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Guest posts by expert educators

Rick Wormeli’s Middle Level Fundamentals

Rick Wormeli is a National Board Certified Teacher, the author of seven respected books in the teaching field, and an internationally known speaker on middle-level education, classroom assessment, innovation, and teacher professionalism. He’s also been an educational consultant to National Public Radio, USA Today, and the Smithsonian Institution. He’s a long-time friend of MiddleWeb. This is a two-part article. Here’s Part 2.

4 Fundamentals of Middle Level Teaching (Part 1)

by Rick Wormeli

The music starts with a low base beat, then it moves up the scale, adding more texture as it builds intensity. Our pulse quickens, adrenalin flows, and finally our classroom world crescendos and we are at full throttle, teaching like we’ve never taught before, affecting the future in ways we never dreamed we could. It’s a fantastic time to be a middle level educator!

It really is. With the transformative work of the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform and their Schools to Watch program, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the Southern Regional Education Board (MMGW), plus new insights and support from myriad researchers and expert practitioners, we have more information on how to teach young adolescents effectively than we’ve ever had before.

When applied effectively in our daily classroom practice, it all works as promised. Best of all, politicians, business leaders, and those outside of middle level teaching are finally recognizing the critical role the middle years play in everyone’s future success, and they are supporting us.

In the midst of all this forward momentum, however, it’s important to float above the treetops and look at the larger landscape, to see what kind of job our colleagues across the profession are doing as middle grades educators.

My outlook? We could be doing better

In my capacity as a teacher trainer, I get to see the big picture of teaching and learning in the middle grades, traveling all over North America and abroad, observing a wide variety of middle level teachers and principals at work.

While most are doing well, some are not. In almost all situations in which schools and teachers could do better, one or more of what I consider four fundamentals of middle level teaching are in their nascent stages — or missing completely. Whatever we can do to help educators develop all four of these fundamentals is time well spent.

Fundamental #1: We must apply what we know about our unique students

Here’s a potentially insightful activity: let’s take out our lesson plans and circle those places where our expertise around the nature of 10 to 15 year-olds is clearly demonstrated. Do we end up with lots of circles?

This is not a group of slightly more complex primary students. Nor is it a group of immature high schoolers. These kids are unique. We can’t, for example, just assign a lengthier version of expository writing than students were asked to do in the early elementary grades and think we’re being developmentally appropriate for middle level students.

When I ask middle level teachers to show me how their lessons respond to the unique nature of young adolescent students, sometimes I get a blank stare. That scares the heck out of me. I begin to think these folks are teaching blind to the students they serve, and that can’t be good. There is a way to teach high school seniors that doesn’t work with middle school students — just as we can’t take what we know about 12 year-olds and think it works the same way with 17 or 18-year old teens. It all comes down to what we know about human growth and development.

So what is it about young adolescents that we should take into consideration when designing and implementing our lessons? Here’s a small taste:

They can’t all be lumped into the same readiness levels – emotionally, intellectually, hormonally, or physically. Girls mature faster than boys. Bones grow faster than muscles, so coordination isn’t consistent. There is discomfort in the growth plates on the ends of their bones that requires frequent movement to relieve, even in mid-lesson. With growth comes the need to eat – about every 90 minutes. They worry intensely over body changes, and they have an increased need for hydration. In her book Brain Matters (2010), Pat Wolfe reminds us that they have an increased tendency toward addictive behaviors and pleasure seeking.

Intellectually, the tools they’ll need for figuring out academics and life are not all in the toolbox yet. This makes decision-making, impulsivity control, moral/abstract reasoning, “reading” the situation, planning, understanding consequences of words and actions, and other executive functions intermittent at best.

They are fiercely independent, yet paradoxically, they crave social connection. This is the first point in their lives that they realize how wrong adults can be, and they’re not sure what to make of it. They move from concrete to abstract thinking, sounding like adults when talking about some topics, and young children when discussing others.

They crave competence, self-definition, creativity, vividness in learning, emotionally safe environments, control/power over their lives, physical activity, positive social interactions with adults and peers, structure and clear limits, and meaningful participation in school/community. Most of all, they want to belong.

Middle level teachers should be able to cite these attributes and many others without hesitation, and their lessons should reflect this expertise.

Where in our lessons have we provided concept vividness? Where have we helped students move from concrete to abstract? Where have we given students some decision-making power in their learning?

Great resources for getting up to speed on what is currently known about young adolescents include several excellent AMLE publications: Middle School Journal, Middle Ground, and Research in Middle Level Education Online. I also recommend An International Look at Educating Young Adolescents (Mertens, Anfara, Jr., Roney), Turning Points 2000, This We Believe (AMLE), and the pioneering work of Chris Stevenson, who wrote Teaching 10 to 14 Year-olds.

Fundamental #2: To become proficient, we have to fail a lot

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell offers compelling, researched arguments that we need about 10,000 hours in a skill or field before we are considered proficient in it. In our profession, the 10,000 hours is reached about the sixth year – perhaps earlier, if we include teaching work done over the summer. But for me, it wasn’t until the eighth, ninth and tenth years that I gained confidence in my own proficiency (and there are moments, even today, that I still have some doubts).

Gaining proficiency requires us to spend a fair amount of time failing. In every career considered a profession, the professional model works very well: We learn knowledge, we apply that knowledge in specific situations in our jobs, we get critiqued on how we’re doing, and we revise our knowledge and efforts in light of that critique. When we continue going through this cycle again and again, we mature in our field and are more effective as a result. It’s the stuff of teaching hospitals, professional development schools, architectural schools, CPA offices, police and fire department academies, law firms, journalism – every profession.

Effective middle grades teachers offer this same powerful cycle of learning to our students. And we do it with the understanding that we are guiding the intellectual development of insecure, morphing humans in transition.

