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The Young Adolescent Times
By: Christy Clark-Weese M.A. Ed.
The importance of play in children’s social, emotional, and mental health development is critical to a child’s overall wellness. It is without question that children’s play habits were affected during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like most schools coming out of the pandemic years, we began looking at various ways in which to create community. My co-teacher and I were approached to think about creative ways to incorporate team-building games and activities into the week for all students during their advisory time. Gameplay as Smith and Waller wrote, “can foster joy, connections, and relationships where animosity, anger, and divisiveness exists. It can change everything in just a minute” (2020, p.102). And so our hunt began.
After visiting other middle schools and spending several hours researching, my team teacher and I began to develop first an idea and then a program for the 22-23 school year we call Challenge Days. Challenge Days aim to provide all students once a week, during their advisory class time, a chance to engage in highly interactive and energetic activities/games. The overarching idea of our challenge days is that the games/activities should bring students together for inclusion and acceptance - a critical piece of building and creating community.
The activities and or games that we choose must be able to be played by up to two hundred fifty students at a time, be completed in the 20 minutes of designated advisory time, not be about a student’s athletic ability, and be simple enough to play immediately after watching my co-teacher and I demonstrate the game. The following are some of the games that we have played: Kentucky Derby, Almost Impossible Ring Toss, Badminton Tic Tac Toe, Long Shot, Short Shot, LeapFrog, Grab it, Rock Paper Scissors Hula Hoop, Kickball Tournament, and many more.
Every week we try to strike a balance between novel and routine for Challenge Days. Students know what day of the week they report to the gym, understand where they are to play in the gym and know the rules of gameplay and expected team behavior. Yet, we are also asking students to often step outside of their comfort zone to participate in a new game/activity. We ask teachers to lead by example, modeling enthusiasm and sportsmanship. We sometimes include teachers in gameplay and rely on them to help us create an environment where students can trust and feel they belong. Challenge Days by themselves do not fix or build community but they are a way for students to learn to play again, laugh, and celebrate being together. And that is a start.
Smith, T., & Waller, J. (2020). Ridiculously amazing schools: Creating a culture where everyone thrives. Publish Your Purpose Press.
Christy has been a teacher for almost twenty years and is currently a health and physical education teacher at Coal Ridge Middle School in St Vrain Valley Schools.
By: W.D. Wolfe
My middle school has a cast of characters that could rival the uniqueness and hilarity of The Office. From the office staff trying to calm nervous parents, to the new 6th grade students in August who are wondering when recess fits into the schedule, to the youthful-looking teacher who keeps getting stopped in the corridor and asked to see her hall pass, Timberview Middle School could keep the viewers wanting more and laughing uncontrollably.
What rarely gets noticed, however, are the heroes of the school that are hidden in the shadows; those folks who keep the wheels and springs of the institutional community quietly well-oiled. And yet, without them the pieces of the school puzzle would rub against each other with rough, weird edges.
My classroom has two boys, J and J, who stack chairs and help clean up at the end of each school day. I never asked them to help, never even suggested it. They do it…day after day, like a two-person team in rhythm as they complete the task. Other students, clueless about anything outside the three-foot area around them, chit-chat and stand around waiting for that dismissal bell to sound, but J and J keep at it until completion.
And then there’s our custodial crew. Most students don’t even think about the fact that the trash is taken out, toilet paper is available in the restroom, and scuff marks magically disappear overnight from their hallways. They assume that the iced-over sidewalks will be cleared by the hand of the Almighty and that the laptop computer they left in the gym will be taken care of until they get around to looking for it again. They clean up after our adolescent residents. I think there should be a day when our school custodians get to sit down and be waited upon by the students. On the other hand, since they are part of the hidden heroes, they would probably feel very uncomfortable having a studentserve them a plate of nachos.
Our school nurse gives out more bags of ice each day than the local party store on New Year’s Eve. She distributes band-aids in bulk and listens to the aches and pains of countless students. Just as it was when I was in middle school a few decades ago, it seems that math tests can bring on indigestion and headaches. The nurse is the school medical mom who makes the boo-boos feel better and tends to the student who tripped over her shoelaces going down the stairs, requiring a precautionary wheelchair. The nurse tends to the needs of ten times as many students each day than my physician, and takes care of students, as if they were her own flesh-and-blood. The school nurse is the hidden health hero of academia.
And don’t forget about the thankless job that our crossing guards have. Stopping distracted drivers who enter the school zone, she goes about her daily mission of keeping the young ones safe from the unexpected. Future doctors, lawyers, scientists, and teachers owe their careers to the stop sign she has hoisted overhead and her careful eyes that were and are able to spot potential tragedies before they occur.
