Every August I reminisce about my first years as a teacher. I was an 8th grade social studies teacher, and thank goodness I was on an interdisciplinary team because I knew next to nothing about teaching! We had both common and personal planning time and often opted to combine the two because we were so enthusiastic about planning interdisciplinary units and sharing ideas for instructional approaches. Everyday was a learning experience for me—my own personal professional development. My teammates were there to model good teaching techniques (made easier by the fact we were an open concept school, and I could watch at least four other teachers in action from my space), offer support if I had a meltdown, and help me think out of that proverbial box when I was planning lessons. Of course, my students were the biggest beneficiaries of teaming because I learned what it meant to respond to the learning needs of a diverse group of young adolescents.
Like many new teachers I had a few problems with classroom management. Teaching in an open concept school meant there were no doors to close or hide behind. If my class went zooey, everyone in the area knew it. Not liking to be thought incompetent by my colleagues, I soon learned that my eighth graders would do almost anything for home made chocolate chip cookies. I also enjoyed cooking for my students. Years later a former student told me how much he appreciated the cookies. “It showed that you cared.” He didn’t mention that he remembered units we had completed just that he knew I cared about my students. And I did care, and so did the rest of my team. Many a common planning time was spent agonizing over the students who were struggling with poverty, abusive families, or learning problems. We struggled to respond to their needs and offer support where we could. I continued to bake chocolate chip cookies.
Today with the epidemic of childhood and teenage obesity, the chocolate chip cookies would be frowned upon. However, I still feel that sharing a treat on a special occasion is still an acceptable way to build team relationships and show students that we care. School reform principles have finally come to embrace what middle level philosophy has stated for years—good relationships are an integral part of the learning process. Although the articles on school reform do not include recipes for chocolate chip cookies, they do emphasize the need for schools and individual teachers to nurture a physically and psychologically safe school/classroom climate where each student feels valued. In Bright Futures there are two Core Practices related to this principle:
- Faculty, administration, and students collaboratively build a safe and caring climate that nurtures the individual while creating a sense of community where everyone is valued.
- Students benefit from organizational structures within the middle grades that maximize the sense of community, support meaningful relationships, and optimize curriculum delivery.
These days it sometimes seems that the critical role of middle grades teams and their ability to create a welcoming community that supports each student academically, socially and psychologically is lost in the heavy fog of the misguided over-emphasis on testing. Research substantiates the power of teacher collaboration. Here is a list of some of the benefits of middle grades teaming:
- higher student achievement
- improved parent contact
- improved work climate and job satisfaction
- increased teacher knowledge of their students
Flowers, N., Mertens, S. & Mulhall, P. with Krawczyk, T. (2007). Applying current middle grades research to improve classrooms and schools. Westerville. OH: National Middle School Association.
Common planning time at least four times a week for at least 30 minutes has been shown to increase a team’s effectiveness. Despite that this research that has been available for years, I hear from teachers here in Maine and across the country that teams and common planning time is shrinking. It’s a conundrum to me why districts ignore this research on what builds exemplary middle grades schools. Give teams of teachers trained to teach young adolescents a reasonable number of students, permission to flex their team schedules and curriculum to fit the learning needs of their students and a mission to ensure each student achieves at high levels. Nurture those teams with appropriate staff development in developmentally responsive curriculum and assessment, team building, and effective pedagogy. Help team leaders develop their capacity for leadership and innovative problem solving. These conditions will lead to exemplary middle grades teams that will ready their students for the challenges ahead. After all, according to ACT’s Forgotten in the Middle, “Improvement in eighth-grade academic achievement and being on target for college and career readiness in eighth grade are more beneficial than any high school-level academic enhancement.” The middle grades matter and teaming is still the best way to help young adolescents achieve their potential!
Back to the chocolate chip cookies. I was reading a mystery this summer by Joanne Fluke called Apple Turnover Murder (http://www.murdershebaked.com/). She has a recipe for zucchini cookies and I thought—Wow! Everyone has zucchinis coming out their ears in August—what a great recipe to use for a back-to-school treat. They’re full of vegetables and walnuts—health food. Plus they are less expensive to make than the traditional chocolate chip recipe. So enjoy these somewhat guilt-free cookies and stand strong for teaming. Marshal your evidence that your team makes a difference and improves student learning. Become a vocal advocate for this powerful component of exemplary middle grades education.
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar—packed
1 cup softened butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 large eggs –beaten
1 ½ tsp vanilla
1 ½ cups shredded raw zucchini
1 cup chopped nuts
1 bag mini choc chips
4 cups flour
- Preheat oven to 350º
- Cream the sugars with the butter until the mixture is fluffy (You probably can make these healthier by using yogurt or apple sauce to replace some or all of the butter.)
- Add beaten eggs and mix well
- Add baking soda and vanilla and mix well
- Shred zucchini and stir in
- Add nuts, chocolate chips or perhaps dried cranberries and mix well
- Add flour–1 cup at a time, mixing well after each cup.
- The mixture may need to be chilled before scooping out batter to make the cookies
- Grease cookie sheets. Scoop batter out using your favorite implement—teaspoons, melon baller, small ice cream scoop, etc.
- Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden brown. Let baked cookies sit a minute before removing them to a cooling rack.
- Makes a lot of cookies—maybe 60 or so.