Are you looking for advice about how to handle a situation in your classroom or school? Each edition of AMLE's Middle Level iNSIDER includes a section dedicated to questions submitted by middle level educators and answered by experts in the field. View past questions and answers below.
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February 2012: Rethinking Field Trips
Q. We have a new administration that is encouraging us to rethink the way we've done things before. How would you rethink field trips? Do all students go on each trip? What makes a trip valuable? Can trips be customized to meet different needs (student needs and curricular needs)? -Question posted on the AMLE MiddleTalk listserve
A. When I worked at a larger school, we took two teams one day (about 140 kids) and two went the next. This way everyone had the experience, but we didn't overwhelm a location. My team also chose to take a walking field trip to a nearby cemetery. We were met there by local historians who helped us use grave stones as well as other documents (I believe she brought a census, photos of the town, and town maps) to learn about the history of our town.
Another option, the school I work at often brings in speakers from local museums. They are usually able to bring small amounts of artifacts with them and give topic specific talks. This option saves us and our kids money, but still gives them the experience of seeing new items.
Our language arts teachers offer a project option of visiting a local museum/historic site. They usually assign this project near a school break so students can use that time to go. Students often get together and go with a parent in small groups.
Finally, our eighth grade math teacher and school counselor take a small group of girls to a math and science leadership conference every year. That is certainly very specialized.
A quality field trip in my mind should (1) give students an experience they can't get with their family, or (2) expose them to cultural history they can't get in school, or (3) further the curriculum they experience in the classroom.
I've always been a firm believer in overnight field trip experiences, especially going to environmental education centers (I'm a science teacher). I love them because it helps students and teachers see each other in a light they never have. Students and teachers bond and it furthers my science curriculum.
At our school we make it clear that the trip is part of the curriculum. Students are expected to go (we have funds available for those who need assistance). If they don't go, I give them an assignment to work on while we're gone. As I tell the students, those who go learn the information so much more and have a great time. When we come back and have a test on the material, those who go usually earn high grades; those who don't do poorly. That is usually enough of a motivator to get those who aren't interested to go. Plus most of them want to be with their friends and this is a great chance for that.
About 15 years ago I wrote a grant that funded parent involvement. We started with a bus trip to Chicago (a one-day trip from my school). I chartered the buses and arranged the tours at the Museum of Natural History and Shedd's Aquarium. The parent involvement part came when we only charged the parents $5.00 for the trip. And we allowed anyone in the family to go as long as there was room on the buses. It was a fabulous hit and we saw tons of parents we'd never seen before.
Here are some ways my colleagues have worked with large groups:
Take no more than two groups of students (max. 60 people including teachers and supervisors) at a time. Other classes may work on a regular lesson if they have not yet attended the Field Trip, or work on a culminating project that applies the Field Trip to their course work if they have already attended the trip. For our principals, this also serves to justify the trip and shows to the district administration that the trip is directly related to the standards.
Online Experts: Many destinations—like the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Alberta—offer virtual experts who will deliver lessons using online classrooms like Blackboard or Elluminate, or even through Skype or other video conferencing programs.
Online/Virtual Field Trips: there are many destinations that offer online or virtual field trips so students and teachers can explore the attraction online. Two good resources for this are http://www.theteachersguide.com/virtualtours.html
January 2012: Authentic Assessment
Q. What is authentic assessment and what are its key characteristics?
A. Authentic assessment refers to measuring a student's abilities and/or achievements in relatively real-life contexts. "Real-life" may be understood from the vantage point of the student's everyday life or from the vantage point of adult expectations and the wider community. Authentic assessment efforts challenge the student with tasks that are potentially worthwhile, significant, and meaningful to both the student and others. These efforts may involve assessments of performances, products, portfolios, or attitudes and values.
Authentic assessment characteristically
- Involves an audience or the public.
- Is not constrained by arbitrary or unrealistic time limits.
- Has questions or tasks known up front.
- Requires collaboration with others.
- Merits worthwhile rehearsal and repetition.
- Employs higher-level critical and creative thinking skills.
- Is complex, open-ended, and draws on many capacities at once.
- Uses students' own research and background knowledge as a means, not an end.
- Is attempted by all students and "scaffolded up" if necessary, rather than "dumbed down."
Excerpted from the AMLE Premier Membership Book Club selection for January 2012. Schurr, S. (2012). Authentic assessment: Active, engaging, product and performance measures. Westerville, OH: Association for Middle Level Education.
December 2011: Improving Transistion
Q. How can our school improve our transition of students from elementary to middle school? There is much debate about the effect of this on student achievement. The reality is that there is a change of building and any change will have an effect on students. How can we make this particular transition better for our students?
