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  • 10 Jul 2024 3:19 PM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By: Andrea Smith, EdD

    Principal Erie Middle School, SVVS

    As a former middle school science teacher and a current middle school principal, I have experienced one of two formats for Back to School Night in my 20 years of education. Either we employ a “meet and greet” approach where parents and students circulate through the building and say hello to teachers after a large group presentation from the administrative team or we follow a schedule where parents and students rotate from one class to the next for 7-10 minutes with intermittent announcements from charming members of the office staff signaling “passing period.”

    However, we have found that neither format truly meets the needs of our students and parents. First, Back to School Night in middle school traditionally happens a few days after school has started -- slightly before teachers have a true feel for the names and faces of their students, yet after students have pushed through the stress of finding their classes, getting to know their schedule, and opening their locker in the relatively short time we have for passing periods. Most larger middle schools are managing large numbers of parents and students in a set amount of time, so sometimes the halls and classrooms feel crowded in a meet and greet format, and the shortened bell schedule puts parents of multiple students in a tough spot as they either divide and conquer or pick and choose amongst their students’ classes.

    This past school year at Erie Middle School, we tried a new idea. We added an informal opportunity for parents and students to get into the building to open their locker, find their classrooms, see the building, and work out those pre-first day jitters. And it was a HUGE SUCCESS! We offered two 2-hour sessions before school started and dubbed them “Find Your Way Days.”

    We noticed the following advantages to the approach:

    • Less students hauled all their supplies into the building on the first day which meant our passing periods were smoother and less hectic

    • More students had already found their classes and lockers so they felt much more settled in their routines right away

    • Teachers were more available to interact with students as they weren’t taxed with helping with locker issues or directing traffic

    • Parents communicated feeling a sense of trust that their student was going to have a strong first day of school

    Like we always do in education, we decided to reflect and improve the idea. Our building leadership team followed our collaborative decision-making process to carry out a design challenge. 

    We asked the question: How might we design the week before school and the first two weeks of school to help parents and students feel successful and confident in their transition?

    As a team, we empathized with parents and students to identify their needs and then pinpointed problem statements to generate new thinking about our August planning.

    “Find Your Way Days” will be a foundational part of this redesign. Here are key improvements we are making to ease the transition for all students:

    • More sessions - we have identified THREE 2-hour time slots (both during the day and in the evenings) to allow lots of times that work for families

    • Teachers are signing up to be a Find Your Way Day guide for one of the sessions. This will replace their compensated time used for Back to School Night. Teachers who are “on” as a guide will have a bright orange lanyard with a personalized “How May I Help?” badge.

    • Every classroom will have a one-pager available for students and parents that includes a teacher bio, key information about the class they teach, and contact information. We created a template teachers can use so the one-pagers are consistent and fits within our school branding.

    • Our back-to-school communication is being revised to push the Find Your Way Days as the best way to help ease the transition. We have invited our PTO to sell spirit wear at the event, and we will also have key information about clubs and programming available.

    • Back to School Night will be replaced with counselor and administration-led transition parent presentations for each grade level. Using this time differently will be able to help us support parents in a more differentiated approach.

    • Every year we have donated school supplies from our district’s education foundation, we will have these available to families in hopes that we can reach more students to help them feel prepared for the first day of school.

    We are excited to be trying something a little different this year, and we look forward to a settled and less hectic feel on our first day of school. Part of creating a calm, focused, and fun learning environment is trying new ideas and tweaking them to garner even more success. As middle school leaders, we need to be willing to constantly adapt our systems to better meet the needs of the students set to walk through our doors. For more information or questions about Find Your Way Days, email

    Andrea Smith, EdD, is the principal of Erie Middle School in St. Vrain Valley School District. Andrea has worked in public education for over 20 years and enjoys that every day working with middle school students is different and full of new challenges.

  • 11 May 2024 10:15 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By: Tessa Anderson, Math Teacher at Trail Ridge Middle School

    You’ve cultivated a community of problem-solvers who repeatedly engage in the eight mathematical practice standards. You’ve developed a classroom that gets students engaged, thinking, and doing the talking. What’s next? 

    When we prioritize problem-solving discourse, the natural progression of skills is towards mathematical communication through writing. Effective mathematical writing demands precision and is a valuable skill that requires explicit instruction. 

    At our school, we’ve adopted the CERA writing framework (Claim, Evidence, Reasoning, Audience) to support students writing across contents. In this article, I’ll share teaching strategies that have greatly developed my students’ mathematical writing over the course of the year. 

    The CERA framework encourages a more analytical writing than a simple restatement and answer of a prompt like other short answer frameworks. And, analytical writing is exactly what we want in math class. However, applying this framework to math differs from other subjects. While the evidence component in other contents comes from text and cited sources, in math, evidence is often self-generated through equations, tables, graphs, etc. We also may be given sets of data or other visual representations to analyze for evidence.

