Tag Archives: Middle School

At the Heart of It

Alfie Kohn is most definitely one of my educational heroes. Controversial as he may be, the controversy often stems from his relentless focus on what research tells us about what is best for students even when it flies in the face of common sense. And anyone who is all about figuring out what is best for students, and who has the courage to follow through on those principles (even if they differ from my own), earns my respect.

So when he wrote on Twitter, “Provocative essay about ‘the world of classroom management’: our need for control & for quick fixes: http://ow.ly/DTjfT,” it got my attention. The essay turned out to be excerpted from a chapter by Barbara McEwan Landau from the book Classroom Discipline in American Schools: Problems and Possibilities for Democratic Education, edited by Ronald E. Butchart and used with permission from SUNY Press. It’s well worth a read, as the following quotes suggest.

“I have never worked with any educators who desire to become ‘mean’ teachers. Yet the fear of losing control while experimenting with management practices new to them causes educators to believe that in a crunch they will revert to behavioral measures that, in their words, ‘work’ to end inappropriate conduct.”

This brought back memories of a long-ago class I had that was particularly troublesome to manage. To this day, I’m not remotely proud of some of the things I tried doing to regain control (and yes, I realize the use of the word “control” in the first place is telling). For a brief period in time, I was most definitely a “mean” teacher, the antithesis of who I want to be and who I believe I am deep down. What finally worked was simply sitting down and talking honestly with the kids about how it felt to be in class together, and what we all could do about creating the kind of environment they all wanted deep down. Maybe it was simply that the kids themselves had to grow tired of their own behavior before they cared to correct it. But treating them respectfully as people who instinctively wanted to the do right thing certainly couldn’t have hurt.

“Another curious paradox is trying to control student behaviors while making little or no attempt to determine the underlying cause of the behavior.”

This goes to the heart of how we now handle discipline in our middle school program. We certainly realize that sometimes, young adolescents will have moments so impulsive that they themselves may not be able to identify the underlying cause of the behavior. However, we also realize that without students having some sense of multiple perspectives on something that happened, and thus cause and effect, working our way through to a genuine desire to change behavior in the future is at best unlikely and at worst completely futile.

“Constantly quiet classrooms look as they do because the students are being controlled through fear, intimidation, frequent competitions, and public embarrassment.”

I actually take issue with this statement, which is particularly odd in light of the quote in the preceding paragraph. Of course, I wouldn’t advocate for a split second that we control students through external motivation of any sort, let alone such negative means. And maybe, to be fair, the key is in the word “constantly.” At any rate, I would simply suggest also looking at the underlying cause of the behavior when viewing a quiet classroom. For one example, in my experience, this year’s Humanities 7 class has been phenomenal from the start about being able to maintain focus and work quietly during “Choice Time.” They might be reading in the group novel, or in their independent reading book. They might be working on their independent writing, or researching and writing their Focus Question essay, or preparing for a presentation. But for them, the quiet comes from being thoroughly engaged with the work they are doing – internal motivation of the kind we’d hope to see.

“Unfortunately, when my pre-service students do enter the field experience classrooms to which they have been assigned, they are more likely to see modeled the very strategies that are least likely to promote classroom equity.”

Unless they visit our school – as one visitor from a teaching program at Antioch commented several years ago after observing my Humanities 7 class, “My class will be so excited to hear about this. We read about democratic classroom, but we didn’t know anyone who was actually making it work.”

“Building a democratic classroom climate requires an effective integration of pedagogical knowledge, educational psychology, patience, hard work, an unwavering dedication to equal educational opportunity for all students, and a passionate belief that everyone, including the teacher, can learn from mistakes.”

And now we’re at the heart of our mission as a school. I see every single one of these elements in every single one of my colleagues, along with a willingness and a desire to learn from each other. And I see the level of trust and connection students feel, along with the sense of gratitude they express. And I myself am grateful.

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uncategorized

Don’t Abolish Middle Schools – Reinvent Them

“You clearly have a passion for middle school.” I’ve heard this time and time again, often after one of the Open House presentations we give several times a year. And in point of fact, I do, and have ever since my very first month working with this age group. Their own passion and energy, excitement at discoveries and possibilities, outrage at injustice, and desire to be known and loved and understood endear them to me. And by understanding them and their needs, and learning how best to meet those needs, you can help make middle school an amazing experience. You can’t entirely do away with setbacks and heartaches, of course, because those are a given part of life, and the nature of early adolescence is that such moments loom large. But with proper support, students can learn to work through those moments, and the nature of early adolescence is also that each day is truly a fresh start.

