By: Matt Moulton
Hi all! My name is Matt. I am an assistant professor and Undergraduate Teacher Education Program Coordinator for the Center for Educator Prep at Colorado State University. I love my job, especially when it involves being in middle schools and amongst young adolescents. I am brand new to Colorado, Fort Collins, and CAMLE and I am so honored to hold my position at CSU, be a board member for CAMLE, and teach a class for future teachers at Boltz Middle School in Fort Collins.
My students recently started their official middle school practicum experience. Our class has met for the past four weeks in the Boltz media center, we have heard from plenty of folx from the school, witnessed loads of middle schoolers jumping to touch the door frame as they walk through it, and talked a lot about community and its importance in the middle grades. We have talked about Bishop and Harrison’s Successful Middle School: This We Believe Essential Attributes, looked for evidence of their incorporation in the school hallways, and tried to apply them to Trey Kennedy’s YouTube videos with his character Maddox. Worth a watch with a grain of salt. It was hilarious, but purposeful and informative.
Another focus revolved around the Key Characteristic of “Leaders demonstrate courage and collaboration.” When considering courage and collaboration, I immediately thought of Korg and Miek.
These two heroes were introduced on film in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. Korg and Miek are reluctant gladiators who have been taken captive and forced to fight opponents for The Grandmaster, played by Jeff Goldblum. Korg is made of perishable rock and Miek is an insect with scissors for hands. Korg does all the (hilarious) talking and Miek is always ready to have Korg’s back.
To cut a long story short, the two are freed as part of a revolution and escape on a giant spaceship. They join Thor and fight to save the people of Asgard from undead warriors in an epic battle on a bridge. Courage and collaboration abound.
At the end of the movie, Thor sits upon his throne in the spaceship and wonders where they should venture. Thor turns to Miek, who at this point is being carried by Korg, and asks “Miek, where are you from?”
Korg responds, “Ah, Miek’s dead. I accidently stomped on him on the bridge. I just felt so guilty that I have been carrying him around all day.”
Then, to Korg’s joy and excitement, Miek shakes awake. Here is a clip: Thor Ragnarok / Miek is dead scene.
I love it. This might be a bit too inside but I see it relating to courage and collaboration.
Some days we are Korg. We are made of rock–perishable rock, but rock none the less. We face the day’s challenges, we overcome the battles, we maintain a feeling of humor, joy, and possibility amongst the struggles and challenges of our jobs. We see others having a hard time. We pick them up and carry them.
Other days, we are Miek. We might be emotionally, figuratively, physically, and interpersonally stomped on. We might be at the end of our rope and in need of supports we don’t even know how to vocalize. We need someone to carry us.
I shared all this with my teacher candidates. I provided them an example of when I was the Miek in need of being carried. I named my Korg that carried me amidst the hard time. I promised to be a Korg when needed.
They all laughed.
But, some got it. Some turned to a trusted neighbor, looked them in the eye and said “I will be your Korg.”
I went on to share that middle school students learn so much from their teachers that doesn’t come in the form of a practice problem, a paper, or a formative assessment. They learn how to be active and responsible adults. When middle school students see trusted adults come alongside colleagues and supporting each other when in need, they begin to emulate that same courage and collaboration with their peers. They are always learning.
Sometimes that learning comes with a bit of whimsy and an off the wall example from a Marvel movie. Sometimes it comes from the way you give time and patience with each other.
By Kevin Copher
The past three school years have been a tumultuous time for everyone in the school system. Middle-level educators are keenly aware of the energy and challenges pre-teens and early teens experience as they assert their independence, develop critical friend groups, and navigate changing bodies and hormones. As our best hopes for this school year include a return to normalcy, we must remember that our middle-level students may not know what normalcy looks like.
In Colorado’s middle schools, state-reported discipline has dropped from 12.32% of students receiving discipline in the 18/19 school year to 3.96% in 20/21, according to the most recent data available from CDE. However, the data across all levels show increases of 3.5% for detrimental behavior and almost 4.5% for “other violations of code of conduct.” The available data is skewed given the significant variety of learning models from March 2020 to today (fully in person, hybrid, online, and switching between any and all of the models). However, widely published national surveys and anecdotal conversations point to a marked increase in discipline events in the most recent school year. Perhaps two explanations for the increase in peer-relationship misconduct are that our students who have experienced the trauma of the global pandemic are suffering from emotional dysregulation and students lack necessary peer communication skills previously taught in elementary schools.