Ineffective middle grades teachers, on the other hand, rely on antiquated teaching algorithms like: Read Chapter 12; answer 1-23 on p. 317; take notes on two lectures; watch one 35-minute video; practice with flash cards; take the test on Friday. From this sequence, they expect students to absorb and retain information in long-term memory. While any one of these actions may help students learn something in the short term, none of them are the best recipe for long-term mastery, which is the school’s goal or certainly should be.

If we want our students to achieve mastery of standards with any kind of consistency, we have to revisit content and skills repeatedly throughout the year, and in different contexts and from different angles. Learning is recursive. We don’t dare assume students learn something because we said something, and we don’t declare students lazy when they fail to learn. Instead, we create constructive responses to failure.

Let’s think through this using some science content. When we teach the noble gases: helium (He), neon (Ne), argon (Ar), krypton (Kr), xenon (Xe), and radioactive radon (Rn), we list them and explain how they are odorless, colorless, and have very low chemical reactivity. We point out that each of their melting and boiling points are close together, so they are liquid only for a small temperature range. We tell students about their uses historically and in industry: deep-sea diving, space exploration, blimps, and lighting. We may include fun facts such as Helium being the second most common substance found in the universe, and its extremely low freezing point, about -457 degrees Fahrenheit.

But this procedure is simply knowledge conveyance. There’s nothing here about moving things into long-term memory through recursive practices, circling back over and over again with new approaches to the same content.

In my example, new units of study should incorporate this information about noble gases. We can require students to use this data in analyzing the effects of noble gases in new situations and inventions – ask them to draw comparisons between noble gases and characters in a novel – ask them to explain the Periodic Table’s taxonomy when discussing nomenclature and classification. We can also assign students to explain repeatedly, in a variety of formats, why a narrow temperature range between melting and boiling points matters, and which elements are found most commonly in the universe and which ones are most rare.

If we are effective “recursive educators,” we visit and re-visit the content/skills that provide the most leverage in our students’ education, assessing students each time, providing feedback, and engaging them in re-learning as necessary, however long and whatever method it takes. This means we allow students to re-do work and assessments over and over until they hit the high standard set for them, and we give them full credit for mastery when it is finally presented, not partial credit because they didn’t learn it on our prescribed timetable.

If we are effective, we build our previous curriculum targets into subsequent assessments to see what students carry forward, which is the true testimonial for a grade (our grade as well as theirs). If the evidence offered does not reflect the high level presented during the original unit, then the grade for that standard, for that student, goes down until clear and consistent evidence of higher mastery is presented.

If we are effective, we focus these extended efforts primarily on the non-negotiable “Power standards” we have to teach — and we have to focus on those because there is not enough time during the school year to give this much effort to all the standards listed in our curriculum. We incorporate our colleagues’ course content in our own classes, and they use our course content in their classes, so that we all reinforce each other’s important learning.

NEXT TIME: To make all this work, we have to get very specific and very frequent with our feedback to students.

In my second post, I’ll talk about Fundamental #3: We Need a Heck of a Lot More Descriptive Feedback. And I’ll wrap up the final pair of fundamentals with #4: You Know a Heck of a Lot More Than Your Pacing Guide.

How to Organize the Daily Teaching Flow

 By Maia Heyck-Merlin

The daily rotation. We see it in schools everywhere. Students move, teacher stays. Teacher moves, students stay. Students go, teacher goes.

The Together Teacher

Whether your school is overcrowded or departmentalized, the days of one teacher standing before the same 28 smiling student faces all day are fading fast. Life has become more complicated, requiring additional planning and preparation—on top of our already hectic jobs.

I see middle grades teachers fall into the following categories:

• The stationary, or traditional, classroom – One teacher, same group of students, same classroom (though this arrangement is becoming increasingly rare!)

• The rotating classroom – One teacher, rotating groups of students who travel to you in your classroom

• The traveling teacher – Teacher travels to multiple classrooms around the building

No matter what your situation, or combination of situations, there’s a good chance you no longer have a traditional teacher desk on which to set out your materials, or enough time to “turn over” your classroom for the next class, or a moment to talk with students after class.

Five tips to help manage the flow

Each teacher category above faces its own unique challenges. Teachers in stationery classrooms must manage time blurring across the day without set periods—and occasionally getting to the end of the day without having taught science (hey, it happened to me!)—AND not ever getting a chance to reset the classroom, student behavior or their own mental psyche. Those of us who teach in rotating classrooms or travel deal with moving bodies, materials management, and bell schedules that often force us to sacrifice some portion of our lesson.

No matter your situation, here are five tips to help make your teaching stronger and your life easier.

A shared high school classroom’s divided whiteboard

1) Prepare as much as physically possible the night before.

Traveling teachers: this means asking the teachers(s) with whom you share classrooms if you can cordon off the whiteboard to have separate space for your learning objectives, class agenda, and homework. If you cannot get any space, buy a poster paper carrying tube so you can simply unfurl the day’s plan on chart paper (written out the night before) at the moment you enter the room.

Stationary teachers might try having chart paper or whiteboard space with class overviews for all five (or more!) subjects prepped and ready to go. All teachers that I have interviewed spend time the prior afternoon or the morning of their lesson getting their space ready; this way, they are not doing this prep in the middle of the teaching day while a classroom of 7th graders “waits patiently.”

Jeff Vasquez’s carefully stocked (and artfully decorated) math cart!

2) Ensure your materials are truly mobile.

Traveling teachers fortunate enough to work in a school with elevators keep incredibly creative teaching carts, stocked full of materials to distribute, markers, pens, AV equipment, snacks, and more. For traveling teachers subject to stairs (or in my case, trailers/portables with lots of steps and an outside walk between each one), you may want to invest in a backpack and one or two sturdy tote bags.

But even if you don’t travel, this is hugely important.