So when a friend of mine on Facebook shared a link to the article “Why Middle School Should Be Abolished” by David C. Banks, it most decidedly caught my attention. My initial reaction was, essentially, “Oh, I don’t think so!” and as I began reading the article, I prepared myself for what our debate teams call “the clash.” It turns out that Mr. Banks begins with a very common misconception, and hopefully clearing that up will start us down the right path.

A popular myth has arisen that stand-alone middle schools are doomed to be wastelands, and should be fixed, in Mr. Banks’s words, “either by combining them with the guidance and nurturing that children find in elementary school, or with the focus on adult success that we expect from our high schools.” The only problem is that a wealth of research says building configuration has zero effect on results, that it’s what’s going on within the classroom that matters. And along with what the research says, that makes intuitive sense.

Mr. Banks does mention a counterexample, a 2012 study performed at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In the article “Do Middle Schools Make Sense” by Mary Tamer, Assistant Professor Martin West states, “This suggests that it may be harder to create an effective middle school than an effective K–8 school, and that part of the challenge is simply that middle school grade configurations require an additional school transition.” That, I’ll concede, also makes intuitive sense. So how does one go about building an effective middle school program, whatever the building configuration?

Intriguingly, Ms. Tamer’s article was on the right track – but inadvertently veered off onto a siding. Ms. Tamer writes that “A 2001 article “Reinventing the Middle School,” published in the Middle School Journal, spoke of the “arrested development” of this once-promising educational model.” But far from indicting the middle school model itself, the author, Thomas Dickinson, was arguing that few schools were actually implementing the model in its entirety, for example cutting out advisory programs due to budget constraints, and that this persistently incomplete application is what inevitably led to arrested development. The problem, I believe, not only persists to this day but has actually been exacerbated by No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and other perhaps well-intentioned but ill-conceived initiatives. This incomplete application, unfortunately, has also led to a muddying of what “the middle school model” even means.

When we designed our own new middle school program in 2004, we took Professor Dickinson’s article (and the book on which it was based) seriously; our intention was to “do it right, right from the start.” We applied the principles of This We Believe, the position paper of the Association of Middle Level Education, we worked with a consultant, Chris Toy, to help us reflect on how well we were doing in adhering to the holistic model, and we have continued to refer to those principles throughout the ten years we have been in existence. And what are the results?

Late last spring, I was driving Sophie, one of our rising 9th graders, to her last day of middle school service at the Food Bank in Hatfield. Immersed in that peculiar combination of nostalgia, a sense of achievement and completion, and nervous anticipation that characterizes that time of year for middle schoolers about to move up, she reflected thoughtfully on what her class had been like for these two years, what their time in the middle school had meant to them, and their feelings as they prepared to transition to the high school. At one point, she observed, “I think it was exactly what we needed. We felt cared for and supported, and we’re nervous about moving up to the high school but we also feel we’re ready.” Similarly, Jake Steward, who came in this past year as our new English Department Chair, told me last fall, shaking his head with appreciation, “Whatever you’re doing in that middle school, it’s working.”

So I sympathize with Mr. Bank’s notion that we need to take a look at our middle schools. But I also think the solution is right in front of our faces. Ask Sophie. She’ll tell you.

P.S. Todd Bloch has written an excellent response to Mr. Bank’s article which I highly recommend.

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Filed under On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uncategorized

Student Driven Classrooms: Keeping the Faith

Thanks to John Norton and MiddleWeb for granting us permission to repost and link to this piece originally published on their website!

Twice a year, our independent school invites the families of boarding and day students to Family Weekend – a busy, enjoyable time when visitors can attend classes as well as various talks, performances, presentations and athletic events. This year the spring weekend came along just as my Humanities 7 course was finishing up their self-designed unit on “judging” and was not quite ready to dive fully into the next (poetry).

This left me somewhat at a loss for what to do during our special weekend class – on precisely one of those days where you want the students (and yourself) to be at their best.

I eventually decided to hold an official poetry unit kickoff. Olivia asked me right before we started if she could read one of her poems. Her beautiful and powerful reading opened the class perfectly. I then told the kids I was about to give them their one writing prompt for the entire unit, and asked them to take out their iPads and write a poem entitled “Poetry Is.”

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Filed under In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

This Beautiful Year

Each year, the students of Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School respond to writing prompts as they reflect on the year. Their words are assembled into a poem that closes the Eighth Grade Moving Up ceremony. This year, the poem was entitled:

This Beautiful Year

Last fall, I was

excited about the new year,
young and overwhelmed.
I didn’t know who I really was.

