By: Susan Davis
The middle years can be challenging as students face many physical, psychological, social, and intellectual changes that come with adolescence. Schools can support students by implementing social and emotional learning (SEL) curriculums and practices and incorporating equity.
SEL is a process by which individuals develop their knowledge and capacity to incorporate behaviors, thoughts, and emotions to support social interactions (CASEL, 2003). Transformative SEL addresses issues such as power, privilege, and discrimination (Jagers et al., 2019) and centers equity through identity, agency, belonging, collaborative problem-solving, and curiosity (Jagers et al., 2021). It is essential that SEL and equity work together to be truly effective.
Mindfulness is one approach to SEL and is defined as non-judgmental, present-moment awareness (Kabat-Zinn, 2015). This article outlines actions that educators can use to create spaces that integrate SEL, mindfulness, and equity into the fabric of our system.
“Who am I?” “Where do I fit?” Educators often tell students what to learn, how to behave, and where they fit. Awareness of self and how we affect each other leaves us less likely to cause harm. Identity development is understanding and valuing one’s sense of self, and for many, positive identity development relates to their race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. Identity indicates understanding and discernment associated with various intersectional personal and social group statuses. The following are ways educators can facilitate identity and belonging in schools:
1.Recognize our own beliefs.
2.Do the inner work first.
These practices set the stage for others to feel safe to be themselves around us and with us to create an environment where everyone can shine with their authentic selves.
Mindfulness explores a focus on the now with openness, curiosity, and acceptance, and strengthens our sense of belonging. Ironically, our awareness of self leads us to compassionate action towards others through the awareness of our interconnectedness. Unifying staff through collaborative learning teams can be a great way to foster belonging. Teachers can translate this practice into group work within classrooms. Bringing a non-judgmental, present-moment awareness to group dynamics sets the stage for safety and belonging.
Educators can facilitate agency by providing opportunities for voice and choice in educational spaces. Rather than beginning from a teacher-led, educator-centered practice, co-constructing a safe space through group agreements allows students to explore student agency (Duane et al., 2021). One example of a co-opted agreement adapted from East Bay Meditation Center (2022) is the following:
· Try it on: Be willing to “try on” new ideas or ways of doing things that might not be what you prefer.
· Practice self-focus: Attend to and speak about your own experiences and responses and not speak for a whole group.
· Understand the difference between intent and impact: Try to understand and acknowledge impact.
· Practice “both /and”: When speaking, substitute “and” for “but.” This practice acknowledges multiple realities.
· Move up /move back: Encourage participation by all present. Take note of who is speaking and who is not. If you tend to talk often, consider “moving back.”
· Practice mindful listening: Avoid planning what you will say as you listen.
· Confidentiality: Take home learnings, but don’t identify anyone other than yourself, now or later.
· Right to pass: You can say “I pass” if you don’t wish to speak.
Collaborative Problem Solving
Collaborative problem-solving is an essential skill set rooted in relationships and is a critical 21st-century skill. Project-based learning provides an excellent opportunity for schools to practice collaborative problem-solving. The following are some tips to be more mindful during collaborative problem-solving (Baker, 2022):
Put feelings or thoughts into words. Articulate your feelings; don’t engage in a long conversation about the details of the emotion. This allows you to objectively state your opinions without getting hung up on the emotions surrounding the core problem.
Understand that your beliefs may be emotionally driven. They are subconscious, automatic thoughts that can be illogical, invalid, or biased.
Accept that your perception is limited.Your understanding of the situation is only one side of the story. Try to interpret the situation differently, change its meaning, or view it from another person’s perspective.
Be solution-focused rather than wanting to win the fight.
Keep in mind thatnot everyone wants to reframe conflict as an opportunity – it’s comfortable to ignore problems in the short term, but leaving conflicts unresolved will lead you to similar situations in the future.
Allow all voices to be heard.
It is helpful to have a mediator involvedif tensions are high. This creates safety and an opportunity for all voices to be heard.
Curiosity mirrors a core need in the iterative process to share information about self and the surrounding world. Get curious about emotions When we get curious about our emotions, it gives us a moment to pause with nonjudgement. We can facilitate opportunities for students to get curious by:
Practicing Intellectual humility: acknowledge that as the educator, you do not hold all the answers. Allow students the opportunity to seek solutions for themselves.
Looking beyond standardized tests and grades. Allow students to get innovative and remove these boundaries.
Asking open-ended questions. Explore reflective journal writing or classroom discussion. Create opportunities to discuss questions where there is no right or wrong answer.
Celebrating mistakes. Growth happens when we make mistakes.
Mindfulness can transform education: superintendents while setting organizational direction; principals while working with students on discipline issues; teachers while navigating the complexities of being a teacher; students in dealing with each other and their differences. Not one individual does not affect another. We are connected, and our actions affect the whole.
SEL or mindfulness is not a short-term fix to all the social imbalances the education system faces but a long-term commitment. Imagine a world where SEL and mindful practices crystallize in our relationships at work, grocery stores, on social media, or while waiting at a traffic light. Mindfulness is a practice that changes hearts and minds and leads to living a more meaningful life.
Susan J. Davis is an SEL coordinator in the St. Vrain Valley School district. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Colorado Denver with a research focus on equity and social and emotional learning.