In the stationery classroom, carefully lay out materials for all subjects a day (or a week!) in advance. Many folks keep a plastic crate for each subject for the week. Inside the crate are all of the needed materials. For example, the science crate may hold all of the supplies for the fossil lesson and inside the math crate might be the manipulatives needed to introduce Wednesday’s geometry unit.

This prevents mid-lesson fumbling through your supply closets and also makes it easier to. . .

3) Employ student helpers. If you are a traveling teacher, you are on a tight, tight timeline to get in and out of classrooms. Tasks like attendance, checking homework, collecting papers, and tracking behavior can be easily forgotten…or they can accidentally take over the whole period! Consider asking a student to be your paper collector and sorter, to take attendance for you, or to hang up your visual anchors in advance of the class. This will give you the time to teach, and your students the time to learn. (Editor’s note: see this MW interview for more ideas.)

Deb Morrissey’s paper collecting method

4) Set clear expectations for student papers. As a teacher, you are dealing a massive amount of important kid papers that give you insight into what your students are actually learning. It is all too easy to just collect everything and grade nothing. When you are writing your lessons, plan ahead to be judicious in what you collect and how you collect it. Know what you are scanning for in class — completion or accuracy — and how you will record that data.

Another trick is to develop an airtight system to bring each class to a close. Assign students numbers that alphabetically correspond to their names, and ask a helper to put papers in that order after collection. You’ll be surprised by how much time this saves when you’re grading.

Always make sure you have a particular place to put papers. Resist the urge to dump them on your desk or cart. Many teachers make great use of folders or accordion files, in which they can insert papers for particular classes. When you return papers to students, make sure they do not just get shoved in their desks, backpacks or lockers. Be clear what should go home and stay home, what should be saved in student binders to reference or study for tests, and what should be archived in portfolios.

5) Manage your energy. I’m a big fan of Tony Schwartz’s work at The Energy Project. He’s taught me much of what I know about managing my own energy on a regular basis. Whether you’re a stationery, rotating classroom or traveling teacher, the constant presence of students makes it hard to hydrate and nourish yourself. If you are fortunate enough to have a desk, stock it full of healthy snacks, like fruit, nuts (if allowed), granola bars, energy bars, water, and other non-perishables. If your students have a set snack time, be sure to eat when they eat. If you are a traveling teacher, keep a Ziploc bag full of snacks on your cart or in your tote bag or backpack. Many teachers I know eat small meals throughout the teaching day to keep energy flowing, particularly in the afternoon. While it’s tempting to scour your school for soda and candy around 4:00 PM, try to have a protein-based snack on hand instead for this potential slump period.

Teaching is challenging. We all know this. Teaching in the middle grades, with important content, moving teachers, mobile classrooms and transitioning students makes your job even harder. Thankfully, with some advance planning, clear systems, and creativity, we can maximize learning for our students each day—all while keeping ourselves sane!

[Read two reviews of Maia’s book The Together Teacher – by Beth Fabijanic and Ariel Sacks – here at MiddleWeb.]

Maia Heyck-Merlin is a former middle grades teacher. She taught fourth grade language arts (students moved), fourth grade writing (she traveled!), and then fifth-grade self-contained. She has also been a non-profit executive and charter school leader. Maia is author of the recently published The Together Teacher: Plan Ahead, Get Organized, and Save Time. Learn more about her work at

My No-Bunk Letter to Parents

By Marsha Ratzel

At the end of the first day of middle school, many students will carry home at least 5 or 6 Welcome Back to School letters from teachers. Multiply this for every child in the family and a parent might be faced with reading 15 or 20 letters. Yikes. That’s a lot of reading – never mind all the forms that will be sent home to be signed and returned.

In my letter, I will probably not be giving long lists of rules or topics of study. I’m always sure to tell parents some basics: how to find my email address, when I’ll post grade updates, how they can schedule time to meet with me, when their student can get extra help, and my in-school planning time. That won’t take too much space, leaving room for these three topics in my Back to School Parent Letter.

1. Parents want to know that you have their child’s best interests on your radar.

Marsha’s science kids

Having a child’s best interests at heart is much easier said than explained. What does that mean? Here’s what I think.

Everyone probably will not be doing the same thing. Because students are different and they have different needs, some students will have different assignments. That’s scary for parents because they worry their child will feel different or be “left behind.”

A big part of my job is knowing just how far, when, and how much to push their child academically, finding their strengths and building resiliency.

Basically it’s “please trust me to do my job well.” I know it’s a privilege to work with students, and especially your child, and I honor that obligation.

2. Beyond the familiar sentiment that “every child is special” (and of course they are), what attitudes and expectations do I have for their student?

Personally I think all that propaganda that “every child is special and we want them to be all they can be” is so fake it’s bunk. The kids know it’s just something schools say. But if I believe that it really is true, what do I do to create a classroom environment that genuinely helps students find their strengths and weaknesses?

I want parents to understand that I will get to know their child well. I care about each student enough that I will get to know their handwriting, the kinds of mistakes they make, the places where they can shine and where they’ll need a boost. I will be there to give them a helping hand when they need it, as well as the “eye” when they are trying to slide by without doing their best.

I want parents to know that sometimes my class will be hard, but I will never leave their child unsupported even if he or she feels a little lost. We call those moments “planned struggle” – where I intentionally give them time to work on a problem without rushing in and “saving” them.

3. What can parents do to help their child succeed in this class?

You know, in all the years I was raising my own three children, I don’t think a single teacher ever told me what I should/could do to help my child find success in that teacher’s classroom. Here’s what I plan to say.

Parents help their students by not telling them the answer. They should hold back and ask leading questions that push their child to think for themselves. But I will also ask parents not to let their student get too frustrated. If that happens, stop pushing, send me an email, and bring your child in earlier the next morning to attend the free tutoring we have before school every day.

