Last fall, when TLN member and experienced special educator Elizabeth Stein decided to make the move from elementary to middle grades teaching, we thought it would be interesting to give her two popular books for new middle school teachers and see how helpful – and necessary – they might be, despite her nine years in the classroom. Here’s her report.
by Elizabeth Stein, NBCT
Smithtown Central Schools (NY)
Teacher Leaders Network
During my interview last spring as I pursued a transfer from elementary to middle school, one of the standard questions came early on: Why do you want to be a teacher in the middle?
I knew this question would come. Yet when the time finally arrived, I was struck with a sense of urgency to make my case. After eight years as a special education teacher at the elementary level, I knew it was time to move to the middle grades. My response included statements to support my hope to go from teaching students to learn how to read to teaching them how to read to learn. I tried to convey the excitement of teaching within the parameters and true meaning of educating the whole child. This is a developmental age where kids can laugh one minute and cry the next. Where a teacher must take into account the serious balance of social/emotional and academic needs throughout each day, within each lesson…and be ready for anything at any moment.
Before I transferred, I was in complete harmony with my elementary teaching assignment. Planning lessons and making any necessary changes on the spot was second nature. Developing a rapport with the kids was extremely simple. Working with colleagues to meet the needs of the students was clear-cut. Now that I’ve transferred, I know I have shaken up my world.
I think it’s good to step out of your comfort zone. At least that’s been one of my mantras for the first half of this school year. I knew there was going to be a transition phase, but did not realize the intensity of what I would experience by “moving up a level.” And now here I am—on another planet.
New teachers typically get a mentor their first year. This is my ninth year teaching—who needs a mentor, right? Wrong. I do. That’s where Rick Wormeli comes in.
I’ve been clutching onto his books, Day One & Beyond: Practical Matters for New Middle-Level Teachers and Meet Me in the Middle: Becoming an Accomplished Middle-Level Teacher for the past few months. Reading through his accumulated wisdom (which he draws from other teachers as well as himself) has confirmed what I’ve suspected all along. Kids are kids, and the underlying premise of educating them well remains the same regardless of the grade level.
Kids need teachers to connect with their needs, care for them, and make learning meaningful. Kids want you to be fair, and they like to be active learners. They like to have their opinions valued, and they like to make decisions. They must have structure and limits set so they can exercise their need to explore a sense of self and learn within a safe learning environment. Knowledge and skills are important, but ultimately, Wormeli says, “What we teach is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what we teach. What matters is what students take with them when they leave us at the end of the year; this is our greatest testimony as educators.” This is one of the many Wormeli quotes I have taped on the inside of my plan book and my brain.
Both of these books are treasures for any new middle school teacher, be they novice or level-jumping veteran. Veteran teachers who are new to the middle school world (like me) can easily build upon their teaching behaviors and past habits. The new teacher will find these books invaluable as she or he begins to formulate ideas and evolve toward the polished practices and effective actions of experienced professionals.
Day One and Beyond (2003) is a sensible and realistic book to guide all teachers to organize the necessary components of effective teaching. It’s structured within 12 chapters that provide easy-to-read, easy-to-apply, and easy-to-connect-to advice, delivered via Wormeli’s real-world perspective and friendly writing style. It is perfect for the new teacher who has never set up a classroom, kept a grade book, prepared a substitute teacher folder, dealt with parents, or set up the physical classroom.
As a veteran teacher, after reading this book, I combined Wormeli’s advice with my own experiences and thought: this is such great advice for a brand new teacher. It wasn’t until a few months into the year that I found reasons to return to this text and tweak my own ideas and organizational systems. For example, the chapter on discipline has been a tremendous help to me.
As a special education teacher, two of my periods are spent teaching reading using the concepts of the Wilson Language Program. One of my groups presents as a challenge (or shock) to a well-polished elementary school teacher’s teaching system. It’s a class I look forward to each day because I know these kids genuinely benefit from the teachings and reading experiences I plan for each day. Yet, there is one student who, due to his diagnosis of dyslexia (and some severe learned helplessness behaviors), pushes back to the point that I find myself in a constant decision-making mode as I guide all of the kids to be accountable and responsible for their actions and learning. His behavioral shifts are sudden, disruptive, and predictably unpredictable. There is no rhyme or reason. And the worst part is that his behaviors adversely affect the entire mood of our small group instruction.
I’ve felt there was really nowhere for me to turn for collegial support. My instinctive strategies often work — for the minute, the day, the week — but I sometimes feel like I am only one cell within a large egg carton. At the elementary level, we had a team approach where the student is in one classroom with some pull-out sessions—so it was easy for teachers to brainstorm solutions. Here, each class runs independent of the next; especially in eighth grade. Chapter Three in Day One and Beyond has been the place I turned whenever I needed to be inspired to keep my chin up. For instance, the idea that discipline is a teaching tool, not a thing apart from other classroom instruction, connects directly to my convictions. Wormeli says:
The most effective disciplinarians are those who understand the nature of the young adolescent and who employ what works, not what’s punitive or vengeful. Accomplished middle school teachers see management issues as opportunities instead of annoying intrusions. They realize the full scope of who they’re teaching: humans in a highly susceptible stage of transition….
