All posts by Nancy Doda

Why Advisory matters so much

The Why

We teach a precious and somewhat precarious age group. Our middle grades students are in the throes of one of life’s most pivotal and seminal periods in human development. They are growing faster than at almost any other time in life, and are grappling with some of life’s most significant milestones which will come to shape how they see themselves, others and the world. These are the “turning point” years of life.

Growing up has always been hard work, but for today’s young adolescents, it is well…simply harder.  We do not need volumes of research to convince us of this. The past two years of trials and challenges in managing the not-so-post pandemic school world offer plenty of evidence. Students need us more than ever to help them navigate the challenges of growing up well.

As middle grades educators we have long celebrated the importance of positive relationships and social and emotional learning in middle school. We know and research substantiates that when our young people feel well known, valued and included at school, they are more likely to be fully invested in learning, make better choices, and feel happier at school. (CDC, 2011). Moreover, for young adolescents, being connected to others is essential for healthy identity development.  A productive search for self is inextricably linked with positive adult and peer relationships. And, since our age group is vulnerable to bullying, ridicule and exclusion, they depend on us to ensure school is a socially and emotionally safe place so they can take the risks needed to grow in such important ways.

The Advisory concept has long been celebrated as an essential program feature designed to safeguard our young adolescents. While there are many models of Advisory, the twin aims emphasize quality peer relationships and personalized adult support. The hope is that every child has one caring adult advocate, feels connected to a caring peer group, and is afforded the opportunity to develop social skills in a safe haven.

Over the past decade, educators have learned even more about the value and leverage of Advisory programs. Perhaps most significant, is the fact an Advisory program can transform a school’s culture creating a sense of connectedness; a key ingredient in school success. Connectedness takes shape when schools deliberately attend to quality relationships and make time to help students do the same.  (See this resource from AMLE for more: Creating a Culture of Connectedness through Middle School Advisory Programs.)

Finally, there is no doubt we all aspire for a softer and kinder world. Living through the pandemic has made abundantly clear the need to help kids learn to care about themselves, others and their world.  Advisory is one special opportunity to help us show young people how to be caring members of a community: to listen well to others, to understand others with empathy, to learn to be kind, and to learn about the value of a civil community. 

Advisory Going Forward

So let’s say you are on board with all the possible benefits, but last year’s Advisory left a bad taste in your mouth.  You felt like you were managing chaos most days and the occasional good days were not enough to bring you back into enthusiasm. You’re not alone.

The last school year will long be remembered as one of the toughest we have ever faced. And, it wasn’t only Advisory that lost ground. Advisory however is a unique beast. It’s too relational to be unstructured; too intimate to be unplanned. And, with a huge decline in student social skills and a rise in problematic student behavior, it’s no wonder many of us were wondering if Advisory was really worth it.  

Considering How

With the fog of last year’s challenges starting to fade, how can we give Advisory a new fresh stroke, and better prepare for a year of Advisory success.

Here’s what some fellow middle grades teachers and students have learned that might help us recommit to our Advisory and keep it relevant and manageable:

  1. Revisit your most positive Advisory memories. Sit with this. When did you witness growth? Can you recall faces of students who flourished over time? What were some moments of joy?  Did your students discover emerging new friendships? When did things work well?
  2. Establish routines and celebrations that will keep you sane all year. How do you hope students will enter and leave the Advisory time, gather in a face to face circle, behave during the share time or activities, take turns, act as co-leaders, set up and clean up messes? These routines are so important, that if you had a rough year, look back and consider what routines you had in place from the start. Then, consider how you might take steps to address this during the first month of the school year. Rituals and celebrations are also vital to keeping Advisory going.  Could you plan one or two fun celebrations to hold the year together? Monthly special food sharing? Monthly cross Advisory play? Goofy days
  3. Spend more time up front on building relationships and belonging. A few ‘getting to know you’ activities is not enough. Commit to a month of steady relationship building work. Take lots of pictures of the journey and share. And, keep in mind students are always growing and changing so ‘getting to know you’ activities can and should happen all year long
  4. Engage students early as helpers and leaders of Advisory. Start with 3 simple roles needed to keep Advisory productive. Examples: News and Announcements, Check-ins or Greetings, and Set up/Clean-Up. Add on over time. Student voice matters in all our classes, but Advisory can fall apart without it
  5. Balance and structure what you do in Advisory. Focus on blending structured discussions, with free flowing productive play. Use both as opportunities to teach social skills, as simple as manners, to good listening skills, and appropriate discussion skills.
  6. Have a simple plan for every week. Don’t over-plan, but have a focus for the week’s Advisory with some talk time, activity time, play and reflection. If you find you are without a plan, ask a colleague to borrow an idea or check the Advisory calendar. Try using components that give Advisory more structure. Here’s one example: Morning Meeting Components – Cambridge Public Schools
  7. Talk often about Advisory as a faculty. What we talk about is what matters to us. No less than once each 9 weeks, faculty should have a chance to share ideas, debrief what’s working or not, and learn one new thing. Even 10 minutes can yield ideas and inspiration. In between, try starting each faculty meeting with a different check-in. Without this needed talk time, and added modeling, we will risk losing momentum.
  8. Focus on face to face. When in doubt, leave technology out. We live in a world where technology is ubiquitous. While there is no full escape, Advisory ought to hold sacred time for face to face relationships. Eye to eye, knee to knee will have a greater impact on student behavior in Advisory and throughout the day than any technology platform could achieve.

