Making the middle school experience right for middle school kids can be tough given the relentless pressures of academic accountability and endless limitations on time and resources. But a clear understanding of the needs of young adolescents coupled with a creative school structure designed to support such needs can provide a school day that better works for your middle school kids.
At NEMS, we have developed a student-centered, whole child middle school model that provides a balanced approach to meeting the academic and social-emotional needs of middle school students. Finding and maintaining this balance has greatly helped our students to better explore and discover their talents, interests, and passions while at the same time engaging more deeply in relevant academic pursuits.
Not surprisingly, it all starts with our daily schedule. NEMS has adopted a truly interdisciplinary teamed schedule, where students in our large middle school (over 1000 students) are assigned to smaller teams of core teachers (math, language arts, science, and social studies) and often a special education teacher. A counselor and administrator are also assigned to each team and "loop" with the same students each of their 3 years at our school. In other words, our kids are surrounded by a small cadre of adults who get to know them individually and support them throughout their middle school journey.
When students at each grade level leave their teams each day for diversified and performing arts classes, grade level teachers have time not only for personal planning, but also for team or academic professional learning communities. When teams meet, the focus is on how they are best meeting the social-emotional needs of their students through collaboration with each other, the counselor, and parents. When academic professional learning communities meet, the focus is on curriculum, instruction, and assessments. Teams and team meetings are led by team leaders, and PLCs are directed by department chairs. Each month, the entire leadership team - administrators, team leaders, department chairs, and counselors - come together to tackle the issues and needs of our school in a collaborative approach that supports and aligns with our middle school model.
In many middle schools, it's either teaming or academic professional learning communities that go. One is sacrificed at the expense of the other. But at NEMS, we believe that both teams and PLCs can peacefully co-exist and provide mutually beneficial support for our students through a thoughtful and strategic school day design. Doing so honors the complex and often interconnectedness of the academic and affective needs of middle school kids, and allows your students to meet their fullest potential.
For more information on middle school teaming and middle school models that best meet the needs of young adolescents, I'd encourage you to visit www.amle.org/.
What realistic role can and should professional growth play in the life of the educator? How do we find time for learning in the midst of our 9 to 5? How do we strike an appropriate work-life balance and still find time to engage in meaningful professional development?
As educators, I know we all grapple with these questions as we seek to find our own best professional selves. And why we all may have different thoughts and opinions on these matters, what I have come to believe is that regardless of how we do it, we must engage in our own, personal professional development if we are to reach our full potential and successfully meet the needs of our students. Taking one's own professional learning and development seriously, and finding the most effective and efficient ways to engage in it, is a moral imperative of the 21st century educator.
Consider the following from Ken Blanchard’s The Heart of a Leader: Insights on the Art of Influence. He says:
"The only three things we can count on are death, taxes, and change. Since organizations are being bombarded with change, you would be wise to make learning a top priority and constantly strive to adapt to new circumstances.”
Of course, there are those educators who are satisfied with their own status quo, thinking they have it "in the bag" or "down pat." These folks would be wise to consider what Blanchard goes on to say:
“Some people might think that once you know how to do your job, you can devote your time and attention to more important matters than ongoing learning. But as a leader, you must model the behavior your want others to emulate. If you’re not serious about learning, you can bet the majority of those watching you won’t be either.”
In other words, if you expect your students to be learners, and to meet their unique needs, you need to make your own learning a priority. I've found that the most effective teachers are also leaders of their own learning. "If you’re not serious about learning, you can bet the majority of those watching you won’t be either.” How can you inspire learning in others if you are not engaged in it yourself in some personally meaningful way?
So how do you commit to growing professionally in this fast-paced, high demand world? How do you refresh, maintain relevance, and provide the best possible learning experiences for yourself to in turn provide high quality learning experiences for your students? How do you lead by example to foster a love of learning among those who you teach?
Recently, our faculty has been focused on developing our areas of need by building and growing our own personal learning networks (PLNs). For those not familiar with this term, PLNs help each of us to tailor our professional learning to our own individually unique needs in a manner that helps us learn in and on our own time, in our own way that honors our own work flow and day-to-day schedules. And with the advent of new technologies, PLNs can be used in a way that helps you maximize and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Here are some suggestions for building your own PLN that I've seen help others, as well as me, grow professionally:
The beauty of these suggestions is that they are easily integrated into a workflow that can be modified to meet each learners needs depending upon their own schedules. For example, I curate content in Evernote and Google Drive, all of which are accessible through my devices that also allow access to Twitter, blogs, and the web. All these tools work together, and allow me to be more efficient in my own learning.