And how about the paraprofessionals who seek to help our students with special needs experience joy and learning each day at school. They keep them safe as they navigate the crowded hallways, eat lunch alongside them, clean up after them whether it be an accident or an unfortunate moment of losing their grip on a full carton of chocolate milk. The paras are constantly on alert-status for medical crises and emotional meltdowns. Carelessness leads to catastrophes. They are the warm-hearted heroes of our school.
And finally, there are the substitute teachers. Have an influenza outbreak run through part of the teaching staff and see what happens when insufficient substitute teachers are unavailable. Truth be told, substitute teachers deal with an abundance of challenges. The teacher who is in the classroom daily knows the routines and procedures that work best for their students and how to handle the unexpected. Substitute teachers usually don’t know the history of the classrooms or the students. They received phone calls that morning, listened to the voice of the school person desperately looking for last-minute fill-ins, and agreed to help. If the answer had been to decline, the caller might have hung up and started to weep. Substitute teachers are the hidden, humble, and heroic last-minute lifesavers of the school.
Every school has been blessed by heroes such as students, support staff, and people with servant's hearts. I’m not sure how any school can properly function without them. It is an honor to serve beside them every day.
After 36 years of pastoring churches in Michigan and Colorado, Mr. Wolfe semi-retired and began to substitute teach at Timberview Middle School, where he has also coached basketball for over 20 years.
By: Lindsay Bohlinger
The month of April is dedicated to school libraries and celebrating all the great things our libraries provide for students and schools. When did you last spend some quality time in your library to walk the shelves to see what they have to offer? Do you have a diverse collection? Fantasy, Non-fiction, Graphic Novels, Mystery, Thrillers? What about books for your multilingual students?
Over the course of several years we have seen a significant increase in multilingual students in our district. As the school librarian, I wanted to make sure that they had the same opportunity to read books in class with their peers or in their free time. There is something special about getting lost in another world when the world around us seems too chaotic. Every child deserves to see themselves in a book, or to connect to a character in a special way. Students that are multilingual deserve to find peace and comfort in a world with a language they understand.
This year I have spent a lot of time updating and curating new school library resources that meet the needs of our ever-changing student population. One of my big pushes was to beef up our Spanish book selection for students who are multilingual. I spent time looking at the statistics, gathering evidence, and asking teachers for input on what to include in this part of our library.
1 in 4 students is hispanic (Hispanic Research Center, 2022). There are an estimated 18.6 million Hispanic students and 3.8 million are native speakers who are not proficient in English (Hispanic Research Center, 2022). This number continues to grow and our schools aren’t always prepared to help these students succeed. Hispanic students are twice as likely to drop out of school compared to their caucasian peers.
Studies have shown that when students are able to read in their first language they have an easier time reading in a second language (Alford, 2021). This also allows them to become more proficient readers in a second language even if they are learning new letters and sounds because they understand the process of reading (Alford, 2021). Furthermore, according to the Association for Childhood Education, students that are exposed to reading in their first language develop stronger pre-literacy skills than if they are only exposed to books in their second language (Association for Childhood Education International, 2003).
I asked my language arts teachers in particular what books they would like in our library for our multilingual students throughout the fall semester in order to make sure I was going to get books that our students would enjoy and be able to use in class with their peers (class sets). I also asked for input from other content teachers and our multilingual teacher to see if they had any suggestions and to make sure I was including a variety of subject areas for students to choose and learn from.
I wanted to make sure that students had access to topics that would interest them so I made sure to include sports books, fantasy books, classics, picture books, and a few other non-fiction stories. These are the same topics I would include for other demographics too. The data in my school library shows that 60% of my checkouts come from these categories, so I know that these topics are popular for students of any language background.
My selection of Spanish books doubled in size this year after doing research on the need for these books so multilingual students could feel not only successful, but like they have a place in the library to enjoy and escape the chaos around them. The checkouts of these new spanish books has gone from 5 checkouts of the same three books from last year to 26 this year of our various new books. The time and effort put into understanding the needs of my multilingual students has truly paid off, and my hope is checkouts and new books will continue to grow in our library to meet the needs of my students over the next several years.
Lindsay Bohinger is the learning coach and librarian at Severance Middle School in the Weld-RE 4 School District. She enjoys hiking, running, and hanging out with her family when her nose isn’t stuck in a book.
Alford, Jennifer H. “Enacting Critical Literacy with Adolescent English as an Additional Language Learners.” Critical Literacy with Adolescent English Language Learners, 2021, pp. 117–172., https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315617923-4.
