What Every Middle School Educator Should Know


Nancy Doda at MLEI

This is a guest post by Dr. Nancy Doda. Many Maine middle level educators know Nancy from her multiple appearances at the MAMLE Annual Conference and the Middle Level Education Institute.  Her webpage is www.teacher-to-teacher.com. Nancy will be with us at MLEI this summer at Bowdoin College (July 30-August 2).  There is still time to register!  This post provides universal criteria for being an exemplary school for young adolescents even within the standards/proficiency based reform efforts now in place in Maine.

            Middle schools can easily slip into the familiar but far less effective old patterns of the former “junior high school”. In hard times of conflicting visions and an economic slump, many middle schools are giving way to less expensive and enormously less responsive school programs and practices. In order to effectively reach and teach young adolescents, middle school educators should embrace a crystal clear picture of the kind of school that best serves young people in the critical middle years.

To that end, I have created a brief list, which attempts to consolidate the best thinking in our field.  It reflects research and wisdom drawn from Breaking Ranks in the Middle, This We Believe, Turning Points 2000, the National Forum’s Schools to Watch criteria, and decades of my own work with educators in hundreds of middle level schools. Perhaps you can use this to generate a rich discussion about what you hold dear in your own school vision or to examine your current school in light of these features.

1. High performing middle level schools take seriously what is known about the needs of young adolescents, the specific needs of the young people they serve and the call to provide developmentally appropriate programs and practices.  They check each practice against the golden rule-“developmentally responsive”.
2. High performing middle level schools are highly personalized cultures, where caring, mutually respectful and nurturing relationships are the norm.  As such, students and teachers are organized to promote social trust, and positive student-student, teacher-student and teacher-teacher relationships.  Students and teachers are organized in small interdisciplinary learning communities where 2 or more teachers share the responsibility for a common group of students.  In this setting, students are at the center of cross-faculty concern and collaborative teaching.  Teachers find support for inventive and responsive teaching. In addition, middle level schools further enhance social trust with Advisory programs, expanded Homerooms, and social and emotional literacy initiatives. Students are surrounded by caring and concerned adults who collaborate on their behalf.
3. Best middle level schools willingly listen to the call for relevance and meaning in curriculum and seek to address the perils of often fragmented and shallow curriculum.  Using a combination of models and approaches, (e.g. Understanding by Design, Interdisciplinary Studies, Integration), these schools work to investigate how best to organize the curriculum content and concepts for young adolescents.  They organize curriculum maps that do more than archive old curriculum. They find ways to bring curriculum back to life, using organizing themes, social issues, essential questions, big ideas or provocative questions.
4. Best middle level schools balance affect and academic goals and priorities, insuring the school day is a blend of opportunities that develop students, minds, hearts, dispositions, talents and bodies.
5. Best middle level schools are equitable places where all students are members of a heterogeneous, inclusive community. This implies that students spend most of the school day in class settings where the population represents the racial, ethnic, social and intellectual composition of the entire school. Where diverse needs suggest, these needs are met largely through differentiated lessons within the regular classroom, including varied and alternative assessments, assignments or projects.
6. In best middle level schools, the teaching faculty regularly engage in ongoing professional learning seeking to face, study and address problems and shortcomings and create alternative ways to help all students learn and succeed in school. Faculty meetings are frequently learning meetings. Team meetings and department meetings often function as decentralized professional learning communities.
7. Teachers working on Interdisciplinary teams organize ways to insure that their students experience consistency in classroom norms, procedures and expectations across the team.  Moreover, they work to create varied means to support all learners with helpful organization tools, such as common notebooks, common homework guidelines and so on.
8. Best teaching teams apply common literacy for learning strategies, such as reading comprehension tools, vocabulary, and writing to learn tools, note-taking methods and so on.  This insures that students internalize a useful set of methods that can repeatedly apply across subjects.
9. Best middle level schools incorporate a recess and snack time to insure optimum learning capacity for active young adolescents.
10. Middle school classrooms must become places where students are actively doing authentic work: actively researching, discussing, making, presenting, creating, and discovering.  Moreover, they are places where students work collaboratively more often than not. Best classrooms are places where teachers find ways to structure productive and active student learning. They talk less and students think and talk more. It has been said that teachers shift roles from “sage on the stage to guide by the side.”
11. Middle level students seek to have voice and choice in their learning and best middle school classrooms continually seek to give students choices in what and how they learn, and voice to participate in a democratic classroom experience. In such classrooms, teachers facilitate appropriate ways for young adolescents to contribute to classroom rules, rubrics, unit themes, writing and reading choices and so on.
12. Redoing and polishing work is a far more rigorous intellectual task than merely creating work for the first draft. Middle school teachers recognize the power in polishing work and advocate for quality work above mere completion. Leaders can help by facilitating discussions of best assessment practices and standards-based grading.
13. Best practice suggests that teachers cover far to many topics in far too short a period of time.  With so much to address in the curriculum, many teachers are caught in what has been called, “curriculum by mentioning’.  Teaching fewer topics more deeply is preferred. Leaders need to support such adjustments in advocating for depth and understanding over breadth and coverage.



3 Responses to “What Every Middle School Educator Should Know”

  1. Christina deGroff Says:

    AMEN! Perfect timing for such a meaty and thought-provoking post. Too often we are so caught up in the “things we can measure”, that we forget that those things we can’t measure are the very things that lead to greater achievement in those measured things.

  2. Susie Highley Says:

    Great list. I would like to learn of schools that are doing these things that we could use as examples. I notice that nowhere on your list does it say “teach to the test”. That seems to be priority #1 in my area.

  3. Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean Says:

    Good question, Susie. My own school does much of this – but not all. I don’t know of any schools that do. Building a sustainable culture that transcends personnel of the moment is a tricky task. Maybe that’s another thing an exemplary middle school should try to do? At any rate, I’ve shared this with our middle school team, and expect to come back to it once we’re off and running with our new teachers and new students in place (steps one and two will be looking at our school’s mission statement and exploring “This We Believe” itself).

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