Baker, K. (2022). 7 ways to use mindfulness in problem-solving. Retrieved July 11, 2022, fromhttps://blog.nols.edu/2015/07/26/7-ways-to-use-mindfulness-in-problem-solving
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2003). Safe and sound: An educational leader's guide to evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) programs. Dept. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED482011
East Bay Meditation Center. (2022, March). Agreements for multicultural interactions at EBMC. East Bay Meditation Center. Retrieved from https://eastbaymeditation.org/2022/03/agreements-for-multicultural-interactions/
Jagers, R., Skoog-Hoffman, A., Barthelus, B., & Schlund, J. (2021, June 3). Transformative Social and Emotional Learning. American Federation of Teachers. https://www.aft.org/ae/summer2021/jagers_skoog-hoffman_barthelus_schlund
Jagers, R.J., Rivas-Drake, D., & Williams, B., (2019) Transformative social and emotional learning (SEL): Toward SEL in service of educational equity and excellence, Educational Psychologist, 54, 162-184, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2019.1623032
By: Tracy Stegall
How is your district building self-awareness for middle school students in relation to the world of work? How are you providing relevant, real-world experiences for students to discover their passions?
In the Thompson School District, alongside our partners at the Thompson Education Foundation, we are paying attention to the intentional skill development of in-demand ESSENTIAL skills, and doing so as early as elementary school.
In our middle school programming, a combination of partnerships with businesses alongside intelligent pathway planning offers students the opportunity to begin to see ALL of their “tomorrows” at an early age. This is some of the work encompassed by Thompson Tomorrows Today.
Thanks to a grant from OtterCares Foundation, we partnered with MindSpark Learning and Colorado Succeeds to develop a two-year program supporting teachers in K-8 schools in building, from the ground up, a program where purposeful connections are made between school subjects and industry/career paths. Through problem-based learning and work in approaching core subjects through the lens of business and community, students build self-awareness, awareness of careers and industries, and essential skills. This, in turn, offers our business partners authentic ways to partner with us in the district, building a stronger community infrastructure.
This work started with a Great Minds Retreat in April, 2022. This full day event offered a cross-sector opportunity to design and plan Thompson Tomorrows Today. Fifty participants from the Thompson School District and local businesses came together to envision our work together. The main goal was to plan our inaugural Thompson Tomorrows Today event.
In August, the Thompson Tomorrows Today event involved 100 cross-sector revolutionaries including:
Teams of 80 TSD Educators K-8; 20 Business Partners
Thompson Education Foundation; Learning Services Leadership
This day included tours of the Thompson Career Campus and tours of industry partner worksites: Tharp Cabinets, CoreKat Data Solutions, and Columbine Health. Following a collaborative, catered lunch, the day launched into School Team Planning, Industry Collaboration, and Idea Pitching by Educators to Industry Partners.
As the 2022-2023 school year launched, educators ignited their work and came back together with business partners in November for “High Tea with T3.” During this after school event, school teams and business partners re-connected, celebrated successes, and planned for next steps. We envision additional connection opportunities throughout the remainder of this year.
Of note, this work is helping us increase the relevance of Individual Career and Academic Planning at the middle school level. Also, the Thompson School District (in partnership with Poudre and Estes Park) uses Xello as our college and career readiness software. This product allows businesses in Larimer County to partner with school districts electronically. Businesses can use the software to post internships, externships, and jobs… and students can connect directly with businesses through their Xello Profile.
By: Jason Taylor
As a 2000 graduate of Greeley West High School(Go Spartans), I have always wanted to believe that good things were happening with the schools in my hometown. Over the years though, I got pretty used to hearing lots of negativity coming from Greeley community members, parents, and teachers. That all started to change in 2015 when Dr. Dierdre Pilch became the superintendent and engaged in a full remodel of the district. As time went by, I started hearing more and more positive news about schools in the district. When I learned last spring that Brentwood Middle School had received the prestigious “Schools to Watch” designation from the Colorado Association of Middle Level Education (CAMLE), my interest level was piqued and I knew that I would have to visit the school to see for myself.
I recently spent a wonderful afternoon with Brentwood Principal Nicole Petersen and her staff. The first thing that I would mention is that the term “staff” really is not a great descriptor of the team of educators working at this first-rate school. John Spencer, who has been teaching Social Studies at Brentwood for the last 12 years referred to the staff as “a family” and I think that is certainly a more appropriate label. Everywhere you go in the school, you find another smiling face. Teachers, students, and administrators all interacting in ways that you would expect to see from family members (and I mean that in the best, most positive sense).
In walking the hallways at Brentwood, you get the immediate sense that you belong there (even when you’re a 41 year old administrator from another school). I spent a few minutes chatting with Grace Jackson, a 9th grader who used to attend Brentwood and now chooses to return to the school to help her former teachers (yes, you read that right). When asked what her favorite thing about her old school was, she instantly answered “the community.” “Everyone is welcomed, regardless of their race or identity” she said. When asked about other favorite aspects of the school, Grace mentioned her teachers. “They push you to think deeper and they expanded our minds” she said. In fact, every single student that I visited cited the school’s welcoming culture and fun/engaging teachers as their favorite parts of the school.
When I interviewed Principal Petersen, she too stated that the school’s culture and climate are top reasons for their academic success. “Students are celebrated for who they are,” Principal Petersen said. This is particularly important in a school as diverse as Brentwood Middle School. In fact, out of a total of 561 students, only 25% are white or Caucasian. The other 75% of their student body is made up of various other “minority” student populations. On top of that, a staggering 78% of the student body qualifies for free and reduced lunch which makes the school’s top ranked “Performance” rating on the Colorado School Performance framework all the more impressive. So how did Brentwood achieve this phenomenal academic feat? The answer lies in a combination of high academic expectations, great teachers, and the amazing “family” culture that I mentioned earlier.