This year, we should be more intentional about a return to basics approach. This does not mean a return to “Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmatic,” but a return to the basics of being a student and engaging in a functioning learning environment. We may need to borrow some pages from the intermediate elementary behavior management playbook as we reset expectations and routines. We must ask ourselves what behavior we want from our students and what strategies and supports need to be implemented to teach and reinforce those behaviors.
Middle school teachers in the early 2000s described ideal classrooms that promote student sharing, students helping others, persistence through challenges, inquisitiveness, and completing assignments (Wentzel, 2002). Those values and goals are still relevant today and feature prominently in CDE’s Essential Skills (CDE, 2017). We may often assume those expectations were taught at the elementary level; however, with the significant upheaval and inconsistent learning environments over the past three years, we should be more explicit about what these behaviors mean in our classrooms and schools.
CDE’s Essential Skills requirements center around entrepreneurship skills, personal skills, civic/interpersonal skills, and professional skills (CDE, 2017). Within the guidance, students spiral from novice to emerging expert (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Essential Skills Developmental Milestones
Source: CDE (2017). Essential Skills Guidance.
As we think about this school year, we may need to restart with building Novice skills. Students may need support in accurately recognizing their own emotions and how they impact their behavior, understanding and managing their impulses and behavior with minimal direction, resisting distractions, and maintaining attention to the task.
We may need to pause and re-teach. We may have previously been able to operate with the belief and understanding that 7th-grade students should be in the Advanced Beginner stages or even in Strategic Learner stages regarding their self-awareness category of personal skills. Yet, we should pause, go back to the basics, and reteach Novice-level skills. The past three years of trauma may mean we restart with a fresh approach to teaching these skills. With the mounting recent evidence of lost academic skills and performance related to the pandemic, we must also remember the lost essential skills that do not appear in school and district performance frameworks.
For example, if we want to promote students showing persistence through challenges, what lessons do we have in place that can highlight and teach this skill? How can we intentionally and explicitly teach this skill in academic and personal relationship contexts?
This year, let’s permit ourselves to go back to basics in teaching essential skills. Doing so will help us return and sustain a normal, positive, and productive learning environment. We will also thank ourselves later for the time and effort invested now in reteaching these skills with kindness and grace.
Colorado Department of Education (2022). School View Data Center [interactive data set]. https://edx.cde.state.co.us/SchoolView/DataCenter/reports.jspx?_adf_ctrl-state=pac20phbp_4&_afrLoop=2870402442216815&_afrWindowMode=0&_adf.ctrl-state=2pyn69rd7_4
Colorado Department of Education (2017). Essential Skills Guidance. http://cde.state.co.us/standardsandinstruction/2018coloradoessentialskills
Kevin has been an educator for over 21 years and serves as the Weld Re-4 District Coordinator for Attendance and Discipline.
By: Emily Goldenstein and Mandy Smith
Middle school is a melting pot where students from vastly different elementary experiences meet to take on the next portion of their educational journeys. You might be preparing students for this experience, you might teach in these grades, and some of you might be seeking perspective on where your students have come from. As educators supporting these students, we want you to consider what role technology can play in planning and delivering accessible learning for all students.
Our educational technology team in Weld RE-4 is fortunate to work closely with our instructional team. Part of our shared work involves supporting and developing building learning coaches. Through our work with our Learning Coaches and conducting instructional rounds in each of our buildings, we started to notice a theme. Our middle schools, grades 6-8, had incredibly diverse student populations. When we say diverse, we are accounting for and referring to students of different genders, races, backgrounds, interests, academic abilities, and socioeconomic statuses. While our situation is not unique to this district, we found ourselves asking, “How do we make sure all students engage and access learning?”
According to CAST, a multifaceted organization with a singular ambition of breaking down barriers, “Information that is not attended to, that does not engage learners’ cognition, is inaccessible.” As educators, we believe we must develop agency in our learners. Our students differ significantly in what attracts their attention and interests them, and it is the educator’s role to consider this. Technology not only deserves a place in classrooms and instruction, but it is also necessary to keep up with the pace at which students' interests and needs change. In our district, we invest in technology tools that support our beliefs and allow students to choose the type of product they want to create to demonstrate their learning. Some of our tools that educators love are Kami, WeVideo, MyVRSpot, and our learning management system (LMS), Canvas. When students have tools that enable them to make choices toward gaining and demonstrating knowledge, they are more likely to be engaged.