Authors: et al. “Latino Children Represent over a Quarter of the Child Population Nationwide and Make up at Least 40 Percent in 5 Southwestern States.” Hispanic Research Center, 2 Aug. 2022, https://www.hispanicresearchcenter.org/research-resources/latino-children-represent-over-a-quarter-of-the-child-population-nationwide-and-make-up-at-least-40-percent-in-5-southwestern-states/.
Breiseth, Lydia. “Why Reading to Your Kids in Your Home Language Will Help Them Become Better Readers.” Colorín Colorado, Colorín Colorado, 8 Mar. 2023, https://www.colorincolorado.org/article/why-reading-your-kids-your-home-language-will-help-them-become-better-readers.
Gramlich, John. “Hispanic Dropout Rate Hits New Low, College Enrollment at New High.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 29 July 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/29/hispanic-dropout-rate-hits-new-low-college-enrollment-at-new-high/.
By: Lynne Eddis and Duane Moyer
If you ask an adult to remember their favorite teacher, it probably won’t take them long to recall that special person and what the educator did for them. Whether the teacher recognized their strengths or supported their passions, the best educators believe in their students and leave them with a long-lasting impression of what is possible for them in school and in life.
Many educators today are at risk of losing faith in their ability to make those connections with their students—and make a difference in young people’s lives. The three years since the pandemic began have been challenging and destabilizing for educators, and their belief in themselves and in the profession may have faltered. Many educators report that students do not have the stamina they once did. They see their colleagues struggling or deciding to leave the profession altogether. These realities have left educators wondering if their hard work matters and if they can still be someone’s favorite teacher someday.
Administrators, education leaders, and educators themselves must recognize this challenge and focus on rebuilding educator agency, that belief that educators can set and reach goals and have a real impact on their students.
Educators cannot pour from an empty cup. The following strategies can go a long way toward helping them regain a sense of efficacy and hope about their work with students.
7 Mindsets, a social-emotional learning and mental health solution provider for schools and districts across the country, offers multi-tiered SEL curriculum, professional development, and assessment that ensure safe and supportive learning environments. Our monthly Leading Minds webinar series features conversations with educational leaders on current topics in education.
By: Courtney Adams
Do you know about sketchnoting? Have you ever considered using it in yourclassroom with students as a way to plan writing assignments? I firstlearned about sketchnoting at the ISTE conference in 2016 and immediately became excited to get started. After dabbling with it myself for a few years, I wrote an application to my school district to create and pilot a sketchnoting course with students. I now teach a sketchnoting elective class for 7th & 8th graders at Longs Peak Middle School in St. Vrain Valley Schools. Along my sketchnoting journey, I have also had the opportunity to work with the staff at my school, the technology support specialists for SVVSD, as well as educators at various professional learning courses. Sketchnoting is for everyone! This school year, I started taking our sketchnoting projects to the next level by being cross curricular to help students plan for writing assignments in their core classes.
Sketchnoting is a visual form of note-taking that combines words with visuals and uses various types of lettering styles to emphasize important words. Sketchnotes can be done freestyle (lacking organizational structure) or be organized in a way that fits the purpose of the information. Here at LPMS, we are a school that uses Thinking Maps as a way to process new learning and plan for writing. Whether you use Thinking Maps or other types of graphic organizers with your students in the classroom, research is showing that adding a visual component can help to solidify ideas, make connections to information, and increase memory retention.1
As students in my class have been working on writing tasks such as persuasive essays, personal narratives, expository writing on topics being studied in science and social studies, and descriptive writing about personal values, I have partnered with core teachers to sketchnote out their thoughts and ideas on their topics. While for us, this is happening in two separate classrooms at times, this could be done as a seamless single process with one teacher. Based on the purpose of writing the students are working on, we match the structure of sketchnote/Thinking Map/graphic organizer to go best with their task. I encourage my students to sketchnote in a combination of English when they can and their native language when they need to so that all their ideas get represented. So far I have loved seeing projects come in that include Spanish and Traditional Chinese and I look forward to seeing what my students from Ukraine and Afghanistan sketchnote in the future!
SVVSD is a 1:1 iPad district. In my sketchnoting class, students use the Notability app with Logitech Crayons. I find that there is a lot of power in having an undo button for kids that fear making mistakes and are challenged in getting started on a task. With technology, in addition to the undo button, students are able to cut/move/resize objects that are drawn. While these tools all help in sketchnoting efficiency, none of them are required for sketchnoting! Using blank paper (or papers already organized with a various graphic organizer structure) and colors, students are able to access the same higher level of thinking and connection to their work.
