middle school

A Step in the Right Direction: Career Exploration in Middle School

A Step in the Right Direction: Career Exploration in Middle School

In the quest for college and career readiness, policymakers are slowly but surely coming around to the importance of career readiness. Though much of this nascent effort is focused on career readiness for high schoolers, middle school is beginning to enter the discussion, too. The middle grades are a crucial time to engage, or reengage, students and put them on a path to college and career success. Research has demonstrated that grades, attendance, and engagement in middle school are strong predictors of high school graduation and postsecondary success. The Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University found that “sixth graders who failed math or English/reading, or attended school less than 80% of the time, or received an unsatisfactory behavior grade in a core course had only a 10% to 20% chance of graduating [high school] on time.”

Help Every Student Succeed!

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The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law by President Obama on December 10, 2015, keeps important accountability components, such as disaggregating and reporting data on student subgroups, but does away with one-size-fits-all federal requirements. Overall, ESSA calls on states, districts, and schools to offer ALL students a well-rounded education through increased flexibility over accountability systems and funding, and provides an opportunity for deeper engagement with families and community-based organizations. We are calling state education leaders into action to  leverage the flexibility in ESSA to call for innovation and alignment of our education system to a 21st Century global economy by expanding learning time, making learning more relevant, and involving citizens and residents of this country in the shared enterprise of education. Only by critically rethinking and boldly re-imagining the basic structures of education, can we advance our educational system and develop a workforce that is prepared to meet the challenges of the global age.

In 2015, we formed the Expanded Learning Middle School initiative  along with 19 other  national, state, and local groups committed to education and child and youth development, with a particular focus on expanding learning opportunities through creative school designs and out-of-school-time programs. Collectively, we represent thousands of educators, parents, children, private-sector donors, volunteers, and community-based advocates. We firmly believe that all students—regardless of income or background—need access to high-quality, real-world learning opportunities and mentorship that will help put them on a path to success.

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We are proud that our partnerships with schools, companies, and national service programs are contributing to student learning in unique and effective ways, which will have long-term impacts on students’ life trajectories and contributions to society. Students we serve have rapidly increased their learning and academic growth during their elementary and middle school years, entered high school more prepared for success, and enrolled in college at rates higher than their peers. Moreover, the staff from Citizen Schools and many of the other organizations have enjoyed careers as teachers, school and district leaders, researchers and policymakers.

Core to our beliefs is that all children need to be inspired through their education and surroundings to develop the necessary academic and social and emotional skills—such as growth mindset, resilience, and self-management— to be college and career ready. Yet income and background often limit access, especially to high-quality programs. For instance, upper-income families have tripled their investment in their children’s education in a generation—amounting to a gap of 6,000 hours of extra learning by 6th grade. Lower-income children count on public schools, even though most students only spend 20% of their waking hours in the classroom. To shift this trend, schools and community organizations like ours across the country are collaborating to expand learning opportunities for low-income students, with a special focus on the critical, but often neglected, middle school years.

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Studies show that expanding time and opportunities for student learning has an impact on student achievement—particularly for at-risk students. By expanding the learning day and creating summer learning opportunities, more students can have access to academic support, enrichment activities, and mentoring. Recent research has also found that afterschool programs contribute significantly to the development of skills required to thrive in the 21st century, like problem solving, communication, and teamwork. These skills, such as leadership, effective communication, and teamwork, are essential to supporting college and career readiness among students and ensuring they are prepared for life. Please see appendix for resources on evidence of the impact of expanded learning time (ELT).

Congress included ELT[1] in several sections of ESSA. This is a milestone for our students and school communities, as the new law represents the biggest commitment the federal government has made to ELT. ESSA sets conditions that will help schools and community partners sustain and grow expanded learning opportunities around the country.

As state education departments begin their ESSA state planning, we ask that they engage a diverse group of community partners on the front end of your planning process. We believe that state and local leaders are best served by designing a process that includes community stakeholders—such as educators, parents/families, young people, local government, community-based organizations, higher education institutions, philanthropy, private sector, faith-based institutions—that offer assets and expertise that can support the education of our young people. Below is a list of programs and provisions in ESSA that different states can leverage to grow and sustain expanded learning.

For any questions, please contact Roxanne Garza at roxannegarza@citizenschools.org.

[1] The official federal definition of “ELT” can be found in Title VIII “General Provisions”—”The term ‘expanded learning time’ means using a longer school day, week, or year schedule to significantly increase the total number of school hours, in order to include additional time for— ‘(A) activities and instruction for enrichment as part of a well-rounded education; and (B) instructional and support staff to collaborate, plan, and engage in professional development (including professional development on family and community engagement) within and across grades and subjects.”