Our next consideration comes from the brilliant work of Katie Novak. In one of her blog posts, “What is UDL” she shared that students can have different barriers to learning that need to be planned for; this is called predicted variability. During conversations with our Learning Coaches and teachers, we often ask, “What challenges do you anticipate the students will face?” This coaching question helps us discuss an important point shared by CAST’s UDL Guidelines "Learning is impossible if the information is imperceptible to the learner, and difficult when information is presented in formats that require extraordinary effort or assistance.”
Technology affords teachers the opportunity to offer a variety of modalities or options for accessing learning. When sharing an assignment to your LMS, think about the format of the information; is text the only option for directions, or can you add an audio recording for greater access? A new unit begins, and you work to activate student background knowledge. Can you offer the choice of a podcast, video, visuals, and text? We work with our teachers to think about how to provide information in a format that will allow students to choose what is best for them on that day, at that moment. Presenting the information in multiple formats creates more entry points resulting in higher student engagement.
Our final consideration for you around planning and delivering accessible learning focuses on the physical act of learning. When students receive a worksheet to complete with a pencil, their physical interaction is limited. Technology can have a similar effect if not planned and executed with intentionality. Students who get on their devices to fill in the blanks of vocabulary worksheets using Kami would be one example. These limited interactions can potentially exclude learners with barriers such as dysgraphia, blindness, physical disabilities, and students with varying executive functioning skills. With the advancement of technology, the number of assistive tools available has also increased. These tools open doors to learning when implemented thoughtfully.
When you know your students’ interests and needs, you can begin to think about the structure of your lessons. What options do students have for demonstrating their knowledge? Can students physically access these options? Are there options for physical movement involved, such as station rotation? Do your lessons apply technology that enhances the lesson?
Our job is to plan for and provide accessible learning to our students. When teachers utilize technology to approach planning and teaching with considerations for helping all students succeed, the impact on student achievement is more significant. Picture the diverse population of students you serve and ask yourself, how can I leverage technology to develop more accessible learning for my students?
CAST. (2022, September 2). The UDL guidelines. The UDL Guidelines. Retrieved September 12, 2022, from https://udlguidelines.cast.org/
CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved September 13, 2022, from http://udlguidelines.cast.org
CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org
Emily and Mandy are part of the Instructional Technology Team in Weld RE-4 School District.
By: Julie Johnson
By now you’ve heard not only the acronym MTSS (multi-tiered systems of support), but also about the Tiers of instruction within its framework. MTSS is full of moving parts and can be difficult to understand. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on what Tier 1 is.
Tier 1 is high-quality classroom instruction coupled with universal screenings and in-class small group instruction. Within Tier 1 all students take a universal screening assessment and receive high-quality instruction, both of which are delivered by qualified personnel to ensure a student’s difficulties are not because of poor or inadequate instruction.
Screeners are given periodically (usually 3 times per year) to establish baseline data for both behaviors as well as academics, to identify struggling learners that might need additional support. One way to provide that support is through in-class small group instruction provided by the classroom teacher.
So what does all of this translate into for middle school? Establishing a strong Tier 1 requires team collaboration. Whether it is grade-level, content or a combination, it takes a team to stay on top of the needs of students. A good way to accomplish this is to devote time (weekly, twice a month or monthly) as a team to discuss students who are showing signs of needing added support. In identifying these students, you need a way to keep track of them. One method for doing this is to keep a running Google document where students discussed are added along with strategies tried and progress monitoring data to show what’s working and/or what is not. In addition, this is a place to keep notes on parent contacts. It is important to assign roles within teams to allow for organized, productive discussions. These can be roles such as facilitator, note-taker, time-keeper, resource officer, etc. Establishing these roles up front will keep your meetings moving forward and keep everyone on track.
Maintaining this as a running list allows the team to circle back to students, analyze collected data and brainstorm other ideas and strategies to try. Being a running document also allows for the addition of students who may present as needing additional support further into the year. This document also serves as the start of a body of evidence should a student eventually need to move to the next Tier.
I know, this all sounds great, but when do we find the time for these critical discussions? As a former middle school assistant principal with a block schedule, one plan per week was devoted to these meetings. When that is not an option, before and after school, for part of a staff meeting and as part of professional development days can also work. Get creative, but make sure you find the time for this crucial Tier 1 activity. The more students we can successfully support at Tier 1, the stronger the school as a whole.
