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Yes...Middle School Matters (53/365)

“Reverse engineer an outcome: Think of what you want to be different because you gathered, and work backward from that outcome.” Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters

In a year filled with uncertainty, anticipation, change, and fatigue, the last thing anyone needs is “one more thing to do”.

As an educator, I’ve remained mindful of this, as I practiced extending grace and gratitude towards a staff I am fortunate to lead.

As a middle school principal for over a decade, I had myself convinced I had “seen it all”.

Boy, was I wrong.

The school years encompassing 2020 and 2021 have been nothing short of historic. As state and local authorities communicated health and safety regulations, our school community responded. Our middle school team is better for this experience, with a renewed ability to anticipate and respond to an idea: the only constant in life is change.

On top of all of this (and a little bit against my better judgment), I took a risk, that I really couldn’t pass up. It was well intended, and about learning and middle school.

No risk, no reward. Right?

With the generous support of our key stakeholders, we were able to purchase one copy of the book, Middle School Matters by Phyllis Fagell for each member of the Faculty. And while I knew no one needed “one more thing to do” this year, I also knew how important it is to gather, the read and discuss a common priority, and to focus on why we do, what we do. This is why Middle School Matters was the right book, at the right time.

We would organize a four part series, neatly structured around the book’s four sections. And any willing attendees would have the opportunity to facilitate one of the sessions, if they choose. The author, Phyllis Fagell, had posted on her website a highly relevant series of questions, which could be used as prompts to promote lively and engaging dialogue. With a great book, great middle school people, and a great framework, we were eager to dive into learning together.

Session 1

The first session book talk was facilitated using Zoom, with respect to the health and safety guidance. Knowing there were 60 minutes budgeted for our time together, we had put together a slide deck that we used to keep participants engaged and focused. As a former teacher, I have confidence in my ability to organize and facilitate meaningful professional learning for teachers. This, however, would be different, as it was my first public venture into the digital space of Zoom or Google Meet.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent my fair share of time attending meetings and hosting check-ins with teacher teams through the pandemic. And I’ve attended professional development meetings that would typically be occurring in-person. That said, on many occasions, I also found my mind wandering or allowed myself to become easily distracted by the temptation to multi-task. Of course, as the facilitator, I knew I couldn’t do this. I’d be responsible for either delivering on expectation that there is a certain energy necessary to take the energy we’re accustomed to sharing in a physical space to that of a digital space.

So what did I do?

I stole the best ideas I’ve seen through the pandemic, delivered by our teachers. The first sessions included Baby Yoda, waterfalls, and highly detailed breakout rooms. And a large group discussion closed out our time together, as did a digital exit ticket that followed.

Session 2

As we progressed through our school’s phased-in reopening of school, in-person meetings resumed, with face coverings and proper social distance. A digital option was also available, for active participation via Google Meet. We began in the section of our school dedicated to our youngest middle schoolers. This space is unique in that it is organized in a manner that makes it easy to group people so they may travel among carousel stations assigned throughout the pod. At the completion of each station, we shared takeaways as a large group, providing teachers with an opportunity to build on one another’s thinking and responses. A digital exit ticket was shared and teachers were informed of a special guest we would welcome to out upcoming Faculty Meeting, the author of Middle School Matters.

Faculty Meeting

I've followed Phyllis’ work since becoming aware of the book she'd authored. She graciously attended our Middle School Principals’ Association Regional Conference the previous January, just prior to COVID-19 forced emergency closures across the globe. Phyllis proved to be a thoughtful and knowledgeable expert on both adolescents…and adolescence. She quickly became known to our New York colleagues as a true “middle school person”.

Gracious, kind, and generous as well, she agreed to participate as our featured guest speaker. Leading up to our meeting, I shared an article with our teachers, to guide their thinking, as we would be discussing resilience and it’s importance headed into spring 2021 and the 2021–22 school year. The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) article, How to Help Students Regain Their Academic Mojo After a Year of Stress, was a highly relevant read as schools prepare to finish 202–21 and set sights on 2021–22. Sharing the article and a brief questionnaire prior to our meeting added meaning to our discussion with Phyllis. Her words of calming realism and genuine optimism helped teachers who were engaged in our book talk further make meaningful connections with what they read.

Session 3

The third section of the book, Learning, was facilitated by two teacher volunteers. This school year in particular has challenged us to think differently about the learning spaces we use, both in and out of the classrooms. While there were limits to group work and collaborative projects in class, teachers explored all available spaces with students - the lockers, hallway pillars, ramps, floors, and outdoor picnic tables situated outside. This session was outdoors, on a beautiful day at picnic tables. Teachers were able to discuss and collaborate around the discussion questions in a format that was organized in a manner to optimize teacher voice and collaboration. Seeing this in action, autonomous and confident adult learners, was energizing. The meaning that was constructed was done so, by many adults who have had either limited experience of “how school works” in pandemic times, or teachers who have been through a great deal in the last two school years. The fact that there was such a high degree of engagement and commitment is a testament to the resilience of adults, charged with creating conditions to promote resiliency in adolescents.

Session 4

The fourth and final session had come along at one of the busiest times in a school year. Teachers committed to after school extra help, coaching, individual instruction, as well as personal responsibilities was putting a strain on everyone’s busy calendars. The meeting, scheduled for the close of a busy spring day in middle school, was temporarily disrupted by a student experiencing a medical emergency that resulted in his being tended to and after which, he recovered. It felt like “a regular spring day” in middle school.

In times like these, where we have to sometimes move “from one event to the next without any loss of enthusiasm”, it was particularly moving to enter the shared space of the outdoor picnic tables, where we would have our final Middle School Matters book talk. Again with the objective to provide space and time for our Faculty to get to know one another, we utilized another “no tech” protocol, clock partners. I’ve long been a proponent of incorporating tools and protocols I’ve observed and experimented with into teacher professional learning days, because a) teachers’ best ideas are worth sharing, b) if they see it used, they will likely incorporate it into future lessons, and c) it’s my chance to use my corny principal line of, “It’s so easy, even a middle school principal can do it”. Using these resources whenever possible also creates the space for us to discuss why and how tools like clock partners are useful in middle school. It brings people together, within and beyond comfort zones, and it creates predictability and reduces nervous anticipation for adolescents. Learners can work with “their friends” and can grow accustomed to working with others they don’t know as well, yet. And there’s choice involved, which adolescents thrive on, with a sense of engagement and ownership in their learning process.

The final session, with scheduled and intermittent movement, was also conversational in nature. Using the discussion questions made it easy to springboard discussions into real-time experiences happening within our school every day. Once again, an exit ticket closed the session, and the resounding feedback was that, while this “one more thing” was not exactly what many people thought they needed, they are looking forward to our next opportunity to read and learn together in a shared physical space.

For the 2021-22 school year, we're eager to build on the momentum of our Middle School Matters Book Talk. Sharing a physical or remote learning space, incorporating choice and movement, and building dialogue off of purpose and meaning were all of value in this process.

And it left me, a veteran middle school principal, with hope for the future, made brighter knowing us “middle school people” thrive together, in service to our beloved adolescents.

The best is yet to come...a Happy and Healthy 2021-22 School Year to all!


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