Here again, Principal Petersen mentions the importance of school culture in their success. “You can put a lot of emphasis on big events, but it’s more about the little day to day things.” Teachers and students alike receive weekly recognitions, birthday celebrations, and my personal favorite: hot chocolate on the first snowfall. These countless cultural initiatives serve to boost morale and contribute to the overall feel of the school. John Spencer (mentioned earlier) said that his favorite part of being a teacher at Brentwood is the “loving, family atmosphere” that has been maintained for many years and has led to the retention of an excellent staff (which certainly would explain why every student interviewed loved their teachers so much)
After discussing the cultural initiatives going on at Brentwood, I asked Principal Petersen about the things she is most proud of academically. Without hesitation, she immediately cited the school’s “Step up to Writing” initiative as a particular point of pride. Unlike many schools, at Brentwood, writing is embraced by the entire staff. Each core class is expected to engage in one structured paragraph every week and one multiple paragraph essay every month. Brentwood’s school-wide literacy and writing expectations provide a common language that is used in every class so that the students know how to structure paragraphs and plan/pull from the text (skills that are imperative in order for a student to be successful on the yearly CMAS exam).
Brentwood’s academic excellence doesn’t stop with writing though. In addition to a full 90 minutes of literacy instruction every day, students also receive 90 minutes of daily math instruction and 90 minutes of science every other day. Student schedules are rounded out with a broad range of electives including visual and performing arts, PE, tech, and foreign language (Brentwood is actually the first middle school that I have found that provides in person classes in the Japanese language).
After school, students are provided with a wide array of athletic, extra-curricular, and co-curricular activities including Student Council, Gaming Club, Math Counts, Forensics, Lulac, and Drama. As I interviewed various students at the school, I was struck at how each student was involved with a different sport or activity. Keelee Beacher (7th grade) was particularly excited about this year’s musical play “High School Musical.” Nurfadilah (or “Nur” for short) Nabi Husseim (7th grade) is involved with the Dream Team where you “learn for your job, college, and future.” Aaden Chacon (8th grade) and Hilario Ruiz Ortiz (6th grade) are both heavily involved with sports. Truly, there is something for every child within the walls of Brentwood Middle School.
As my time at the school came to an end, I had the opportunity to meet Brenwood’s entire administrative team consisting of AP/AD Heather Severt, AP Andy Hartshorn, and Instructional Coach Lisa McGee. It only took a few minutes to see the very close bond of this group of professionals and to understand further why the culture of the school is so positive (look no further than the picture included with this article for proof). I firmly believe that a school’s success begins with a solid administrative team and this is an outstanding one!
I would like to thank Principal Petersen and her entire school (staff and students) for welcoming me into their school and showing me what “Bengal Pride” is all about! This is a school of excellence in every way; a place where kids from every background can gather to learn and grow. Brentwood Middle School is a “School to Watch” in every sense of the phrase!!
By: Greg George
Mathematics educators are continuously looking for active engagement strategies that keep students “in the game” of learning. After all, we want more for our students than having them passively watch their teachers do all the talking, the thinking, and the mathematics on a daily basis. While there are numerous instructional routines that enhance student engagement, Think-Pair-Share can be a routine that promotes access and opportunity for all students in math classrooms if planned and used with intentionality.
How does Think-Pair-Share work? It all begins with a well-selected prompt.
Think: Give students 2-3 minutes of quiet, individual time for thinking and writing initial thoughts around the prompt. This is an opportunity for students to draw on prior knowledge and independently engage with the prompt, formulating and documenting “rough draft” thinking. An essential component for consideration, though, is that the prompt must be accessible to all students with multiple entry points and multiple solution pathways. For teachers, this is a formative assessment opportunity for seeing which students are diving in with confidence, which students are pursuing ideas with revisions or restarts, and which students are coming up empty with no thoughts documented whatsoever. The key is giving just enough time for students to fully understand the prompt and get started with ideas, yet not enough time to completely finish.
Pair: Once every student has initial thoughts on paper, now they have something to talk about. Whether it’s with a partner or a table group, give students time for talking about their initial thoughts with others. This is a great place for sentence starters and language frames in supporting academic conversations for all learners (especially multilingual learners). The power behind this phase of the routine is that every students’ voice is heard and contributes to the conversation. This ensures all students actively participate instead of hiding behind those who voluntarily engage in class. This kind of language-rich routine levels the playing field for all students and reduces the dependence on authority and passive involvement by empowering students to independently voice and shape ideas (Zwiers & Crawford, 2011). For teachers, this is time for monitoring student responses and conversations, taking an inventory of the responses for what was expected, unique strategies or solution methods, and possible error analysis opportunities. This is a critical stage for the teacher, as the monitoring of responses is providing insights for which samples will be selected for the whole group conversation.
Share: This is not sharing for the sake of sharing in a whole group setting; rather, this is a well-organized and thoughtful display of select student work samples that will promote conversation and shared understanding that aim toward the mathematical learning goals of the lesson. Plus, it’s centered around ideas and solutions from the students themselves, honoring their thinking and providing another avenue for whole group participation. The key is the selecting and sequencing of responses in a way that tells a mathematical story, connecting the responses together. Essentially, this is a culmination of anticipating, monitoring, selecting, sequencing, and connecting, “designed to help teachers to use students’ responses to advance the mathematical understanding of the class as a whole by providing teachers with some control over what is likely to happen in the discussion as well as more time to make instructional decisions by shifting some of the decision making to the planning phase of the lesson” (Smith & Stein, 2018). And never let a common error or misunderstanding go to waste in this moment. Engaging students in error analysis not only increases academic discourse naturally, but it’s engaging student in higher-order thinking and reasoning skills as stated in Standard for Mathematical Practice #3: Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. (Although, when examining responses that contain errors or misunderstandings that lead to valuable teaching moments, it is best advised to use anonymous student work.) After the sequence of student responses is complete, the class is now at a launching point for a new task, direct instruction, or a formal wrap-up of the lesson. Success here is dependent upon intentionality in the moment and knowing the outcome for sharing student responses. The alternative is asking the ever-so-risky question “Who would like to share?” With this question, the teacher has to prepare for anything and everything that comes their way with full awareness that the goals of the lesson could be compromised by a single tangential response or a continuous stream of random and haphazard responses that lack coherence, cohesion, or any form of preplanning.
