Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

Customized Learning and Bright Futures

July 31, 2011

The following post was written by Bill Zima who has been working as the assistant principal at Massabesic Middle School in RSU #57, Waterboro, during their beginning transformation to a “standards based system”. Bill recently started a new job as principal at Mt. Ararat Middle School in MSAD #75, Topsham. Bill has contributed earlier to and you can access his other posts. He serves on the Maine Association for Middle Level Education board.

When I reflect on what is meant by student-centered, performance-based classrooms, “voice and choice” often comes to mind. This then prompts three questions; (1) Are students given the choice to use their special gifts, interests and desires to demonstrate understanding of a concept or skill? (2) Are students given the voice to help shape the curriculum and the learning path? (3) Do we actively engage the students in a conversation about what is working and not working in their schools? I know there are bright spots throughout Maine, but as a system, yes is a rare answer. The curriculum is often set, placed in binders and stored on shelves. Learning outcomes are defined by grade levels and are not easily adjusted. If we want to answer yes to the above questions, students must become active owners of the curriculum and their learning. They will not be able to do so until we develop systems of instruction that are transparent allowing them to see the path of learning required to become proficient in a concept or a skill.

The first of the Bright Futures Core Practices calls for a curriculum that is relevant, challenging, integrative and exploratory while being accessible to all students. Does this mean all students need to do the same activities and pass the same assessments in order to demonstrate understanding? In recent years, some have suggested uniformity is the only way to ensure all students learn the same curriculum. This approach however conflicts with the findings of neuroscience. Studies of the adolescent brain confirm what educators have long thought, students learn in different ways and at different times. So why do we continue to make statements like “all 7th graders should be able to…” We need to move away from the traditional approach of grade-level defined curriculum and look to true learning progressions. The challenge lies within our outdated instructional system. That system makes or even forces students to move to the next grade-level whether they are ready to or not. “Sorry we finished 6th grade curriculum. You need to go to seventh grade. You passed with an 80 percent, which is good for you. The missing 20 percent, well, that may not matter.” I ask students, “Have you ever felt left behind in the classroom, because the teacher had to move on?” All the students I have spoken with have said yes, they are frustrated when things move too quickly and they miss concepts. Teachers often talk about the impediment of students coming to their classrooms without the necessary skills to be successful. Yet, we have a hard time identifying which specific skills those are. Why do we continue to do this?

We need to work with parents, teachers, community members and students to get at what we want our students to know and be able to do. Once we recognize the learning outcomes, we can create progressions of learning that will lead from the introduction of the concept or skill through to being proficient or advanced. Once these progressions are created, it will be clear to student, parent and teacher which skills or concepts are prerequisites. This will make the curriculum appropriately challenging. To make it engaging and meaningful, teachers can provide opportunities for students to demonstrate their proficiency using their gifts and interests. This in fact makes the curriculum uniform but but the details varied. That is mass customization.

The Red Cross Aquatics Safety Program is a wonderful example of this approach. They have made their curriculum completely transparent by defining what it means to be proficient at swimming and then designed a program to help students get from water exploration to being a safe and efficient swimmer. The skills associated with each level are clear and must be demonstrated before one is allowed to move to the next level.

Some swimmers will inevitably move faster through the program. Yet we do not think less of those students who need more time to demonstrate nor do we tell them they have been here for 175 days and must now move into the deep end regardless of skill or readiness. We recognize that different swimmers have different personalities, experiences and body types that all affect how they first meet the water and develop a comfort level for success. Why is this not possible for our students? Do they not come to us with different experiences, personalities and gifts? The Aquatics program can be applied to anyone, the masses but tailored for the individual needs, customization. Hence, a system of mass customization.

The Common Core attempts to build learning progressions for language arts and math but then places them back into arbitrarily defined grade levels. As long as we continue to allow grade levels to dictate the curriculum (oh that is taught in 7th grade, you will have to wait) we will never make it accessible to all students. We must not “teach” the Common Core but instead use the Common Core to guide what we teach. In my conversations with students, they have described curriculum as a “big, secret book” the teacher looks at, teaches a concept and then flips the page to the next unit. Students see the concepts or skills as unrelated chunks of learning. Never truly grasping the relationship. Learning progressions, however, show students that once you finish this skill or concept, we will move on to this skill or concept. The curriculum becomes clear. And then when they choose how they will demonstrate understanding using their interests, it becomes real and they will engage. I believe we should be able to ask any student 3 questions that help to see the accessibility of our curriculum; (1) What are you working on, (2) how do you know when you are done, and (3) what do you do next. We need to open the curriculum to our students and let them in on our secret. They have asked me for it. Have you asked them?