    Since students bring in prior knowledge of the framework to math class, we first intentionally make connections to align components of CERA with what we already do. We analyze samples of student writing to identify components. One of my favorite places to get student samples is from past CMAS released items which come with varying levels of student responses: some that receive full credit while others that receive zero.  We present samples one at a time to students. As pairs, students annotate these samples to identify the claim, evidence, reasoning, and audience. Sometimes a component is missing! Through whole class discussion we tease out the nuances between the components and acknowledge any overlaps. Sometimes our evidence and reasoning is intertwined. We ask, what makes a good response? What happens to our response when we are missing a component? 

    We then make rubrics that delineate the qualities and requirements we found through our discussion for different levels of writing: exemplary, proficient, beginning, and insufficient (Figure 1). We emphasize key distinctions between mathematical writing and other subjects, such as the focus on vertical writing or often the requirement of a singular correct answer instead of an array of defensible claims.

    To make this rubric concrete, students then rate these responses using the rubric. Pairs are given a whiteboard and then hold up their rating for each component starting with the claim. Each rating is followed by discussion and again, the richness comes out as students debate and defend their rating. We take students through several cycles of this rating, gradually introducing feedback stems for self and peer assessment (Figure 1). 

    Students then apply these skills by writing their own responses to a prompt. Typically we pose a prompt where the math skills are comfortably within their ability so that this first response allows students to focus on incorporating the CERA components to write an effective argument. 

    Using the rubric, students then rate themselves. Using a platform like Writable facilitates this process, allowing students to easily provide feedback to each other and allow for continuous revision. Writable also allows us to incorporate the sentence stems students are familiar with. Teacher feedback is integral in this process, and we guide students through multiple cycles of revision until their writing meets the exemplary standards. This iterative process reinforces the mindset that writing is a skill that can be developed with practice and feedback. We also take care to display students’ final product after their hard work (Figure 2).  

    These lessons occur regularly throughout the school year, with prompts aligned to current topics or intentionally chosen review topics. Starting early in the year lays a strong foundation for developing this practice for students, ensuring they become proficient mathematical writers over time.

    This is a year-long process, and with the integration of the CERA framework and consistent feedback opportunities into middle school math across the grade levels, we will be able to create strong, precise, and effective mathematical writers. 

    Figure 1. Our finalized mathematical CERA rubric with feedback sentence stems.

    Figure 2. Our display of written responses with close-ups. 

  • 7 Apr 2024 11:46 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By: Jason Yantzer, Lyons High School Teacher, St. Vrain Valley School District; Thunder Valley K8 NEW 8th Grade Teacher, St. Vrain Valley School District

    This is my 24th year in education with most of my years at the high school level teaching AP classes and coaching high school students.  But next year I am transitioning to a K-8 School that is rocking it!! This school is doing great things for kids. This school has risen to the challenge of EXCELLENCE and are achieving it in many different capacities.  I am excited to be a part of this incredible school. Middle School is not completely new to me as I started my career in middle school and about 7 years ago, I was an Assistant Principal and Athletic Director at a middle school for 3 years.

    Often there are more push factors that are involved in a big change like this.  However, in this situation there were way more pull factors pulling me to make this change.  The thought of learning a new curriculum, and a schedule change is exciting and intriguing. The deep discussion of an APUSH class certainly won’t happen at the middle level but because I have taught at that deep of a level, I can use that to my advantage! I look forward to keeping middle schoolers on the edge of their seats when we talk about historical concepts in class. I am also excited to bring History ALIVE to my 8th graders with some great interactive lessons that I have used in my high school classes.

    High School is busy with clubs, activities, band performances, athletic events, etc., but the hallways and classrooms are pretty chill when it comes to student behavior. Believe it or not, I am looking forward to learning and brushing up on some great classroom management skills and tools that come along with middle level behaviors!  I can’t wait to empower my 8th graders to be empowered to own their behaviors and their learning!!

    At the high school level, the stakes are higher as students receive credits to pass a class which leads to more buy-in from the students to pass a class. At the middle level I am excited to share ways to capture their attention and help them develop a love for History. I want them to go home and talk about what they learned in History class with their parents at the dinner table. I want their GOOD THING to be what they learned in Mr. Yantzer’s class. .  I know, from experience, that teaching at the middle level will bring certain challenges that the high school level just doesn’t have. But all kids want to know that you care about them. When they know that you care they will begin to care what you know.

    I am not crazy in making this transition as I truly believe that a school, regardless of the level, must be a good fit for the teacher regardless of the teacher’s experience!  This transition is a good fit for me as I value professional growth.  As an educator when you are happy and taking care of yourself as a professional then there will be a direct reflection of that through your teaching!

    Change is hard but change also promotes and creates opportunities for growth.

