01 January 2011

A Middle School that Works

Matt Groening, of The Simpsons and School Is Hell, describes middle school as "the lowest circle of hell." And that is generally true. No, most are not as in need of implosion as the one Principal Anthony Orsini made famous in 2010, but our way of education tweens and early teens is both awful and awfully ineffective.

At a New Years Eve party last night an elementary school principal friend bemoaned the middle school "her kids" would end up attending, and she is right. All over I see fifth graders doing brilliant, creative stuff and sixth graders sitting in rooms bored to death.

So, for Dave Britton's Part Two of Blogging for Real Reform, I want to suggest an option.

See the Links Collected Here at Cooperative Catalyst.

Let's create a new kind of Middle School. Let's try changing everything. After all, walk into your nearby middle school next week, and ask, honestly, what have we got to lose?

Project-Based Everything

The middle school is really just the junior high school continued, and that was always a bad idea. Kids stumble through a bizarrely carved up yet age-dependent curriculum, and nothing could be less appropriate. There is no age range with a greater range of individual skills no matter the birth date, and there is no age range where getting kids interested in school is harder. After all, kids 11-14 have a million things, really important things, to learn - about themselves, society, life, their bodies, and almost none of those things are taught in schools.

Meanwhile, the grades, the subject areas, the sports teams, the honor rolls - even the corridors - of middle school are essentially designed (a) to encourage bullying, and (b) to make kids see school as worthless and irrelevant.

So I want to divide the Middle School Grades - 6, 7, 8 - into 9 large, and 3 "mini" project-based experiences. Project-based experiences which kids choose. Completely interdisciplinary experiences.

Kids would pick three 10-week experience and one shorter experience for each year, and that is what they would do all day. Teams of teachers would join together to offer these options. It could range from building a Habitat for Humanity house to making videos to putting on The Oresteia. Or you could be restoring a 1959 Studebaker, watching vampire movies, or studying the planets. In everyone you can easily include language, history, math, sciences, foreign languages, physical exercise, music, art. If you can't, you need to re-think your career path.

In each case students should stay in project teams, and teachers should come to them, or teachers (preferably) should lead the students beyond the school's walls, both virtually and in reality.

Individually crafted

But none of this could be "industrially designed." In every team you'd have 11-year-olds and 14-year-olds. In every team you'd have mature kids and immature kids. In every team you'd have varying capabilities. And in every team you'd have kids with various prior experiences. If you were building that Habitat house, some kids might need measuring, others would need algebra. Some might need the local history of the neighborhood others might need a complex investigation of human housing options. Some might need to write letters to the future homeowners, others to email the materials suppliers.

Team-based, project-based learning allows this - a classroom full of desks with a common curriculum does not.

Team focused

Nothing is more important in this age range than learning how to build effective interpersonal relationships while learning how to appreciate different types of people and different skillsets. So the team-based school, rather than encouraging bullying, encourages interdependence. Kids will need each other, work with each other, form "tribal" links across patterns.

And students would be seen in very different ways by teachers, who would see these students across circumstances and skill capabilities.

Individual Education Plans for all

Within all this, each student needs an individual plan and portfolio, tracking what they've accomplished, and what they need to do. We should not choose projects for the students, that's their's to do, but within projects teachers would need to help students grasp the skills they need. This would be true for every student, not just "special ed." And speaking of special ed, of course this school creates an atmosphere built on full inclusion for virtually all students.

"Extra" curricular

It is vital that the "extras" - athletics, band, orchestra, Odyssey of the Mind, chess club, whatever - be treated fully equally by the school. No cuts in sports, no auditions for band. If you need four basketball teams, go for T-shirts instead of uniforms and have four teams. Don't let boosters/parents support one extra-curricular activity over another. Don't allow one team's lockers to get decorated without the same treatment for every kid doing anything beyond the "school day."

Hard to do?

This is a massive change, but it is neither expensive nor difficult beyond the very hard concept of re-thinking. You don't need new walls, you don't need new teachers, you may not even need much new equipment - consider mixed and handheld technology and especially allowing/encouraging student-owned devices. You needn't change bus routes or build charter schools...

And yet, within those existing walls, with that existing staff, you will have changed education completely, and offered real choice - student choice, not parental choice.

And if you wanted to, I guarantee, you could be up and rolling with this by Fall 2011.

- Ira Socol


David Britten said...

Great idea! I'm going to use this in our district discussions over the coming months. Thanks!

Matt Landahl said...

While reading your post, King Middle School in Portland, Maine comes to mind: http://king.portlandschools.org/

It is an expeditionary learning school and while nowhere near where you describe it, really implements project based learning at a high level.

Matt Landahl

Unknown said...

Nice article. Here's a middle school that works: http://cfsnc.org

Monica said...

15 years ago I taught an "experiential education" program in British Columbia that was based on a lot of what you describe here. We had students in grade 8-10 in our program and the students drove the curriculum. I would love to do it agian now as the advancements in technology would add a whole new level to how well this could work.

Unknown said...

I echo the thoughts about King Middle School in Portland, ME, but I would also say that my middle school in Saint Louis, Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School has taken great steps to make our environment one of inquiry and expeditionary learning. We also have a 1:1 environment that we infused into our school outside the classroom. There is work to do on grading and individualization, but the train has left, and students, teachers, and the community are on board @mrhmiddleschool

Steven Guditus said...

I love your focus on experiential learning - so ripe for middle school minds. Great thoughts!

Trevor J. Collazo said...

I agree. One fundamental question is, "when does 'middle school' really start?" Should 6th grade still be considered elementary school? Should 5th and 6th grade categorized as "intermediate school"?

I think there are fundamental issues with our age groupings that lead to some of the issues we have in the schools.

Great article. Very thought provoking at all levels.