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Gender Blender: Middle School & Classification

Jessi Worde is a Second Year Teaching Fellow at Van Buren Middle School in Albuquerque, NM In a conversation I was recently party to about UFOs, we were discussing classification, and how classification is a sign of life.  This prompted me to revisit an issue which has plagued me through my academic and professional career: the arbitrary nature of classification.  Last year, after researching cognitive structures (of which classification is one), I developed an extension activity for students in which they were asked to classify objects in the classroom based on color.  If they completed this, they were asked to reclassify the objects based on their type, and if they finished this, they reclassified objects based on their purpose.  In the same way that you can classify objects based on a variety of factors, you can do so with people.  People belong to a variety of classifications—some self-identified and many that are assigned to them.

I want to talk about the first classification we’re assigned in life and how it relates to teaching middle schoolers: gender.  My campus director last year dubbed me “GSM,” short for Gender Studies Major, since I began many a rant with, “As a gender studies major…”  Coming from a radical academic background and insulated queer communities in Austin, Texas, stepping into middle school education was a bit of a culture shock.  It pained me then and it pains me now to hear adults titter, “Oh he’s just being a boy!” or, “Well, you know girls at this age.”  What does that mean?  Can one’s actions and emotions ever be attributed to any one thing?  And what if attributing these behaviors to gender is almost as arbitrary as classifying desks as “rectangular” or a pencil as “a writing instrument?”  A college professor asked my Philosophy of Science class whether we should treat boy/girl twins differently because of their gender despite their preponderance of shared DNA.  “No,” I answered, “You should treat them differently because they’re different people.”

Although gender may be a socially constructed category, it has a very real impact on most people.  Society at large continues to struggle with gender expectations and middle school students are not untouched by this flux.  Furthermore, they are also in many ways agents of this flux, which is pretty cool to see.

None of the girls in our program wear skirts.  (Perhaps ironically, I almost never wear pants, but part of the luxury of subverting the dominant gender paradigm is getting to pick and choose which pieces of gender you want to partake in).  We have a crochet apprenticeship which is comprised of about 50% boys.  When I facilitated a lesson on gender, 100% of all 4 classes I taught believed that it was “ok for boys and men to cry” and “ok for girls and women to express their anger.”  Students were also obviously (if not latently) aware of stereotypes; one girl cautioned that “If you wear men’s clothes and you’re a girl, people can say some nasty stuff about you.”  Boys expressed their dismay (okay, more like outrage) that girls could hit boys but boys couldn’t hit girls.  We discussed the dangerous implications of this double standard.

When I was walking an upset student around the track one day, she noticed her friend (a girl) playing football, and told me about a debate they were having in their English class.  “I was assigned the ‘con’ side,” she sighed, “I have to argue that sports should be separate—men’s and women’s, not everyone playing together.  But I don’t believe that.  Women can do anything men can!”  Last year, walking to our classroom, I had 3 girls profess to me, “I wish I was a 27 year old gay man!”  I was taken aback by this sudden outbreak of gender dysphoria on my team until they all said it was because then they could date Adam Lambert.  During a Math League lesson wherein students had to create a yes/no question and then gather data on the class I had to intervene when a self-identified bisexual student was asking her classmates “Do you like girls?”

In conclusion, as a Gender Studies Major, I have nothing definitive to say about gender and middle school.  My best advice is to keep an open avenue of communication about such matters.  I for one, feel fortunate (if not deeply uncomfortable, at times) to be a part of and witness to this transformative time in gender history in the strange microcosm that is middle school.

Mean Girls: Bullying Then and Now

Ann Lambert is a Second Year Teaching Fellow at the Irving Middle School in Roslindale, MA

Bullies.  They come in pairs, sometimes in groups.  They come in all shapes and sizes.  They come armed with words as their weapons and with a whole lot of (perceived) confidence.  But most of all… they come in middle school.  When I applied to be a Teaching Fellow, I wrote in my application essay that I was motivated to work with middle school students because I wanted to prevent them from having the same experience I did when I was their age.  I felt that if I could relate to at least one girl who gets picked on and make her understand that everything is going to be OK… that middle school sucks and life gets better… it would be worth it.

But my optimistic vision of how I would single handedly change the social scene, build students’ self esteem, and teach girls, specifically, to build each other up rather than tear one another down was quickly demolished.  I would not get retribution for the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days of middle school I suffered through a decade before.  Instead, I would be rudely awakened to the reality that nothing has changed.  I am just as powerless before bullies now as I was then.  And the cyclical nature of relational aggression in females is one that cannot be halted by one well-meaning teacher.

2000-2002: Middle School Student

Having just moved to sunny California, I entered the seventh grade with a predetermined brand: the new girl.  And I didn’t stand a chance.  I was immediately swept up by the “popular” girls who took me for a test drive, figuratively speaking.  After they decided I wasn’t cool enough, I was condemned to a life of mediocrity among the ranks of the commoners.  I was pointed at.  Laughed at.  Called names.  Judged for the company I kept.  On one occasion, I even spent a middle school dance peeling gum out of my closest friend’s hair—strategically placed there by one of the aforementioned popular girls.  What I experienced in middle school was “Mean Girls”-esque…the stuff of movies.  But it gave me thick skin and the desire to be the support that I never had for middle schoolers ten years later…

2010-2012: Middle School Teacher

  •  “You look like an animal”
  • “…all fat with that nappy hair”
  • “Is she a girl?  Walkin’ round in those cargo shorts lookin’ like a boy.  Nobody can tell what he/she is…”
  • “She must come straight from Chinatown with that face all smashed in and her eyes barely open”
  • On a field trip to the zoo, two girls exclaim to a classmate as we pass by the gorilla cages:  “Hey Kayla, welcome home!  Go join your kind—ugly AND hairy!”
  • As we walk pass a mother and her crying baby in a stroller, the same two girls snicker: “Kayla, hide your face you’re scaring the baby!”