    Usually when that happens both the teacher and the students will reap the benefits of a re-charged, motivated, caring teacher that has a ton of experience. I am excited to be that teacher for my middle level students and doing what’s best for kids in our educational system. Afterall, we are not in this profession for us, we are in this profession to help make a difference in the lives of all kids. What an awesome opportunity to make a positive impact on students daily.   Either way this comes out in the end as a win/win for all. They will get the best version of me as a teacher, and I will challenge myself to grow as an educator and as an individual. “Comfort the Troubled and Trouble the Comfortable….” It's my turn now to rise to the challenge and accept the comfortability of a new position and thrive in a different environment. I am ready to be in the MIDDLE!! 

  • 13 Mar 2024 7:31 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By Drs. Karen Swanson and Matt Moulton

    FYI, there are approximately 55 days of school left this year and we are right there with you!  We recently had an opportunity to attend the CAMLE event Managing the Madness with the absolutely hilarious Jack Berckemeyer. From the very beginning of his presentation, Jack had us in stitches. What follows are some quick sound bites and strategies that we have reflected on and tried to implement in our schools. 

    The Quote: You can’t leave until I say “have a nice day”!

    The Meaning: Jack calls it “slow our roll.” In other words, how do we slow the pace of student interaction with us so that they settle in and communication actually happens. Another tactic Jack mentions was to have students say “Mr. Berkemeyer, ….” if they won’t begin this way, then walk away until the student is ready. This is a strategy to send a clear message that it is not appropriate for students to talk “at” us but “to” us. The goal is to humanize teachers.

    What Now?  As we get ready for Spring Break and the 4th quarter, it is a good time to start fresh with reviewing our expectations and goals. I really want to fuss about consequences, but this year's group pushes back hard on those types of talks. But Slowing our Roll also takes the wind out of my sails as I have a chance to think through a positive approach to influence student behavior. Is this situation a 10 or a 3? Most of the time it's really a 3. I also know I enjoy students more when I set a pace that doesn’t rush, where students don’t need to fight for my attention and we learn together.

    The Quote: “We are sending mixed messages”

    The Meaning: What happens in our classrooms spills out into the hallways and vice versa. When it gets to this part of the school year and some of us slack off on expectations in our classrooms, it impacts more than just our four walls. Jack shared earbuds and hoodies as an example. When only a few team members hold students to the expectation, it causes unneeded stress for all parties. Young adolescents crave consistency. Inconsistency is confusing. Confused students struggle in unclear environments. Mixed messages about classroom expectations, like ear buds and hoodies, can leave them lost. This creates frustration, hinders learning, and could lead to unnecessarily difficult conversations (or confrontations). Being clear from the start about participation, behavior, and assignments is key. Consistency in following through on those expectations, even when it's difficult, builds trust and helps students succeed.

    Now What? We might be approaching spring break (anyone already there?) and it feels like the end of the year is right around the corner but it is never too late to set reasonable standards within the school. Jack suggested that admin and teacher teams identify a short list of specific expectations that the entire building can stand behind (ear buds out during class, hoodies off, etc.) and then stay consistent. Unite as a building, your students will appreciate it even if they don’t seem like it.

    The Quote: “We are experiencing human threading”

    The Meaning: On social media or online communities, a series of replies or comments that usually focuses on a specific topic or interaction on a social media post is referred to as a thread. This oftentimes turns into a dog pile of comments that follow in the same tone and direction of the original post. Jack shared that we are seeing human threading in classrooms. Here is a rough paraphrase from Jack’s presentation (and since we are in Colorado, let’s use very Colorado names–thanks Dude Dad for the inspiration):

    Teacher: Aspen put your phone away.

    Aspen: I am not using my phone.

    Brecken: She is not using her phone.

    Aurora: She is calling her mom.

    Rocky: Why does it matter if her phone is out?

    [insert other names like Keystone, Ouray, Parker, and Chaco]

    When social media posts are made about someone or something, rarely does the someone or something join the conversation. From Jack’s example above, the teacher only said five words. Immediately, the students piled on and threaded the conversation. 

    Now What? Jack’s (2024) recent AMLE article (8 New Characteristics of Middle School Kids: What Can We Do?) shares some great ideas to minimize the impact of a human thread. First, he suggests sticking to the already-in-place set of classroom expectations. Don’t change direction and respond to the threaders (ex. Brecken, Aurora, Rocky, Limon, and Draft), that will only give them the attention and power in the interaction. Jack says “Hold to the already-taught expectations and move on” (para. 40).

    Jack’s second recommendation is to remain calm and “keep your responses short and to the point” (para. 41). He also reminds us that human threads, distractions, outbursts, etc. are not about us. We should not take them personally. When class is over, and if you feel it is necessary, have a short conversation with the threaders. You can share that the incident did not involve them, that Aspen does not need their help, and most importantly, “it is not their responsibility to reprimand you as the teacher” (para. 42).

    I know that I have all the feels this time of year, but slowing down, working together with my team to set expectations, and providing a reminder to the students' expectations can help. A colleague reminded me of positive strategies like calling home on one good kid a week or doing a walk and talk with a PLC teacher also lowers my cortisol and increases my moods.

    Hang in there, because it's almost shorts weather and we all know what that means.