Wormeli explains that discipline should be set up at the beginning as one dimension of instruction and assessment. He sends the clear message that to just teach and focus on our subject matter is not enough. As middle school teachers we must have time to teach how to live as respectful members of a society and community, in a civilized manner.
Another observation that gets me through each day is the message that teachers must understand and respond to where young adolescent students are physically and emotionally right now before we can do anything cognitively. Wormeli’s words provide great peace of mind for me as I continue to find the balance between teaching my subject of reading and working with some students who want to do anything but read. This chapter on discipline has validated my own ideas and continues to strengthen my wish to give the students what they need.
Chapter Five on grading has also been a great resource of knowledge. Wormeli’s ideas on record keeping and grading have provided me with ideas tailored to the middle grades. At the elementary level, grading was a completely different experience. It was more about formulating comments on how Johnny was performing, then stating whether kids were achieving at satisfactory levels or “excellence.” Grading was simply about rating students on a 1-4 scale to depict their level of mastery in each content area. At the middle school level, I see how easy it is for teachers to get stuck on the “grade-myopic train.” And sadly, they take the kids along for the ride. The focus on grades is all consuming for many kids. What letter they get on any given assignment seems to define who they are for many students. And the kids seem to think that the teachers “give” them their grade.
Wormeli guides teachers to use assessment to inform instruction. He considers assessment another teaching tool. He outlines a grading system that keeps the focus on informing and guiding instruction that I found to fit exactly into my own belief system. (These are ideas he develops further in his 2006 book Fair Is Not Always Equal.)The sole purpose is not to label kids; it’s all about instruction and creating students who are accountable for their efforts and behaviors.
The fundamentals of good middle school practice
Wormeli’s first book, Meet Me in the Middle (2001) is another vital resource for all brand new teachers, and for those entering middle school for the first time regardless of prior teaching experiences. It’s divided in three information packed sections: Creating a Culture of Learning, Higher Student Achievement through Innovative and Accomplished Practice, and Extending Our Professional Practice. The first two parts are comprised of five chapters and the third part includes seven chapters. This book clicked with me for so many reasons, and earned its own spot in my school bag every day. Every time I had a question, a concern, or needed to turn somewhere to just validate whatever I was feeling, I was able to substantiate my sanity by engaging in dialogue with the pages of this book. I’ve had my copy for about five months, yet it has all of the wrinkles, post-its, and annotated notes in the margins one would expect if I owned it for years.
The book begins with a questionnaire to see if you are a teacher who guides students’ motivations in ways that entice them to invest in the learning process of your lessons. The premise of all of Wormeli’s valuable ideas for motivating students nest naturally into my own belief that a teacher must shake up his or her instructional techniques and tap into the students’ natural instinct for fun. And the challenge lies in finding the balance between teaching the subject and also supporting the students’ emotional states and desire to have fun. The answer to finding this balance lies within developing a safe and relaxed learning environment where the kids feel the structure, yet also feel the importance of their place in that environment.
Wormeli’s chapter on brain research reminds teachers of the necessity to focus on the faces that stare back at them during the daily lessons. All teachers must learn to recognize when the empty faces staring back at them need to be revived. And this redirection can often occur with a simple tweak to the process of learning: Limit the amount of teacher talk and present the information in chunks to allow students to process key ideas.
Wormeli’s next chapter on active learning continues to support the need for teachers to plan content around opportunities for students to explore their thinking and the thinking of their peers. I am a firm believer in the idea that kids should not have their minds completely filled with the ideas of the teacher at the front of the room. Students need time to connect to ideas, decide what they think of ideas, and, most important, they need time to think about why they think the way they do. I marvel everyday at the developing ideas of my deep-thinking middle school students. Their connections are critical to the learning process as we strive for the right blend of content, emotions, and fun.
I think fun does not have to always be in the form of a game or activity. If fun engages students and motivates them to learn, then sometimes I think fun can be defined as feeling like a valued member of the classroom learning environment. When a student feels valued; he is more likely to be engaged and motivated and more likely to feel part of a community of learners.
The chapter on differentiated instruction is another not-to-be-missed read. Wormeli’s ideas are well-known (he’s written several books with differentiation as a major theme) and truly a source of support for new and veteran teachers. After reading this chapter, I put a few ideas into place. One is sharing Gardner’s theory on multiple intelligences with kids. I incorporated this with my elementary school students, but found great value in taking this idea to another level at the middle school. My students really got into using this as a tool for deepening their awareness as they naturally try to define themselves. They followed my lead to think more deeply about their strengths are and how they can use those strengths to achieve academic and social goals.
Companions on a journey
Both of these middle-school-focused books by Rick Wormeli guide new teachers to know what to expect and how to set the year up for success. They help veteran teachers who are new to the middle school scene build upon past practices and plan to reach and teach the whole child at this very exciting phase of academic, social, emotional, and physical development.
The information in both books has been a tremendous source of knowledge and support and has helped me through the first half of my first year as a middle school teacher. And I know they’ll continue to be a source of comfort and wisdom as I journey through the rest of this school year and beyond.
Elizabeth Stein is a National Board-certified special education teacher in the Smithtown Central School District on Long Island, N.Y. She also teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in special education and literacy. Her advice for new special education teachers appeared in Teacher Magazine last summer.
Photo: Education Week Teacher.