…And these are the tamer “blog-appropriate” things I hear on a daily basis.  There are a slew of other four letter words, inappropriate adjectives, and grotesque insults I hear that I will leave up to your imagination.  In response, I have had interventions and conversations with the repeat offenders who seem genuinely sorry, only to hear them saying or doing the same thing the next day.   And I have had heart to hearts with sobbing students on the receiving end of the bullying, only to see them become the bullies to other more vulnerable students.   As I ride the bus home most nights, I can’t help but feel angry and defeated because it seems that in the face of bullying, my best just isn’t enough.

In recent weeks especially, it has been painful yet important for me recognize and come to terms with the fact that I am not changing lives, writing history, or altering deeply rooted social norms in the two years I have dedicated to Citizen Schools.  I may help raise a math grade or twelve (fingers crossed when the report cards come in!).  I may make a student smile by remembering their birthday, baking them cookies, and giving them a hand-made card.  I may even play a small part in introducing a child to their dream-college (BC!) or career that they choose to pursue down the line.  But no matter how much I might like to, I am not able stomp out bullying from the middle school scene one mean girl at a time.

So… what can I do?

  • Address what I see and hear in the halls and in the classroom.
  • Be a consistent and supportive presence in my students’ lives—both the bullies and the bullied.
  • Hope that those who are bullied always remember how it feels to be on the receiving end of aggressive behavior so that they are moved to defend and make a positive impact on the lives of others.
  • And pray that the bullies learn to think about how their words and actions could impact another life, before what is intended to be a little joke has someone writing about her scars 10 years later.

Have you ever felt powerless to change something you felt strongly about?  What did you do?

Teaching Fellows Wear Many Hats

Ashley Kirklen is a Second Year Teaching Fellow at Eastway Middle School in Charlotte, NC

Over the past year and a half, I’ve learned to be able to perform many roles.  As a Teaching Fellow you have to be able to wear many hats. Two of the hats that you’ll wear the most are educator and confidante.

First, let me put on my educator hat.  When I put on this hat, students don’t think I am as cool and “real” as they would like me to be. They tend to say things to me like, “Ms. Kirklen, you’re boring” or “You just don’t understand what it's like to be in middle school” as if I miraculously teleported from kindergarten to my 20s!  Though my students can be a bit dramatic, I understand why they cannot relate to me when I am wearing my educator’s hat.  I remember thinking my teachers were in this little box and they were only teachers.  In my mind they didn’t have other responsibilities, they didn’t have problems, and I didn’t see them as human.  When I saw my 10th grade Spanish teacher smoking a cigarette as she pulled out of the school parking lot I felt like someone had just told me Santa Clause was not real!  Now I am one of “them” and students have the same ideals about me.   A student once saw me out at the grocery store and looked at me as if he’d seen a ghost.  Of course he probably thought that I bought my groceries from the magic teacher store that we all go off to in abyss so we are not seen by our pupils.  This hat is great for teaching lessons, but not so much for relationship building with the students.

Next, there’s the hat or role of confidante.  This role was not in plain text when I read the Teaching Fellow job description, but it happens to be my favorite!  When I put on this hat students trust me and they begin to open up in a way that they don’t feel they are able to with morning teachers.  As adolescents, they go through so many emotions and ups and downs (more of the latter), so they need to know that someone is in their corner.  I must admit, sometimes I would rather they didn’t spill their middle school beans to me about who’s dating who, issues in their homes or questions about everything from A to Z.  Other times, I am grateful I can be there to listen and give sound advice.  Just when they think their teenage world is crumbling to pieces, I assure them that I have a PhD in adolescence and if I made it through, so will they.  I am also happy to debunk some ridiculous myth they heard from their friend in 3rd block.  A student asked the other day if it were true that students in college have to go to class from 8:00am to 3:00pm like in middle school.  I sparked her enthusiasm for higher education by explaining that in college students are able to make their own schedules which usually consist of 3-4 classes per day.  There’s a privilege to wearing this hat, you become human.

On both sides of the coin it can be challenging, but is always rewarding.  There is a time for each role to be played and it’s inevitable that you will have to play both.  I didn’t only sign up to teach, I signed up to care.

“You can pay people to teach, but you can’t pay them to care.”  ~Marva Collins

What other hats do teachers and Teaching Fellows wear?