Parents should help students plan and carry out a schedule for doing their homework every night AND going to bed early so they get enough sleep. Believe it or not, parents sort of leave many middle schoolers to define their own bedtime. I get blog posts written by students at 10 or 11 pm. What kind of tomorrow will that student have?

Many parents trust their student to do their homework, and they send them off to their room to do it. Chances are there’s something more interesting in that room: a TV, a cellphone, a computer linked to the internet. I know adolescent kids are multi-taskers, but how many people really believe a teen or tween can resist all these temptations and give enough attention to their studies?

What do you think about these three points? Are they something you feel should be communicated to parents? I think by year’s end, most students would say they enjoyed my class, that it was hard, that they were treated fairly, and that they learned more than they ever dreamed they could learn.

I’m definitely not the most popular teacher. But I think it’s not about my popularity. It’s about helping students find a safe, supported place to learn.

The talented and flexible Marsha Ratzel is taking on 8th grade math this year, after years of science/math teaching in grades 6 & 7. Marsha is National Board Certified and teaches in Prairie Village KS. She wrote about changes in her teaching approach in this recent MiddleWeb article.

Newbies: A Week with Rick

A MiddleWeb Classic

Background: In the early days of “social media,” MiddleWeb supported a middle grades discussion group that grew to almost 700 members. The group conversed entirely via email through something called a list server (for you youngsters).

It worked like this: you sent an email to the list server email address and the server/computer sent that email to everybody on the participant list. If you replied, the computer sent your reply to everybody on the list. Sometimes it made for a LOT of email, so participants could choose to get a daily digest instead — everything packed into a single, if somewhat lengthy, email packet.

It was quaint but effective, and folks who didn’t mind long reads and busy inboxes loved it. Admittedly, that wasn’t everybody. Here’s one product of our MiddleWeb Listserv.

Day One and Beyond: A Week with Rick Wormeli

In 2003, in the last weeks before school began for another year, we staged a five-day listserv chat with our friend Rick Wormeli, who has generously contributed his time to MiddleWeb for many years. We discussed his then newly published book Day One and Beyond: Practical Matters for New Middle-Level Teachers (still in print and relevant today). The rich conversation included both new and veteran teachers.

Rick has gone on to become a leading proponent of whole-child learning and a popular teaching consultant across in the USA. He says that Day One is still a favorite among his growing list of practice-oriented books. It’s full of practical tips that new teachers rightfully see as “lifelines.”

This lightly edited transcript is based on five daily Digests from our listserv book chat, covering many matters great (homework, grading, pencil sharpening) and small (are there any, really?!). As you will see, in addition to great comments and advice from Rick, many veteran teachers in our MiddleWeb community pitched in with tips from their large store of classroom experience. We’ve also added quite a few “modern” links to related resources (including the portions of Rick’s book available in Google Books!)

Click here to download our Five Day Chat with Rick Wormeli

When Teachers Engage, Their Students Behave

anthony-codyBy Anthony Cody

I started teaching at a middle school in Oakland, Calif., about 20 years ago. My first year was pretty rough. I was prepared to teach science, but my first semester I was given two periods of beginning Spanish, one of English, and two of science. My credential program had not really dealt much with behavior issues. The idea was to deliver a rich curriculum, and the management would take care of itself. If you are already teaching, you know this does not always work.

I floundered a bit the first year or two, and took help wherever I could find it. My best resources came from my colleagues down the hall. They had been at the school a few years and passed along valuable ways to make things work.

Here are a few of the things I learned:

 I learned to post a short list of clear, unambiguous rules and enforce them consistently. This is much harder to do than it sounds, and it took me many years to master.

I learned how important it was to phone parents early in the year, with positive news if at all possible. Then the first phone call would not be one from me complaining about their child’s behavior. One parent I phoned in September told me that mine was the first positive call she had ever received about her child. When I had to call about some problems a few months later, she was there to back me up 100 percent.

I learned to balance a negative phone call with a positive one. The days after I would make phone calls, the students would often come in and ask me, “Why did you call my house?” It was great to be able to point out that I was working with their parents in their best interests, and that I would make positive calls when behavior improved. I also found that my own disposition greatly improved after I made a positive call.

I learned to keep a record of student behavior, along with any referrals to the office, so that the problems I had with a few students were clearly documented. I kept a record of phone calls home in the same book.

I learned how easy it was to get into entertaining but fruitless dialogues with students when I was trying to enforce rules. It took me a while, but eventually I learned the best method was to give a warning or consequence clearly, and allow for discussion only after class.

I learned it was important for students to understand that I cared about their well-being, and that I was on their side. This was done through caring communication and showing an interest in them as individuals by giving attention to their interests and abilities. And also through developing assignments that gave them more than one way to demonstrate their knowledge. Some students shine when speaking to the class, others excel at creative projects that illustrate what they’ve learned.

I tried using the textbook quizzes and tests, but found my students were performing miserably. These tests featured 40 multiple-choice questions that required memorization. My students refused to memorize the textbook facts—they were bored with that, and their behavior reflected their boredom. So I began to think about the main points I was trying to get across and looked for engaging ways to make those main points stick. Then I made my tests reflect those main points and found the students did much better.

Too much fun to misbehave

I also looked for different ways for students to demonstrate their understanding through more creative projects, and I found the students became even more engaged.

For example, when learning about states of matter, I had students team up and design their own experiments focusing on dry ice. They came up with ideas like measuring the amount of time the dry ice took to turn to vapor in different liquids; attempting to measure the temperature of the dry ice; or collecting and testing the vapor that the dry ice produced. After a review process, the teams carried out their experiments.