  • 12 Mar 2024 10:18 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By: Katie Gustafson

    The CAMLE Board is proud to celebrate three schools who have been designated or redesignated in 2024 as a Colorado Trailblazer School to Watch: Lesher Middle School (Fort Collins), Milliken Middle School (Milliken), and SOROCO Middle School (Oak Creek).  These three schools applied through a written application and culminated with a school visit by Schools to Watch teams.  Each school is a model for middle level education, with innovative and exceptional practices that serve young adolescents in the best possible ways!

    Eleven schools from across the state currently hold a Schools to Watch designation, based on four categories: Academic Excellence, Social Equity, Developmental Responsiveness, and Organizational Structure.  Middle schools designated as a School to Watch are honored annually at the Colorado Association of Middle Level Education (CAMLE) conference, as well as at the national Schools to Watch conference in Washington D.C. from the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform.

    The Schools to Watch schools demonstrate a trajectory of success and exhibit replicable practices for middle grades students.  This designation is a great way to increase collaboration and connection with other excellent middle schools in our state.  If you are interested in learning more about the Colorado Schools to Watch program, please visit the Schools to Watch section of the CAMLE website.

  • 14 Jan 2024 8:36 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By: Christy Clark-Weese, Middle School Health and Physical Education Teacher, Coal Ridge Middle School

    The World Health Organization (2018) states that 81% of adolescents do not meet the moderate to vigorous exercise guidelines of 60 minutes a day. Of the 81%, a significantly higher number of these adolescents are girls. Several studies suggest that engaging in physical activity contributes to creating a positive learning environment, improving students' physical health, enhancing cognitive abilities, and nurturing an overall sense of well-being. Apart from the studies mentioned earlier, a study conducted by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010) underscored that 11 out of 14 of their investigations revealed a positive correlation between consistent physical activity and improved academic performance (p. 29). However, despite these benefits, only 27% of girls in grades 6th-10th reported being physically active for sixty minutes a day (Gruno & Gibbons, 2016, p. 150). The disparity in physical activity levels among adolescent girls, coupled with the established advantages of regular exercise and the low enrollment of adolescent girls in physical education classes, poses significant challenges. It is crucial to understand the factors contributing to girls' lower participation in physical activity compared to their male counterparts and to develop and implement strategies to reverse this trend.

    The majority of physical education programs in elementary school focus on gameplay or skill development, while secondary physical education programs often focus on competitive team sports (Gruno & Gibbons, 2016). It is this competitive team sports focus, as discussed by Gruno & Gibbons (2016), that is “one of the key factors associated with girls’ decision to drop PE” (p. 151).  Gruno and Gibson further explain that the majority of middle school girls perceive competitive team sports in PE as unsatisfying. A study conducted by Wallace et al. (2020) specifically identifies barriers to adolescence girls' participation, including boys 'taking over' or not passing, intimidation, confidence issues, perceived competence, the competitive climate, and concerns related to embarrassment and body image.

    When examining the disengagement of adolescent female students from contemporary PE, it is discovered that these challenges are often linked to curriculum, teaching methods, and practices (Robinson, 2015). It is evident that practitioners should adopt evidence-based strategies to enhance girls' participation in gameplay, foster confidence in physical abilities, and improve organizational aspects to address concerns related to girls' involvement (Wallace et al., 2020). These evidence - based practices are found in Quality Physical Education (QPE) programs.

    Quality Physical Education (QPE) programs are those that focus on the holistic development of students. These programs nurture critical thinking, problem-solving, and self-esteem skills. QPE initiatives can also foster interpersonal relationships, provide a platform for learning about equity and equality, and promote social justice (Ryan & Poirier, 2012). To ensure proper instruction and techniques, qualified teachers should be developing and instructing PE programs. Unfortunately, a study conducted in 2009 revealed that only 40% of teachers teaching PE were qualified to do so (Ryan & Poirier, 2012).

    Successful engagement of adolescent girls in QPE programs prioritizes lifetime physical fitness over competitive gameplay. These programs, guided by instructors, strive to create a safe, positive, inclusive, and respectful learning environment. Teachers contribute to this positive atmosphere by acting as facilitators and role models, actively participating in activities with the girls (Gruno & Gibbons, 2016, p. 152). Emphasizing participation and individual effort in physical education classes serves as a motivation for girls to engage more in their physical well-being (Gruno & Gibbons, 2016). Same-gender or cooperative gameplay, centered on lifetime fitness activities, has been shown to increase girls' participation in PE. Providing diverse gameplay options ensures that girls enjoy and consistently participate in physical activities. Gruno & Gibbons (2016) stress the importance of making activities fun, informal, and involving participation with friends to encourage girls to be more active and engaged in PE (Ryan & Poirier, 2012, p. 179). According to Gruno & Gibbons (2016), fostering such a PE environment positively influences girls' perceptions of their physical abilities and competence, making them more inclined to be active, participate in PE, and try new activities.