What Are You Waiting For? Sign Up For MLEI 2011!

June 18, 2011

There’s still time to Register for MLEI, the Institute Designed Specifically to Address the Learning Needs of 10-15 Year Olds!

Achieving Student Improvement: Effective Middle Grades Now! is the focus of this summer’s annual Middle Level Education Institute (MLEI). It will be held from August 1-4 at Thomas College in Waterville, Maine. Institute participants work on a project they design to address their school needs and delve deeply into the major learning issues in today’s middle grades. MLEI provides teams and individuals critical support from national and international experts in middle level education and technology integration. This Maine tradition attracts educators from Maine and across the globe. Recent national studies establish that student academic performance, habits, and attitudes formed in middle school are the greatest factors in determining students’ success in high school and beyond. MLEI is the only Institute in Maine that focuses exclusively on the learning needs of the young adolescent. Participants earn graduate credits or CEUs. The final day for registration is Thursday, June 30. To register, call Mikaela Ziobro at 207-859-1211 or email her at For more information, go to

Help us spread the word by sharing via your favorite social network or email list!

Why the Reform Will be Led From the Middle

June 15, 2011

This blog post was submitted by Bill Zima and is the first in a series of posts on the changes in Maine education. Bill can be reached by emailing (after July 1st).

One would need to avoid all forms of media to not realize that the American public wants to reform the way we educate our youth. From movies to blogs, people question if we are properly preparing our students for the challenges of a global economy. Our current system of education was designed for a very different time. An era when it was important to identify students who could remember reams of information. Those that could memorize fell onto one path preparing them to be doctors and lawyers and those that could not fell to other paths. Doctors after all needed to diagnose patients quickly and correctly. Having to refer to the medical books consumed time that was not always available.

The needs of today are different. Colleges and schools are no longer the “seats of knowledge”.  Google and Wikipedia are committed to making the world’s knowledge available to all. To be competitive, one needs to be able to use readily available knowledge in novel situations to help solve a problem we may not even be aware of today. ‘Knowing that’ is not the same as understanding why something is true. As educators today, are roles are not to teach our students everything, but to prepare them for anything.

Many of the education reformers of today, from Marzano to Hess and Wormeli to Costa, promote student-centered classrooms where students demonstrate their understanding of specific learning targets within their zone of proximal development in ways that engage their interests and see them as a person of a larger community. Sound familiar? It should if you have read the Bright Futures document from the Maine Department of Education. The characteristics that will make successful 21st century schools, from well-defined learning outcomes to a collaborative, democratic environment, are the same as those identified as keys to a great middle school. After working for the past several years on transitioning to a proficiency-based, student-centered system of instruction, I have recognized that assuring the twelve core practices found in Bright Futures are supported through action in our school, the path to this goal is much clearer.

So what can we as Middle Level Educators do to develop our understanding of the Bright Futures document, advocate for reform and lead these changes? That is a question with many answers. Some that come to mind are:

  • Attend the Middle Level Education Institute in August at Thomas College and/or the fall MAMLE conference at Sugarloaf and join in the conversation.
  • Record the great things your school is doing to meet one or more of the core practices and share it in a professional publication, like the Maine ASCD journal, MAMLE’s Newsletter or the Bright Futures Blog.
  • Communicate to your colleagues at different levels in your district how the work you are doing at the middle school meets the student’s learning level while teaching responsibility by increasing their autonomy for the task.
  • Email your local and federal representatives and let them know that the reforms they seek are already part of the middle level movement (they just need to be fully embraced and implemented).

Middle Level Educators need to lead the reform to create schools that develop leaders who are responsible and not simply compliant; thinkers and not knowers. It is already in our creed as a Middler.

I will share my perspective on the alignment of the 12 Core Practices and the elements of a student-centered, proficiency-based system of instruction in subsequent blog posts.

What are your suggested ways to advocate for and support the 12 core practices of Bright Futures: Please leave a comment.

Need High Quality Student Centered Learning? You Need MLEI!

May 18, 2011

Dear middle level colleagues,

Here’s a comment from Commissioner Bowen about his experience at MLEI. “In my time at the Middle School in Camden, I attended two MLEI sessions and found them to be a great opportunity to do what educators seldom have time to do, which is to reflect on our instructional practice and to really do the kind of thinking and planning we all need to do to be effective. It was always a great experience and one I hope to get back to one day!”

MLEI models engaged learning for all!