Remember, your students are watching you. You are an important leader in their life. Showing your love of learning and engagement in the learning process is one of the most powerful and important skills you can model to help your students be prepared for the world that will exist for them, and also ensure you are providing the best possible education to prepare them for their future!
As Blanchard goes on to say, “When you stop learning, you stop growing.” I'm not sure about you, but I certainly want to grow and thrive. Use the amazing tools available now, and you can find ways to make professional learning work for you!
Take a few seconds to think about your favorite movie.
Got it? Good. Now mentally run through that movie's first scene in your mind.
Done. Ok. Now ask yourself, "What is it about that opening scene that made me want to keep watching?"
I'm willing to bet this is a fairly easy question to answer. The scene likely invoked an immediate and tangible emotion, peaked your curiosity, connected to you personally, or was just plain funny, scary, suspenseful, or otherwise entertaining.
This doesn't happen by accident. Writers, directors, and producers know that the key to immediate engagement is an all important “hook” that grabs attention, activates thinking, understanding, feeling, and/or emotion, and leaves its audience craving more. Without the use of this important and strategic device, the movie is at risk of losing its audience before ever really starting.
So what does this have to do with teaching? Well, to a certain extent, teachers must think like movie writers, directors, or producers. Just as the first scene in a movie is often one of the most important in engaging the audience, so to are the first few minutes of a lesson.
Often referred to as the "anticipatory set," the "hook" serves as a critical element in any lesson plan designed to help students achieve established learning objectives, targets, or goals. A well-designed anticipatory set should:
The anticipatory set can be as lengthy or brief as needed to achieve these ends. As for resources, here are some simple yet popular ones you can use to hook students:
Often the use of these resources are facilitated through discussion, think-pair-share, graphic organizers, or other similar strategies designed to get students thinking and interested in the learning. Whatever the strategy, be sure you connect the hook back to its intended purpose of engaging the learner and helping them connect to the day's lesson.
A word of caution! Often the "anticipatory set" is one of the first elements of a solid lesson plan to be thrown out the window by a teacher in the interest of time. Don't make this mistake! Could you imagine a movie that doesn't hook or engage the audience during its first few minutes? How boring!
No matter how simple or complex, the anticipatory set is key to engaging the learner, activating the required thinking, and setting the student up for success. When it comes to lesson planning, write your beginning with purpose and be sure you are providing an opportunity for students to connect and engage in purposeful ways. Like the appreciative moviegoer, your "audience" will find their experience much more engaging, interesting, rewarding, and meaningful!
I recently had the opportunity to attend a two-day conference in Chicago, where I was able to spend a day at two middle schools facing circumstances very different from my own. These two schools serve a population of students that is about 80% free or reduced lunch. They are right at a 50% passing rate on PARRC (yes, they are Common Core in Illinois), and compete with several private schools in the area that draw many of the best performing students and most supportive parents away from their district. Most notably, they welcome a population of students each day that walk through the doors of the school with a litany of social, economic, and emotional issues that threaten to undermine whatever chance they may have at any type of success.
Contrasted against my own school's realities, the challenges these two schools face each day seemed incredibly overwhelming to me. But despite what initially appeared to be insurmountable roadblocks to learning, I witnessed highly engaged and excited students and teachers, a pervasive love for learning, and unbreakable relationships not typically expected in such schools.
From my visit, I drew some personal conclusions that have helped clarify my beliefs and guide my work as an educator each day.
Living and working in a fairly affluent and supportive community that provides excellent resources and optimum conditions for learning and success can insulate educators fortunate enough to call such districts home. Getting to places such as these middle schools I recently visited can help remind you of the real work needed to provide an equitable education for all. The answers are there. We just have to be willing to recognize and embrace them, and allow these realities to guide the work we do each day.
All great teachers understand the critical importance of lesson planning. As the old saying goes, “failing to plan is planning to fail.” And while a solid plan should provide teachers a clear roadmap for student learning, it can sometimes focus too much on what students should be DOING at the expense of what students should be THINKING. The result of such planning can often lead teachers to slowly succumb to coverage at the expense of critical thinking. Great teachers always avoid this trap, and strive to plan in ways that allow students to move beyond simply recalling and comprehending to more deeper critical thinking such as applying, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing.