To get students started with sketchnoting, I usually try to pair up a sketchnoting structure that we will use academically with a more fun choice topic. For example, when I want kids to prepare for a compare/contrast type of task, I will first have them sketchnote PE vs. Art, computers vs. books, or eyeglasses vs. braces. When I want them to prepare to sketchnote main idea and supporting details, I will first have them choose a topic they are interested in and use the same bubble map/core structure. By using a more fun, high-interest topic to get started, all students have a point of entry and a chance to engage before the assignment increases in academic difficulty.
Students are remarkably creative when it comes to making their thinking visual. I am constantly amazed and impressed by the things they come up with and the ways they show what they know. Perhaps, for an upcoming writing task, you may try introducing sketchnoting as a way for students to plan out their ideas! Or maybe you have 5 extra minutes and need some filler. You could try drawing some common icons or characters like globes, light bulbs, animals, school supplies, modes of transportation. When you have even just a few minutes to spare, start sketching. Perfection is never the goal, being creative and making connections between ideas is!
Fernandes, M. A., Wammes, J. D., & Meade, M. E. (2018). The Surprisingly Powerful Influence of Drawing on Memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(5), 302–308.https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721418755385
Courtney Adams teaches Creative Technology electives at Longs Peak Middle School, and is in her 15th year of teaching. She loves sharing out the amazing things students can do with technology! Her personal interests include reading, traveling, iPhone photography, baking, greyhound rescue, and Coke Zero. Find amazing student creations tweeted at @CAdamsLPMS.
By: Seth Krebill (Western Region Unified Champion Schools Manager), Sam Parker (Southeast Region Coordinator) and Maricela Shukie (UCS Urban Schools Manager)
Middle school is often associated with the challenges of growing through an “awkward” phase - both socially and physically. We often hear about a culture of cliques, bullying, and students struggling with their evolving identity. However, there are great attributes of middle school too! Students are growing, changing and learning. With the right support, a socially inclusive school environment can make Middle School go from awkward to accepting.
We believe that the Special Olympics Unified program belongs in every middle school because of its ability to create socially inclusive environments. Through this programming, we build Unified teams where everyone feels safe and that they truly belong. Currently, there are 573 Unified Champion Schools (UCS) in Colorado, and 108 of them are middle schools. Research conducted across the country shows unified programs reduce bullying, increase self-confidence, decrease the use of hateful speech like the “R-word”... and all while practicing healthy activities and building teams:
93% of UCS liaisons believe Unified programming has created a more socially inclusive environment that helps students with disabilities become a part of the school community.
94% of UCS liaisons reported reduced bullying.
63% of school staff feel that students are open to and accepting of differences, and that the program has increased the sense of community in the school.
Students who have heard the “R-word” dropped from 83% to 54% where an Inclusion Campaign has been implemented.
96% of athletes experienced improved self- confidence.
99% feel the UCS program is valuable for their school as a whole.
There are so many ways to start Special Olympics programming at your school! The Special Olympics Colorado Unified Champion Schools program consists of four pillars:
(1) Unified Sports - students with and without intellectual disabilities play on the same team. These teams consist of athletes, those with an intellectual disability, and Unified partners, peer students without an intellectual disability. The Unified concept brings to light the idea that training and playing together provide a quick path to friendship and understanding.
(2) Inclusive Youth Leadership & Advocacy - empowers students to be the voice of change within their schools and communities. Colorado’s Youth Activation Committee (YAC) works to plan and implement unified opportunities throughout the state including the annual youth summit as a call to action for thousands of students to promote inclusion in their own schools.
(3) Whole School Engagement - fosters understanding and respect by engaging all students, staff, and faculty in school-wide opportunities. Pep rallies, assemblies, and sporting events that promote inclusion, respect and the UCS program.
(4) Health & Wellness Programming (Healthy LEAP) - provides a curriculum written by Special Olympics Colorado aligning with Colorado’s Department of Education Academic Health Standards. This curriculum provides students with and without intellectual disabilities information covering physical and personal wellness, social emotional health and prevention and risk management.
Not sure where to start?
We suggest you host a Whole School Engagement event in conjunction with our annual Spread The Word: Inclusion campaign that kicks off March 1st. We encourage schools to be creative in how they can help build more inclusive communities on their campuses.
Once you register as a UCS school, you qualify for a free Inclusion kit that consists of t-shirts, bracelets, posters, and a banner for the whole school to sign and pledge to be inclusive. Please note: The store closes April 1st, so order your free kit now! This video is an example of how your school can talk about Inclusion.
If you are looking to make your middle school socially inclusive, Special Olympics Colorado Unified Champion Schools is a strategy to activate youth, engage educators, and promote school communities of acceptance and inclusion. Please contact us with any questions about how to get involved!