Last words

Every one of us joined the teaching profession to try to make a positive difference in the lives of our students.  This has always been hard work. Today, however, it’s not only harder for students to grow up, it is harder for all of us to reach and teach every child. In these challenging times, we need every tool available if we are to make that difference. We need many ways into the hearts and minds of young adolescents. Advisory is one powerful way in. 

What Matters Most Now: Lesson Three – Authenticity

The school year is almost over and this one may well be remembered as your toughest yet. If hardship makes us stronger, we’ve got that covered. And, we have learned lots about how to be, live, and teach in this challenging time. My first two posts nudge us to consider slowing down and rethinking what we teach. Here I want to remind us to stay “real”.

Lesson Three: Authenticity

One of the most refreshing aspects of the pandemic was that it helped to strip us of some pretense. We were all equally vulnerable. When virtual, we saw some of our children’s homes, their pets popped in, and there was something endearing about getting closer to our real selves.  We were all afraid together, all trying to be safe, all feeling loss and grief. This is the kind of humanity we don’t want to lose.

This first flush of pandemic authenticity was short-lived and it has already faded.  Being real in school is tough.  Even during the peak pandemic lockdown, there were very few structured opportunities for teachers and students to talk about the pandemic. We discussed COVID facts and protocols but left the authentic at home: hopes, fears and feelings. With the zillion questions we all had about COVID and the pandemic, I don’t know a single school that engaged students or staff in an active exploration of the very thing that was consuming all our lives.

Of course, this was partly due to the sensitive nature of COVID. Moreover, we didn’t know how to talk about a pandemic. We’d never lived through one before.  Finally, we avoided it because we were in survival mode. But this difficulty in being real along the way left us with greater wounds to heal right now.

“What is really going on in school now?

Middle schools today are still oozing with anxiety that has been accumulating since the start of the pandemic. Today, young adolescents are in school without masks. Like many of us some wonder, is this going to be okay and safe? Can I really relax? Is this really almost over?

Over the past fall, schools have reported significant behavior challenges they have never seen before. Students who once were engaged, have been observed checking out and refusing to do any work. One school in northern Vermont observed that work refusals have tripled in this school year. (VPR, Eric Heilman, March 9, 2022)

Likewise, many teachers report that some students who never struggled with behavior issues, struggle to care. When students do behave badly, many who would have once been eager to set things straight, fail to apologize.  Some taken for granted manners have gone by the wayside. Teachers have observed that many students have lost the social skills needed to work with others and to be kind in social interactions. We have schools filled with both children and adults who have experienced trauma. That is the real deal.

We are all dancing as fast we can, using every possible resource to manage these challenges. The line at the door for comfort and help was too long before the pandemic; now it feels daunting. So exhaustion continues and anxiety is unabated. What can we do?

We might start by allowing ourselves to recognize where we are. And, we can make the social and emotional well being of every member of our school including ourselves, our top priority. This doesn’t mean we stop caring about academic learning, but we should worry less about students falling behind academically, and worry more about students falling behind emotionally and socially. Here are a few ideas:

Building Community With Student-Driven Conversations

Figure out ways to bring mindfulness, or relaxation or social and emotional checks into your classroom routines. Starting or ending a week with reflections can be a simple but powerful way to monitor the emotional pulse and open space for students to be real. This 60 second tool is worth checking out. As are these posts on bringing mindfulness into the classroom and 7 mindfulness activities for advisory.
We might frame our Advisory (if we have that time in our day), as the place where authenticity is sacred. We don’t need lots of fancy gimmicks, but we do need to find middle school appropriate ways to let students talk to us, and to one another about life.