If the goal is to have learning outcomes achieved by design for all students, we cannot rely on instructional routines that are left up to chance to only benefit some. Think-Pair-Share is one such routine that addresses the following questions:
How might we draw on students’ prior mathematics knowledge as an entry point to the lesson and build off those ideas in exploring new content?
How might we get all student voices in the conversation and have all students contribute in a meaningful way during the lesson?
How might we use student work and responses to drive academic conversations among students, facilitated by the teacher, aimed toward the mathematical learning goals of the lesson?
Think-Pair-Share can be effective in the mathematics classroom as a routine that keeps students and their ideas at the forefront of the lesson through thoughtful and choreographed facilitation.
Smith, M. S., & Stein, M. K. (2018). 5 Practices for orchestrating productive mathematics discussions, 2nd edition. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Zwiers, J., & Crawford, M. (2011). Academic conversations: Classroom talk that fosters critical thinking and content understandings. Stenhouse Publishers.
Greg George is the K-12 Mathematics Coordinator for St. Vrain Valley Schools, serving as a former high school math teacher and a current affiliate faculty member at Regis University. Follow Greg on Twitter @SVVSDMath.
By Cyle Ercolino, Bianca Estrada, Lauren Gouldey, Gage Honneger, Hayes Horstmeyer, Alexa Hudson, Bradley Irwin, Annabeth Johnson, Jakobe Jones, Jack Robitaille, Ndiaw Samb, Jo Smeby, Abby Snogren, Sean Sullivan, and Matt Moulton
This blog post has lots of authors. The first fourteen authors are many different things. They are storytellers, artists, musicians, scientists, servers, dancers, travelers, and so much more. I (Matt, assistant professor and teacher educator) am lucky enough to learn with and from them on a twice-a-week basis this semester. They are all future teachers and this was a semester we spent in a Colorado middle school. I asked them what they learned. Here is their collective response.
Thoughts on the middle school students
Jakobe, an icon, barista, art teacher in training, shared “Kids like teachers who allow them to be themselves.” Murmurs of agreement went around the room. Hayes, preparing to enter math classrooms while also working sound booths and constructing tetrahedrons out of paper, agreed and shared that connections to student identities bear fruit in classrooms. Whether you comment on their beanie, the book they’re reading, the band on their shirt, each little conversation builds positive relationships and helps nurture students during the second most physical and mental developmental period in their lives.
Annabeth, a becoming social studies teacher with at least two jobs on top of being a student, relayed “You learn so much about kids in a middle school that can translate across the board to different grade levels. I have learned more from the kids…My cooperating teacher is amazing…but I am learning way more from the kids.”
Runner, ray of sunshine, and future social studies educator, Abby, said, “Positive affirmations go a long way. Middle school students will respond well to positive feedback. This is a big time when students are deciding their in/out of school identities. If we can be positive and affirming teachers, they will probably be more likely to acknowledge that they are good at school.”
Lauren, dancer and future science educator, followed up with “The more specific the affirmation or comment the more meaningful. I had one teacher who apologized for making a kid feel less than.” That intentionality speaks volumes to not just the student who is being apologized to, but to all others in the room.
Speaking on identity and developmental changes
Alexa, who donned the school mascot costume for a pep rally (and who happens to be in school to be a music educator), said “Between fourth and fifth grade, they are changing so much. Then middle school happens and it is wild. Wild.”
“In high school we thought we were evolving and changing. In reality, we were just the same people [as in middle school], just taller,” said Jo, self proclaimed not a normal horse girl and future agricultural educator.
What role does content play?
Cyle, a wrestler-skateboarding-veteran-social studies educator, shared some of the conversations he had with seventh graders. One revolved around the content and who teaches it. One student told him “Mr. H’s history class? I hate history but Mr H treats us like real people.”
Following up, Sean, Louisvillian musician and music educator, said “High school teachers love content. Elementary school teachers love kids. Middle school teachers have to love and do both.”
“But a lot of the strategies and practices will work across grade levels,” shared Bianca, Family and Consumer Sciences educator, skater, entrepreneur, and rock collector. This broad reach of intentional practices was on display in all of the observations made over the semester. From Bianca’s FACS class and Cyle’s ELA class to the plethora of Music classes and more. For example, Samb, Senegalese French educator, had loads of opportunities to practice how strategies and intentional practices can cross content and grade level boundaries. French was not offered in our partner school. Samb and Gage (Social Studies, yoga, good vibes) spent a semester working with students in a PE class. The class gave them the opportunity to witness a different way for students to express their creativity. Gage also added that it was an opportunity to learn how to politely apologize for throwing a dodgeball a little too hard.
Thoughts on teaching
Jack, music educator and designer of personal tattoos, recognized a difference between personal learning style and the students’ learning preferences. Jack shared “The way I learn is different from how I have witnessed some students learn. I recognize my need to write on the board to help visual learners.” Other future teachers shared their different teaching personas, masks, hats, and how they are different depending on the audience or classroom.
Bradley, skilled at teaching music, playing piano, and asking the question “Who washed Washington’s white woolen underwear when Washington’s washer woman went west?” described the idea of teaching style/persona/mask/hat as something that organically develops depending on the day. He mentioned that so much is in flux in the choir classroom that he has to quite literally play it by ear.
