Rick Wormeli is a National Board Certified Teacher, the author of six respected books in the teaching field, and an internationally known speaker on middle-level education, classroom assessment, innovation, and teacher professionalism. He’s also an educational consultant to National Public Radio, USA Today, and the Smithsonian Institution. Rick has been involved with MiddleWeb for more than a decade, both contributing his own insights and also gathering teacher wisdom to support several of his popular middle-level books.
This is the second of two articles (Part 1). Rick is one of three guest experts who participated in a MiddleWeb webinar for new teachers and those new to the middle grades. The webinar archive is now available.
by Rick Wormeli
In my first post about the Four Fundamentals of Middle Grades Teaching, I highlighted (1) the need to shape our lessons and our teaching strategies around what we know about the adolescent learner, and (2) the importance of “recursive” teaching, the practice of looping back to earlier content and integrating it into our students’ on-going learning experience. We make it stick by asking them to process the content in new ways.
At the end my first post I wrote: To make all this work, we have to get very specific and very frequent with our feedback to students. And that’s where we pick up here, with the 3rd fundamental aspect of teaching tweens and young teens.
Fundamental 3: We Need a Heck of a Lot More Descriptive Feedback
Middle school students can learn without grades, but they can’t learn without feedback. Let’s make descriptive feedback, not just any feedback, a priority. “Good job!” is not descriptive, nor is “You can do better” written in the margins of a student’s paper. Try specific feedback like this instead:
• I can’t find evidence for your claim. Can you help me find it?
• Your speech had the required content, but your audience was not engaged. Looking at your audience, avoiding a monotone voice, and personalizing your examples would have engaged them.
• You followed the directions of the lab, but you had an additional variable that negatively affected your results. What was it, and how will you adjust your methods so the variable doesn’t occur again?
Having students do their own descriptive self-assessments is also a critical component of effective learning. When students complete tasks, we can ask them to write a letter to us comparing their own efforts with exemplars we provide. Where does their attempt match the model/exemplar? Where does it deviate? We can ask them to do an item analysis of their test performance as well: Which ones did you get correct? Which were incorrect, and why were they incorrect? What actions will you take to learn the concept properly?
We can place a special mark at the end of any sentence with a punctuation error — or near a mistake in the order of operations in a math problem — and that can signal the student to “find and correct the error.”
When teachers not only identify mistakes but provide the correct fact or procedure, they’re promoting passive student learning. It’s learning that does not last.
On the other hand, when teachers put up a flag, declaring the presence of errors, and give students whatever tools they may need to find and correct their mistakes, we instigate active learning that endures.
Let’s remember that it’s the descriptive nature and frequency of the feedback that really matter. It’s critically important, in fact, and it must be a purposeful focus in our lesson design, not just something we do when we “can get around to it.” In each lesson element, identify how students will receive feedback about their growing understanding. The feedback can come from themselves, peers, teachers, or others. If it’s frequent and descriptive, they will be able to use this feedback to revise their efforts and be assessed anew.
Fundamental #4: You Know a Heck of a Lot More Than Your Pacing Guide
The pacing guide for our subject says we should be on page 83 today, but students are not ready for that content or they mastered it long ago. So what do we do?
As highly trained professionals, we now go “off the map” and teach what is developmentally appropriate for our students right now — not what a curriculum committee sitting in a conference room over the summer presumed our classroom realities would be at this moment of the year. Yes, it’s helpful to have clear standards and a pacing guide’s schematic presentation of learning, but we do not treat it as prescriptive. We reserve the right to adjust things as necessary in order to live up to the school’s mission – teaching every student (including the kids who are most challenged) to higher levels than they thought they could achieve.
If we find a smarter, more effective way to teach something, we’re ethically bound as professional teachers to use it instead of trying to “honor” an ineffective pacing guide that didn’t foresee the unique situations before us. The alternative, student incompetence, is not acceptable. Put another way, we can never sacrifice our students in order to be able to say: “I am perfectly aligned with the pacing guide.”
If a particular book we all agree should be taught at this grade level is not the book that best fits a subset of our students, and we know another book in the same genre will work better, we should be allowed to use it. If we teach all the same standards through that more effective book, we should be permitted to use our judgment without suffering the death stare of the department chair. We must have an educational reason to make such changes, of course, not just a mood or whimsy.
Teachers sometimes forget that schools are not set up to teach. They are designed to protect the status quo, to conform to accountability requirements created by non-educators far above us in the food chain, and to best meet the needs of students who get it first. For any student who needs more, less, or different instruction, including the pacing and manner of instruction (and that’s most middle grades students on any given day), school conspires against them.
In order to teach everyone, we need the professional fortitude to break with standardized practices as needed.
Mindless adherence to instructional pacing and technique regardless of the students we serve is middle grades malpractice. Seriously, would we want our own children in classes with such teachers? We have a professional obligation to invoke our intellect. We make informed responses to the needs of each student we serve.
To build and retain the trust necessary to be allowed such autonomy, we must demonstrate thoughtful decision-making based on up-to-date knowledge in our field, including both subject and pedagogical expertise.
We need to be well read in our field and to participate in national conversations. Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals are as swamped with work as we are, but they read the latest journals and court cases weekly in order to keep up in their fields and provide the best service to patients and clients. As true professionals, we must do the same.
Are there other fundamentals for middle level teaching?
Yes, but the four I’ve described in these two MiddleWeb articles tend to be the ones most commonly missing when things aren’t going well. Shoring them up with sharply focused professional development for both teachers and principals will go a long way toward making middle school not only effective for students, but also vibrant places where we can happily dive back below the tree tops and play that teaching music with great passion and vitality.
Enjoy the years ahead!
Rick Wormeli is a long-time classroom teacher, now education consultant, living in Herndon, VA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.