School leaders might find new ways to encourage authentic faculty conversations.  If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that we need one another, and we all need safe spaces in which to be real. This resource from Edutopia helps you imagine Designing a Better School Staff Meeting.

One school found that by starting each faculty meeting with an Advisory-like activity, they were able to help teachers learn new Advisory protocols while building good feelings and trust across the faculty and school community. What if most meetings began with such authentic moments? Are we willing to find ways to fit this in? If we keep burying all the feelings and avoid authentic conversations, we will continue to find ourselves depleted and stuck.  (Feltman, 2021, The thin book of trust)

Being Authentic in the Classroom

Being real of course has its greatest power when we are able to be real with students. Share yourself. Tell your own real stories. Middle school students are perennially curious about us, but more than ever before they need for us to be authentic and real, modeling how best to do that. Recall how delighted students were to see the background of a room in your home when we were all virtual. That window into your life was a gift. We want to hold onto that in the years ahead.
There is such a need for schools to become more authentic places where we all can be real, and where it is safe to share our true selves. Let’s use this pandemic to shift from peril to promise.

What Matters Most Now: Lesson Two – Rethink What We Teach

This is the second in a series of mini blogs with attention to priorities in the not-so post pandemic world. In the first blog post, Nancy Doda nudged us all to consider how we might slow down in all aspects of school life. This second post examines curriculum and how the pandemic invites us to rethink what we teach.

Lesson Two: Rethink What We Teach

All of a sudden, the pandemic challenged us to think about so many aspects of our lives in new ways. The world is no longer the predictable place we took for granted. This is an uncomfortable place to be. As Pema Chodron once notably said,

“Chaos can be extremely good news.” 

It slams us up against old patterns that hold us back.

Before the pandemic, we were long overdue for a serious closet clean out when it comes to what we teach in our schools. One old pattern needing our attention is that of holding on to what we have always taught. In my decades of work with middle schools, no matter what city or state, we always seem to add more and delete almost nothing. 

Even with the advent of 21st century skills, or what we call in Vermont, transferable skills, we have had a hard time letting go of our volumes of content. While we value the attention to transferrable skills, it turns out they still don’t rank above the books we have always taught, the units we love, and the archives we inherited.

After the Common Core declared it had cut back content load in math, I was hopeful. Yet little changed in the volume of middle school mathematics. We are all still buried in way too much to teach.  

The Mile Wide and Inch Deep Curriculum

While teachers often share that they’d love to change this, they feel pressed to prepare students for the tests.  One science teacher told me she had to cover 65 topics in 42 days. Speedy curriculum coverage was once translated into curriculum by mentioning, “I mentioned it, so I am moving on”, sustaining the yet untouched mile wide, inch deep United States curriculum. 

Knowledge keeps growing, expanding and changing. The “Knowledge Doubling Curve”, as it’s now known, was created by Buckminster Fuller in 1982. Fifty years ago, we were told that we were witnessing a knowledge explosion. Human knowledge was doubling every 13 months.

Today, with the help of the Internet, we face the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours.  To put it into context, in 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every 100 years. By the end of 1945, the rate was every 25 years.  It’s 2022. 

It’s been said that “facts are stubborn things,” but maybe not as stubborn as we think. New facts are replacing outdated ones at an accelerated rate as the tsunami of data continually yields new discoveries and information. It’s time to change.  

Discernment, critical thinking, and relevance

COVID offers a superb example of the dramatically changing nature of knowledge as our collective understanding of the virus, the vaccines, the protective measures…. you name it, changed dramatically and fast. Achieving consensus about COVID truths often feels like ‘trying to nail Jello to a tree.’

We have been called to be nimble with ever changing information. We have witnessed the public’s struggle with deciphering truth: distinguishing fact from opinion, remaining open to new truth, and seeking to really understand.

Most importantly, we need a curriculum dominated by attention to lifelong learning skills and a hardy respect for the ever-changing nature of knowledge. Specifically, our students need our help learning to access and evaluate a wide array of knowledge and to decipher fact from opinion. Our students need abundant opportunities to put knowledge to work in real ways. 

Decluttering the Curriculum

How can we Marie Kondo our curriculum— declutter by removing anything that doesn’t spark joy? If we asked that home organization expert, she’d likely advise us to cut our volume in half.

