Collaboration, teamwork, and relationship building are major contributing elements for creating a high-achieving, well-functioning, and efficient classroom. These are also the key principles which shape Minnesota’s middle schools.
Contrary to popular belief, middle school is not a specific grade designation, although it usually includes grades five through eight. Instead, it is based on team teaching, interdisciplinary instruction, and overall student development. In fact, some junior high schools are only so in name and actually use the middle school model.
Many pre-teens and teenagers are at a developmental stage of life—a crucial point for many young students where a supportive school atmosphere can help shape them into mature adolescents.
The middle school concept emphasizes a nurturing school environment, where teachers and students foster close relationships. “Middle schools keep elementary student centeredness where students can continue to be nurtured,” describes Fred Storti, Executive Director of the Minnesota Elementary School Principals’ Association.
Here’s what the model looks like. Students and teachers are divided into teams, also known as houses or pods. For example, the 400 sixth grade students at Dakota Hills Middle School in Eagan are divided into two houses of 200 students. Teachers are similarly divided so that eight teachers work with 200 students instead of 16 teachers to 400 students. This smaller proportion allows teachers and students to get to know each other better.
Teachers on the team also share common planning time where they collaborate and learn about how their students are doing in subject areas other than their own. Teacher teams also work together in developing lessons so that, when possible, they provide content overlap and reinforcement. For example, if students are learning about aquatic life and ecological development of rivers, lakes and other water bodies in science, they’re also learning about cultures and geographical developments around those waterways in social studies. Some teachers might also try to incorporate aspects of literature and language arts in the broader geographic lesson.
Working in teams and fostering relationships gives teachers a better understanding of their students’ strengths and weaknesses so that they can best shape instructional methods. For example, a teacher having trouble relating a scientific concept to a student would collaborate with the social studies teacher who’s already discovered a more responsive approach for that particular student.
Typically, teams remain together for the duration of a student’s middle school years. This provides teachers with year-to-year continuity in instruction. It also creates yet another opportunity for teachers and students to form close connections and support vital for student success.
Teamwork also creates a system of accountability. Teachers can follow through on student goals. Students have mentors’ guiding hands to help them succeed and keep them from getting lost in the mix. This continued three- to four-year team effort also allows for greater parental involvement, which research has shown, raises student effectiveness.
Middle schools focus on exploration, exposing young people to a variety of subjects with which to experiment and discover. Beyond just math and science’s mastery, middle school students have more opportunity to investigate concepts in technology, world language, and the arts. Middle school philosophy also incorporates multimedia and alternate sources over text books as instructional tools.
As of last school year (2009-2010), Minnesota had 191 middle schools compared to only 39 junior high schools. Many educators in the state have moved from a junior high school concept, which tends to be a scaled down version of high school, to the middle school model, reflecting a belief that a more collaborative model is a more appropriate structure for student achievement and academic delivery, suggests Joann Knuth, Executive Director for the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals.
Despite its effectiveness and popularity among parents and educators, Dakota Hills Middle School feels pressure to alter this model. Due to financial reasons as well as impounding pressures for high literacy and numeracy rates through No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandates, Dakota Hills will have to move from eight periods a day to six, explains Trevor Johnson, the school’s principal. Johnson says his teachers will now have one planning period instead of two. Moreover, there will be less time for exploratory subjects but more time for math, science, and social studies.
While the middle school model is effective, by no means is it the absolute perfect model for all schools. Students stand to benefit significantly from some fundamental principles which make them strong. These strengths coupled with the effort to improve in areas of possible weaknesses, have the potential to best prepare students for high school and beyond.
Schools should be able to model their academics on what their community feels works best for developing the highest achieving students not on what NCLB mandates establish or what funding limitations leave them.