    Christy Clark Weese, a dedicated middle school teacher with 20 years of experience, holds a Bachelor's in Public Health and a Master's in Education with a focus on Digital Learning and Teaching. She blends her expertise to instill lifelong wellness habits and emphasizes the importance of physical activity for her students' holistic development. 


    Gruno, J., & Gibbons, S. L. (2016). An exploration of one girl’s experiences in elective Physical Education: Why does she continue? Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 62(2), 150–167.

    Robinson, D. B. (2015). Getting girls in the game: Action research in the gymnasium. The Canadian Journal of Action Research, 14(3), 3–28. 

    Ryan, T., & Poirier, Y. (2012). Secondary physical education avoidance and gender: Problems and antidotes. International Journal of Instruction, 5(2), 173–194.

    Wallace, L., Buchan, D., & Sculthorpe, N. (2020). A comparison of activity levels of girls in single-gender and mixed-gender physical education. European Physical Education Review, 26(1), 231–240.

    World Health Organization (2018) Physical activity. Available at: activity (accessed 21 February 2019).

  • 9 Dec 2023 10:16 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By Miles Groth6th Grade Mountain Academy of Arts & Sciences at Ute Pass Elementary, Finalist for Colorado Teacher of the Year 

    It’s around 9:00 AM in late September and our bus full of sixth-graders pulls through a grove of aspens that are just starting to turn their golden yellow. Shortly after, we are unloading our packs, adjusting straps, and starting the hike to our campsite. This is day one of the same backpacking trip that I’ve been leading for eight years.

    When I tell people that I take middle schoolers camping and backpacking, the response is either “you’re crazy” or “that’s amazing!” I am wholeheartedly on the side of “that’s amazing!” It is incredible for me, my students, and the classroom culture and the only way I can imagine starting the school year.  It is an opportunity for me to connect with students in ways that traditional classrooms do not allow for. Students are challenged and grow physically, emotionally, and academically.

    Throughout the year, we are able to provide our sixth graders with over twenty field experiences connected to our curriculum and learning. This includes caving, hiking, camping, bird-banding, a visit to a fish hatchery, exploration of local creeks and trails, and classes around the school property; all experiences middle schoolers should have. 

    The benefits of a short hike or camping trip with are too numerous to count: 

    Screen Time: As teachers, we all see the challenges that social media and screens bring to our lives and our students’ lives. According to the Center for Disease Control, children aged 11-14, spend an average of 9 hours in front of a screen per day!  There is a collective sigh of relief from both teachers and students each time we step outside and step away from technology.  Students connect to the world around them and with each other.  All too often, we are communicating through texts or social media rather than face to face. Each time we hike, I get to spend time talking with my students about the things that really matter to them and what is going on in their lives.  We have the opportunity to connect in a much deeper way than we are able to in the classroom, and they extend this connection with peers.

    Social-emotional learning: We can work on social-emotional skills in class with  lessons on self-awareness and self-control, but having to work together as a team to support each other during a challenging hike gives students the opportunity to practice those skills.  During that first backpacking trip of the year, my students supported each other in countless ways.  Each group of students that arrive at the campsite cheer on the next group before the relief of taking off their packs.  Even though there are plenty of complaints, these moments build confidence and resiliency that translate into classroom successes and a strong bond as a team.

    Health Benefits: When I’m feeling overwhelmed by the many stressors of being an  educator or parent, I hop on my mountain bike and instantly feel a load lifted off of my shoulders.  Many students have not yet learned or had the opportunity to experience  that nature and exercise can serve as natural stress relief.  Unfortunately, many children have fairly sedentary lifestyles and do not have enough opportunities to explore and play outdoors.  Through regularly providing opportunities to hike and explore, children’s physical and mental health is positively impacted with the hope of building lifelong habits.  Regular exercise enhances memory, attention, and problem-solving skills.

    During a November 2023 hike from school, we had to take a detour through a steep section of trail.  “You can do PT in the gym all day, but when you’re on trails with uneven surfaces, crossing water - (people) develop incredible balance and coordination with all this” (Wilson, 2022). This hike is something the class is still talking about as their favorite trip this year.  Students were pushed out of their comfort zone descending rocky areas and benefited from these challenges.

    Creating Environmental Stewards: Our world needs children who care deeply for  the world around them.  The only way for this to happen is if these children learn to love and appreciate the joys and beauty of the outdoors.  Each year, we raise rainbow trout in our classroom starting with eggs before releasing them in May as part of Trout Unlimited’s Trout in the Classroom program.  These experiences lead to increased connections to nature as nature becomes the classroom.  The time spent outside fosters a sense of wonder and curiosity in each student.  When they release our trout into a local creek after taking care of them daily, they have already committed themselves to a lifetime of being stewards for their local waters and the environment as a whole.

    Academic performance: When I share these experiences with other educators, there are often questions about academics. These experiences build 21st century skills and leadership qualities that just cannot be taught inside a classroom.  I’ve noticed significantly fewer behaviors because students are invested in their learning.  They want to come to school each and every day, and truly care about what they are learning.  Year after year, our students have shown significant growth and achievement in state and district assessments.

