Between ensuring more young children have school readiness skills and raising high school graduation rates, the middle school years are often overlooked in the push to improve education policy and practices.
Nancy L. Deutsch, who directs Youth-Nex at the University of Virginia, hopes to change that this week when researchers, school and district leaders, students, out-of-school time experts, funders and others focusing on early adolescence gather in Washington, D.C., for a two-day “Remaking Middle School” summit.
“Now, I think we are in this moment of increasing understanding of the early adolescent brain as the period of second greatest plasticity and change,” after early childhood, Deutsch said in an interview.
The invitation-only event, which takes place on Feb. 12 and Feb. 13 at Gallup World Headquarters, is an effort to “reshape” the perception of early adolescence as a time of risk to one that focuses more on positive opportunities. Workgroups will focus on topics such as how schools and youth development programs can create environments that better fit students in the middle school years; how to improve preparation programs for middle-level teachers and administrators; and how to capitalize on what researchers have learned about the importance of peer groups, Deutsch said.
Following the event, the organizers, which also include the New York Life Foundation and the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), plan to create virtual spaces for the workgroups to continue collaborating and developing resources that will be accessible to teachers and others working with this age bracket.
April Tibbles, chief communications officer for AMLE, said expectations for the event are high and that participants will “channel their collective energy to collaborate on real action steps to improve educational experiences for middle schoolers.”
Making the ‘learning space’ fit
Research led by Jacquelynne Eccles, an education professor at the University of California, Irvine, on “stage-environment-fit,” for example, has shown that negative outcomes sometimes occur when there is a mismatch between the needs of young adolescents and their social environments.
Some districts have aimed to reduce risk behaviors or address a drop in students’ engagement in school by moving to a K-8 configuration. But regardless of whether the middle grades stay in an elementary building or have their own school, “any model can be done well or can be done poorly,” Deutsch said. “It’s about what happens in that learning space.”
Positive opportunities for middle school students — both in school and in out-of-school programs — include taking on leadership opportunities and interacting with younger students through reading or project-based learning.
"Middle-level students are generally in the early stage of puberty and this affects the development of their brain, which in turn affects how they learn and how they process the world around them," Winsome Waite, the vice president of practice at the Alliance for Excellent Education — who also leads the organization's Science of Adolescent Learning work — wrote in an email. "Their curiosity and their natural tendency to want to take risks and seek peer attention and rewards should be viewed by the adults in their world as a great time of opportunity to connect and teach with a positive lens about this time of development."
Linda Ruest, an instructional specialist for professional development with the Williamsville Central School District in New York, said too often, middle school educators were either prepared to teach at the elementary or secondary level and hadn’t had training focused specifically on adolescent development.
“Teachers need to learn what their students are like and what it looks like in the classroom to be responsive to their needs,” Ruest, a past president of the New York State Middle School Association, said in an interview. Instruction, she said, should “reflect that we understand that kids need to move, that kids need to talk and that kids need time to prepare to speak.”
Because young adolescents are naturally self-conscious, she works with teachers on classroom protocols that give students time to think about the answers or information they want to share with the class. When she observes teachers, she said she’s always happy when she can write in her report, “I can tell you get your kids."
She added that a team structure, in which teachers share a group of students, and advisory programs increase opportunities for teachers to develop connections with their students.
“We can’t forget that you can have a personal commitment to meeting the needs of middle-level students,” she said, “but you also need an institutional commitment.”
Chad Ratliff, the principal of both Community Middle and Murray High School — part of Community Public Charter School in Albemarle County, Virginia — said the growing emphasis on social-emotional learning, teaching with a “transdisciplinary approach” to content and integrating students’ interests into the curriculum are examples of how to improve schools for middle schoolers.
“This contextualizes things for students and we see enthusiasm for learning go through the roof when it all comes together,” he wrote in an email. “We need a new narrative around middle years education to build on the momentum student-centered learning has gained in recent years, and I think the summit is a great first step to convene folks leading this work. A network structure does not exist, and I hope this may lead to something like that.”