Imagine if we held curriculum conversations around units that we have always taught. What if we asked ourselves: Why do we hold on to them? Do they still seem essential for our students today? Do they inspire students to learn more? (Mehta and Peeples, 2020)

These are thorny questions. Aside from broad agreement about some of what is worth knowing, there’s considerable debate. Who decides what’s worth knowing? What knowledge will best support preparing students to live well and participate more fully in our world?

One sure way to move forward towards a more compelling curriculum that is not a mile wide and an inch deep, is to start with the voices of kids.  As many advise, start local. Like the slow food movement, we need to localize and personalize our curriculum. We can only do that with the help of those we serve.

Engage Student Voice in Curriculum Decisions

We can find powerful guidance by helping students help us. I don’t mean just the kind of voice we often solicit from students in choosing writing topics, books to read, or research topics. I mean we need to know what concerns, wonders, questions our students have about their own lives and our world.

This is not only done to engage students more fully. It is done because in a democracy all citizens and all voices matter. We need to organize curriculum differently by using their questions and concerns to help us map a living and richer curriculum.  Some of these instructional practices are shared and discussed in this blogpost on Negotiated Curriculum

Maybe both teachers and students repeatedly ask questions about climate change, or about money, or about racism, or about happiness or health to name a few likely themes. It is not the individual curiosities here that matter as much as the shared questions  regarding issues in our ever changing world.

Imagine then assessing the merit of our content focus in terms of how it can inform these shared questions? Like Marie Kondo, we can toss out what fails to have both personal and social significance to us and our students. After all, there are many roads to assessing standards. Or to quote Blake, “To see a world in a grain of sand…”

Why not?

Do we worry that building some of the curriculum around the concerns and questions of our students will derail rigor?  To me, standard curriculum coverage might be the greatest roadblock to rigor. So much of what we teach lacks a context that is meaningful to students. Content without a meaningful cause is content lost.

Why are we learning this? What does this have to do with anything? How can I put this knowledge to work in real ways? As NELMS award recipient James Beane once observed:

“The rigor in a middle school curriculum lies not in painful abstraction but in its capacity to engage the intellectual curiosity and imagination of young adolescents.” (Beane, 1998).

Content without a meaningful cause is content lost. 

Rooting into here and now

Therefore, let’s ask ourselves just how what we teach explicitly connects our shared questions about the world with our content standards. Instead of planning units around topics or standards, let’s consider planning units around vibrant questions drawn from the real local and world issues that baffle us all.

After that, we design the learning activities so students are called to draw upon a wide array of content to address these questions. When we approach the curriculum this way, it shows students that school knowledge is vital to addressing the compelling questions in our lives and world. Knowledge really matters. 

Lastly, this on-going pandemic has me feeling like I live in a changed and ever changing world. What kind of curriculum will matter in reshaping the future world to ensure peace, sustainability, civil discourse, and health? What will our students most need to know and be able to do to lead us all towards a better, saner, more just world? As we craft lessons and units, let’s pause to consider the end in mind and rethink what it is we teach. 


Beane, J. (1993) The middle school curriculum: From rhetoric to reality. AMLE. Columbus, OH.

Feltman, C. (2021) The thin book of trust, 2nd ed. The book publishing, Bend, OR.

Roy, Arundhati. (2020) The pandemic is a portal. 

Mehta, J. and Peeples, S. ( 2020). Marie Kondo the curriculum. In Shankar blog, June 25, 2020.

Sable, M. (1995) Maxims and various thoughts in The timetables of women’s history, p 174.

Siffre, A. Something inside so strong. 

What Matters Most Now: Lesson One – Slow Down

This is a the first in a series of blogs with attention to education priorities in the not-so post pandemic world.

The Crisis

I have been immersed in middle school education for decades. I have always been grateful to belong to such an amazing community of educators who share the same magnificent obsession. Because this community is passionate about the welfare and education of our young adolescents. And it’s committed to building a kinder and more just world. I am full of gratitude and admiration for my fellow educators who have managed to keep going, caring and persevering during this very challenging time. This has been tough. It still is.

To say that things are in good shape would be dishonest.

Are any of us feeling like we are solid? Public education is facing a crisis unlike any I have seen in decades. This fall, when most schools resumed face to face, many educators began to realize that we and our students were in a rough place. I think we need to try to unpack what has happened and what most needs our attention as we move ahead. 

Unpacking the Pandemic’s Impact

The pandemic has pressed our faces to the glass. We now see how fragile we were before COVID arrived. Over the past decades student needs have been mounting exponentially. Data on the mental health of our nation’s young adolescents has shown us that children are struggling in significant ways. Many teachers have shared with me their concerns about epidemic levels of self-centeredness accelerating in students.

