As some of you know, I have started a new phase in my career as the Instructional Director of Middle Schools in Frederick County, Maryland. I am truly enjoying this amazing opportunity to learn a new system, meet new people and to help lead Frederick's 13 middle schools through the next wave of educational reforms that is now upon us.
One of the amazing and talented educators I have met in my new role is Meg Lee. She serves as the Coordinator of Advanced Academics for the Frederick County Public Schools and a strong advocate for highly able learners at all levels. However, as a former middle school administrator, she has a special place in her heart for those students in middle school. When I first met Meg, she gave me a copy of this book and encouraged me to read it. I am so glad she shared it with me...
Every so often a book comes along that is particularly useful, timely,
and very well-written. This is such a book. The authors, experienced
middle level teachers and recognized experts in gifted education, write
with a flair and passion about bright middle schoolers and those with
unrecognized potential. Authors Tomlinson and Doubet provide a solid
rationale for meeting the needs of all young adolescents, guidelines for
a curriculum that is responsive to the diversity that all middle level
teachers encounter, and a wonderfully rich set of instructional
strategies especially appropriate for high ability and high potential
This book provides a road map for school leaders as they attempt to
improve the achievement of students with disabilities. In today's
accountability system, school personnel are responsible for ensuring
that all groups of students, including students with disabilities, show
adequate yearly progress. If the disability student group fails to meet
accountability standards, then the school (and the district) can be
labeled as a "needs improvement" school.
This book is designed
for principals, assistant principals, general educators and special
educators. It focuses on two main goals. First, it clearly describes the
instructional components that must be implemented across the school to
increase the achievement of students with disabilities. Second, it
describes a step-by-step process that the school's leadership team must
undertake to enable all teachers to provide those instructional
components. This book provides a description of what instruction should
look like in every classroom across the school for students with
disabilities and how to make this happen.
How can we prepare today’s students to become
tomorrow’s innovators? It’s an urgent challenge, repeated by President
Obama, corporate CEOs, and global education experts like Yong Zhao and
Tony Wagner. Virtually every discussion of 21st-century learning puts innovation and its close cousin, creativity, atop the list of skills students must have for the future.
If we’re serious about preparing students to become innovators,
educators have some hard work ahead. Getting students ready to tackle
tomorrow’s challenges means helping them develop a new set of skills and
fresh ways of thinking that they won’t acquire through textbook-driven
instruction. Students need opportunities to practice these skills on
right-sized projects, with supports in place to scaffold learning. They
need to persist and learn from setbacks. That’s how they’ll develop the
confidence to tackle difficult problems.
How do we fill the gap between saying we must encourage innovation
and teaching students how to actually generate and execute original
ideas? The answers are emerging from classrooms across the country where
pioneering teachers are making innovation a priority. Their strategies
vary widely, from tinkering workshops and design studios to digital
gaming and global challenges. By emphasizing problem solving and
creativity in the core curriculum, these advance scouts are
demonstrating that innovation is both powerful and teachable.
Across disparate fields, from engineering and technology to the
social and environmental sectors, innovators use a common
problem-solving process. They frame problems carefully, looking at
issues from all sides to find opportunity gaps. They may generate many
possible solutions before focusing their efforts. They refine solutions
through iterative cycles, learning from failure along with success. When
they hit on worthy ideas, innovators network with others and share
In the classroom, this same process corresponds neatly with the
stages of project-based learning. In PBL, students investigate
intriguing questions that lead them to learn important academic content.
They apply their learning to create something new, demonstrate their
understanding, or teach others about the issue they have explored. By
emphasizing key thinking skills throughout the PBL process, teachers can
guide students to operate the same way that innovators do in all kinds
Here are eight tips to borrow from classrooms where teachers are reinventing yesterday’s schools as tomorrow’s idea factories.
1. WELCOME AUTHENTIC QUESTIONS.
Good projects start with good questions. Listen closely to students
to find out what makes them curious. Instead of presenting them with
ready-made assignments, invite student feedback when you
are designing projects. Make sure your driving questions for projects
involve real-world issues that students care about investigating. 2. ENCOURAGE EFFECTIVE TEAMWORK.
Projects offer an ideal context to develop students’ collaboration
skills, but make sure teamwork doesn’t feel contrived. If projects are
too big for any one student to manage alone, team members will have a
real reason to rely on each other’s contributions. Teach students how to
break a big project into manageable pieces and bring out the best ideas
from everyone on the team. Offer them examples of innovations (from the
Mars rover to the iPad) that wouldn’t have been possible without team
efforts. 3. BE READY TO GO BIG.
Innovators have a tendency to think big. They know how to use social
networking tools to make a worthy idea go viral. Encourage students to
share their projects with audiences beyond the classroom, using digital
tools like YouTube or online publishing sites. Help them build networks
to exchange ideas with peers and learn from experts around the globe. 4. BUILD EMPATHY.
Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Innovators who have empathy
can step outside their own perspective and see issues from multiple
viewpoints. Approaching a problem this way leads to better solutions.
Teach students strategies for making field observations, conducting
focus groups or user interviews, or gathering stories that offer
insights into others’ perspectives. 5. UNCOVER PASSION.
Passion is what keeps innovators motivated to persist despite long
odds and flawed first efforts. Find out what drives students’ interests
during out-of-school time, and look for opportunities to connect these
pursuits with school projects. Ask students: When you feel most
creative, what are you doing? What tools or technologies are you using?
Their answers should set the stage for more engaging projects. 6. AMPLIFY WORTHY IDEAS.