Now, I am
thoughtful and ready to take on a challenge.
I am a confident girl who knows where she is supposed to be.

Last fall, I was a student who was going to spend her first year away from home. Now, I am a student who doesn’t want to go back home.

Last fall, my English was really bad. Now, my English improved a lot and I got many good friends.

I was shy and worried about making new friends in a class that has already been bonded the year before. Now, I am confident and I have made some close friendships throughout all grades that I know will last forever.

I was worried I wouldn’t fit in. Now, I am happy. I learned anyone can fit in.

Last fall, I was different. I was scared to show my true self. I didn’t realize that people here would accept who I am. Now, I am brave. I have learned so many things here, especially friendship. I know the people who will be there for me and I know the people I will be there for.

Last fall, I was quiet, small, afraid. Now, I am proud and confident.

Last fall, I was a child who didn’t want to grow up. Now, I am ready to grow up and take the privileges and responsibilities that come with getting older.

My favorite part of the day was:
The part I spent at school.
Walking up the stairs to Jesser and seeing all my friends,
breakfast,
any class where I knew I had done the best I could and was satisfied with the outcome,
classes where we laughed together or all talked and thought about topics that are perhaps hard to wrap our heads around,
math class,
seeing Roger’s face,
break time,
when we all got to make the long line down to lunch,
lunch with my friends – particularly when they served tacos,
French class with Miriam,
music – I can feel my soul fly with music,
Select Chorus,
art,
drawing the little things that mean so much to me,
when I got to go back to my room or change for sports and be able to yell and laugh with my friends across the hall about the day,
going to the gym with my friend,
sports,
being with my teammates,
soccer,
softball,
dancing,
going riding with my friends,
community service,
free time,
hanging out and laughing with my friends,
being with my family,
chocolate,
and sleepovers.

Next year, I am looking forward to
Starting new.

Seeing how everyone changed,
Meeting new friends but keeping old;
Being with friends.

Making new memories.
Seeing the world in new ways.
New excitements, challenges, and friends.

Working hard on academics;
Developing my English.

Sports and remaking myself,

Being older and guiding and helping the people around me,
being a good role model for the new seventh graders.

Moving up to ninth grade.
I am looking forward to being an upper schooler,
Being able to fully explore and become involved in the community that I have been a part of for two years.
There are more responsibilities which I am looking forward to taking on.
More opportunities.
Dances.

I am looking forward to growing more, gaining confidence, and trying new things.
Maybe also letting confidence grow in myself.

Next year, I’m looking forward to an advanced me,
A me who can face to the challenges without fear,
A me who likes to try new things.

I’m looking forward to keeping in touch with all of the girls and teachers.

I will always remember,
The strong bonds built with friends and touching memories made this year;

My first day. I didn’t know anyone and figuring out the lunch line was the hardest thing I’ve ever done;
Registration and having people greet me with smiling faces welcoming me to the school;

Everyone in the class, all of my best friends;

The challenges I have overcome and what I have learned from them;
Riding for the first time;
That feeling you get during a game, or performance where you are just about ready to burst;

Going to the mall and laughing with my friends.

Secret roommate conversations.

My advisor, my advisees, the middle school, and my lifelong friends.

Bill reading to me.

Most importantly, I will remember my friends because they’re like family.

I will always remember the warmth this community has brought me,
the tears of our teachers at the end of the year,
the smiles on our faces,
the smell of the grass,
the taste of the food in the dining hall.

I will always remember that we will meet in the middle again.

I will always remember to enjoy my life and call my friends.

I will always remember this beautiful year.

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Threshold

Last Monday, my Humanities 7 class seemed tired. Many of them had gone on the Boston Harbor cruise the night before at the invitation of Cardigan Mountain School, and had gotten back late. Others seemed to be having a post-weekend drop in energy (to be fair, it was 8:00 in the morning). Others, I’m sure, were fine, but (ironically) they were quieter about it than those who were tired.

So, we spent extra time on Morning Announcements, taking all their questions about the upcoming three weeks and the many special events, ensuring they felt they had as good a sense as possible of what was coming up. We moved on to Morning Reading, with Olivia reading Julia’s short story for her and Emily reading her own poems. I had earlier decided to extend Morning Reading if need be by including an installment from Wonder, the book the students had chosen for their unit on “judging” and in which we had just read the climax. The next section of the book involved preparations for fifth and sixth grade graduation, and the resonance in the room with what these students were thinking and feeling was strong.