Special Olympics North America, The academic and Social-Emotional Impacts of Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, Andrea Cahn, Jacquline Jodi PhD, Michelle Tin PhD, and AShlyn Smioth, PhD, Special Olympics Global Center for Inclusion and Education, May 2022
Special Olympics North America Unified Champion Schools:
Written by Special Olympics Colorado (SOCO) Unified Champion Schools (UCS) Staff from across the state: Seth Krebill (Western Region Unified Champion Schools Manager), Sam Parker (Southeast Region Coordinator) and Maricela Shukie (UCS Urban Schools Manager)
By: Lulu Buck
With systems getting more restrictive, aggressive community involvement, and politics entering our classrooms, DEI work is becoming a bigger challenge. DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), also called DEB (Diversity, Equity, and Belonging) work is necessary and can be exhausting for educators and administrators.
DEI/DEB work is human work. It can get very complicated when working with human emotions, human beliefs, and human experiences, to name a few. Navigating the content of issues can battle your values and how to balance those within a system can sometimes conflict with what our emotions tell us. This work requires patience, grace, persistence, and strategy. As educators, we want the answers, and getting the answers in time doesn’t always happen. We are accustomed to working quickly. DEI/DEB work moves slowly, and for some, not at all. There are many moving parts to this work when working at all levels, whether it’s in the classroom, a school building, and/or the district level.
The approach to this work is one of the key factors in keeping DEI/DEB working moving forward. Evolving through the 3 As of this work is a personal process. I began my educational career as an “activist”. Growing up an English Learner and constantly being frustrated with school are the main reasons I became an educator. I would take the activist role in what injustices I saw within the schools and districts I worked for. My young mind didn’t understand the bigger systems that impacted this inequities. I would often take them out on the administration and blame the district level for these inequities. I was also never tenured. I evolved into more of an “advocate” in the middle of my career. But if you look at the definition of an advocate it is still someone who argues and defends. It is still someone that takes action on the opposing side. Now, 24 years into education, I’ve learned to be an “ambassador” of equity. An ambassador is a trusted diplomat to carry the message of equity. Within a system, one must be trusted with the work from all sides. An ambassador works slow and takes their time in investigating. An ambassador is an excellent listener. An ambassador models kindness with everyone around them.
To “blow up” the system with our emotions, personal morals, and what we think is best for students, isn’t always what is best for students. Our students want stability, safety, belonging and a thriving learning environment. Students don’t seem to have an issue with what adults perceive is an issue. To move DEI/DEB work within a district system an educator must move through one's self to be an ambassador to find success in this complicated work and to keep the work moving forward. With the complex dynamics of equity work one can’t “blow up” the system with aggressive approaches. We must model the inclusiveness we want to see in the system and oftentimes it is slow. Our impatience and emotions are what gets the best of us.
What makes this work even more challenging is knowing your community and timing of moving this work. Strategies that may work in one district, school or classroom, may not work in another. The timing of events and where communities are with this work also affect movement. If you are the type of person that constantly loves to study, investigate and find the challenge of DEI work fascinating then you have the right attitude. This is why you will always hear me say, “there is no such things as an expert in the work of equity.” One can be extremely knowledgeable and bring forward their experience, but to say they are an expert, it just isn’t possible. When you think you know what you are doing in this work, an event, comment, situation or something will blindside you and flip everything you thought you knew. Therefore, you have to love this work and know that you will make mistakes since it is human work. This work will humble any educator that engages with it.
This is how the development of the children’s book “Sue’s Sky” came forward. I believe it has an “ambassador” approach to diving deep into DEI/DEB work without feeling aggressive to school communities and classrooms. Teachers often tell me, “this doesn’t feel like an agenda and allows students to explore and bring forward things that they are wondering about.” I know that it has a unique approach to bringing these conversations to our students without “blowing up” our classrooms and systems we have to work within and still fulfill our personal values and morals. It has been extremely rewarding to work with educators to broaden the ideas and impact classroom spaces for our students to move our classrooms to be more inclusive and accepting. I’m excited and extremely honored to conduct a book study and DEI/DEB project development course with participants. My hope is that this course brings forward the wonderings, challenges and solutions we have about equity. I know that we will have deep discussions and project developments, implementations, questions, and reflections. I look forward to facilitating this course and working with educators that need a place to start with the work of equity or continue their journey with educators that engage in this work on a regular basis.
By Wendi K. Oster, Visual Arts Teacher at Platte Valley Middle School
It is a profound privilege to be teaching at the school I attended as a student. In the beginning, there was a shift of mindset and perspective as I transitioned from the experience of being a student to the reality of being a teacher. It was a hard truth that this was not the same school I had attended because the school culture seemed to have changed. I knew that I needed to be intentional in contributing to the change and promote a positive experience for students.