    Implementation: There are challenges in bringing hiking and field experiences into schools.  However, we started small and have added more opportunities each year.  The cost of each experience is covered through a small parent contribution, grants, fundraising, and by finding low-cost trips (hikes from school are free!).

    Start with a short hike, take in the many benefits, and bring others on board as you try more!  By taking the classroom outside, we can provide a platform for experiential learning, physical activity, and personal growth. The benefits extend far beyond academic achievement, shaping future leaders and environmental stewards!

    Miles Groth started the 6th Grade Mountain Academy of Arts & Sciences at Ute Pass Elementary (only public school to earn Leave No Trace Youth Program accreditation) in 2014 with a focus on environmental learning and outdoor education. Mr. Groth is a Colorado Certified Environmental Educator and a 2024 Colorado Teacher of the Year Finalist.


    Wilson, Ruth. “Naturally Inclusive: Engaging Children of All Abilities Outdoors”. Lewisville, NC: Gryphon House, Inc. 2022.

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Infographics - Screen Time vs. Lean Time.”, 29 Jan. 2018, Accessed 29 Nov. 2023.

  • 5 Nov 2023 6:38 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By Ivy Dalley

    6th Grade ELA and Social Studies, Mancos Middle School

    Finalist for Colorado Teacher of the Year

    When I look back on my own educational experiences in middle school I never Students exploring Chaco Canyon National Historical Park remember the math test that I took or the daily homework assignments at the kitchen table each evening. When we look back at the awkward moments of growing up I am sure we all can remember the experiences and the moments where our own educators took a risk in escaping the norm of the workbooks and the whiteboard lectures. One particular example that surprises me is that I can remember odd facts about soil quality. Growing up in a rural community where farming was prevalent we went out into the backyard of our school to a local corn field and monitored the quality of the soil and gave real world advice to the local farmer. As an eighth grade student this was powerful. 

    Taking a Risk and Breaking the Norm

    As educators we need to be comfortable with breaking away from traditional educational practices and taking risks. For example, heading out into our historical surroundings and getting students outside can be a risk. There is the typical stress and worry about all of the things that can go wrong in a field study with students. The learning benefits I see outweigh these risks. Students get to experience history first hand rather than just reading about this history in a book. In my class we take multiple field study trips each year. Our goal is to incorporate life skills, outdoor skills and standards into our curriculum for these trips. When we get outside with our students we see a different side of them. This is my favorite part of these field studies. Students thrive when they are put in  a setting where they get hands-on experiences and they get to explore their natural world. 

    Student Authenticity Mesa Verde park ranger talking to students about what it takes to create a museum exhibit.

    Middle school students want authenticity. They crave it. How many times have you heard a middle schooler ask when they will ever need to use this specific content information in their lives? Giving students voice and choice in their lessons allows them to really connect with the project and grow in their education. Sometimes it can be intimidating to give our students the creative freedom they crave. When my students decided they wanted to create an interactive museum exhibit and showcase it in a real museum I panicked. I was so worried about the idea of failure and whether or not we could pull off this grand idea. Once I embraced the idea of failure and thought of it as a learning opportunity I could see all of the benefits that were to come from this project. My students had to make connections with their surroundings and use the people and resources available to them. In the end they created exactly what they had planned, allowing them to learn skills that extend beyond the confines of our standards.

    Using our Community

    Colorado is rich in history and outdoors experiences. No matter if we teach in a rural or urban district, there are opportunities right out our doorsteps. If we take the time to build connections within our communities with our middle school students, maybe we can change the sometimes negative perception the world has on middle schoolers. Brainstorming projects with your students and looking at how you can incorporate their ideas on how we can improve our communities can change our projects from ordinary to extraordinary. This gets our students thinking about their communities and ways they can apply their skills and knowledge to real world situations. One way I have engaged my students with the community is involving them with the town board and having my students present their projects for improvement of the community to them. Overall, being a part of the community and having our students become active members in their community has been incredibly rewarding and beneficial for all parties involved. The pride that the members of our community have when students take an active role in the town is noticeable.

    Ivy Dalley is a middle school ELA and Social Studies teacher. She was recently recognized as one of 7 finalists for the 2024 Colorado Teacher of the Year.

  • 14 Oct 2023 9:15 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)
    By: Michael O'Toole

    St Vrain Valley Schools K-12 Science Coordinator

    As we embark on the journey to adopt the new 2020 Colorado Academic Science  Standards, this transition isn't just about changing how students learn; it's about rethinking how teachers introduce science to their students. This monumental shift represents one of the most significant changes within the Colorado Department of Education's implementation of the 2020 state academic standards across all disciplines.

    The Colorado Department of Education defines the 2020 Science Standards as: “what all Colorado students should know and be able to do in science as a result of their preschool through twelfth-grade science education. These standards outline the essential level of science content knowledge and the application of the skills needed by all Colorado citizens to participate productively in our increasingly global, information-driven society.”