Preparing Middle Level Teachers
As the instructor of the course, I learned a lot. All throughout the semester, returned to the newly revised AMLE (2022) Professional Preparation and Credentialing standards. For a thorough executive summary of the Essential Program Components of impactful middle level teacher prep programs, please visit: AMLE Professional Prep. Full disclosure, the program I teach in is not a Middle Level specific program. I can’t help but bend my class towards middle level practices, though.
I witnessed lots of AMLE program components evidenced in these teacher candidates.
These teacher candidates are content experts. It takes a content expert and adept pop culture references to grab middle schooler’s attention with an Olivia Rodrigo as a main character in an explanation of the revolutionary war example.
These teacher candidates are advocates and allies. Their default is to listen empathetically, champion students’ identities, learn about needs and find ways to meet them.
These teacher candidates critically reflect on their experiences and want to be better, not just for themselves but for their future students.
These teacher candidates learned lessons that they will hopefully take with them as they enter classrooms. I know that I learned so much from them that will influence my future classes.
By Karen Weller Swanson and Micki M. Caskey
As winter break approaches, we wonder about reviving the hope, beauty, and joy of teaching. Our purpose is to engage with a kaleidoscopic metaphor to suggest an approach to thinking about practice and dialogue. Our approach is to embrace the complexity of teaching which includes knowing who we are. Our goal is to illustrate how teaching is like a beautiful and ever changing mandala using practice and dialogue.
As two experienced middle school teachers, we recognize the complexity of teaching is in constant flux. Middle level educators “...respond to the nature of young adolescents in all their amazing diversity and are designed specifically to support the developmental needs and social identities of students” (Bishop & Harrison, 2021, p. 3). The work of middle school teaching is kaleidoscopic in nature. We are going to focus on how practice (teaching) and dialogue (reflection and mentoring) can positively impact teachers.
Practice and Dialogue
Teaching nudges us to think and rethink our practice, sometimes by choice and sometimes by circumstance. Bishop and Harrison (2021) state that middle school teacher development also is responsive to the needs of teachers. They suggest that professional development “...is job-embedded, extends over a sustained duration, and is built on a model of ongoing coaching, feedback, and reflection” (p. 49). We believe that intentionally developing a practice and dialogue model grows the teacher identity for all who participate. Practice and dialogue can be a professional learning community, an integrated team, content area groups, or friends.
We view practice as pedagogy, content and instructional choices, building classroom communities, parent communication, and creating inclusive environments for all learners. We also view it holistically much like Maxine Greene (1988) who explained:
It is through and by means of education that they [teachers] may become empowered to think about what they are doing, to become mindful, to share meanings, to conceptualize, to make varied sense of their lived worlds. It is through education that preferences may be released, languages learned, intelligence developed, perspectives opened, possibilities disclosed (p. 12).
Dialogue, on the other hand, “is more than just talking, it embodies the challenging work of questioning” our practice. We are “a mirror for one another to challenge assumptions…and “to collaborate in an intimate way, and lastly, to grow individually because of investing in each other” (Swanson & Caskey, 2022, p. 9).
To reveal the intricacies of an integrated teaching career, we turn the kaleidoscope and consider the resulting mandala. These actions of turning and considering help us to learn and grow as teachers. We practice, and then, we dialogue about our practice.
We couple practice with dialogue because through dialogue teachers can further examine their practice. We view dialogue as our conversations with colleagues, team members, discussions with special education staff, talking with administrators, counselors, and parents. We agree with bell hooks (1994), an author and social activist, who asserted:
To engage in dialogue is one of the simplest ways we can begin as teachers, scholars, and critical thinkers to cross boundaries, the barriers that may or may not be erected by race, gender, class, professional standing, and a host of other differences (p. 130).
From practice and dialogue, we get a sounding board for ideas, reflection on instructional experiences, and problem solve. Because practice and dialogue are constant and fluid , we get better. Practice and dialogue are at the heart of our kaleidoscopic perspective.
A Kaleidoscopic Perspective
We use a kaleidoscopic metaphor because of its dynamic nature. A kaleidoscope illuminates the interplay of identities (teacher, caregiver, partner) that produce an integrated teaching identity. When turning the kaleidoscope, light and motion create beautiful patterns—a mandala that illustrates the complex, every-changing nature of teachers’ work. According to bell hooks (2003):
[T]he classroom is one of the most dynamic work settings precisely because we are given such a short amount of time to do so much. To perform with excellence and graceteachers must be totally present in the moment, totally concentrated and focused. (p. 14).
The eye pieceallows you to look inside the kaleidoscope and focus on images produced when turning the kaleidoscope. It symbolizes a starting point, a position, or stance from which a person engages with life and the world. In the case of teachers, it is your perspective of the teaching practice.
The central section is the viewing tube, encircling a set of mirrors. Most kaleidoscopes have three rectangular, lengthwise mirrors that reflect and produce an image. By turning and re-turning the viewing tube, you can reflect on your teaching practice.
The end cap securely holds the pieces of glass that move in relation to one another when turning the kaleidoscope. In our metaphor, these colored pieces of glass stand for multiple identities. For example, we are both moms, spouses, sisters, friends, colleagues, mentors, as well as teachers.
You control the turning of the kaleidoscope and the every-change beauty of the mandala. Choosing a kaleidoscopic perspective actively engages you in creating and interpretingthe beauty. A key element is a quality light source. As an instrument of reflection, the source of light makes the difference. Bright sunlight makes the colored pieces dance, while a dim lamp seems to make them float softly. Both options are beautiful but deliver different experiences. What illuminates an integrated identity can include friends, mentors, and respected educational leaders. Light can also come from students, peers, a pedagogical book, or self-reflection.
