Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Active and Purposeful Learning

The Association of Middle Level Educators identifies "active learning" as one of the 16 characteristics of a successful school for young adolescents.  To be successful, teachers and students must be actively engaged in learning.  Standardized testing is how we are held accountable but for learning to happen, students must be engaged individually, not a one size fits all/standard education for all.  So, it is our job as middle level educators to walk the balancing act of doing what is required of us through standardized testing and doing what is right for our students.  I believe that doing what is right for our students will in fact lead to better learners and therefore better test results as well.

  • Create authentic learning opportunities-Meet students where they are.  Discussions have long been a way to engage students in authentic/active learning.  Recently, I have watched teachers use Edmodo or Moodle as a tool to get students to engage deeper in discussions.  Students can be assigned to participate in a discussion outside of class and then these discussions spill over into class where the teacher is able to actively participate and help students engage with the material.
  • Involve students with extracurriculars-Recently our students completed the science fair.  This is a traditional but powerful way to engage students in science.  The learning that happens in these projects far exceeds the day to day learning that may happen through notes and lectures.  Students can also participate in National History Day, Math Counts, Quiz Bowl, and other such academic activities.  Another such activity that I was not familiar with until the last couple of years was Future Cities. Our students actively engage in creating a future city and have to use all kinds of academic skills to create these cities.
  • Develop interdisciplinary projects-Our Middle School teachers regularly engage in interdisciplinary units.  These projects help our students see the application of each curriculum area outside of that classroom.  It is always nice to see students apply knowledge from one class in another curriculum area.
  • Individualize for all students-It is normal to have IEP's for special education students.  What about your other students.  I am yet to meet "the normal student."  All students have strengths and we should be sure to focus on those strengths.  Often as we look at how to make all students proficient, it is easy to focus on weaknesses.  To become proficient is how a school is graded.  However, the student will not work as an adult in the area they are weakest.  In the adult world, we can hide our weaknesses and work within our areas of strength.  Let's prepare students for the real "real world" where strengths matter.
  • Exploratory classes matter-Along the same line, don't forget about the non core classes.  Students learn a great deal from Music, PE, Humanities, Exploring Technology, Multimedia classes, etc.  These areas must be given attention.  If we believe that creating an education for the whole student makes for better learning, then don't narrow the focus just for the sake of doing well on a reading or math test.  Math and Reading are no doubt fundamental to students education.  To go from good to great, students must go beyond the fundamentals.  
These are just a few broad ideas of what is important to create active learning.  What do your schools/classrooms do to create an environment of "active learning" and "purposeful learning?"  I'd love to find out from you what you do to create a purposeful environment for your students that take your kids beyond the test. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Valuing the Middle Level Student

The first characteristic of a successful school for young adolescents as described by "This We Believe" is: Educators value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them.  The Association of Middle Level Educators places this in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment part of the characteristics of successful schools.

What can be done to create a school where educators value young adolescents?  How can we know that teachers are prepared to teach young adolescents?

1.  School Culture-Create a school culture in which talking about students is done in a positive way. This starts at the top but doesn't end there.  Every person in the school should be an advocate for students.  When a teacher makes a joke about a kid-do you laugh?  If negative people don't have an audience, it becomes very uncomfortable for the comedian/teacher.  Take a stand for what you believe and when you do you will realize that most of the people who got into education got into it because they love kids.  You will find yourself in the majority once you take the stand that negativity about young adolescents has no place in a school.  Come with a solution to help a student, not a one liner to demean the student.

Rock, Paper, Scissors Contest
2.  Have fun with students.  Create times in the week to do something just to show that you value students.  We have an activity day during homeroom on Friday.  It probably doesn't have much academic value, but it can have a great deal of value of showing kids that you like them and want to be around them.  Last Friday our middle school completed a rock, paper, scissors contest.  I am pretty sure that this rock, paper, scissors knowledge they gained will not be on the Nebraska State Accountability tests.  However, I am also sure that the 15-20 minutes spent laughing and cheering with their classmates and teachers was not wasted time.

3.  Practices and Programs-Create programs and practices that show you appreciate students' effort.  Every student gets recognized at some point during the year with a "Soaring Eagle."  A Soaring Eagle is a note written by the principal to a student that shows appreciation for their attitude, behavior, and/or character.  The teacher submits a student's name and accomplishment using a google doc form.  The principal then gets this submission in a google spreadsheet and writes the letter to the student.  At lunch time, the student is given the Soaring Eagle along with a sucker.  Teachers also have postcards that they send home when students do something above and beyond in their classroom.

In addition to recognition, your student discipline system should show value in the individual student.  We created our own system called "Living Above the Line" that values students rather that creating a one size fits all discipline system.  Rather than having a discipline system that is punitive, natural consequences  (and logical consequences when natural consequences aren't possible) should shape student behavior.

4.  Hire Teachers with passion for the middle level-Teaching candidates with a 4-9 grade endorsement should be given some priority.  The reason I say some priority rather than "only hire teachers with MS endorsements" is that I don't want to lose great teachers because they have a 7-12 endorsement or a K-6 endorsement (or any other type of endorsement).  What is great about a 4-9 endorsement is that it shows the passion for education is with middle level students.  Passion is the key, not endorsement area.

5.  Teacher Training-If a teacher comes with little practical knowledge of what it is to teach at this level, then it is crucial to get that teacher the training necessary to work with middle level students.  Encourage teachers to join the state association for middle level educators.  Encourage teacher to participate in professional development focusing on young adolescents.

Those are my 5 ideas, what else should be added to create a school that values middle level students?