Monday, November 24, 2008

Melee in the Middle

My dictionary defines "melee" as "confusion, turmoil, or jumble." Sure sounds like the hallways during class change at my school. I love to stand out there and shout like the town crier: "Get in your classrooms and fill your hungry minds with knowledge!" Some of the students look my way briefly and then dismiss me with a slight jerk of the head: "Oh, it's just Mrs. Rigsbee." And off they go.

I've been reading with interest Beginning in the Middle: Critical Steps in Secondary School Reform, a report released by the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) last month. NASBE acknowledges that the focus in the past several years has been on America's high schools. Basically, the report tells us what we already know - that high school graduation requirements have become more rigorous, curriculum standards require higher levels of thinking, and students are being pushed harder to meet 21st Century global expectations. Because the bar has been raised in the high schools, students must leave middle school better prepared to perform. But are they?

Interestingly, I had a conversation on this subject today with a second year teacher. Jenny is one of the best new teachers I've ever worked with. Her classroom runs like a perfectly timed machine; all procedures and expectations are clear and in place. She delivers instruction based on our state's Standard Course of Study and collaborates in a Professional Learning Community in order to plan engaging lessons and to design formative assessments that drive her instruction. She's so good that she was named chair of her grade level in her second year of teaching. But today she told me that she doesn't think the "learning" is happening. While she was talking, my mind started rewinding, as it's prone to do, and I shared with her some musings of my past. I remember teaching seventh graders in the early 90's and thinking, too, that the "learning wasn't happening." It seemed that I was using every research-based strategy I knew and a week after my instruction, my students didn't remember a thing I had taught them.

At that time I wondered if, developmentally, they were unable to retain the information I was sharing with them. There were days when I thought that I was there for one reason - to prepare my students for high school. And that preparation, to me, went well beyond mastering standards. I felt that I also must teach my students organizational and study skills as well as social skills. I knew that I was spending the majority of my time helping kids understand how to get along with each other and how to bring a pencil to class. Although these behaviors were not listed in our standards, the "learning" couldn't happen without them. But since my early years in teaching, I have learned that I also must teach my students to think critically, to question everything, and to take risks as learners, even as early as middle school.

So what does NASBE say? Most of the report's recommendations are related to what school districts and states need to do in reference to school configuration and transition programs for students entering high school. However, as far as what we as teachers can do that will impact our middle school students, NASBE makes it very clear: classrooms must be engaging. According to Jack Berckemeyer of the National Middle School Association, "You cannot forget the art of teaching. The human element is important in that kids have to be important as people first. Adolescents will engage when they know the teacher cares about them and can relate to them."

The recommendations given by the panel for state leaders include:

-Review the current status of early secondary education.
-Require all teachers to receive training in the psycho-social development of students.
-Consider new transition models such as flexible scheduling, virtual schools, vertical teaming, and peer connections in orientations.
-Begin early interventions in the sixth grade.

My recommendations for student engagement include:
-Establish an atmosphere of family within the classroom.
(My students know I LOVE them and that I expect them to treat each other with respect even if they don't consider themselves friends.)

-Integrate humor into every lesson.
(If your mind wanders in my classroom, you will get smacked - gently - with the Focus Flower or zapped by the Focus Fairy's wand. And the Focus Fairy - the teacher - may put on any number of layers of Focus Fairy clothing, including wings, a veil, and a boa.)

-Celebrate EVERY day!
(Some days celebrating means eating. Other days it means the teacher is doing cheerleader kicks when students get the answers right.)

-Make the classroom a place where students want to be.
(There is an atmosphere of acceptance in my class. And the students know that I'm happy to be there with them every day. They cannot, no matter how hard they try, see me in a nasty mood. Also, I spend my days in there, too, so the actual layout and decoration of the room is pleasant and has an "I'm at home" feel - including comfy chairs and beanbags, curtains, and attractive wall displays of student work.)

The report released by NASBE provides recommendations for school districts and states that could impact the way middle schools operate across the country. Meanwhile, those of us in those middle school classrooms need to ensure that we are heeding Mr. Berckemeyer's advice and relating to our kids. With that foundation in place, we'll be on our way to the "learning happening."

1 comment:

Pink Martini said...

I completely agree with you. "Learning" in schools is SO much more than academics and we as teachers need to remind ourselves of that. Through our classrooms come the future of this nation and responsible citizenship and a sense of community and belonging are very important things!