    The development of these standards drew upon various resources, including the Framework for K-12 Science Education, developed by the National Academy of Sciences. This publication distills over two decades of research in science education and sets the stage for three-dimensional science learning. These standards prioritize a student-centered approach to science teaching and learning, emphasizing the integration of practices, core ideas, and crosscutting concepts. The 2020 standards have transitioned to introducing scientific concepts through real-world phenomena. Establishing a crucial connection between students and science by presenting them with locally relevant examples, making science more relatable and engaging. As a result, this method fosters active learning, encouraging students to take charge of their learning and equips them with innovative thinking skills, providing a competitive edge in an ever-evolving world.

    As educational leaders, we must recognize that multiple stakeholders play pivotal roles in this transformative process. While students and teachers are the most visible participants, we must not underestimate the contributions of parents and administrators, who are equally essential in nurturing scientifically informed students and fostering innovation.

    Students should be continuously reminded that their active participation and curiosity help drive this evolution in science instruction. Strategies such as driving question boards and small group activities centered around 3D science practices will ultimately lead them to become better critical thinkers.

    Teachers need to be provided with professional growth opportunities that encourage them to innovate how they convey the wonders of science to their students. This entails a thorough and honest self-evaluation of their current teaching practices and setting goals for gradual instructional changes at their own pace while welcoming some structured chaos into their classrooms. 

    This structured chaos is, in fact, emblematic of a true transition to three-dimensional practices and an embrace of innovation. It involves teachers relinquishing rigid lectures and timed hands-on experiences while welcoming student voices in the learning process. It encourages students to become active learners and critical thinkers in science instruction.

    However, we must not forget the other two essential stakeholders in this process:

    Parents: We hope to engage parents in fostering curiosity and innovation in their children. Parents can help instill a passion for innovation and discovery from an early age by actively participating in their child's science education journey.

    Administrators: Administrators play a crucial role in driving innovation within their schools. They must be introduced to the new standards and practices as well as the challenges that teachers may face in implementing them. Administrators should provide the necessary encouragement and permission for educators to experiment with different instructional strategies, even if it means embracing a bit of structured chaos in the science classroom. This commitment to innovation ultimately gives their school a competitive edge in delivering high-quality science education.

    In the St. Vrain Valley School District, adopting 3-dimensional-based materials was an inclusive and comprehensive process. We prioritized gathering input from teachers across all school buildings to make well-informed decisions. Their contributions were not only crucial in selecting the right instructional materials but also in ensuring that both students and teachers were adequately prepared for a seamless transition. Furthermore, teachers played a key role in creating effective communication strategies aimed at involving parents and administrators in the transition to 3-dimensional science instruction.

    In summary, our collective effort in embracing the 2020 Colorado Academic Science Standards isn't just about changing how we teach and learn; it's about fostering innovation and gaining a competitive edge. It's a journey that involves all stakeholders, from students and teachers to parents and administrators, working together to cultivate a generation of scientifically literate, innovative, and competitive individuals poised for success in the 21st century.

    Below are some resources that include tips and suggestions for parents and administrators, as well as a full 3D science self-evaluation guide for teachers.

    Resources for Parents

    Family and Community Guides to the Colorado Academic Standards: Science - Working Together: Resources to support families, communities, and teachers in realizing the goals of the Colorado Academic Standards (CAS), these guides provide an overview of the learning expectations for students studying science. This guide offers some learning experiences students may engage in at school that may also be supported at home.

    NGSS Parent Guides: Preparing Students for a Lifetime of Success - Illustrate how the standards are a powerful foundation to help students build a cohesive understanding of science over time

    Resources for Administrators

    Principals as Leaders in NGSS Implementation - This resource underscores the principal's crucial role in promoting quality K-12 science education and offers practical strategies that can be incorporated into existing school plans.

    CDE Science Standards Resources for Science and District Leaders - A collection of resources designed for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), though they are just as applicable for the Colorado Academic Standards (CAS), which were based on the NGSS. 

    Resources for Teachers

    Instructional Strategies for Science Practices: Self Evaluation - These evaluation continuums are intended for teachers to use in guiding and monitoring science practice-based instruction. Teachers might find these helpful for lesson planning and implementing science practices in their classrooms. 

    Author bio: Michael has been immersed in science education for close to three decades. Throughout his career as an educator and curriculum developer he has had the opportunity to work with students and teachers around the world and with such organizations as National Geographic, NASA, UCAR, the National Science Foundation, The GLOBE Program, Discovery Channel, the University of Louisville and the University of Colorado. Michael is currently in the position of Coordinator of Science Curriculum for St. Vrain Valley Schools.