Then, each team created a display and presented their results to their classmates. In the process, they all learned about the properties of dry ice—that it turns to vapor much more quickly in water than in air, that frozen carbon dioxide is much colder than water ice, and that the vapor is heavier than air and puts out a candle. Their findings led us into other explorations of the states of matter. They were having too much fun to misbehave!

The secret to behavior management is really about having the students fully engaged in the learning process, and it involves more than just rules and office referrals. After all, the whole point of getting the class to focus is to do some meaningful work—to reach new understandings, to create new expressions of their knowledge, and to build new skills. But we have to know how to manage our teacher-student relationships in order to get there.

Anthony Cody (@anthonycody) spent 24 years working in Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high needs middle school. He is a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) and a Project Based Learning workshop leader. Visit his website Living in Dialogue. Cody’s current blog is a descendant of his policy-oriented Education Week blog which became a rallying place for teachers who value their professionalism. His book, The Educator and the Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation, was published in 2014.

The ASCEND Saga: Respect


This transformational story begins on the day Elena Aguilar asked 6th graders to use her first name. It’s the first in a series of stories about a remarkable public school experiment in the Oakland (CA) Unified School District.

Who Has Power in a Sixth Grade Classroom?

by Elena Aguilar

“My name is Elena Aguilar,” I told my new students on their first day at our new school. “Call me Elena.”

My 48 sixth graders looked confused. I continued: “Why should you call me by my last name if I call you by your first name?”

“We always call teachers by their last name,” said a boy.

“Why?” I said.

“I’ve been taught to respect my teachers,” said another boy. “Isn’t it disrespectful to call you Elena?”

“Is it just our status alone that merits respect?” I asked. “The fact that I went to college, got a piece of paper that gives me permission to stand in front of you today?”

“Yeah,” called out a girl. “I had a teacher in third grade who used to cuss us out, make us put our heads on our desk for an hour and she’d sit and read magazines. Why should I respect her?”

“Ok, so what deserves respect?” I asked. “Talk about it at your table groups. You’ll have 10 minutes to create a list of your ideas and then share with the class.” The room got loud.

How students addressed me was within my domain of control as a teacher and I was intent on shattering this hallmark of hierarchy. My mission was transformation—and there was no way to do this without addressing traditional power dynamics in the classroom. I would start with the way that my students and I addressed each other.

We created a small, autonomous school

In September of 2001, I was one of a group of teachers and community members who started ASCEND, “A School Cultivating Excellence, Nurturing Diversity.” This public K-8 in the Oakland (CA) Unified School District was born as a “small, autonomous school.” We opened as an alternative to the huge, impersonal, overcrowded, chaotic institutions that were the norm in our district and that pushed our students out onto the streets by the thousands (at that time, the dropout rates were estimated at over 50 percent in our high schools).

At ASCEND we would know all of our students and their families, attend to social and emotional learning, integrate the arts into all content areas, and offer a model of instruction called Expeditionary Learning based on an Outward Bound framework. Approximately 70% of our predominantly low-income students were Latino, with the remaining students drawing from African American and South East Asian communities.

My 48 sixth graders were the founding middle schoolers at ASCEND. (We started with grades K, 2, 4 and 6 and added a grade level each year.) I taught history and English; another teacher taught science and math. I looped with my students for three years, through their 6th, 7th and 8th grade.

I made positive assumptions

I had never taught middle school before—I came from elementary—and this made me anxious as I planned during the summer before ASCEND opened. However, I remembered my own middle school experience: I was bored to death and teachers underestimated what I knew or could do. This led me to make some assumptions about my kids before I met them: that they had the capacity to grapple with big ideas, to be pushed really hard to think and produce and work at a level that was far beyond what anyone thought they could do. I wanted them to think until their brains dripped with sweat, and I wanted them to think about power.

That was the theme of our year-long study: Power. Our primary guiding question was: Who has power and how is it wielded? A set of sub-questions focused our inquiries:

  • Who had power in the ancient world?
  • What kind of power does a 6th grader in Oakland have?
  • What kind of power do you have if you can tell your own story?

We deconstructed history and the study of ancient people, analyzing primary sources and understanding how interpretations lead to subjective truths. We considered how we know what we know about history. We identified stereotypes in popular historical depictions such as the Flintstones. I wanted to challenge notions of “development” — the idea that “civilization” had progressed in a linear fashion since 40,000 BCE. In what ways was our contemporary society more advanced?

I designed exercises to give students an appreciation for their ancient ancestors. That’s what Suzanna learned on the day she sat in the courtyard for three hours trying to make fire with two sticks or when we painted in the light of a flame in order to get a sense of what ancient cave-painting artists experienced.

We talked about power

“When 19th century historians—the majority of whom were rich white men—depicted ancient people as primitive brutes, it gave the dominant culture permission to subjugate the peoples of Africa, the Americas, and Asia. This historical interpretation is still being used to justify the criminalization of young people of color in Oakland today. That’s why you have to know this history,” I lectured. “If you don’t know how power was constructed or what it’s based on, you won’t have the power to change it.”

Yes, this is how I talked to them. My diatribe was within their zone of proximal development; they understood on many levels. “Discipline problems” were nonexistent. Students became frustrated or angry—they were “normal” preteens—but they were never “defiant.” I never suspended a student and there was no such thing as detention in our school. (We did use “give-back time” and other restorative practices when students violated our community agreements.)

I also challenged my students intellectually. In our decrepit portable classroom under the BART (subway) tracks, I pushed them academically. They complained, and I pushed them some more. They worked harder and harder, I kept pushing them, and they learned and learned and quickly surpassed everyone’s expectations.

I don’t want to simplify this picture. There were numerous visible and invisible structures that allowed me to do what I did and for our students to have the successful outcomes they had. ASCEND was granted a range of autonomies that permitted us to make decisions about curriculum, instructional practices, class size, hiring, and budget. Teachers had a ton of support from coaches, plus regular collaboration time, meaningful professional development, and a strong voice in decision-making. And our staff, students and parents were on the same page when it came to our vision for learning.