Registrations are now open for the Middle Level Education Institute. We are very excited about this year’s program as we have added several components to the already excellent offerings. In addition to the well established cutting edge middle level focus there will be top notch expertise relating to RTI (both academic and behaviorial), Standards Based Education (student centered, outcomes based, proficiency based learning), and safe schools (digital citizenship, bullying, and cyberbullying). And of course, these are in addition to any school or classroom based initiatives you would bring to the Institute.

Since the Institute will be held from August 1-4, we will be accepting registrations right up to the end of June. To register, contact Mikaela Ziobro at You can also call her at 859-1211. For online information go to If you have any questions about the program, putting a school team together, creating a plan, or arranging for graduate credits contact Jill Spencer ( or Chris Toy (

We believe MLEI can be a key to moving your school’s vision forward!


Jill Spencer
Chris Toy

Middle Level Education Institute

Cyberbullying, Student Learning, and MLEI – A Chat with Chuck Saufler and Stan Davis

April 23, 2011

Recently Jill Spencer and I had a great conversation with our resident experts on bullying and cyberbullying, Chuck Saufler and Stan Davis. They will be among the great team of consultants working with us at the Middle Level Education Institute August 1-4 at Thomas College.

Chuck and Stan are looking to engage all MLEI participants in a nationwide research project this summer! It’s called the Youth Voice Project. ( All schools with a representative at MLEI will be eligible to participate and will have access to the national database to see what the trends are and how their schools compare. Of course we’ll also have the opportunity to work directly with Chuck and Stan throughout the Institute!

When students feel safe and feel connected to peers and educators, they are more able to learn. Nowhere is that more true than in Middle School. The Youth Voice Project  is analyzing the input of more than 13,000 youth nationwide on these and similar topics. We have found:

– that more than 1 in 8 students in grades 5-12 report both that they were mistreated at school twice a month or more AND that they have experienced moderate to very severe trauma as a result of that peer mistreatment

– that youth who report that they feel part of their school or that they feel valued at school are significantly less likely to report trauma as an after effect of mistreatment than those who do not.

– and that youth who report negative peer actions to teachers are less likely to report trauma as an after effect of peer mistreatment than those who do not.

It is clear from our work and from other research that connectedness and safety at school affect academic and life outcomes. Our workshop will focus on school actions to build connectedness and safety for all.

Here’s an article by Chuck explaining the importance of school climate and learning, School Climate, the Brain and Connection to School

And here’s the executive summary of Hardwired to Connect report that explains how our students really depend on schools to help them connect with one another and to adults for support in developing healthy relationships necessary for learning.

So if you’re looking to develop and implement a safe and positive school climate that supports more effective learning for ALL your students join us for this year’s Middle Level Education Institute at Thomas College in August! Just go to and get connected!

Updated link to Forgotten Middle Video!

April 12, 2011

Just in case you’ve been trying to link to the Bright Futures Youtube video about the key role that effective middle level education plays in helping to increase high school graduation as well as college and career readiness. Here’s the link to the new and improved version. The timings and quality for the sound has been improved. Check it out and let us know what you think!

Closing the Barn Door After the Horses Have Bolted – High School Dropouts and Middle School

March 15, 2011

Waiting until high school to address the issues of truancy, dropouts, and college and career readiness is a perfect example of the old adage about closing the barn door after the horses have bolted. Recently, the Bright Futures Partnership made a presentation to the Truancy, Dropout, Alternative Education Advisory Committee to the Education Commissioner. The presentation opened up with a short video summarizing key research findings from two recent national studies indicating how critical the middle years are in determining the future success or failure of high school students. The ACT’s “The Forgotten Middle” and Robert Balfanz’s “Putting Middle Grades On The Graduation Path” both make a strong case that high school dropouts give clear early warning signs that they are at risk for dropping out years before they are eligible to graduate, enter college, or the workforce. The presentation video and soundtrack, “The Architects of Change”, by middle level educator and musician Monte Selby can be seen on Youtube on the Brightfutures4me channel

You can also see the first three installments of the Bright Futures video series. Check them out and give us feedback!

The Cost of Supporting (or not) Struggling Students

March 13, 2011

Over the course of the week, I have been thinking deeply about our most vulnerable students… those we label “at risk”.  My Middle Level Partnership colleagues and I had the pleasure of presenting the Bright Futures report to the Truancy, Dropout, Alternative Education Advisory Committee to the Education Commissioner.  We were delighted to have the opportunity to spend quality time discussing how information in the report might inform their recommendations for preventing truancy and dropping out in high school.