In today’s flat world, where access to information is ubiquitous,
innovation can happen anywhere. Opportunities to support good ideas are
also getting flattened. Philanthropy and venture funding, once reserved
for the wealthy, have been crowdsourced with online platforms like Kiva (www.kiva.org) and Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com).
To participate fully in the culture of innovation, students need to be
able to do more than generate their own ideas. They also need to know
how to critically evaluate others’ brainstorms and decide which ones are
worth supporting. Develop classroom protocols for students to
critically evaluate each other’s ideas. They may decide to throw their
collective energy behind one promising idea or pull components from
multiple teams into a final project. 7. KNOW WHEN TO SAY NO.
Being a critical thinker also means being able to spot ideas that
aren’t ready for prime time. Bold new ideas may have bugs that need to
be worked out. An approach that appears to be a game-changer may be too
expensive for the benefits it affords or may have unanticipated
consequences. Give students opportunities to look for potential pitfalls
and know when to say no. 8. ENCOURAGE BREAKTHROUGHS.
Will students come up with breakthrough ideas in every project?
Probably not, but you can encourage them to stretch their thinking by
setting ambitious goals. What would students be able to do or
demonstrate if they were truly operating as innovators? Provide them
with real-world examples by sharing stories of innovators from many
fields, including social innovators who tackle wicked problems like
poverty or illiteracy. Share the back stories of breakthroughs to show
how much effort went into each inspired idea. Let students know they
can’t expect to reach breakthrough solutions to every problem they
tackle. Finding out what doesn’t work can be a useful outcome, too.
Genuine innovation is indeed rare—but worth recognizing and celebrating
when it happens.
For those of us in the field of educating young minds, we often find that summer does two things rather well. First, it helps us remember a time when our first names weren't Mister or Miss for the majority of the day and when we didn't have to break out into a vibrant soliloquy whenever the tenor of a room didn't feel right. Secondly, it abruptly breaks us out of our own routines for how we go about our days. We don't follow the bells or the crowds swooshing past the hallways to their next stations. To read more, click below.
Originally published: September 2, 2012 By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
An artist's rendering provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech shows a "sky crane" lowering the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover onto the surface of Mars. After traveling 8 1/2 months and 352 million miles, Curiosity landed on Mars on Sunday night. (Aug. 4, 2012)
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.
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. What’s my outlook?
We could be
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
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 outacademics 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
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).
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
#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
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.
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.
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.
I continue to learn many lessons in the middle! I have learned that middle school teachers are some of the most amazing people I know. I have learned that despite the widely held belief that public schools in America are not succeeding, I see children working hard and meeting rigorous academic standards on a daily basis. I have learned that if I were to be accused of a crime (I hope this will never be the case), I want a jury comprised of 7th and 8th graders. Without question, students in these two grades believe deeply in fairness and justice for all. I have learned that creating positive relationships with students, staff and parents is the key to success. I have learned that being a middle school educator allows me to have a front row seat to witness some pretty hilarious situations as well as those issues that are very sensitive and often life altering.
As a veteran middle level leader, I can say that I have the best job in the world. I have the opportunity to touch lives, teach valuable life lessons, plant seeds of hope, develop innovative programs and sip from the fountain of youth on a daily basis. Often, I have been told by my friends that I should write a book about my experiences. Since I don't have a lot of spare time these days, I have decided to BLOG instead. I hope to share various experiences, opinions and beliefs on a regular basis (probably less than regular basis).
If my writings should be of interest to you, I hope you will drop me a comment or two in the appropriate place. In this era of being able to reach the entire world through the world wide web, I am counting on the fact that I will attract a few comments.
I am the Instructional Director of Middle Schools in Frederick County Maryland. From 1987-2012, I served in various roles in the Howard County Public School System, including: teacher, team leader, assistant principal and Principal. In 2007, I was awarded the Washington Post’s Distinguished Educational Leadership Award/Howard County Principal of the Year and most recently I received the 2008 Howard County Outstanding Technology Leader in Education Award. I am a member of two boards: Past President of the University of Maryland’s College of Education Alumni Board and the McDaniel College’s Teacher Education Advisory Board. In 2008, I started teaching one of the Intro to School Administration classes at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland.
I am a life-long Washington Redskin fan and I love to root against the Cowboys. I am also an avid blogger.
But most importantly, I am the proud father of two wonderful and amazing kids! I am also fortunate to have a very supportive wife who also happens to be my best friend.
I am always excited to share and collaborate! I have been asked to present to students, teachers, parents and leaders in the educational world and beyond. As both a trainer and a keynote presenter, I have had the opportunity to deliver workshops on topics like:
Leadership Engaging the Millennial Learner Leading from the Middle School Improvement Made Easy (Well Sort Of…) High Impact PD
Some of the organizations I have had the privilege to work with are: Iksan City Public Schools, South Korea University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland McDaniel College, Westminster, Maryland Michigan City Public Schools, Michigan City, Indiana National Middle School Association MSET/MICCA NECC/ISTE Montgomery County Department of Recreation, Rockville, Maryland Maryland Association of Student Councils
For more information about these programs and others I can offer, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a personal blog. The views represented herein are that of the blogger, and do not represent the views of the blogger's employer(s). Furthermore, the views expressed herein should not be imputed to any volunteer boards or other community associations to which the blogger may belong. Comments presented on these pages may be attributable to outside users. If you have questions or concerns about this blog, please feel free to contact me at email@example.com. Thank you!