Likewise, many teachers and principals have been concerned about declining student engagement and investment in school learning.  I hear from many that the true joys of teaching feel like a thing of the past. Teachers are buried under the mandates and prescriptive guidelines that were created to improve student engagement.

Last, not least, the inequities in every system of our society have been on full display during this pandemic. Our America is not equally beautiful for everyone. Before COVID arrived, these were some of our unresolved challenges now magnified tenfold.

Educators by nature persevere. We don’t give up. But we all stand on shaky ground. Can we use the pandemic to help us see more clearly what we most need to honor in this not so post-pandemic world? As Arundhati Roy (2020) wrote:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smokey skies behind us.  Or we can walk through lightly with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Adjusting the Lens

Recall that at the start of the pandemic, songs were written and sung, talks delivered, and articles poured forth. Art was created, and it all attempted to lift us up and help us manage the sadness, the loss, and the fear. Many of the efforts tried to cheer us up and give us hope. Some inspired us to think differently about how to live well.

For a time, we lived life more slowly. Traffic came to a halt, animals came out of hiding, and we tried not to eat too much or snap at those we loved who we discovered were more challenging than we’d ever remembered. We felt united by our humanity. Everyone was searching for answers about the pandemic and the meaning of life. Beauty, nature, love, family and friends suddenly became more precious.

In schools, after some time in this quieter place, we were catapulted into craziness. Virtual teaching, hybrid teaching, masks. We had to hold on as we rode the COVID protocol roller coaster. Exhaustion was commonplace, and burnout rampant. One gifted and always cheerful teacher I have admired could no longer smile at the start of year two.  Another dedicated teacher told me she was thinking of quitting, but instead decided she just had to stop caring. It was all too much.

Today, as we find ourselves back in schools and the most dire COVID news lessening, can we begin to sort it all out? Can we rethink our priorities? Here is what I think matters most in our (almost) Post-Pandemic World.

Lesson One: Slow Down

One clear message from the early months of the pandemic was the realization that doing less and slowing down can bring us back in touch with many things that seem to matter a great deal. We were forced in our personal lives to be still as there was less doing and going —less going out to eat, less traffic, less driving kids to practice, less shopping in stores.

People had more time: with those we love, time to play, time to really cook good food, time to listen well, time to care, time to revisit new and old hobbies, and time to think. Humans did as Thich Nhat Hanh once advised: “….unplug from the speed and complexity and noise of everyday life and …  return to being in peace.” ( TNH)

That taste of slow was a good thing. Many of us noted an engendered calm. We noticed that less can be more, and that slow can be better: more productive, happier, and saner.  Sure, at first we might have binge watched TV series, but soon most of us got busy and productive. Slow didn’t mean unproductive, but it meant we didn’t live at a crazed pace. How might we learn from that that calmer time and bring more slowness into our work?

Perhaps we finally reconsider our schedules and abandon the 45-minute period day, where we whiz students through seven different subjects with seven different teachers and move towards longer, more flexible blocks of learning time.

Maybe we have a daily Advisory time that is more responsive and less scripted, where students can talk more and we talk less.

Could be we have snack breaks in and outside.

Perhaps it means we make time for recess every day.

Maybe we don’t pursue multiple initiatives all at once.

Maybe it calls for us to have faculty meetings where teachers can really think and talk about what’s working and what’s not.

Could be we try to add a little mindfulness into our fast-paced school days.

Finally, perhaps we should try to declutter our curriculum – teaching less, not more. 

Everyone benefits

I know principals and teachers would agree that school life would be significantly more satisfying for everyone if we could slow things down. Some teachers have decided they can no longer teach and are considering leaving the profession. Many are barely holding on trying to get through the days and recover what they once felt about this important work.  We have a crisis in our schools that calls for bold thinking. As Roy said, we have a gateway.

Is there one way you might slow things down in your school? If you are a leader, can you find ways to shrink rather than expand the to-do lists for your schools and teachers? If you are a teacher, can you find steady ways to check the emotional pulse of your classroom? I urge you identify the places within our system and classrooms where we can slow down and focus on what matters. 

This is the first education lesson from the pandemic.

Relationships and relevance, once again.

What has taken shape in the world with COVID 19 has given me pause to wonder what matters most in life and as an educator a chance to query about what matters most in education. I am quite sure that for all of us, the COVID19 pandemic is uncomfortable, disruptive, scary, and deeply saddening.