There was a point when Auggie, the protagonist in the book, was asked if he wanted to press charges following a certain event; he didn’t. Elizabeth’s hand shot up to protest his decision, arguing it was the only way for the bullies to learn a lesson and that what they’d done was extremely serious. Olivia responded that it’s Auggie’s right to decide what he wants to do about it, and Jewels made a noise of agreement. I pointed out it all depended on what principles you used to make your decision, that by the way we were naturally shifting gears toward our next unit on ethics, and that at any rate each person did in the end have every right to make their own decision based on the the values they had every right to hold. Everyone nodded and a few other students added further thoughts.

During this discussion, I secretly flipped through to the end of the book, so when I got to a natural stopping point in the story – the night before the graduation – I told the class there was about 15 minutes’ worth of reading until the end, and asked them to vote on whether they would like to finish the story right then or wait until tomorrow. By a vote of 7-4 with two abstentions, they voted to continue, and settled back into their beanbags.

Soon, I was reading a speech by Mr. Tushman, the Middle School Director, on the importance of kindness: “… but what I want you, my students, to take away from your middle school experience… is the sure knowledge that, in the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible. If every single person here in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place.” (Palacio) One of the students raised her hand. “That sounds like something you would say,” she said. “It does,” I agreed, “only… I promise to be much more brief than Mr. Tushman in the Eighth Grade Moving Up Ceremony.” “Oh, good,” said at least half the students, laughing.

As I read the final words of the book, thinking partly of the emotions the characters were feeling, partly of the emotions my students were feeling, and partly of myself speaking to this particular middle school community for the last time less than three weeks from now, I choked up (again) a little: “You really are a wonder, Auggie. You are a wonder.” and several of the students said, “Oh, Bill, you’re crying a little.” I smiled. “Yes. I am. Get used to it. Because I guarantee it will happen in Moving Up.” They smiled back, and one of them commented on my past writings about the end of the year in this school and whether there is “enough tissue in the world.” The room fell silent for a moment. I raised my voice and called out, “Okay, choice time, and meditation in my office is a choice.” The students stood and stretched and moved on.

But not away. Not yet, anyway.

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Filed under In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective

Happy Dance

In the iPad era of the middle school, I no longer even blink when I see groups of Humanities 7 students dancing, arguing and shoving, theatrically hugging, or animatedly discussing seemingly random things to do next. And they no longer reflexively explain, “It’s okay, Bill, it’s Humanities.” Chances are, they are working on a video to support their independent writing or as part of a Focus Question presentation. And while I can imagine a scenario where I might have to talk with them about return on investment of time, so far, they have done a great job of maintaining an appropriate balance.

I did, however, blink at least once when Emily asked me to do a happy dance. Certainly, I had seen her taking kids off one by one (occasionally two by two) and shooting 10-second clips of dancing. And certainly, I have never flinched when asked to be part of any of their videos, which usually entail me pretending to be a mean teacher. However, dancing is something else altogether. I am incredibly shy about my dancing, in part because even kind and well-meaning people have begun to laugh when they see me dance. I *think* it’s because, as a musician, I pay too much attention to the subtle interplays of rhythm, melody, and harmonies, and end up trying to express way too much. That’s my excuse, anyway.

However, I deeply believe in the importance of all the arts in the middle school curriculum, and so had maintained we needed to include dance even though it’s also offered as a sport. Just as students learn from trying vocal and instrumental music, theatre, and the visual arts, so too do they learn from trying dance. Even if they end up concluding they don’t like it, at least they have a first-hand sense of what dancers do, and perhaps those kids who are skeptical will even surprise themselves and take to it. (The same, of course, is true of all arts courses.) So Emily, unbeknownst to her, was not just asking me to be part of her video; she was asking me to Walk the Talk.

So, I danced. The small group of students who were watching did in fact burst into laughter. But I danced.

Late Saturday night, I was taking a Twitter break from giving feedback to student writing when I stumbled on this tweet from Gayle Andrews to Rick Wormeli: ”check out Hilsman‘s Happy video. Get to work w/ these great people as prof-in-residence http://youtu.be/3c6PqO5R_S0” Rick responded, “This is terrific, Gayle! Any other faculties wanna get happy, dance, and give st’s freedom to be themselves?”

