Alfie Kohn is most definitely one of my educational heroes. Controversial as he may be, the controversy often stems from his relentless focus on what research tells us about what is best for students even when it flies in the face of common sense. And anyone who is all about figuring out what is best for students, and who has the courage to follow through on those principles (even if they differ from my own), earns my respect.
I try to be on the lookout for chances to react to blogs, knowing (as Bill Ferriter has pointed out on more than one occasion) that one of the highest compliments I can pay a blogger is to leave a comment or even write a whole new blog in reaction, thus showing how much of an impression they’ve left on me. So when Brianna Crowley opened one of her blogs at the Center for Teaching Quality with a writing prompt from a 30-day blogging challenge for teachers, the temptation to write my own blog based on the same prompt was strong.
Until I really absorbed the prompt: “Write about one of your biggest accomplishments in your teaching that no one knows about (or may not care).”
It’s already happened. I bumped into a random person, in this case one of my neighbours, who asked about what my students were studying. “They do have a theme question already,” I said. “It’s, ‘Why do people judge other people and themselves?’” After a short pause during which his eyes first widened and then went slightly unfocused while his jaw dropped slightly, he said, “Seventh graders came up with that question?” “Yup,” I responded. His eyes came alive again and his hand went to his chin as he began to see the possibilities in the question, and to talk excitedly about his thoughts.
I love these moments, and I especially love that it happened after only two full days of classes this year. And yet, the second full day was in some ways even more extraordinary than the first.
“You clearly have a passion for middle school.” I’ve heard this time and time again, often after one of the Open House presentations we give several times a year. And in point of fact, I do, and have ever since my very first month working with this age group. Their own passion and energy, excitement at discoveries and possibilities, outrage at injustice, and desire to be known and loved and understood endear them to me. And by understanding them and their needs, and learning how best to meet those needs, you can help make middle school an amazing experience. You can’t entirely do away with setbacks and heartaches, of course, because those are a given part of life, and the nature of early adolescence is that such moments loom large. But with proper support, students can learn to work through those moments, and the nature of early adolescence is also that each day is truly a fresh start.
So when a friend of mine on Facebook shared a link to the article “Why Middle School Should Be Abolished” by David C. Banks, it most decidedly caught my attention. My initial reaction was, essentially, “Oh, I don’t think so!” and as I began reading the article, I prepared myself for what our debate teams call “the clash.” It turns out that Mr. Banks begins with a very common misconception, and hopefully clearing that up will start us down the right path.
Each year, the students of Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School respond to writing prompts as they reflect on the year. Their words are assembled into a poem that closes the Eighth Grade Moving Up ceremony. This year, the poem was entitled:
Last Monday, my Humanities 7 class seemed tired. Many of them had gone on the Boston Harbor cruise the night before at the invitation of Cardigan Mountain School, and had gotten back late. Others seemed to be having a post-weekend drop in energy (to be fair, it was 8:00 in the morning). Others, I’m sure, were fine, but (ironically) they were quieter about it than those who were tired.
So, we spent extra time on Morning Announcements, taking all their questions about the upcoming three weeks and the many special events, ensuring they felt they had as good a sense as possible of what was coming up. We moved on to Morning Reading, with Olivia reading Julia’s short story for her and Emily reading her own poems. I had earlier decided to extend Morning Reading if need be by including an installment from Wonder, the book the students had chosen for their unit on “judging” and in which we had just read the climax. The next section of the book involved preparations for fifth and sixth grade graduation, and the resonance in the room with what these students were thinking and feeling was strong.
Founders’ Day is a middle school tradition originated by the 10 founding students of the program. In late spring of that first year, they proposed that beginning in the following year, the middle school have an annual holiday from classes in May, with all activities completely planned by students. Their goals were to honor the middle school, to have fun, and to remember the Founders. The seventh grade Founders, of course, were also able to participate in the first annual Founders’ Day as eighth graders, and so they helped set up a number of traditions including breakfast brought in from Dunkin’ Donuts.
This year, then, was the 9th annual Founders’ Day. The students began with an overnight in the middle school building. Their first activity was tie-dying, followed by laser tag and other games and then by a movie (they voted for the Lindsay Lohan version of The Parent Trap). Sleep came... when sleep came.
- Why did you begin volunteering
- What impact do you feel your volunteer work has on your life?
- What do you enjoy most about volunteering?
- What would you say to encourage others who are considering volunteering?
Yesterday was “Bring a Friend to School Day” in the middle school, and rather than the usual tight circle of 14 students in Humanities 7, I found myself looking out at approximately double that number. They all seemed happy, as usual, and also higher energy than usual for 8:00 a.m. on Monday, which was absolutely to be expected! The first hour of class included three students sharing their independent writing work and three presentations of what students had learned about their Focus Questions. Despite the higher energy, reactions to each other’s work were a little shorter and more muted than usual, and I suspected shyness in front of other people’s friends and/or such a large group. So after the third presentation, I decided to implement an idea for an activity I had briefly considered and quickly rejected over the weekend, to provide a context for more of their voices to emerge more consistently and with greater strength.
I divided them up into smaller groups, each with a mix of my students and their friends. While they were moving around, I wrote a skeleton question on the board: “How does _____ relate to dress codes?” When they were settled, I wrote in “judging” (the theme of our current unit), read them the question, and said “Go.” Several themes emerged from our eventual large-group discussion. They felt that judging is a given in life, and that dress codes can provide a standard for judging. Brand names and other clothing-based commonalities can provoke judgment but can also serve to identify a sense of community with other people. Finally, they noted as a general given that choosing clothing is a matter of self-expression, and that your choices communicate something about you.