So how do you plan with student THINKING in mind? Consider these two simple yet effective planning tips:
1. Establish a learning objective reflective of the level of thinking you truly desire to see from your students. Expecting students to explain, describe, or list is sometimes an appropriate desired outcome; but shouldn’t an entire lesson’s worth of work also result in something more deep and impactful? Shouldn’t students also be able to compare and contrast, deconstruct or defend? The objective serves as a window into your expectations and reveals much about how deeply you believe your students can and should go in their thinking and doing. Always expect more from your students. They CAN do it, and your learning objectives should reflect as much!
2. Carefully consider the action words that ground your activities, especially in the latter stages of the gradual release of responsibility model (“I do, we do, you do together, you do independently). As you are approaching the end of a lesson, class period, or unit, you typically expect students to demonstrate independence in some manner. The activity you choose to facilitate this portion of the lesson should almost always mirror the thinking expectations grounded in your objective. If you have successfully mastered tip number one, be sure you embed similar skills in the independent or collaborative practice. Require students in practice with peers or on their own to demonstrate mastery of skills such as analysis, appraisal, judgment, planning, or design. Remember, the verbs are the words that ultimately determine the rigor of your plans for students!
These two tips are commonly referred to as “Blooming” the objectives and activities. Challenge yourself to do this each time you plan. You can easily keep a Bloom’s verb chart handy, either on the desktop of your computer or on your desk, and use it often as a guide to help you “up the rigor” of your objectives and activities (just Google Bloom’s Charts and you’ll get all sorts of great versions). If you find yourself reverting too often to verbs such as “identify” and “define,” challenge yourself (and more importantly your students!) by using the Bloom’s verbs to refine your planning, and refocus on planning for student thinking. You’ll be happy you did when you see students thinking more deeply and performing at more rigorous levels!
Effective teamwork is essential to our work at NEMS and the hallmark of any high functioning school. Providing daily collaboration time for interdisciplinary teams and Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) sends the message we value the importance of working together and supporting one another to accomplish our school goals.
The start of the school year provides us a time to stop and reflect regarding the qualities of highly functional teams and what we can do to maximize the time and resources we have committed to our team and PLC work. Edutopia recently posted two outstanding articles by Elena Aguilar, which provide great food for thought regarding qualities of effective school teams and the importance emotional intelligence plays in their success. I encourage you to check out the links below and reflect upon how we continue to take advantage of our daily collaborative time to be the best we can at NEMS!
Frameworks can be very useful in helping folks understand the structure of the organization in which they work or belong. And just as the frame of a house is specifically designed in a manner that it supports its intended purpose, so to should an organization's framework be well-designed and intentional.
At NEMS, our overall vision of engaging, inspiring, and empowering our students through inquiry, student-centered, and technology-rich learning experiences starts with a focus on where we believe 21st century learning happens, which is the intersection of these three simple yet critical elements of our school:
I once decided to bake cookies from scratch. How hard could it be? Just follow the recipe and enjoy, right? But what I quickly learned was how absolutely important essential ingredients are in a recipe.
To make a long story short, I had everything I needed except a small teaspoon of baking soda. This left me facing a choice: break from what I was doing and drive to the grocery store, or simply skip it and keep moving. I opted for the latter. I mean, how important can a teaspoon of anything be? Well, I learned the hard way! While seemingly insignificant and easily skipped in the interest of time and efficiency, this small yet essential ingredient was key to my intended outcome. As a result of my decision to leave out this essential ingredient, my intended outcome fell flat and I was disappointed in the result.
So what does baking cookies (and doing a poor job of it) have to do with teaching and learning? Just as the best recipes call for specific essential ingredients, so to do high quality lesson plans. Decades of research, analysis, and meta-analysis has consistently and collectively identified some very basic and essential "ingredients" in a recipe for teaching and learning. Very simply put, here they are:
I encourage teachers to use this metaphor as a guide for lesson planning, always asking “What’s my baking soda?” This will certainly help to insure you are not skipping an ingredient essential to learning in the interest of time or efficiency. Remember, like baking soda, those seemingly small but critical ingredients can make all the difference in the world when it comes to achieving your intended result!