Our goal is to encourage teachers to bring themselves—their whole being—into the classroom. Teachers’ multiple identities are active, interrelated, and inextricably woven together. Taking time to breathe and reflect allows teachers to form a rich, strong, multi-faceted, and ever-changing mandala. We find that turning the kaleidoscope can lead to ever-changing mandalas with the benefits of activating creativity, building avenues for growth, quieting emotions and stress, and improving focus (Singh, 2021).
We find hope that the intentional use of practice and dialogue anchors our professional work. We believe that a kaleidoscopic perspective helps us value the beauty in small changes, while also grasping the joy we feel when turning the endcap and creating new patterns.
Bishop, P. A., & Harrison, L. M. (2021). The successful middle school: This we believe. Association for Middle Level Education.
Greene, M. (1988). The dialectic of freedom. Teachers College Press.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.
hooks, b. (2003). Teaching community. A pedagogy of hope. Routledge.
Singh, N. (2021, June 3). Mandala: A blend of history, religion, and psychology. The Mind Fool. https://themindfool.com/mandala/
Swanson, K. W., & Caskey, M. M. (2022). Mentoring dialogue and practice: A transformative experience. Journal of Transformative Learning, 9(1), 8–17.
Karen Weller Swanson, teacher, Timberview Middle School in Colorado Spring. As an eighth grade science teacher and former academic, she mentors teachers. Her teaching and research focus on mentoring and teachers and teacher candidates
Micki Caskey, professor emerita, Portland State University. As an academic and former practitioner, she mentors educators. Her teaching and research focus on mentoring teacher candidates and teachers.
By: Carrie Yantzer
“If you are okay, everything and everyone around you will be okay.” This is a something my beautiful mother said to me daily. I never understood what this statement meant until after she passed away at the young age of 54. What we “GET” to do as school leaders should be our PASSION not just a JOB. Having a W.I.N. perspective (What’s Important Now) is about making the time to focus on YOU! Our own personal self/care and wellness is something we often put on “hold” as school leaders. But before we can take care of our students, staff, and others we MUST take care of ourselves.
When is the last time you intentionally focused on YOU? The W.I.N. Perspective is realizing that what’s important now is you. As a school leader you need to take care of your body, heart, mind, and purpose. When we intentionally focus on making sure we are okay, everything and everyone around us will also be okay.
BODY (physical): This is your overall physical health.
Are you eating healthy?
Are you drinking water?
Are you taking breaks?
Have you given your eyes a break from the screen?
Are you sleeping?
HEART (emotional): School leaders we are natural nurturers to others, and we often empty our own fuel tanks of life for others. We are always giving ourselves for the greater good. Emotionally are you setting clear boundaries on your time and energy?
Who are the influencers in your life?
Are you spending time with people you care about and who care about you?
MIND (psychological): When was the last time you took time for personal reflection?
Have you noticed your own feelings and thoughts?
Have you made time for you to learn, think and grow?
PURPOSE (spirituality): This is your ability to connect to your inner “why” of life. This is about you, if you pray, pray, if you meditate, mediate. Visualize your own purpose.
Have you looked for ways to affirm your own purpose?
Are you letting your purpose drive your mission and vision?
W.I.N. can come in a variety of ways for each individual and it’s important to take the time to identify what a W.I.N looks like for you.
Carrie Yantzer, Leadership Development Strategist for Capturing Kids’ Hearts and Retired Middle School Principal
By: Darcy Hutchins, Ph.D.
November in Colorado is Family and School Partnership in Education Month. While family, school, and community partnerships (FSCP) are important for positive student outcomes all year, now is a good time to identify and celebrate current practices and set some goals for how you’d like to improve.
Over fifty-five years of research indicate the importance of Families, Schools, and Communities Partnering (FSCP) for student learning. National data shows that students gain academically, as well as behaviorally, when families and school staff work together to support student success. Current and notable research findings include that:
Parent-Community Ties is one of five “essential elements” of school improvement (Hart et al., 2020).
Students have better attendance and higher reading comprehension scores when districts, schools, and public charter schools conduct home visits (Sheldon & Jung, 2018).
School-initiated, specific family participation programs - such as shared reading, homework checking, and teamed two-way communication -are significantly and positively related to academic achievement for students at all levels (Epstein et al., 2018).
These data findings show that perhaps the greatest challenge surrounding FSCP is not whether they impact student achievement. Rather, the greater challenge is what is needed for high quality partnership structures and how to sustain and embed through structures in established organization. This article includes information about the components of a comprehensive partnership structure that can support student learning, as well as promising partnership practices for middle schools to when considering how to partner with every family to support every student.
Components of a Comprehensive Partnership Structure
As more research and examples of promising practices emerge, districts, schools, and public charter schools are beginning to move away from “random acts of partnership” to instead have a comprehensive, sustainable partnership structure that aligns with school improvement goals and student outcomes. The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) recommends that schools implement the following four components of comprehensive FSCP, adapted from Dr. Joyce Epstein’s research (2018):
Implementing the Framework of the National Standards for Family-School Partnerships
Framework of the National Standards for Family-School Partnerships
In 2009, state legislation mandated that Colorado align its FSCP work with the National Standards for Family-School Partnerships (2022). These Standards help schools to organize FSCP outreach to partner with every family to support their children’s learning both inside and outside of school. The National Standards are:
CDE has several resources available to guide and support districts, schools, and public charter schools in implementing and customizing the National Standards to best meet the needs of their local populations. The National Standards goals and indicators are outlined at National Standards.
There is also a Starting Points Inventory for school staff to complete, ideally with advice from families, to determine whether the site is emerging, progressing, or excelling in each of the National Standards.
Finally, CDE annually collects Promising Partnership Practices from schools and districts across the state, aligned with the National Standards.