ASCEND is my transformation touchstone

I now work as a transformational instructional and leadership coach. I write about transformation—that elusive, indefinable end which will mean something very different for the children in our schools. Sometimes I struggle to offer indicators of what transformation is and will be, and I know it’s hard to build something we can’t visualize.

I often go back to those first years at ASCEND as a touchstone. My experience as a teacher was completely different from anything before or since. At many moments, ASCEND was a transformed school, a transformational experience, and in many ways we transformed the lives of our students. Having witnessed what a small group of hard working people (working under certain favorable conditions) were able to do, transformation does not seem all that distant and impossible to me now. In fact, it seems very doable. Because of what I experienced at ASCEND, I know we can transform our schools.

There are many more stories to tell about ASCEND (which is still going strong). There are stories of integrated curriculum units, project-based learning and performance tasks that received media attention, impressive test score growth, and even stories of our students graduating from high school and going to college and ultimately becoming teachers.

But where does the story start? For me, as an educator, it started on the first day, when I asked my students to call me by my first name because at the core of a transformed education system lies a whole different set of power relationships.

NEXT: The first year

Elena Aguilar has taught elementary, middle, and high school, served as a school-based instructional coach, and is currently a transformational leadership coach in the Oakland (CA) Unified School District. Her book The Art of Coaching will be published by Jossey-Bass in early 2013. She blogs at Edutopia and also writes for Education Week Teacher.

No-Holds-Barred New Teacher Advice

We suggested that Nancy Flanagan ask herself some questions – the kind that new teachers in the middle grades might ask.

by Nancy Flanagan

Let’s dispense with the obvious, right off the bat.

If anyone takes a job as a middle school teacher, someone–or more likely, many people–will ask them: Are you nuts?

It’s not even close to a fair question. It’s a reaction to a moth-eaten set of myths:

  • Hormone-addled young adolescents are impossible to teach.
  • Middle school is where they send the loser teachers–those who lack subject/discipline depth, who enjoy cracking heads, who couldn’t make it at other levels.
  • Research shows 13-year old brains aren’t receptive to important knowledge.
  • It’s the worst period in a person’s life.
  • Middle school is an academic holding pen that doesn’t count in a student’s permanent record.
  • The most “effective” thing to do with middle grades is combine them with elementary grades (or any other pet grade configuration).

Children in America go through a uniquely individual process of growth and development. At any given point, not just the middle grades, they’re likely to hit speed bumps, experience periods where their ability to learn fluctuates, their interests shift, their relationship to the world changes, for better or worse. At all of these points, what happens in school matters–very much–in their overall intellectual advancement.

Here’s the takeaway: Stop stereotyping middle school teaching and–especially–middle school students.

Now about those questions I’d ask myself . . .

► How can I build trusting relationships with these students?

You can’t be a good middle school teacher unless you know your students well and genuinely believe in their capacity to learn. That’s Job #1: Who are these kids? What is it like to live in their world? What’s underneath their public personae? Do they have goals? Dreams? What are they good at–what lights their fire?

Ask questions. Share your own stories, occasionally. Prove you’re not going away — that you’re committed to their learning (which is different from being entertaining, cool or too buddy-buddy).

Be patient in this work. Middle-grades children are excellent at detecting insincerity, and they will keep pushing you to reveal cracks in your friendly demeanor. Trust begins with mutual regard and keeping lines of communication open — especially on days when the teaching-learning cycle breaks down. Practice tolerance. Have faith. Remember that relationships, like bones, are often stronger in places where cracks have had to heal.

► How can I set up a classroom environment that encourages my students to express themselves openly and genuinely respect others?

This is harder to do — and more important — than it may seem. From the physical layout of the room, to the handful of critical understandings and procedures you instill as part of your daily work together, thoughtful design for interaction and constant analysis of what’s working/not working are essential. They’re also wildly underestimated by those who equate “classroom management” with rules and consequences.

Your goal is to make your room a place where each person feels heard and valued. This is not something that can be accomplished immediately, nor does it have much to do with “decorating” the room or moving the furniture around. You can’t feng shui your classroom into a place where learning is facilitated. Sometimes, you don’t even have your own space.

A brief, illustrative story: Once, my middle school held a contest to see which homeroom could create the best door decorations for Christmas. The prize: donuts and cocoa for the winning class. The stated objective was building school spirit; administrators and office staff were judges. I had some personal reservations about the competition, but I wanted the kids to handle the question of what to do with this collaborative (and mandated) task.

They grumbled. Figuring it out would cut into their limited free time to finish homework and chat during advisory period. They correctly connected the sugar bribe to our administration’s desire to have the building look festive for parents coming for December events. They knew gung-ho teachers would pull out all the stops to “win” — and that had nothing to do with “building a learning community.” There was muttering about how Christmas sucked, really (these were 8th graders). Then they went deeper: Didn’t this just feed rampant commercialism? Wasn’t the idea that people were happy during the holidays a marketing ploy? They were on a roll.

In the end, they put butcher paper over the door, and scribbled their ideas on an improvised graffiti wall. There were sketches (including a Star of David), cartoons, and taped-on items — battered ribbon bows, broken toy parts, dead pine twigs. It was the talk of the building; students came to read The X-mas Wall and write their own thoughts. It was an interactive display until mid-January. Of course, the judges chose an elaborate, teacher-funded door with flashing lights and real evergreen boughs–but my students weren’t in it for the donuts.

My contribution? Provoking the discussion, and getting paper from the art supply closet, where students weren’t allowed. But it took a lot of restraint on my part. And an environment where students could kick ideas around.

► How can I deconstruct my assigned curriculum, highlighting and hammering home the things my students really need for high school, college and adulthood?

