Monday, December 9, 2013

In the Middle - An Opportunity!

Now that we have reached semester break, there is an expression that comes to mind more often than not: In the Middle.

Investing of ourselves as educators in this range of adolescence comes with rewards that I would argue are unlike that of teaching any other range of students.  It is these students, the ones in the middle, that I truly find amazing in all of their unknowns.


One of the experts in working with this band of students is Rick Wormeli (@rickwormeli).  Rick is one of the first national certified teachers who has written books that include the award-winning Meet Me in the Middle: Becoming an Accomplished Middle Level Teacher, the best-selling books Day One and Beyond: Practical Matters for New Middle Level Teachers and Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom.

Reading many of Ricks books and being inspired by his writing and hearing him speak, constantly brings me back to my own work as a middle-level administrator.  It is the work that I see my teachers do that excites me more now than ever of all the possibilities of teaching and learning for this band of students. Middle-level teachers truly have invested themselves in understanding the process of retention and success.

It is one of Mr. Wormeli's books (Fair Isn't Always Equal) that has taught many in education on how we need to assess and grade our students.  We have learned about differentiation and how we can serve our students by meeting them at their needs.  We have learned that how we grade our students can make all the difference in the world when it comes to retention and development.  And, as we work towards meeting our students needs through working with staff, we implement the greatest of strategies and work towards an environment of best practices.  As we strive towards this goal and when working with teachers, we should follow Stephen Covey's advice: Seek to understand, then to be understood (2004).  Taking this approach helps all of us in the middle reach a common goal.

An exert from a blog written by Laryy Ferlazzo (http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/)  sets the stage for the second half of the year when it comes to our work with our middle-level students. Larry shares the following story as originally shared by Rick:

He (Rick Wormeli) writes of the $5 bill and I would encourage you to share this story with your students the next time you hear someone in the class say "that's not fair".
Fair Isn’t Always Equal: $5 Bills on the Wall Technique 
Rick Wormeli, September 2012 
Many of us tell our students, “Fair isn’t always equal,” in response to their claims of justices miscarried, but we need to find ways to make the principle clear and meaningful to students.  While working at a middle school in Naples, Maine years ago, one teacher shared this wonderful technique with me, and I’ve used it successfully with both students and colleagues on repeated occasion ever since, augmenting as necessary:
Place two $5 bills, or anything your students would find prize worthy, high up on a classroom wall, so high up, only the tallest student in the class, leaping, can reach them.  Ask for volunteers: “Anyone who can leap up and reach one of those bills, can have it for free, no strings attached.”   When the hands of volunteers go up, choose the tallest student.  He, or if in middle school, more likely, she, goes up to the wall, jumps, grabs one of the bills, and returns to her seat.
Ask for another volunteer to go for the second bill.  This time, choose the shortest person in the room.  He makes his attempt to grab the bill, but can’t quite reach it.  He moves across the room to grab a chair, but stop him from doing so: “You may not use a chair; that would be unfair. Your classmate did it under her own power, without any assistance. You must do the same.”
The class erupts in complaint: “That’s not fair! He should be allowed to use the chair! He can’t help how tall he is,” they say.  Act like you’re pondering their argument, then say, “Okay, give me your best reasons for allowing him to use a chair or any form of assistance in reaching that $5 when your other classmate did not use any assistance. How can that be fair?”
Let students confer with one another, then offer their rationale. After listening to them argue their case, relent, which is what you were going to do anyway, and let the student use the chair and grab the second $5 bill.
After this demonstration with my students, I never again have to explain why I’d do different things with different students in order to get everyone in the class to the same high standard set for the class, and that includes changing deadlines, levels of support, rates of learning, tools used, and varying assessments. They get it: fair isn't always equal, and thank goodness the teacher is fair.
When using this technique, make sure to choose someone for the second volunteer who is good natured and accepts his shorter height without issue.  If necessary, talk with the student ahead of time, inviting him to play this role in the class lesson.
Thank both student volunteers for being good natured and helping you to make the point in the lesson.  Make sure, too, to have a classroom culture where differences are considered strengths, not weaknesses. ‘Easy to say, harder to do, I know.  With students, build an expectation and skill set for perseverance and problem-solving, too.  A culture of students assisting with instruction and affirming differences as positives limits the chance of negative feelings at being singled out for something so important to students (physical growth) yet beyond their control.
If using students is uncomfortable, ask adult volunteers to assist you in the demonstration, or choose a situation that focuses on a trait of less personal nature or different category altogether, such as a specific skill or knowledge base.
The goal is to be so vivid and clear with the message that all students are engaged and see the value of differentiating instruction when needed.  We need to clear their heads of the notion that always equal means always credible, or that standardizing learning experiences are always effective.  With experiences like this one, students build community and advocate for one another.  With both, the path to learning is a little clearer.
So, as you think ahead to the second half of your year, remember your passion for your students that are in the middle and how your passion drives you to do the work you do.

Coming to the Easton Hilton in Columbus, OH on February 20th and 21st, Mr. Wormeli will bring with him that very passion for the middle child in a 2-day conference offered by the Ohio Middle Level Association.  

Go http://ohiomla.org/ to register TODAY!