A. Moving from an elementary school to a middle school is experienced by more than 88% of public school students as they begin the middle grades. This time of transition evokes a wide variety of emotions, behaviors, and concerns for both young adolescents and their parents. For many students it's considered a major stepping-stone on the road to becoming an adult. For teachers and principals, it is an opportunity to have a fresh start with students and to introduce them to the culture and expectations of their new school in a way that promotes positive behavior and involvement.
A well-designed transition plan can restore the strong sense of belonging the entering middle school student once felt in elementary school—a key element associated with the positive motivation to enjoy and succeed in academic tasks. The young adolescent must feel successful in school, have opportunities for self-expression and decision-making, and feel cared for and respected as a person.
Successful transition programs include the following:
- A sensitivity to the anxieties accompanying a move to a new school setting
- The importance of parents and teachers as partners in this effort
- The recognition that becoming comfortable in a new school setting is an ongoing process, not a single event.
Here are few things to keep in mind:
- Make the planning, implementation, and evaluation of transition activities an annual focus, beginning in the intermediate grades of the elementary school.
- Focus on the routine of the new school, such as helping students find their way around and get to class on time, deal with lockers and combination locks, and mix with older students.
- Involve students at both the elementary and middle school in the planning and implementation of orientation activities.
- Reach out to parents, helping them become more knowledgeable about young adolescents' developmental needs and concerns. A strong home-school connection can create a seamless web of support for children in transition.
- Encourage collaboration among elementary and middle schools and teachers, students, and parents.
- Become knowledgeable about the needs and concerns of young adolescents in transition.
For more information, visit the full position paper: Supporting Students in Their Transition to Middle School
View a collection of articles about elementary to middle school transition.
(Excerpted from the joint position paper of AMLE (formerly National Middle School Association) and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
November 2011: Why Advisory?
Q. In his keynote presentation at the AMLE Annual Conference, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted that in a recent study published by AMLE, only half of the schools had advisory programs. What's the point of advisory and is it really necessary?
A. The answer is excerpted from Advisory: Finding the Best Fit for Your School, by James Burns, Jaynellen Behre Jenkins, and J. Thomas Kane.
Advisory is an essential and integral part of a developmentally responsive middle school, one that fosters trust, communication, and a true sense of belonging for the student as the result of positive relationships between students and teachers, and students and fellow students.
Advisory is a vehicle to enhance the essential relational work within the middle school community so no pupil is lost amid the school population.
Advisory is an opportunity for discussion and dialogue on issues important to young adolescents. It enhances positive self-concepts and gives pupils direction toward positive lives as young teens.
Advisory in middle schools ensures that each young adolescent learner will be known well by at least one caring adult at school. Advisory is intended to scaffold each student's likelihood for success in school, including academic achievement, with a distinct focus on development of positive relationships and effective communication with both peers and adults.
Advisory is not a curriculum, but a relationship.
These "definitions" make it clear that the term "advisory" is indeed a broad and nebulous term that is not easily fully encapsulated in a sentence or two. While an advisory program is usually the major element in a middle school's efforts to fulfill its advocacy responsibility, the exact nature of that element varies tremendously. But what always distinguishes advisory from content courses of study is that it is primarily relational work with a focus on the affective aspects of an education. However, it should be said— and emphasized— that advisory supports and serves both directly and indirectly the cognitive, academic side of an education.
To find out more about why you should have an advisory component at your school, what's done in advisory, and ideas for organizing it, read Advisory: Finding the Best Fit for Your School.
October 2011: Grade Configuration
Q. Can you point me to some recent research about what is considered the most effective grade configuration for middle level students? We have so many variations now, but it's often money or convenience that drives some of these decisions.
A. Here's what some of our AMLE MiddleTalk listserve contributors had to say:
There are as many opinions about what the best school configuration is for 10- to 14-year-olds as there are different grade configurations. Cases have been made in favor of different configurations, 6-8, K-8, 5-8, 7-9, 7-12, etc.
It's well established that adolescence is a unique developmental stage ranging from ages 10 to 15. The professional literature of medicine, developmental psychology, and education identifies distinct intellectual, physical, social, and emotional characteristics of this group. If these children possess unique characteristics, they have corresponding needs specific to their age group. So, why would educators, town officials, and policymakers advocate for anything other than schools led by trained professionals knowledgeable about adolescents and programs designed specifically for this group of students? It seems to me that anything other than having this age group together in the same educational setting is a compromise. The primary considerations should be educational and based on the needs of the students. Anything less should be acknowledged as compromising the success of middle grades students. Yes, there are side benefits to having other developmental stages mixed in with elementary, middle, and high school students, but they are just that, side benefits, and not the key determinants of effective middle level programming.