Most new teachers are given a set of content standards, goals and benchmarks — or, at the very least, textbooks and other required materials. That’s a good thing. Teaching well involves vastly more planning than most people realize, and that planning is incredibly complex. There are always key concepts that must be taught, skills and knowledge to measure. That’s the easy part. Getting advice from your colleagues is an essential launch strategy. Playing it safe is a good bet, at first.

But you didn’t become a teacher to follow someone else’s lesson plans. Ultimately, you became a teacher to teach kids what they need most — and that’s a matter of expertise and human judgment, not black-line masters, course outlines or even clever videos. Sooner rather than later, you must look at the prescribed curriculum and decide: Which of these things will my students need for the next test? Which will my students need for the next year? Which will they need for the rest of their lives?

Far too many teachers see instruction as a series of boxes to be filled, moving from chapter to chapter, lesson to unit, quiz to test. Their students may comply, but see little relevance. It’s the things that students need to be successful adult citizens — productive, happy, curious — that will generate your most engaging lessons. Think long-term.

► How can I embed real tasks and responsibilities into the assignments I give my students?

So much of being in middle grades is play-acting — rehearsing for “real” events and challenges yet to come. Take middle school students. They don’t drive, legally work at paying jobs, go on dates or vote. They crave real responsibilities, even as they fear being put to the test. They want real audiences, even if they’re uncertain about their beliefs and have not yet learned to construct an effective argument. They’re not adults, but they don’t benefit from being considered “too young.”

A truly excellent middle grades teacher will take seriously the work and opinions of his or her students. Seventh graders can write credible letters to the editor and mount impressive dramatic productions. They can solve real problems without following an algorithm. They can design structures, debate issues that matter to them, and craft poetry. They can compose songs, and sing them while accompanying themselves. They can hand off the ball to someone under the basket, and lead a campaign to get healthier food in the cafeteria.

Every time we give middle school students genuine leadership roles and real jobs, there is a possibility that they will fail. But too much hovering, scaffolding and doing something merely for a grade, rather than a tangible outcome, pushes middle grades kids to act more like children, just when they want most to try out their adult skills and options.

My best advice to you? Keep it real.

Nancy Flanagan (@nancyflanagan) spent 30 years teaching in a K12 music classroom in Hartland, Michigan, much of that time in the middle grades. She was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993 and was an early successful candidate for National Board Certification. As a member of the Center for Teaching Quality’s national Teacher Leaders Network, she co-authored two major TeacherSolutions reports on teacher professionalism. Today, she’s an education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership. She writes the no-holds-barred blog Teacher in a Strange Land for Education Week Teacher and serves as a digital organizer for IDEA (Institute for Democratic Education in America).

Actually, You ARE Special

 Bill Ivey is Middle School Dean at all-girl Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Greenfield MA, where he also teaches Humanities 7, French, and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. We also recommend Bill’s earlier post for MiddleWeb about stereotyping, Hungering for a Better World.

by Bill Ivey

“You are not special. You are not exceptional.”

Maybe you’ve heard about the “You’re not special” graduation speech given by David McCullough, Jr. to the Class of 2012 of Wellesley (MA) High School. In fact, it’s likely you have. The speech quickly went viral. (McCullough is a teacher at the school and the son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian.)

Initially, it was kind of fun, especially since my nephew was in that graduating class. I’d see a retweet, or a link would come through on Facebook, and I’d write back “Thanks for sharing. Great speech. My nephew was actually one of the graduates that day.” But over time, it began to be a bit irritating. When a forwarded email appeared in my inbox with the subject header, “The most honest three and a half minutes of television, EVER; and most Honest Graduation Speech, EVER,” something snapped. Maybe it was the phrase “most honest,” or the all-caps “EVER.”

For the record, I certainly don’t mind personally being told I’m not special (although I’d prefer it if you were gentle about it). But don’t go saying it about my students, and don’t go saying it about my family.

Who is special?

When I first heard about the speech, it took me back to my Humanities 7 classroom this year and a question one of the students asked. It’s a question very much on kids’ minds, as this is at least the third time it’s come up over the seven years I’ve taught the class. “Bill, people are always telling us we’re special. But if everyone is special, doesn’t that mean that no one is special?”

What might David McCullough have said to that question if asked by one of his own students? What clues lie in the text of his speech? Part of his answer might lie in the evidence he gave to support his central thesis.

Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs.

He points out that if you are one in a million, that simply means “there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.” Referring to Walt Whitman and Epictetus, he concedes we are each our own personal version of perfection and we each have the spark of Zeus, concluding nonetheless, “You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.”

But that would only be part of the answer. He continues to state that “we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.” And the true core of his speech is less about who you are than what you do and how you do it. Your life is what you make of it.

“I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance. (…) Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. (…) The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement… what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. (…) Carpe the heck out of the diem. (…) The great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.”

In short, Mr. McCullough might answer my student’s question by saying, “You’re not special. Because everyone is. So as you go through life, carpe the heck out of the diem. Make something of your life.”

We make each other special

In a way, then, my response to Mr. McCullough’s speech may be exactly what he might want. I am loving my students, my family, with all my might. I’m well aware that there are teachers in every school who believe their students are special, and relatives everywhere who believe their families are special. And you know what? We’re all right.  Because we have made it so. Like the fox and the prince in Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s “The Little Prince,” we have tamed each other — to each other, we are unique in all the world.

I remember one of the hardest lessons I learned in the years following my own high school graduation: there actually is no finish line that delineates adulthood. We continue to be works in progress throughout our lives. For each member of my school community, Stoneleigh-Burnham’s mission “to be your own best self” doesn’t end on graduation day. It’s something that continues throughout our lives. Special though we may be, we are continually defining who we are by our actions; we must consciously and continually work to be our own best selves.