After a year of observation and reflection, I realized that there was something missing; there was not a presence of student voice or perspective to help encourage and promote student presence in the culture. At a fall conference for Colorado Art Education Association, I attended a keynote presentation by Steve Wood, from the Concrete Couch in Colorado Springs. During this presentation, Woods shared how effective collaboration exists when each person is allowed to bring their individual strengths, ideas, and aesthetics to the table when creating a collective work of art. He also shared that when people feel valued in their contributions, they are happier and have a stronger connection to their community. Concrete Couch projects range from public sculptures, murals, community events, etc. No matter what the project is, the cause becomes even more fruitful because it accentuates the value and skills of each member by providing a safe space to honor all ideas and abilities of those contributing to the project. Furthermore, it is because of this investment that the collaborative space becomes embedded with a sense of belonging, appreciation, and pride.
The words of community, collaboration, and legacy resonated with me, so I was faced with a few questions. How might integrating a collaborative art project foster a sense of belonging, appreciation, and pride while enriching the community amongst students, staff and the school? How might transforming the appearance of the school walls enliven the energy of the school culture? That is when it dawned on me that implementing a legacy project for the 8th grade students might be such an avenue for transformation of school community, culture, and creative expression that heightens awareness and voice.
One of my ultimate goals was that this experience be student generated, so I adopted the ideation process I had personally experienced during a collaborative art class I took during my Master’s program at the University of Northern Colorado. During this class, students contributed and assisted street artist Alice Mizrachi on a mural for the Colorado Model Railroad Museum. The ideation process began with an introduction to street art through visual exploration of design, aesthetics, interaction, and setting. Then we moved into identifying personal preferences by sharing out our top three street art examples that resonated personally. During these oral share outs, we were able to comment on what we thought was a strength in visual communication. It was during this process that we made a list of key words that led to a subliminal theme. Once a theme was collectively agreed upon, we were charged with the task of interpreting the meaning of the theme and how to represent it visually. At our next round-robin share out, we presented our interpretations and Alice noted key features of our composition that she then adapted into a new design that fit our theme. She created the sketch that served as our direction and layout for the large mural.
I mirrored this process for my students as we met at lunch to explore street art, discuss aesthetics, identify themes, interpret the meaning through visual representation, and express their thoughts through their customized message. I served as the recorder during these meetings, and I noted what was being shared about key features that stood out to the students about each person’s ideas. It is always rewarding to hear the rich conversation and discover the metaphoric thread that tends to be present in each student’s ideas. Then it was my job to plan out the composition based on the sketches of each student. This usually takes a weekend to process; then produce the final sketch. I incorporate visual elements and style from each student’s ideas into the final composition. This has allowed the project to be conceptually based on students’ ideation.
In our school, we have a beloved thoroughfare, a hallway that jogs through the middle of the school and tends to be a little hectic during passing periods. We have deemed it the “Crooked Hallway” which seems to be a place of contention due to its blind spots, making it an easy place for inappropriate choices and behaviors. This made the hallway a perfect setting to transform through a tunnel of murals utilizing eclectic collections of different styles, concepts, and processes. Rather than this area being a space of negative behaviors, I aimed to embed it with a sense of pride.
Our school has a Positive Behavior Intervention System and functions on Colt P.R.I.D.E. Each letter stands for a desired character trait we hope to empower our students to possess: positive attitude, respect, integrity, determination, and excellence. By using this conspicuous part of the school to house the mural, we are sending positive messages, promoting change, and encouraging expression of perspective. Thus, creating a sense of pride and honor as only a selected few are given an invitation to contribute to the Legacy Murals. This pride is founded on the source of personal contribution and voice, empowering students to take an active role in being a part of shifting the school culture.
I have worked to grow the mystery and celebration as each mural is revealed. We begin the mural on a Friday night and paint the majority on a Saturday. Then we cover the nearly finished mural with a sheet as classes resume on that following Monday. After school, on Monday, we add the finishing touches and sign it in time for an artist reception. At the artist reception, I have the students share how they contributed to the composition, what it means to them personally, and how having this opportunity of participating in a Legacy Mural impacts them. Parents, grandparents, teachers, and administration are present to acknowledge the success of the students. To date, we have explored the following themes:
Nature of Us- breaking through and asserting presence is represented in a tree overtaking lined paper.
To Be or Not to Be CHANGE- We all have the power and choice to take part in being the change we want to see. This is shown through the symbolic transformation of a phoenix taking off through the knowledge gained from experience and discovery.
Dreams Take Flight- we can explore dreams and allow them to carry us and motivate us. Demonstrated through a bird of many colors and contrasting from the darkened wall.