What I read in the research says that what happens for middle grades students within the school is more important than the grade range in the school. Here are some things that also matter:
Leadership and staffing matter. AMLE is clear that teachers and school leaders need to be knowledgeable about and WANT to work with young adolescents. I've seen K-8 schools where the training and interest of the leader has been early elementary, resulting in the middle grades getting short shrift. I've also seen grades 7-12 schools where the focus has been on the high school's needs, resulting in more of a junior high "get them ready and sorted out for high school" focus.
Programming matters. Our elementary colleagues are right about programs needing to be developmentally appropriate, meeting the students "where they are at". This is also true for middle grades. In K-8 schools I've visited the extracurricular and exploratory programs have not been as well funded, as extensive or integrated as in 6-8 or 5-8 schools. Elementary schools tend to send kids home or off to daycare right after school, in schools with this configuration, my guess is that the 6-8 students get sent off as well. In 7-12 schools with tight budgets, guess which programs get cut first and most extensively? Which sports programs tend to focus on locating the "best" 7-8 grade athletes to put into the competitive high school farm system only to get injured or burned out?
I think it's more difficult to do a wide range of things well, this is true for individuals as well as institutions.
I understand that there are economic, political, and logistical reasons for communities to consolidate developmental stages in their schools, we just need to make sure that we focus on what works best at each of the stages whatever the "real" reason for doing it might be.
When one examines school organization from a developmental standpoint, it is clear, at least to me, that the elementary school serves a somewhat homogeneous grou-whether they are first graders or fourth graders they are children. And in like manner the high school serves a group all of whom are appropriately labeled adolescents. The middle level, however, serves a group characterized by their diversity, one in which they are all in transition but on different time tables, a concept still inadequately recognized I might say. What 10- to 14-year-olds have in common is their lack of commonality. All of this leads me to believe that other things being equal, the best organization for serving young adolescents is the 6-8 plan because it encompasses the highest percentage of those in transition. It misses a number of fifth grade girls who had their first period months ago and it misses some ninth grade boys who, much to their regret, still are often called "pip-squeaks," but it brings together the largest mass of those who are "coming of age." The job of the middle level institution then is to serve a very diverse population, which is something highly organized and standardized education has never quite accepted, either in principal or practice. The middle school concept does call for practices that are different from generally accepted ones and therefore they have been hard to gain acceptance, but they are ones that have sought to serve the developmental diversity of students—better teaming and advisory two cases in point. Given the realities of existing facilities, long-held beliefs, lack of knowledge of human development, politics, and finances, to mention the most obvious, some compromises have to be made. But I would hope that whenever discussions about grade organization take place, the developmental aspects are recognized even if they can't be determining factors .
Here's an observation from visiting schools - looking at the 6-8 configuration for instance. Some of those schools have the structure set up where sixth through eighth looks identical, and it looks the same as it did ten years ago.
In some schools - the structure for sixth grade looks distinctly different from eighth. This includes differences in how classes are blocked, advisory activities, extracurricular activities, homework, instruction, and connections with parents. The idea being that even within one middle school, there is an ongoing effort to avoid one-size-fits-all rigidity.
September 2011: Facebook Friends
Q. Should teachers approve student friend requests on Facebook?
A. Here's what some of our NMSA/AMLE Facebook contributors had to say:
Only former students should even be considered to be accepted as friends. I already overhear way too much that's going on with my students both inside and outside our school. I don't want to read about it as well.
It is a boundary issue for me. They are our students, not our friends. I even have parents who try to add me as their friend, and I will not add them either. I am very careful about respecting those boundaries.
I do not "friend" students on Facebook. I enjoy my students' company and energy, but do not need to get into their personal conversations. And, why would I want them to get into mine?
I think it should be whatever you are comfortable with. It depends on what you use Facebook for. I guess I'm the sort who wants to start using Facebook as an educational tool. If you use Facebook as a social tool, then you should not be friending students. But if you want to use it, to keep each other updated on events and such, then yes, maybe you can friend current students. We put up pictures from our field trips, use Flickr to modify old pictures, it's fun. Students get to see a whole new side of you—let me modify that by saying a side you are comfortable showing your students. It's not trying to be cool or be their friend, but showing them you are an approachable person, with a life beyond grading papers.
I agree that you certainly can use Facebook for teaching. I use a lot of things like blogs and things for class. What I have an issue with is the sharing of personal Facebook pages. That's private and, I think, invites a lot of inappropriate behavior. I wouldn't invite a student to my birthday party!
Facebook, in its current iteration, is not appropriate for use with kids, regardless of what you think your knowledge of the privacy settings is. A different, or yet to be developed, version of Facebook might be appropriate, less distracting and secure.