My answer to my student cut to the chase

So what was my own answer to my student’s question about being special? We must have had something awfully pressing to do that day, at least in my mind, because rather than responding with a question of my own as I normally would, I cut quickly to the chase and simply told her: “It’s a great question. Personally, I’ve come to think that we are all special in that there is only one of each of you. There is no one else anywhere like you — and because of that fact, none of us is more special than anyone else.”

She smiled and nodded, and we all moved on.

And if so, perhaps “the sweetest joys of life” come not exactly “with the recognition that you’re not special” but rather with the recognition that we all are equally special. My students, my family. And me. And you.

Good Feedback Is Key to Active MS Learning

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. Here’s Part 1.

Four Fundamentals of Middle Level Teaching (Part 2)

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!

Miss Part 1?

Rick Wormeli is a long-time classroom teacher, now education consultant, living in Herndon, VA. He can be reached at

My Epic Teaching Journey


Marsha Ratzel is a National Board-certified teacher in the Blue Valley School District in Kansas, where she teaches 6th & 7th grade science, math and sometimes social studies. She blogs at Reflections of a Techie and tweets with the handle @ratzelster.

Marsha’s first book, describing her journey to more student-centered, inquiry teaching and learning, is published by Powerful Learning Press. This excerpt was first posted at MiddleWeb in the summer of 2012 and updated based on the book’s final revisions in 2013. Learn more about Teaching in High Gear: My Shift Toward a Student-Driven, Inquiry-Based Science Classroom at the PL Press website.

by Marsha Ratzel

This year of action research — getting myself to the place where I could routinely carry out student-centered, question-centered instruction — was (to use a word from my mountain biking friends) EPIC! To a rider this means that I started on a journey that I thought would take a month or two, but it extended over the entire school year, and I’m sure the trip’s not over yet.

tihg_cover_flat_175As I stop and look back, the whole landscape has changed for me. Viewing my journey from this perspective helps me mark how far I’ve come. I started off on my epic trek in granny gears, where all mountain biking beginners find their groove. It’s the easiest gear to pedal and designed to help you scale even the toughest grades.

In teaching, my granny gears were those first timid steps I took, trying out something and seeing if it worked. One step was turning to students to provide some questions, which fueled the first investigations we did. Every teacher will have different ways of finding their own granny gears. It’s just important to look for them and not be afraid to set out because the way looks steep.

As I climbed higher in my teaching practices, I had to shift gears and learn to seek out colleagues who helped me figure out the questions to ask myself and strategies to get me up the hill. I had to rely on students telling me what they needed. All of this input kept me from face-planting (which is never a good thing) and got me back on the trail if things faltered a bit. My Personal Learning Network helped me find my “mo” (momentum).

With my PLN’s support, I was able to take the small successes that I was experiencing with students and build those into some bigger feats. As we finished the year, they were full of questions, and best of all, they felt capable of answering them.

“We Are the People Who Do the Hard Stuff”

It’s hard now to see those students as the same kids who had trouble withstanding not knowing exactly how to proceed. Not only were they able to survive the ambiguity, but by the end of the year, they began to thrive on it. My students became stronger, more self-confident and independent learners. I remember telling one of my kiddos: “We are the kind of people who do the hard stuff now, and if we wanted it easy we would have looked it up in a book.”

My students’ strength meant they were willing to dig down deep when what they really wanted was to quit. Some people never learn that finding the answer or doing something successful is mostly overcoming fear that it can’t be done. We broke through this barrier by creating a supportive classroom that fostered teamwork and curiosity.

When you talk about building relationships with students, it means so much more than getting to know each other. It means doing hard things together, so that you can anticipate where each person will need a little help and also where they can provide help themselves, based on their own strengths. Through this process, we developed confidence in ourselves and in one another.

My students today “get” that learning is a process. And while they may encounter moments where something doesn’t turn out the way they expected, they know how to change that into something positive. If students have a better idea than the one I present, they ask me to change things up. We co-create and co-learn with each other—we do the hard stuff.

I Feel That I’m a Totally Different Teacher

This style of coaching learners allows me to find the place where I can just “do” teaching. Like discovering what a student-empowered classroom looked like, it isn’t something that can be explained very well if you haven’t experienced it. But maybe it’s happened to you in some situation where you took on a challenge—a sport, a hobby, even having a child.

When you start shifting your classroom, just like in mountain biking, it’s all a technical undertaking. Small problems are magnified. Now, instead of being confounded by a narrow trail with rocks and too much sand, I have developed a natural sense of how to navigate these trails. More importantly, my younger partners on the trail know how to avoid spinouts as well because they’ve learned coping skills and problem-based inquiry alongside me.

Once you’ve tasted this kind of teaching—seen students learn so much more in your classes than they ever have learned before—then the fun of it, the reward of it, is so great that you strive to get back into this kind of flow every time you walk into the classroom. It changes the way you design lessons. You look for the same content, but you’re imagining different approaches that make it student centered. It becomes less about the teacher talking or showing how and more of the kiddos doing.

The End Is Just the Beginning

When I began, I thought there would be an ending place in this process. But the end I’ve shared with you here is really just the beginning. Each fall a new batch of kids will arrive and we will start anew. Each time the relational pieces—the trust, the common understanding of each other, the students knowing when they can push me and me knowing when I can push them—will need to be developed. On the other hand, the structure of my lessons does not have to be built from scratch. I only need to customize it to be responsive to the needs of each particular community of students.

My hope is to get my class in the Zone faster each successive year because I’ll be better at the instructional pieces of this approach. Over the summers, I’ll once again sit back, reflect, read through my student feedback, and figure out the destination of the next epic adventure and how to get there.

Like mountain biking, as soon as you get to the peak of one hill, you see another hill that sings to you. So you go through the journey again and again, to get to the top and see the next big vista spread out before you.