No Elevator for Success- hard work and effort pays off… there is no easy way through; the journey is illustrated by a panda navigating through obstacles and faced with climbing a mountain of stairs.
Embrace Joy- we have overcome the heaviness of Covid-19 and we can choose to participate to find joy and reconnect which is illustrated through the heavy weight of a dark dripping background, but we are being lifted through our connections and moments of joys like balloons.
Diversity in Unity- it is okay to be different and still work together; we are all unique and have something to contribute which is seen in the rainbow lettering of the theme and how standing together offers strength and power.
Explore Culturas- the more we step out and explore people who are different than us the more understanding we experience and can appreciate traditions of other cultures…we might even find that there are some correlations in our differences. This is represented through a Calaca sugar skull from Día de los Muertos looking into a mirror supported by books to gain perspective.
Speak Up- we all have a voice that deserves to be heard in classes, on the court, and in the community. We should not be silenced when we try to share our perspectives. This is shown through an otherworldly setting of a person being caged or silenced by the taunts of others but then finding the courage to take a stand and share thoughts anyway.
It has been rewarding to see the evolution of the hallway as it creates an appearance of a patchwork quilt documenting time and classes. I hope that the students who participate will experience a sense of relevance and resonance as they prepare for the transition to high school as well as reflect on the legacy they would like to leave behind for future classes. It has been years in the making yet there are still years to come; however, this is what it takes to build a right of passage that leaves a mark on our middle school.
Wendi K. Oster is an art educator at Platte Valley Middle School where she has taught for almost thirteen years, with the last eight years transforming her practice through the lens of Teaching for Artistic Behaviors (TAB). Empowering students is a focus for Wendi as she challenges students with critical and creative thinking through guiding questions, personal inquiry through cognitive coaching, and accessing contemporary artists to build community and foster empathy. She obtained her Undergraduate (2009) and master’s (2016) degrees from the University of Northern Colorado. Wendi has contributed to the art education community through independent presentations like Providing Feedback through Cognitive Coaching and the Creative Process (2018), Sharing heART to heART (2019) and Getting to the heART of Meaning: Making Thinking Visible, (2019) at the Colorado Art Education Association winter conference and Colorado Teaching for Artistic Behaviors Conference.
By; Tanya Over
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from situations. Being a teacher of middle school students for twenty years, I notice certain trends that have been happening. I notice that the neediness, anxiety, stress, and inability to deal with change or friendship drama is on the rise. Students need to learn to adapt and cope in all of these situations. A number of factors contribute to how well people adapt in these situations. The ways in which individuals view and engage with the world and specific coping strategies are the focus of Journaling to a Better Me.
I decided to develop something that could help students grow in finding out who they are and who they want to be. This journal is something that will give them skills for dealing with everyday life and options of things to try if something does not go their way.
Based on data from my school’s counseling office and administration, conflict resolution is the number one problem. A quick survey found out that my students, a class of 26, on a scale of 1-5, one low and 5 high, 65% rate their anxiety as 5, 4 or 3. This leads me to believe that they are quite anxious or they don’t know strategies for helping to ease their anxiety. I also found out 77% find themselves confident in dealing with conflicts with friends. This information contradicts what the administration and counseling are reporting that the majority of the visits to their offices are dealing with conflict management. I am intrigued to dive deeper into this area with the journaling. 65% do not feel they are able to bounce back from difficult situations. As expected, 61% had not journaled before.
I began with a note home for the optional purchase of a bullet journal. If they cannot get a bullet journal, these lessons are adaptable with a spiral notebook or Notability, an iPad app. I find when the students begin working on their journals, when they pick up the pencil or marker it calms them. They work quietly and intently. The “vibe,” as my daughter says, is happy and relaxed. As they will find later on, journaling is also a self-care technique that many have not accessed previously.
In the beginning, I had about 33% of my students with bullet journals. Now, a month in, 90% of my kids have bullet journals. I have given away 24 journals, some to students not even in my class who want to join us. I am finding the kids are loving the lessons and drawing. Most are off screens for 30 minutes. They are happy in the class and giving compliments to each other about creativity and their pages. I see many asking to work in journals when they have finished classwork.
Currently, we are working on Who Are You? Chapter. They are learning about themselves and completing activities to build connections with others. I am hearing comments like “Wait. You too?” “ I did not know that about you.” We are tracking how we are confident each day based on the 7 ways to build confidence that I developed. We are discussing which is the hardest and which is the easiest way to build confidence. They have even corrected me by saying, “Mrs. Over, is that positive self talk? How can you change that to use yet or and ?” Yet/and are words we have added to our vocabulary to build confidence. For example: I did not do well on the math homework AND I have asked for help to gain better understanding. It is exciting to see them use the skills outside of the lesson time.