Below is a link to a list of Tier 1 strategies that we use in our district.
Tier 1 strategies
Julie Johnson is the MTSS Specialist for Weld RE-4 School District.
Of course we don’t want to belabor this point, but 21-22 was a REALLY tough year for many reasons. One of the lingering effects of the pandemic was the loss of our school community as we knew it. When I arrived at Longs Peak Middle School in August of 2019, the community among staff and students was the strongest I’d seen, and that sense of community acted in many ways as a safety net for students to take risks, explore their passions, and find a sense of purpose and belonging at school.
In the absence of full-time, in-person learning, many of our students turned elsewhere for that sense of safety and belonging. When they returned to in-person learning for the 21-22 school year, we began to see signs that many of our students did not view school as the source of fun, excitement, and community they once had. We spent the school year attempting to draw our students back in, cope with new and more intense behavioral needs, while at the same time putting ourselves back together as educators and as humans.
By May of 2022, we knew what we would need for a successful start to the next school year. Our leadership team asked administration to find time for staff to come together and reconnect. Staff surveys reflected a need to set and maintain high expectations and tight structures for students. We needed to heal ourselves from the past year, so that we could be whole for our kids and rebuild our vibrant school community. If we were to rebuild, then we had to start with the foundation of our most basic needs.
So we designed a back-to-basics approach: An all day staff retreat where we focused on rebuilding trust, visualizing the school year we wanted for ourselves and for our students, and making a plan to bring that visualization to life.
All teachers participated in Kagan Cooperative Learning Day 1 training the day before kids returned to the building. Thinking about engagement, teambuilding, academic conversations, and involving every child was the perfect way to kick off the week. On the first day of school, our admin team walked through every classroom, and I have never seen as much movement, conversation, and joy on the first day as I did this year.
Each grade level committed to a weekly or bi-weekly all-grade team building activity during our advisory class, RamReady.
Using student input, teachers worked with their classes to create a list of what characterizes a safe community. In what type of class do I feel safe? Unsafe? What am I willing to do to contribute to a safe school community?
Anyone reading this knows we did nothing flashy or new. In fact, it is in attending to and acknowledging our most basic needs as humans that we have found our path to healing. It’s been the commitment to a fundamental idea that is helping to bring us back: We are a community. We look out for one another. This community is dedicated to giving you every opportunity to succeed. You want to be part of it. And, as part of this community, you have responsibilities.
Start with the assumption that all of our kids want to belong, because they do. Remember that our students will rise when asked to be part of something meaningful and exciting. Building on that foundation will create the conditions for a nurturing, collaborative, and robust learning community where we can all thrive.
By Sandy Heiser, Principal of Longs Peak Middle School in Longmont, Colorado.
Colorado recognizes exemplary schools serving middle level students in grades 5-9 alongside the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform through the Schools to Watch program. Thirteen schools from across the state currently hold a Schools to Watch designation, which is 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 in Washington D.C. at the national Schools to Watch conference.
Colorado Schools to Watch demonstrate a trajectory of success and exhibit replicable practices for middle grades students.
The School to Watch application for 2023 designation is now available! If you are interested in learning more, consider joining us on October 7th at the CAMLE preconference and visit your choice of three schools designated as a Colorado School to Watch. Additionally, the annual CAMLE conference will feature a Schools to Watch session to learn more about the application criteria, process, and selection. More information can be found on the CAMLE conference website.
By: Katie Gustafson
By: Sarah Cavender
The anticipation for the new school year is settling in. There’s a bit of nervousness topped with a strong helping of excitement. As with every year, I find myself thinking about what my new students will be like. After two solid years of adapting and changing expectations due to COVID, this year seems like it could be the first for a while that has a sense of normalcy to it - the new normal. But with that new normal comes a host of questions that aren’t at all new. How will we create a classroom community that underscores the fun in thinking and creating? How will we develop an inclusive environment where students come to know their voices matter? What do we need to do to make sure all students walk away from the classroom loving to learn, through all of the ups and downs that come with the learning process?
