Monday, September 24, 2012

Smart in the Middle Grades

An interesting read...
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 students.  

Source: Amazon Books

Students with Disabilities Can Meet Accountability Standards

Thanks to my colleague, Dan Martz, I had the pleasure of reading John O' Connor's book, Students with Disabilities Can Meet Accountability Standards.

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.

Source: Amazon Books

Thanks Dan!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How to Turn Your Classroom into an Idea Factory

Students building a cafe at Brightworks School in San Francisco.
By Suzie Boss
| By
The following suggestions for turning K-12 classrooms into innovation spaces come from Bringing Innovation to School: Empowering Students to Thrive in a Changing World, published in July by Solution Tree.
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 results widely.

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 of settings.
Here are eight tips to borrow from classrooms where teachers are reinventing yesterday’s schools as tomorrow’s idea factories.


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.

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.

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.
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.
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.

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 ( and Kickstarter ( 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.

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.

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.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Monday, September 10, 2012

Sticky Teaching | What Sticks in the Brain


Interesting infographic on how the brain interacts with input 
(i.e. teaching):

HT ym360
source Chris Lema

Sunday, September 9, 2012

That's All I Am Going To Say...

Lesson Objective

Give students the freedom to solve problems independently


2 min

Questions to Consider

  • In what kinds of situations would this strategy work best?
  • How does having high expectations allow students to construct their own understanding?
  • Notice how Ms. Noonan gives efficient but minimal directions. What effect does this have?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Cheat Sheet for the First Days of School | Edutopia

José Vilson's Blog

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.

Cheat Sheet for the First Days of School | Edutopia

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Mars rover Curiosity begins trek to new destination

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)

Four Fundamentals of Middle Level Teaching (Part 1 & 2)

by Rick Wormeli on MiddleWeb

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. What’s 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.

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 
      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!