Coincidentally, the latest NMSA Middle School Journal arrived in my mailbox the day after our presentation. The theme of this issue is Reaching and Teaching All Students. This evening as I helped prepare dinner, I picked up the journal from the counter where it had landed with all the other mail earlier in the day.  As the asparagus steamed, I quickly scanned the articles.  One in particular caught my attention:  Accelerating Struggling Students’ Learning Through Identity Redevelopment. “Huh”, I thought, “sounds like some quick fix, one size fits all program that will guarantee success for the students most at risk.  Yeah… right…”  But as I continued to skim through the article, I was intrigued by such phrases as “individual attention and engaging, relevant lessons”, “positive sense of belonging”, and “engrossed in learning and seek opportunities to expand their knowledge and skill.”  This clearly did not sound like any of the programs that I originally had in mind!

After carefully reading through the article, I realized that there were some very solid learnings and recommendations here.  The findings of this study of students identified as highly at risk of dropping out strongly support the recommendations in Bright Futures… that students need a sense of accomplishment, a sense of belonging and a sense of engagement in order to succeed.   The study indicates that students at risk met with success when they were in learning environments that  provided this foundation.  And the study also revealed that when any aspect of this foundation was missing, then many of the students were not able to succeed.

A sad (and all too familiar) reality of the school in this study:  budget cuts and a change in administration led to the discontinuation of the program.  While some elements were salvaged, far fewer students continued into high school successfully.

The findings of this study challenge us to consider if we are really serious about supporting our most vulnerable students.  Do we truly have the commitment to provide these students with the relevant learning experiences, social and emotional supports, sustained and systemic supports throughout their middle and high school years?  We must not leave it to chance.  Our state, district and school policies must support  those practices that will ensure the success of all students. The cost is too great to leave such an important issue to chance!

For the Middle School Journal article…

Middle Level Sports–Revisited

February 21, 2011

This winter I have enjoyed watching my ten year old grand-daughter play basketball on one of her town rec leagues. We have been faithful fans since she started her athletic career at the tender age of four when she and her teammates would gleefully bounce balls and by chance successfully pass them to each other on occasion.  At her most recent game last week-end, these same girls were gleefully AND gracefully passing, receiving, and dribbling. What a delight to watch! At this same game, I asked a parent of one of the girls how her older daughter, who we have also watched play rec league ball over the years, is fairing as a seventh grader.  The mom shared that while her daughter had made the adjustment to middle school, she was very disappointed that her daughter was not playing basketball.  Assuming that her daughter had been, “cut”, I commented that it was too bad that our school programs did not allow for all students to play.  But the mom shared that her daughter had not been cut… that she had not even tried out for the team because of the possibility of being cut and therefore embarrassed in front of her new friends. Ouch.

I think we can all agree that the US has a real (and growing) problem with obesity. Obesity among adolescents aged 12 to 19 years has almost tripled in the last few years, increasing from  5.0% to 18.1% in 2008. There is strong evidence that when children develop healthy eating and exercise habits early on, they are much more likely to be healthy adults and far less likely to develop chronic diseases such as diabetes.

We also know that there are  long-term psychological effects of cutting young adolescents from teams. Those who are eliminated from participating in organized sports miss out on opportunities to build confidence, learn new skills, and how to work with peers on a team. Cutting students from teams at this developmental stage results in many young adolescents dropping out of physical activities throughout the rest of their adolescence… and lives.

How do we advocate for strong programs for our young adolescents at the same time our schools are faced with steeply declining resources?  NMSA makes 10 recommendations:

Recommendation 1: Develop a clearly stated, developmentally responsive sports philosophy for all middle level sports programs.

Recommendation 2: Offer sports programs that include intramural and interscholastic sports, both with a high priority.

Recommendation 3: Operate sports programs in ways that maximize enjoyment for participants.

Recommendation 4: Establish clearly articulated and equitable eligibility polices that support the school’s commitment to academics.

Recommendation 5: Middle level sports programs should be organized and administered in ways that encourage young adolescents to explore multiple sports rather than specialize in one sport to the exclusion of others.

Recommendation 6: Employ middle level coaches who are knowledgeable about the nature of developmentally responsive middle school sports programs and committed to implementing them.

Recommendation 7: Assign a top priority to making middle school sports programs as safe as possible.

Recommendation 8: Make extensive efforts to help parents understand productive and appropriate ways they can be involved in supporting their children in middle level sports programs.

Recommendation 9: Establish rules governing middle school sports that will ensure the widest possible degree of participation by all team members.