The first days are always the most important days, so they say. We lean on learning student names and become investigators of our students over those first few weeks. What personalities exist in our classroom? Who are the cutups and who are the quiet observers? Who exudes confidence, and which students are unsure of themselves? Our classrooms are made from a wide and varied cast of characters that, in the middle school years, change and shift and grow over the course of the year. This is the exciting part of teaching in a middle school - watching these humans grow and change - trying on new hats, feeling out new friend groups, surviving the middle school drama that inevitably shakes things up along the way. My goal, in the end, is to use these first days to help show my students that all of this growth and change is supported and encouraged in my classroom - for who are we, if not middle school students coming of age in all of its messy and unpredictable ways?
In building a classroom of inclusive acceptance, I often turn to the students to share their thoughts and ideas. The joy of teaching language arts is that there are no right and definitive answers when it comes to interpreting a story. Every conjecture is viable, as long as you can use textual evidence to support it. So - we start there…every voice and every idea is interesting and worth investigating and discussing. The voice of the quiet observers are encouraged, the ideas of those who see things through a different perspective are championed, the jokesters are taken seriously, and everyone in between finds their own ways to share and grow as students and human beings.
Going into a new school year starts with building trust and camaraderie in the classroom. When trust exists, and students understand that their ideas and voices are valued, it leads to a fulfilling learning experience for both students and educators. What works one year may not work the next, but reflecting on those experiences that were so fulfilling the previous year is a helpful place to start. It's not about recreating the same experience, but rather figuring out what that experience will look like this school year, with these students.
Of some great things that came out of my classroom last year, one that stands out was the confidence to share writing. We held a contest in writing, each Friday, where students shared the paragraphs they developed using vocabulary terms correctly. This seems like a simple task, but middle school students often lack the confidence to share their work (especially reading aloud) with peers in a whole class setting. The interesting thing about this experiment (yes - all new things tried are experiments!) was the involvement of students! The first time we tried it, there were 6 students who volunteered to share their writing. Some paragraphs were hilarious, others serious. Some were descriptive, and others used the words incorrectly altogether. But, week after week, more and more students volunteered. Two students decided they would use this time to add to an ongoing short story. By the end of the year, students were upset when testing schedules shifted our ability to fit in our paragraph contest. They begged to have an end-of-the-year extravaganza sharing their last pieces of writing. As an educator, I sat back in awe and loved every moment of it. These students, who at the beginning of the year proclaimed to hate reading and writing, were now fighting for the ability to do both, and share about it. These students, who at the beginning of the year were shy, lacked confidence, and were more apathetic about participating in language arts discovered, over time, that this place was the place they could trust their peers, be vulnerable, and share their ideas. They learned to be proud of being learners. Of being confident. In building a community of trust and valuing the voices of all.
The takeaway from this is, of course, a question: How do I help students discover their confidence over the course of their year in our classroom? Trust. Love. Respect. Inclusion. Voice. These are the backbone of my classroom.
Sarah Cavender is a middle school Language Arts teacher. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and completed her English Education program at Colorado State University.
By: Jessica O’Toole, Ed.D.
The best part of education is that we get a new start every year. In August, we come into the school year feeling revitalized, energized, and excited for a fresh start with students. Each August, I feel a mixture of excitement and anticipation for the new year; I spend a lot of my time reflecting on the previous year and planning for the year ahead. After this last year in education during the global pandemic, I have been wondering what made last year feel so different from my previous 15 years in education. When I think of my work with teachers last year, I find myself thinking about a trend that I have noticed, all conversations centered on measuring our impact on student learning. Over the past few years, we were just struggling with figuring out how to keep moving forward when our classes went remote, or we were missing many students due to illness. As the world slowly returns to normal, I reflect on how to recalibrate our thinking so that we are starting to spend more time measuring our impact on student learning. I am committing this year to refocus on the basics, the solid instructional practices that produce results and enable students to succeed; I find myself shifting my perspective from the newest educational practices to how to measure the impact of teaching (Hattier & Zierer, 2018). When we shift our perspective to focusing on what our students understand and our impact on their learning, the instructional practices we choose become easier to identify.
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Hattie, J & Zierer, K. (2018). 10 Mindframes for visible learning: teaching for success. New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group
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Jessica O’Toole is a middle school assistant principal in the St. Vrain Valley School District. She has served as a teacher, instructional coach, and administrator. Jessica has her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from the University of Northern Colorado.
CAMLE.Colorado Association of Middle Level Education
mailing address: CAMLE • 4650 E. Amherst Ave. • Denver • CO • 80222CAMLE is a 501(c)6 non-profit organization.