The Flamboyan Foundation, located in Washington, D.C. conducted a summary of current FSCP research to determine which partnership initiatives have the highest impact on student achievement. This graphic shows the summary of their findings. When viewing this graphic, it is important to note that while the initiatives on the right side have a higher, direct impact on student achievement, the lower impact strategies are still good things to do. Celebrations, potlucks, and fundraisers may not directly lead to better student grades and test scores. However, many of the lower impact strategies indirectly impact achievement by creating a welcoming climate of partnerships.
School staff, particularly principals, have many opportunities to share leadership with families, community members, classroom teachers, and support staff. These teams include the School Accountability Committee (SAC), PTAs or PTOs, culture clubs, etc. Effective FSCP teams include families that mirror “significantly represented populations of students” in the school. Teams are most likely to be sustainable when the leaders:
Help members communicate with each other.
Plan goal-oriented partnerships.
Conduct useful meetings with a good agenda.
Make decisions collegially and share leadership for planned activities.
Continue to write and implement plans to improve partnerships.
Schools in Colorado write a Unified Improvement Plan (UIP) to identify and prioritize major improvement strategies. Schools should reach out to families on the SAC and beyond to gather input on include FSCP initiatives in the plan.
Additionally, districts, schools, and public charter schools identify as Priority Improvement or Turnaround must include on their UIP how they work with families to improve student outcomes. Schools may also use this strategy guide to help FSCP teams plan and evaluate their work.
Evaluating FSCP work is no easy task, many initiatives indirectly, rather than directly, impact achievement. FSCP teams should think through how to measure impact of both individual initiatives and the partnership structure as a whole.
Counting heads in a room is only one, rather superficial, way to measure the success of a school’s FSCP. Other methods of evaluation include:
The Colorado Department of Education has several evaluation tools to help schools effectively evaluate FSCP initiatives and whole programs of partnership.
Putting it All Together
Family-school-community partnerships are an essential component of district, school, and public charter school improvement and, more important, student success. Moving from ineffective to effective partnerships is a team effort. As the old Chinese proverb states, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Change does not happen overnight, yet the impact of FSCP is strong indisputable when implemented intentionally.
Epstein, J. L., Sanders, M. G., Sheldon, S. B., Simon, B. S., Salinas, K. C., Jansorn, N. R., ... & Williams,
K. J. (2018). School, family, and community partnerships: Your handbook for action. Corwin Press.
Hart, H., Young, C., Chen, A., Zou, A., & Allensworth, E. M. (2020). Supporting School Improvement:
Early Findings from a Reexamination of the" 5Essentials" Survey. Research Report. University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.
Sheldon, S. B., & Jung, S. B. (2018). Student outcomes and parent teacher home visits. Center on
School, Family, & Community Partnerships, Johns Hopkins University.
By: Kristin Kipp, Ed.D.
Middle-level educators are uniquely gifted. They brave the wilds of puberty each and every day. They think teenagers are a riot, and they possess the rare gift of facing down a roomful of thirty 13-year olds without fear. I know because I started my career as a middle school teacher. Thus, I also know that teaching can be lonely for an experienced educator. Once you’ve been in a classroom for a few years, the units you’ve always loved grow repetitive, and professional development grows stale. The antics of your beloved students that were once so endearing can stomp on your very last nerve after a long day. How can an experienced educator reinvigorate a love for the classroom? I propose that giving back to the profession through mentoring a new teacher can be the answer.
Hold on, you may protest! Is taking on more responsibility really the answer to burnout? It sounds unlikely, but yes. Let me explain. Researchers have consistently found that teacher mentors experience a renewal of their own motivation to teach as well as a renewed interest in instructional strategies (Schwan et al., 2020). Teacher mentors report that mentoring led to growth in their ability to teach but also in their ability to communicate and lead, both in their classroom and in the larger school community (Hudson, 2013). Additionally, mentor teachers develop a new identity as an educator that is grounded not only in being a great teacher but also in being a contributor to the long-term success of the profession (Andreasen et al., 2019). It’s a solid combination of benefits that can renew and refresh teaching practices, but how does it come about?
One of the most obvious benefits of mentoring for the mentor is exposure to the optimism of a new educator. New teachers come into the profession wide-eyed and full of hope, ready to change the world. Interacting with that kind of optimism can help you remember why you became a teacher in the first place. While your naïveté about teaching may have faded over the years, your original reason for becoming a teacher probably still holds true. Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, says that great organizations (and I’d add great teachers) will “keep their WHY clear year after year”(Sinek, 2009). Mentoring a new teacher can remind you of that “why.”
Another way that mentoring benefits the mentor teacher is by giving you the opportunity to re-examine your classroom practices. When a new teacher is coming in regularly to observe and discuss what’s happening in your classroom, it’s a great opportunity to look at your practices and filter them through a fresh perspective. Which practices are crucial to student achievement, relationships, or classroom culture? Why do those work? And which practices are simply habits without a clear rationale? What could you let go of? Opening up your classroom to those kinds of discussions with a new educator is eye-opening. You may find yourself letting go of some practices and opening up space for new possibilities.
Mentoring a new teacher also gives you dedicated time to observe in other classrooms, sometimes in your mentee’s classroom and sometimes as a pair in other teacher’s rooms. Simple exposure to a variety of classroom setups, approaches, and strategies can leave you with a wealth of ideas that you can bring back to your own work. Believe it or not, the crusty math teacher down the hall just may have a brilliant strategy that would simplify your daily practice immensely. Mentoring gives you the opportunity to learn it.
Finally, mentoring a new teacher gives you the opportunity to learn and apply a whole new set of communication skills. The best mentors move fluidly between three functions: offering support, creating challenge, and facilitating a professional vision (Lipton & Wellman, 2005). A mentor isn’t just a buddy to show a new teacher where the copier is. Instead, they are an experienced guide who helps new teachers become the best version of themselves through helping them see what’s possible and challenging them. Sound familiar? You need these same three functions in your work with students: supporting them, challenging them, and helping them envision a new future. As a mentor, you’ll learn new skills for coaching, which you can then turn around and apply with both students and adults. Mentoring can give you the language to inspire change.