Recommendation 10: Provide adequate and equitably balanced human and financial resources for all phases of middle level sports activities.

This is a critical time for middle level educators and parents to exercise strong leadership in making sure that all of our young adolescents have equal opportunities to develop and maintain healthy habits that will remain with them throughout their lives.  They deserve nothing less!

Our Favorite Four Letter F-Word?

February 12, 2011

…and the answer is…FREE!

I’ll take a wild guess and say that you are interested in what works with middle level students and that you are always on the lookout for free, high quality resources. Am I right? If so, and if you haven’t subscribed to Middleweb’s “Of Particular Interest” newsletter, you should!. Here’s the list of this week’s topics to read and share with your colleagues. But first here’s not just one free book, here’s two from Stenhouse Publishers!


New! DAY BY DAY–from the authors of the popular Two Writing Teachers blog–encourages reflective practice on key aspects of teaching writing: routines, mini-lessons, choice, mentors, conferring, and assessment. Click below to preview the entire book online:


WRITING TO EXPLORE gives you all of the structures and tools you’ll
need to carry out an exciting adventure-writing project in grades
3-8. Includes numerous examples of student writing and a section on using technology. Click below to preview the entire book online:

Author and new ASCD Edge blogger Rhoda Koenig applies the elements of coaching to explicit strategy instruction with students and suggests the technique can help “produce drivers instead of passengers.” In future blogs she’ll examine other research-supported strategies to push student learning. Her second post sets the stage with a discussion of classroom climate control.

In less than six minutes hear how teacher-librarian Susan Grigsby
teamed with remedial reading teacher Gil Rodriguez to evaluate data about the reading deficits of 10 male students and create a reader’s theatre to help these middle schoolers enjoy and improve learning. (It’s YouTube, so see the next resource!) For more on data-driven collaboration and the work of Susan and Gil, see Toni Buzzeo’s School Library Journal article. And we just spotted this alterate link for the video:

If you follow teacher and edutech conversations on the Web, barely a day goes by when you don’t hear some sighing about the unavailability of YouTube video resources — blocked by cautious school administrators. The eSchool News is reporting on the development of a free website to work around that problem. VuSafe allows teachers to pull in video clips from YouTube (and other sites) without the ads or comments that may contain offensive material. VuSafe is ready for beta testing: visit to see a demo and sign up.

The New York Times Learning Network has pulled together a good
collection of Black History month resources, including historic front
pages all the way back to Dred Scott and the Emancipation
Proclamation. Plus a dozen or more NYTLN lesson plans. Check the
comments for info about how other schools and districts celebrate the month. Also see this list (compiled by media literacy guru Frank Baker) of related cable TV content, including several lesson plans:

More and more, teachers are called upon to share their insider views of school policy and practice. Be ready for your leadership moment with the media, with suggestions from Florida teacher-author Roxanna Elden. Her five points will help you prepare well, be alert to the preconceptions of media hosts, and stake out your position succinctly.

Smile. As math teacher Shawn Cornally says in this resources-oriented post at Edutopia, the word “assessment” has been a soft synonym for “accountability” long enough to make many teachers word-shy. But Cornally is among a growing number of teachers who have begun “a quest to discover a way to make the seemingly adversarial task of assessment turn into a rich and powerful tool for learning.” He points readers to several bloggers (including one focused exclusively on middle school) who may spark more interest in the art and science of measuring what your students are learning, while they are learning it.

Middle grades science teachers will want to peruse the growing
chemistry-related offerings at the NBC Learn website, where they’ll
discover resources suitable for teaching tweens. You’ll find short
videos, charts, related news stories and lesson plans, all with the
aim to connect science topics to everyday life. Cheeseburgers, for
example. There will be a new topic posted each week of the school
year. This page shows resources for the Chemistry of Water, but you can click on the “Chemistry Now Home” to see everything that’s available so far and what’s to come.

This year parents as well as teachers can register students in the
Doodle4Google contest. With registrations due March 2 and entries on March 16, K-12 students still have time to compete and see their Google homepage logo designs online — and at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Forty regional winners travel to New York. Three finalists win scholarships. The grand prize winner takes home a $25,000 technology grant for his or her school.

Our Special Resources for New Teachers

We continue to add new resources to our special page for teachers who are just beginning their classroom careers. Among recent additions: Links to Teacher Magazine’s Teaching Secrets series; ideas for new math and science teachers; and real-life videos from a U.K. series for novices. Check back often.

HOW TO SUBSCRIBE: Send a note to with SUBSCRIBE in the subject line.

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