  • 14 Oct 2023 8:48 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By: Kimberly Kane

    6th and 7th Grade ELA, Delta Middle School, Finalist for Colorado Teacher of the Year 

    “Oh, it takes a special person to teach that age group!” This is the response I  typically receive when I reveal my chosen career path to someone new. We know from experience that the middle grades are some of the most challenging years of adolescence. Students moving from elementary to middle school have increased psychological distress along with decreased academic achievement (Willis et al., 2019). Distractibility, hyperactivity, immature behaviors, and physiological changes are all hallmarks of middle school-aged students. With this in mind, it is important to remember effective ways to manage student behavior and learning. Through the years I have developed proven strategies to get students through middle school with success. When teachers incorporate structure, consistency, student engagement, and authentic relationships into daily routines, students respond positively!

    Structure & Routines

    A typical middle school student visits 7 different classrooms in a day. In each setting, teachers have a different set of expectations, routines, and procedures. Think about this from a student’s perspective. It is quite overwhelming for their developing minds. For adults, this would be the equivalent of showing up for 7 different jobs with 7 different employers each day. For this reason it is important to establish clear expectations, routines and procedures and practice them frequently. For example, in my classes, students learn that upon arrival into class, they immediately retrieve their personalized folders from a designated basket and get right to work on a “Do Now” activity. They have a specific binder for solely my class that is divided into sections to keep student work organized. This step keeps math, science, and other class work from getting mixed together and potentially misplaced. They know exactly where to find the work they missed when they were absent. They know what to bring to class, how to enter and exit the room, and even when it is appropriate to sharpen pencils. 

    This may sound overly structured. Middle school students truly desire to gain independence. They finally have a bit more freedom: in the hallways, in the cafeteria, at recess, and in the classroom. However, if we assume that students know how we want them to respond in our classroom setting without structure, we are potentially inviting unwanted behavior. 

    Here are a few suggested routines to establish and practice:

    • Entering and exiting the classroom

    • What to do upon arrival (and in what time frame this should be done)

    • Necessary supplies to bring to your class daily

    • Auditory and Visual Cues

    • Restroom breaks

    • Turning in work

    • Missing work and absences

    Consistency: Fair Rewards and Consequences

    Perhaps the most frequently discussed part of a solid classroom management plan is behavior intervention. Remember, our students are going through some incredible changes physically, socially, and mentally. Over the years, I have worked with many teachers in developing behavior management plans for their students, either individually or as an entire class. My first word of advice to each of them is that whatever plan they decide to implement, it is imperative that they remain consistent with their promises, both positive and negative, and follow-through. If a teacher promises a reward or a consequence for a behavior and it is not delivered in a timely manner, trust begins to weaken. Over time, students will begin to learn that their conduct goes unnoticed resulting in even more problematic behavior. 

    Student Engagement

    Conversely, the most commonly overlooked part of an excellent classroom management plan is student engagement. Simply put, if a student is bored, off-task behavior is soon to follow. Incorporating movement, an age  appropriate pace with smooth transitions, and a touch of novelty will leave students wondering how the class went by so fast. I encourage teachers to integrate some sort of movement within the class period. By posting QR codes with questions or simple tasks on the walls of the classroom, teachers give students the opportunity to get up and move around a bit. This helps to release pent up energy while learning at the same time. In addition, when planning lessons, think about how long each activity throughout the class period will take. Keep in mind the average attention span of a middle school student is 12 minutes. As their attention spans come to an end, it is time to transition to a new task. Finally, novelty is one of the most effective ways to keep students engaged. A few weeks ago, I created the “ELA Cafe.” When students arrived, the room was set up like a cafe complete with tablecloths, floral arrangements, candles, and menus. As ambient music played, students ordered from a choice of appetizers (lower-level thinking tasks) to work on with a partner, main courses (deeper-thinking guided practice), and dessert (independent practice) which they can “take to go” if they do not finish. This was the most positive response I have had to the idea of homework all year!

    Authentic Relationships

    Nothing I have written thus far matters if students do not know we care about them. Building authentic relationships is at the core of every classroom. In fact, brain science tells us that trust deactivates the amygdala (the part of the brain that signals the fight, flight, or freeze response) and blocks the release of the stress hormone, cortisol (Hammond, 2015). Without trust and a safe environment, it is nearly impossible for students to learn. However, if we truly show that we care about what they feel, who they are, and what they have to say, we can not only create an optimal environment for learning, but develop relationships that will allow us to speak into their lives in order to encourage wise choices-in and out of school.

    Teaching at the middle school level is arguably one of the most rewarding careers in education. Every day is a new adventure for teachers and students. Every day we each get the opportunity for a “hard reset” from the day before. Every day students and teachers get the chance to enrich the lives of each other. Middle level educators truly are special people!

    Kimberly Kane is a middle school ELA teacher, Instructional Coach/Mentor, and Peer Tutor Facilitator at Delta Middle School. She was recently recognized as one of 7 finalists for the 2024 Colorado Teacher of the Year. 


    Hammond, Zaretta, and Yvette Jackson. Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Corwin, 2015. 

    Wills, H. P., Caldarella, P., Mason, B. A., Lappin, A., & Anderson, D. H. (2019). Improving student behavior in middle schools: Results of a classroom management intervention. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 21(4), 213–227.

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Colorado Association of Middle Level Education


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