Well. I know an invitation when I see one, so I wrote in about Emily and my own happy dance. Gayle asked for video, I responded that Emily reported she had somehow lost it when trying to transfer it to the final cut, and Gayle suggested it was probably not lost from memory. I responded, “Nope! Not one bit. And I did recreate it for the kids when she read her essay. Much laughter.” Meanwhile, not just Rick and Gayle but numerous other people including whoever runs the account for the University of Georgia Middle Grades Education program were favoriting and retweeting like there was no tomorrow.

Gayle Andrews is the co-author of Turning Points 2000, one of the most important books on the middle school model. Rick Wormeli is a nationally known and respected consultant. And the University of Georgia has one of the pre-eminent middle grades education programs in the country (begging the question why more schools *don’t* have middle grades-specific programs, but I digress). Yet, my 10 seconds of happy dancing was genuinely a source of joy to them, and genuinely important. I smiled at my screen, astonished – and yet not – that my description of a happy dance was getting such attention from such eminent people.

I think the key as to why lay in Rick’s question, which wasn’t *just* about getting happy and dancing but also about giving students freedom to be themselves. And Stoneleigh-Burnham is indeed all about student voice, about supporting them in being their own best selves. And even when students are arguing (always respectfully) about specific aspects of our program, they are always careful to say they love how thoroughly they feel supported here and that they don’t want that to change. (For the record, I generally respond that’s exactly why we do whatever practice it is against which they are arguing!)

Sally, our Head of School, and I were talking the other day about how students in our middle school program do in the Upper School. She shook her head, and said, “They certainly are internally motivated to an *incredible* extent.” There are few things she could have said that would have pleased me more. It’s… almost enough to make me do another happy dance!

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Truly Blessed

Before Spring Break, Sophie, one of the 8th graders asked me if I had liked the play she had helped write in 7th grade. “Refresh my memory,” I said, and she responded with a twinkle in her eye, “Cross-dressing old man?” It all came rushing back to me. “Oh, yes,” I said. I remember your play was really solid when you took it from my class to the Theatre 7 class, and then it still went through several revisions. In fact, I knew about a lot of the revisions, and I was still surprised during the performance! But it was solid all the way through. People loved it.” And then, with a sideways glance at the 7th grader who was sitting right there, “People always look forward to the 7th grade plays.” Sophie said, “That’s right! All the former 7th graders come,” and I added, “And not just former 7th graders. People who were never in the middle school tell me they look forward to the 7th grade plays.” “It’s a rite of passage for 7th grade,” Sophie commented as the younger girl took it all in.

It takes an incredible amount of courage to put your voice out there not only as the performer of a play but also as the author, especially when you are actually a co-author with up to four other people who are just as creative and passionate as you are and have equally strong opinions about every word. That day was going to be the first time the Humanities 7 class read their scripts to Julia and Kim, who will be co-directing the plays this spring, and that, too, takes a great deal of courage. Julia and Kim were both excited to learn about all the possibilities that the plays provided, and they also both had a number of insightful suggestions.

I was worried how the students might have taken the suggestions, whether they would show up in class that morning nervous and upset. I worried, as so often happens, for nothing. They clearly had taken the advice to heart as valuable and helpful and something that would ultimately strengthen their scripts.

I was never worried about the first part of class. As we were wrapping up the script-writing unit, it was time to agree on our final two student-designed units of the year. The girls had looked over the multitudes of questions they had written on eight large sheets of paper back in the fall, and emailed me the questions from those sheets that they might be interested in studying, along with any new questions that may have occurred to them in the process. That final list of 61 questions would somehow have to be shaped into two units that enabled every girl in the class to be able to find a topic about which she felt passionate for each unit. I decided to ask them to write their top two questions from the list on the white board, search for themes uniting those questions, and bring those themes together. It worked marvelously. They found seven themes running through their 28 questions, and almost instantly connected five of those themes together before quickly agreeing that the other two also fit together. Almost like magic, the themes for our units had appeared.

“Before I send you off to work on your scripts,” I told them, “I just have to let you know what I’m thinking. I hope you can imagine what it’s like to be a teacher and be faced with a task that you aren’t sure you could ever do, and know that you work with students who are capable of (I pointed to the white board) all this, of coming together to find, all on your own, the solution to how to organize all of this into something meaningful. That I am able to trust in you all to accomplish that is an absolutely phenomenal thing, and I hope you all know it.” One of the girls said, “You just made me cry. (Other girls nodded, and I interjected, “Me too.”) I hope when I graduate, that’s what someone says about me.” I am sure someone will.

I know, I know, all my classes are special, once and for always. They all inspire me. They all move me deeply. Today, though, it was these kids.

I am truly blessed.

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School