Our next step is to look in detail about what they are good at and how they can develop those skills even further. We will make a tracker for that as well.
Lastly, we will dive more deeply into what we can control, options of what to do when we can not, and to start tracking our choices in daily situations. We will be looking at methods of self care and what is the difference between anxiety and stress.
Throughout this unit, I also have been introducing optional pages for them to design. Some pages they have chosen to create are migraine trackers, sleep trackers and phone usage trackers. Some are combining all sorts of things for them to work on in a monthly tracker.
While I do not grade the pages, I do look over them to see if they have been attempted. We do activities on Tuesday and Thursday but many work on their book on the other days as well.
This is their journey to discover and better themselves.
My hope for this project is to help students realize for themselves what positive attributes they have, how to build on them, and what to do when things don’t go their way. Let’s face it, sometimes we all have bad days….even in Australia.
For further information or questions please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tanya Over has taught for twenty years, mostly middle school math and fourteen years at Erie Middle. As a wife, mother, daughter and teacher, she is continually working on developing good self-care.
By: Andrea Smith, Ed.D.
I am in a long line at the pharmacy and the person in front of me turns around to make small talk to pass the time. Inevitably, the conversation turns towards the polite question of “what do you do for a living?” I have learned that this question is a crossroads in a surface conversation with well-meaning people. I know that once I utter a certain answer, I am in for a more in-depth conversation. And I also know that it is my duty as a middle level educator to step right up into that discussion. So, I internally grimace and brace for the typical reaction as I reply, “I am a middle school principal.”
If you are a middle level educator and have ever encountered this type of situation, then you know exactly what comes next. Empathetic head tilt. Knowing glance. Slight wince followed by a smirk. Then, the usual reply. Something along the lines of, “Ooooh, wow. Middle school is the worst! You couldn’t pay me enough to have to work with kids that age.”
I could easily avoid this type of interaction. I could simply say “I work in education” or “I am a principal.” However, I intentionally choose not to because I have come to LOVE having these types of conversations. They used to bother me a bit as I would find myself frustrated that others thought so negatively about students in their adolescent years. However, now I see these conversations as an opportunity to impact public perception of working with adolescents. I see these interactions as a way to push back against the negative assumptions people often make about the young people that I love and adore. I see myself as a change agent. As a middle school principal, I now see that it is my duty to not only find the joy in these often-tough years for students but to then share that joy with the world.
Here are ways that I think we can find and share the joy in the work we do:
Make Room for Laughter
How often do you truly laugh with students? We have so many obligations pulling on us each day that it is easy to not make room to connect and laugh with our students. Whether it is laughing at your own mistake, a corny joke of the week, or even a silly Super Bowl ad. Take time each day or week to build in an opportunity to laugh with your students. And take it further than your classroom walls. Share one of those funny moments with a colleague when you are in the hall or on lunch duty. Create collegial connections of joy and laughter. Be a source of humor within your school culture.
Embrace the Stage
We work with 10-14 year olds. Their brains are changing and growing every day. They can be forgetful. They can be impulsive. They can forget things from one day to the next. They can have a completely different understanding of how time and deadlines work. And they can also be delightful and goofy and utterly unique. It is easy, especially this time of year, to get caught up in the frustrating aspects of working with adolescents. However, creating space to recognize that what these young people really need is someone that can meet them where they are and embrace them for exactly who they are. This full and absolute acceptance and delight of what it means to educate adolescents is what truly helps us find the joy in what we do. Be a champion of delight in the middle school years.
We Can Expect Better
We all know that the middle school years often include incidents of relational aggression, social power dynamics, name-calling, and put-downs. However, we must remember that we should continue to expect more. When we lower our expectations to “that’s just the way middle school is,” we forget how much of an opportunity we have to teach key social skills and support healthy relationships. Be the educator that continually digs in and works with students to find better ways to solve problems or resolve conflict. This investment can lead to a shift in what students expect of themselves. Be the voice that expects more.
Reject the Narrative
We all know that these adolescent years can be challenging, but that doesn’t mean that negativity needs to be the headline. There are so many amazing things happening in our schools every day, and we have to be sure that those things are part of the narrative as well. We have to share these amazing moments with the world however we can. Be a positive voice in the narrative.
As we start the final three months of the school year, challenge yourself to look for the joy in each day. Enjoy laughter and embrace the craziness and fun that is middle school. Next time you have that inevitable small-talk conversation, proudly declare “YES! I do work with middle schoolers…and I LOVE it!”
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.
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