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Thriving in Middle School

Illustration by Tamara Jones, Design Intern and New Media Major

Thriving in Middle School
A progressive, student-centered philosophy transforms the educational experience for young adolescents

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In Maranacook Community Middle School in Readfield, Maine, the halls and classrooms vibrate with what is best described as an "industrious hum."

"Visitors tell us they can feel the difference when they come through the door," says Maranacook Principal Mary Callan. "There isn't the tightness or rigidity you might feel in a lot of junior high schools. Faculty aren't looking to catch kids doing bad things. They are in the halls talking to kids because they want to be. Kids love it here, and so does the staff."

It is much the same at Warsaw Middle School in Pittsfield, Maine, where Teresa Kane has taught for 17 years.

"A visitor to my class would see students really involved in their learning, taking pride in what they do," Kane says. "When students are involved, they have an investment in what they're doing."

Warsaw and Maranacook are among a small percentage of schools — not just in Maine, but around the country — that have put into practice some of the key concepts that make a middle school different from a traditional junior high, as outlined by the National Middle School Association. The middle school philosophy, which dates to the 1960s, is "progressive and student centered," according to Edward Brazee, a University of Maine professor of education and one of the nation's leading experts on the student-centered model of middle level education. Among its hallmarks: students are involved in decisions about what and how they learn; interaction between students and teachers is relaxed, positive and respectful; multiple learning and teaching approaches respond to students' diversity; and a team approach to teaching a challenging, integrative curriculum allows students to see how different subjects are connected to each other, to the real world and to their own interests. Just as critical, today's middle school philosophy recognizes that young adolescents have unique social, emotional and educational needs. Their teachers value this age group and are prepared to work with students ages 10–15.

"Most important, (students) are learning how to learn," says Sharon Littlefield, another Warsaw teacher.

"They're not going to remember every bit of information I give them, but they're going to remember how they learned and take that with them."

Many people still perceive middle schools as being somehow anti-intellectual and non-challenging for students, a place where young adolescents are in an educational holding pattern, Brazee says. "They have gotten the idea that the middle school concept means we just pat kids on the back and make them feel good about themselves. But I have been in hundreds of middle schools in the past 30 years, and I have never seen that."

Arnold Shorey, principal of Warsaw Middle School, says you won't see it at his school, either.

"We're all about maintaining high educational standards, but it's done in a way that doesn't sacrifice the student's self-esteem. Self-esteem of middle level students is very important and very fragile."

The public's understanding of middle schools — especially how they connect with elementary and high schools — is clouded by the fact that a lot of middle schools aren't very different from the junior highs from which they developed, says Brazee, who has studied, taught and written extensively about middle level education in the past 31 years, and is editor of professional publications for the National Middle School Association.

"Many schools changed the name over the door and adjusted the grade levels, but that's about it," he says. "They haven't really followed through on the concept of what middle schools should be. They've never implemented many of the best practices."

One of these practices is multi-age education — teaching students of different ages and grade levels in the same class. Maranacook Middle School has three single-grade teaching teams and three multi-age teams. Parents choose the model they want for their child.

"Some small, rural schools have had to combine classrooms because of budget cuts," Callan says, "but we chose to have multi-age teams. We researched it, piloted it and liked the results."

Brazee applauds that kind of experimentation and innovation, but he doesn't expect to see very much of it in the near future. He says the flowering of the middle school concept has been set back by the current emphasis on high-stakes, standardized testing at the heart of federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandates.

"That kind of testing is so limiting," he says. "One thing we know about assessment and evaluation is that you can't use just one measure. And yet, NCLB has made schools focus on just those standardized test scores. Teachers have to spend so much time on testing and test preparation that it's squeezing the curriculum and some of the programs that have made a difference for Maine students."

Nevertheless, Brazee says there is cause for optimism; he's beginning to see signs that the pendulum is swinging back.

"Schools are starting to say, ‘Wait a minute. We've gotten off track. We're not doing right by the kids. They're falling through the cracks even more.' The best schools are finding ways to respond to the federal and state mandates while also doing what we know is important for kids."

In 1985, Brazee started a program at UMaine called the Middle Level Education Institute. Each summer, the institute brings together 200 principals, teachers, parents and school board members from around the country to talk about adolescent education and how to plan exemplary programs. This year, the institute director will be Gert Nesin, clinical instructor of education at UMaine. A UMaine alumna, she joined the faculty in 2003 after spending a number of years as a middle school teacher.

Nesin's main interest is integrative education that builds a democratic learning community. "That doesn't mean the kids vote, but we come to consensus on all the big decisions," she says. "We do it with curriculum, instruction, assessment and classroom management."

Nesin thinks this educational model should be implemented to some extent at all grade levels, K–college.

"It's especially critical for middle schools because that's when students are figuring out who they are and who they want to be," she says. "This shows them that school and life don't have to just be about jumping through hoops. It teaches them that they can do meaningful things and make a difference."

Another important function of middle schools is helping students build relationships among themselves, with teachers and with the community. In schools such as Maranacook, that is the primary objective of the advising program.

"Although advisers are involved in the academic lives of their students, that is not the focus," Callan says. "Their job is to really pay attention to the social and emotional lives of the kids, helping them to learn about each other, respect diversity and build community."

Many small towns in Maine and elsewhere don't have separate middle level schools, but that doesn't mean the middle school concept can't be applied to the teaching of young adolescents, Brazee says.

"The grade configuration of a school doesn't really matter. What's important is the kind of program we have for our kids. It's implementing the practices that research and common sense tell us really make a difference."

A source of frustration for some Maine middle school teachers is the state's teacher certification system, which offers certification for elementary and high school teachers. Currently, no certification recognizes that middle level educators should have special preparation and competencies. Brazee and Nesin are working with teachers across the state to change that.

Their efforts are bolstered by a 2003 National Middle School Association report, This We Believe: Successful Schools for Young Adolescents, which describes 14 qualities of exemplary middle level education. Those qualities include an adult adviser/advocate for every student, organizational structures that support meaningful relationships and active learning by both adolescents and teachers, and high expectations for every member of the learning community.

"Successful schools recognize that young adolescents are capable of far more than adults often assume," the report says.

This summer, the association plans to release a DVD that shows how some schools have incorporated the 14 qualities of excellence. The DVD will feature six model schools around the country, including Warsaw and Maranacook.

A number of other Maine schools have done a good job of implementing integrative team teaching and other middle school concepts, Brazee says. Among them: Leonard Middle School, Old Town; Shapleigh Middle School, Kittery; and Freeport Middle School.

"Maine is ahead of most of the nation in middle school education. It's on the cutting edge," says Nesin, who, like Brazee, works closely with a number of middle school principals and teachers in Maine — a collaboration incorporating the latest research and classroom practice that is making a difference in the state.

By Dick Broom
May-June, 2005

Click Here for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.


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