You’re already a great teacher and a powerful classroom advocate. Mentoring can allow you to take the next step, empowering the next generation of classroom teachers while simultaneously refreshing and renewing your own classroom practice. It may not magically cure burnout, but it can certainly be a step in the right direction. Your local administrator, instructional coach, or induction program leader would love to share more about what mentoring looks like in your context.
Dr. Kristin Kipp is an experienced educator and instructional coach with a heart for teachers. She’s an Educator Development Specialist for the Colorado Department of Education where she works with new teacher induction and mentoring.
Andreasen, J. K., Bjørndal, C. R. P., & Kovač, V. B. (2019). Being a teacher and teacher educator: The antecedents of teacher educator identity among mentor teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education, 85, 281–291.
Hudson, P. (2013). Mentoring as professional development: “growth for both” mentor and mentee. Professional Development in Education, 39(5), 771–783.
Lipton, L., & Wellman, B. (2005). Cultivating learning-focused relationships between mentors and their protégés. In H. Portner (Ed.), Teacher Mentoring and Induction: The State of the Art and Beyond (pp. 149–165). Corwin Press.
Schwan, A., Wold, C., Moon, A., & Neville, A. (Fall 2020). Mentor and New Teacher Self-Perceptions Regarding the Effectiveness of a Statewide Mentoring Program. Critical Questions in Education, 190–207.
Sinek, S. (2009). Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Penguin.
By: Lisa Bettencourt
As an eighth grade teacher, I am always sad when May arrives. While I look forward to time off to rest and rejuvenate, it is with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to my students who I have grown to know and love. As the new school year rolls around, I get excited to meet my next group of students. I look forward to learning about who they are, where their interests lie, what their beliefs and values are- really, anything that gives me insight and understanding into these unique individuals. There are some years when all the pieces fall into place- when you bond well with your students and you feel like the kids were handpicked for you. And then there are the other years… The years when you go home exhausted every day. When you doubt your ability to survive the year. When you question why the counselor chose to give YOU all the boys who lack impulse control! Inevitably, we push through and are often surprised to see that those students who were the most difficult in the beginning of the year, end up being the ones you have grown closest to- the ones you will miss the most. However, getting there requires some work. How do we build those safe and trusting relationships with our students? How do we let them know that not only are they heard, but we value their input and perspective? How do we create a classroom environment where all students feel supported and included?
We have all heard counselors and administrators speak to the importance of building relationships with students, however, what does that really mean? Of course we have relationships with our kids, but are we connecting with them? Do our students feel like we care about them? About their academics as well as their social and emotional health? The beauty about being a Language Arts teacher is the ease in which we can use stories to relate to kids, whether these are published literature or our own personal stories. When our students see us being honest and vulnerable, we become someone they can relate to, and hopefully, trust. While I am constantly changing and improving my lessons, “I Wish My Teacher Knew” is one I do at the beginning of every year. This is a great opportunity to allow your students a safe place to share what they want you to know about them. Every year I am surprised by how much students are willing to disclose after only knowing me for a week. Though this lesson on its own is a powerful way to start bonding with your students, it’s the personal feedback you leave that shows kids you took the time to read and learn about them- that you truly care.
In middle school, kids work so hard to fit in- from wearing the right clothing to having the latest phone. The fear of failing in front of their peers, or being made fun of, often holds students back from participating in class discussions. Ideally, we want to create a classroom where students feel comfortable sharing ideas- where they feel like their voice is not only heard, but matters. Using texts with diverse authors helps ensure that we are providing all students with opportunities to relate to stories similar to their own. Analyzing stories and novels is a great place to start encouraging students to be brave and take risks- to share their perspective. While it is easy to acknowledge the child who always has their hand up, it is important to find ways to reach even the quietest of students. This year I started doing ‘Daily Dedications’. The students take turns dedicating class to someone who has been inspirational in their life. While the majority of my class have been excited to participate, I have a few who aren’t quite comfortable with getting up and speaking in front of the class. One such kiddo really wants to dedicate the class to her brother, but is too nervous to present. She asked, instead, if she could make a video to show. This student was telling me that she wanted to participate, but speaking in front of the class was a risk she wasn’t ready to take. Hopefully, accepting the way in which she was able to participate will build her confidence and make her feel like our classroom is a safe place where she can take risks and contribute more in class.
How do we know that we are building safe, trusting environments? That our kids feel comfortable taking risks and feel like they belong? Sometimes you just know. There are the kids who do not want to leave your class- who linger and talk to you, or the group of students who start eating lunch in your room every day. However, sometimes you don’t know the impact you made until years later when you receive an email from a student who shares that your class was their favorite. And sometimes you run into an old student at the Dairy Queen drive-thru window, and they lean their head out and ask if you remember them, which you of course do, because they were the kid you worried about- the kid who you worked so hard to make sure passed your class. He then proudly declares he’s in college and is doing great. He thanks you for believing in him- for giving him a place where he felt safe to try, a place where he felt heard- and it’s all you can do to choke back your tears and nod your head in gratitude.
Those are the moments that validate the work we have done in cultivating a safe and trusting classroom where students feel heard and accepted. It’s why we chose a difficult, and often thankless job- and yet still show up every day with a smile, love and compassion for the kids we get to work with.
CAMLE.Colorado Association of Middle Level Education
mailing address: CAMLE • 4650 E. Amherst Ave. • Denver • CO • 80222CAMLE is a 501(c)6 non-profit organization.