As I reflect on the year, I am surprised to realize how few conferences I’ve attended. Professional Development is an integral part of my daily life, but these days 95% of it or more takes place on my phone. For all the derision it draws from various quarters, Twitter has become my most valuable tool. I manage quite nicely to avoid the inane, and find more links to articles and blogs, more thoughts and observations on teaching (and also on social justice), than I could ever hope to read in one day. “Teacher in a Strange Land,” the EdWeek blog by Nancy Flanagan, and anything ever written anywhere by José Vilson would on their own make the service worthwhile. Fred Bartels‘s work in starting OPuS1, the Online Progressive unSchool, is fascinating and inspiring, and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach‘s work with passion-based learning is also years, perhaps decades ahead of its time. And I come into contact with so much more, deliberately including a range of viewpoints so I don’t get seduced by the echo chamber of my own instincts and opinions. I try to give back, too, sharing links to my own blog as well as to particularly thought-provoking pieces.
However, this May is the exception that proves the rule as I am attending not one but two conferences. I already went to “Sharing Best Classroom Practices,” held recently at Andover, which my son attends. And I am preparing to attend a special Symposium on the history and future of the middle school movement which is being held in Georgia.
The notion that young adolescents need and deserve to be taught differently than older teenagers actually dates back to over 100 years ago, when the idea of a Junior High School came to be. However, the middle school movement itself sprung up around 1960 based on the revolutionary (at the time) idea that simply adapting high school teaching methods wasn’t good enough; we needed to start from scratch and develop a newer model that responded more holistically to the actual developmental needs of young adolescents. In the words of Rebecca Dickinson, the Founding Dean of our Middle School, we need to remember that they are not “little high schoolers.”
At the forefront of the movement, then as today, was John Lounsbury. He has to be seen to be believed. Over 80 years old now, he remains vital, speaking off the cuff so gently yet convincingly that you can’t imagine any caring person would do anything other than what he is advocating for, until you suddenly realize he has just indicted the Federal government and half the school boards in the country for educational malpractice and outlined a plan for reform so visionary that only a handful of teachers anywhere are currently doing half of it.
One of the biggest professional thrills of my life, that didn’t directly involve students anyway, was when a book came out this year including quotes from John and me on the back cover (here’s a webpage that includes both quotes). Just to be mentioned on the same page as him was more than I could ever have hoped for. So when I got a personal email from him in late March, inviting me to the Georgia Symposium and suggesting they needed my voice there, I was stunned. I describe it as the equivalent of a Betty Friedan calling you up and hoping you would be willing to participate in a conference with her on the future of feminism. After staring at the screen for several minutes, I shook myself and called my wife to ask her if she agreed I could in no way turn down this offer. She agreed.
In typical John fashion, the portion of the Symposium that honors his own accomplishments will be kept to a minimum. A new book on the history of the middle school movement will be unveiled the first day (all participants receive a free copy), and then we will move on and get to work for the remainder of that day plus the next two days. Small groups will discuss a carefully selected succession of topics, formulating ideas and recommendations for the profession and, most critically, teacher preparation. I will have to leave before the closing ceremony, when everyone signs a copy of a final statement based on our collective work; the Middle School Performance is that evening and I need to be there for the opening curtain. I know I will nonetheless leave inspired and brimful of ideas for the future. Look for at least some of them in this space beginning Wednesday night, May 18.
– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean