visiting Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina as a member of a team from our school system for the purpose of learning more about their 1 to 1 technology initiative.  Among the many things I learned those few days was the fact that when their school system set out to put technology in the hands of each child, what happened in the process was a radical change to the way they approached teaching and learning.  Collaboration changed.  Approaches to grading and assessment changed.  Lesson planning and communication strategies and student voice and scores of other details about the schools changed as a result of an unwavering commitment to achieving their goal.  In fact, by focusing on one thing, they were able to grow in many different areas because their work was aligned to one purpose.

The truth is everything we do in school is interconnected.  If our planning and our work fails to consider the interconnectedness of each part of what we do, that work will inevitably become a jumble of disjointed pieces – confusing and overwhelming at best; working at cross purposes and self-defeating at worst.  I do not make this proposal lightly.  To successfully adopt such a singular focus in a school requires effective leadership, a strong culture, shared decision-making, and a willingness to be highly reflective and honest about the way things are as a faculty … among other factors.  On the other hand introducing an unending parade of programs, protocols and policies is much more easy – and probably expected.  But doing so can not result in a sustainable culture of excellence.

I am practitioner, not an expert in organizational leadership.  Having said that, this approach is working for our school.  We articulated and agreed on a vision of where we were going from the beginning.  None of us anticipated the path we have taken, though.  We are even now discussing what our next steps will be.  We maintain our focus and see the goal, but there is no magical formula to follow.  Here though are some of the (non-magical, non-formulaic, not guaranteed) steps we took as a school to make the implementation of this philosophy work for us over the last several years.
1.  Laying the Foundation.  During my first year as principal we engaged in countless formal and informal discussions about ourselves.  We talked about what kind of school we want to be and how exactly we might get there.  As part of that discussion I proposed studying grading and assessment together.  No program.  No mandate.  No timeline.  Just a challenge.
2.  Teacher Leadership and Buy-In.  During the summer after my first year, we held a retreat for all the faculty leaders.  We studied several resources on the topic of grading and assessment.  At the end of the retreat I asked the team to decide whether to propose grading and assessment to the faculty as our long-term focus or not.  When they decided to do so, we all immediately became co-planners in the process.  The teacher leaders presented the majority of the proposal to the rest of the faculty.
3.  Digging into the Idea.  That summer the faculty agreed to participate in book studies to begin learning about this topic together.  Again, there was a specific item on the agenda of that faculty meeting to choose between “Yes, Let’s Move Forward” or “No, Let’s Hold Off on this Decision”.  We had a back-up plan in case the faculty decided to wait.  The fact that each teacher chose to join the process made the learning that occurred that year much more meaningful.
4.  Articulate Your Position.  By the end of that school year, the faculty had proposed, drafted, discussed, modified and “ratified” a position statement on our shared learning.  We wrote a Grading Manifesto.  In the context of this process, it was a formal declaration of our focus as a school.  We chose to make this the central focus of our learning.  Every certified employee’s Professional Learning Plan (teacher and administrator alike) includes the actions and activities he/she has chosen to continue learning about assessment.  A copy of the manifesto (signed by everyone) hangs in the front office.
5.  Long-term Commitment to Learning.  As I hinted at earlier, we are not following a script.  We are taking each next step based on an evaluation of where we are, where we are going and our determination of the best possible way to get there, based on what we know right now.  For example, every teacher is part of a formal Professional Learning Group this year.  By the end of the year, every teacher will have spent at least five pull-out days learning with grade level and department groups.  We are planning an in-house workshop/EdCamp/mini-conference for this summer.  We are discussing what the step will be after that.  It will depend of what we know and what we need to learn next.  What we are firmly committed to is maintaining the same focus we have had.

Our story is not over yet.  I have lived enough of it, however, to be fully convinced that we would be a much different school if we did not have one idea that we consider central to who we are.  I have heard and been part of enough other stories to believe that we are not unique.

Meaningful change and growth take time.  When radical change happens rapidly, it is either superficial or damaging.  Be patient.  Choose a focus.  Make a commitment.  Become experts.  Schools that have a strong central identity will determine how all the minutia connected to education fits together – and in so doing will be much more successful at the entire process than those operating from program to program.

*For my Yankee friends, buggies are what we use to collect groceries here in the South.

photo credit: Paul L Dineen via photopin cc

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