As far as friending students goes, don't do it. It is a mine field of issues. A well-run blog can do all of things you are thinking of for Facebook.
I have my personal account blocked. Students cannot find me. However, I have a separate Facebook account just for my class. It is where I keep the kids up-to-date on assignments, tests, projects etc. I also have a great opportunity to connect with parents as they access the account and see what is expected of their students. It's hard for a student to deny an assignment when their parent is accessing the account on Facebook. Also, I can keep up with those who are skipping school and any other details I feel that is inappropriate and needing to be sent to the principal or the counselor. Creating a separate account keeps students accountable and parents informed.
August 2011: Building Morale
Q. In lieu of all the cuts in education funding and positions, morale at our school has really taken a hit. Can you recommend any lasting but cheap ways to build morale in a practical way? - Submitted by Lisa Petry-Kirk, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
A. Tough economic times and stressful events do adversely affect morale. Here's what you can do to build spirits, enthusiasm, and camaraderie with minimal or no funds:
- Take time to build connections and communication amongst colleagues.
- Use the time we have together physically to share ideas and possibilities.
- Take stock of the resources we have together, be they physical, fiscal, intellectual, or emotional, and focus on our relationships with students.
- Take time to recognize efforts and accomplishments; don't wait until someone is leaving or retiring to let them know you recognize, respect, and value them.
- Provide snacks at meetings.
- Engage staff in random acts of kindness.
- Produce a principal's blog highlighting good things going on at the school.
- Produce team blogs or wikis that share the great work students are doing.
- Hold staff meetings in a different classroom each time and mention the cool things going on in the room.
- Reiterate the school's vision frequently.
- Recommend that the student council find ways to honor each teacher just as teams find ways to honor each student.
- Hold potluck breakfasts with a theme—-bring a summarizing strategy to share.
- When it snows, take groups of kids out to brush off the snow on everyone's car.
- Plan school-wide active service learning projects.
- Plan school-wide book reads—Ask local businesses to supply books or ask parents to buy one or two copies to build the number needed.
- Have school-wide academic goals1NOT related to test scores. For example, learn three new vocabulary words every week with school-wide focus and games and contests, etc.
Note also that good leadership is even more important during difficult times. The principal needs to be positive, hopeful, and resourceful. "We can get through this together!", "Damn the torpedoes...follow me!", and other inspirational messages, attitudes, and actions by principals, leadership teams, team leaders, and teachers will help morale.
This answer was provided by Chris Toy and is brought to you by AMLE's MiddleTalk listserve. Contributors were Jill Spencer and Chris Toy.
May 2011: Literacy Skills and Literature
Q. Teachers know even though students have computers, they still need certified librarians to teach info literacy skills and appreciation of literature. How do we facilitate positive collaboration between a state-certified school library media specialist (a teacher) and content teachers? - Submitted by Peg Becksvoort, Falmouth, Maine
A. At one school, the teachers developed a scope and sequence chart for each grade. From there it was easy for the media specialist to know the units the teachers were doing in their classrooms during certain dates. The media specialist then prepared relevant resources to support the teachers' curriculum goals. Giving the media specialist a unit graphic organizer is one great way to facilitate communication and get the curriculum conversation ball rolling.
Some schools have standing policies requiring classroom teachers to take their classes to the library regularly and to document the visits. At one school this requirement was handled in a slightly different way.
The principal facilitated collaboration between the library media specialist and classroom teachers through the supervision process. With the principal's support, the librarian set a goal of collaborating with each teacher or team on a unit at least once during the school year. The principal then met with teachers and asked them to do the same thing with the library media specialist. The teachers and the library media specialist now had a shared goal. Although the goal was similar, the teachers and the librarian could decide which units to work on together and how they would go about collaborating. When teams of teachers asked the if they could work as a team to meet the goal of collaborating with the librarian, the principal wisely agreed!
This answer was compiled by Chris Toy and is brought to you by NMSA's MiddleTalk listserve. Contributors were Tracey Muise and Eileen Bendixsen.
April 2011: Focus on Diversity
Q. Our school community needs some creative ideas for focusing on diversity. What activities can we do to help students, teachers, and even parents understand and celebrate diversity?
A. The following is a mix of ideas for classroom and whole-school use.
- Have students review books, newspaper articles, and television shows to find stereotypes in writing or advertising.
- Set up pen pals from another country or geographical area.
- Invite speakers from community groups to talk about cultural issues.
- Translate school communications into other languages for parents who do not speak English.
- Consider all forms of diversity when creating working groups. Involve all students.
- Integrate curriculum that relates to various historical perspectives.
- Create diversity clubs.
- Institute service learning programs that reach out to your community.