I am also quite sure it is a rare chance to rethink how we do many things from how we spend each day to how we do schooling.

Now, I have been a middle school educator for decades trying in one capacity or another to ensure the growth and wellbeing of young adolescents. It’s been a steady joy to work with and on behalf of this amazing age group who are inquisitive, energetic, idealistic, and a whole lot of fun.

In those years I have observed that our habitual patterns of schooling all too often undervalue the two most powerful needs of this age group and perhaps the two most influential variables in student learning and life: relationships and relevance.

Right now, as the world throbs with difficulty and discomfort, I feel called to revisit these two needs and consider their importance in middle grades education.


Relationships have always been touted as the number one priority in middle school education and for good reason.

Every middle school teacher knows that young adolescents (all of us, really) are often most invested in school because of the friendships they find and develop there. Ask any middle school student what they most look forward to at school, and many say “lunch” not because they love our food, but because lunch is their chance to be with friends. While we all hope students engage in our program of studies, curriculum alone, even the best most relevant and student-centered curriculum, has rarely been the sole motivator for middle schoolers.

Right now, as a result of the COVD19 pandemic, our students are disconnected from their friends at school and friends in their communities. Many are left bereft of what sustained their motivation to do school, and supported their social growth as caring and empathic beings. They express longing to be back at school not because they yearn for that lesson on igneous rocks, or the elements of fiction, or the Dust Bowl.

They are eager to be with others.

Many middle schools were prepared for this challenge.

They had in place some sort of arrangement that emphasized relationships. In the middle school world, this has often been called “Advisory” or “Morning Meeting,” a time that can afford students the guidance of one adult and the fellowship of a small, caring group of peers.

While Advisory programs vary by name, or configuration, all aspire to promote a sense of belonging, to insure every child is known well by at least one adult, and to engage students in activities and discussions that help them build healthy social skills and caring dispositions.

These should always have been among the educational ambitions of every middle grades school, but our current circumstances make it abundantly clear that if we had not been serious about relationships, we’d better get serious now.

Little did we know however, that one day we would be required to do this virtually.

What could a virtual Advisory look like in these times of change?

If you’ve been lucky enough to have had an Advisory style program in place, you have history and momentum. If for you or your school, time for deliberate relationship-building is still new, it’s not too late to implement a virtual version for the fall. Every school and every teacher has the chance to craft plans for learning that put “relationships” first.

Here are a few ideas to consider as you journey ahead:

1.Reconnect with the big “why”: Relationships.

As I take in current projections about how life may unfold with COVD19, I hear expressed concerns about lost academic learning. While of course I share that concern, I am far more concerned about the disappearing opportunities for young adolescents to learn how to get along with others, to cultivate empathy for those different from themselves, to engage in self-reflection and to learn to value a caring community.

Young adolescence is a potent developmental window during which the lines of social character are engraved. When we take that seriously, and spend time building relationships, the results are extraordinary: heightened investment in school learning, a stronger sense of social efficacy and the development of the social skills needed to live a better life.

COVD19 has brought out the best and worst in our culture, reminding us that while we may have what it takes to get there, we have a long way to go towards building a fair, just, kind, sane and caring nation and world.

2. Tap into how you are experiencing all of this.

If we hope for more humane middle grades schools, we have to first and foremost allow ourselves to be more human.

In short, we need to bring our fullest and most human selves into our classrooms.

Take stock of how you are experiencing the loss, stress and disruption associated with this pandemic. Notice first and foremost how this is effecting you. I have had sleepless nights, restless days and times when I felt I was not able to be productive.

Students and families will experience these same ups and downs.

I hear some arguing that we should “keep calm and carry on”, which may be well and good, especially the calm, but really?  I would argue that pretending things are far better than they are is not helpful.

Emotions are running high for all of us and here’s a chance to honor emotions and feelings as part of being human, part of learning and rightfully, part of school life.

3. Make everyday personal.

I am learning from COVD 19 that empathy is a capacity that needs our collective attention. Easy kindness is simply not enough. Even the face to face struggles that emerge when we are confined with people we supposedly love, puts deep empathy to a daily test. Can we understand this person right in front of us? Are we able to care about his or her welfare even when they are terribly annoying?

A sure COVD 19 lesson for me is that relationships demand so much more than we think. They demand a recognition that we are all perfectly imperfect and inextricably connected.

We now teach on the edge of our students’ doorsteps, and as such we have a unique opportunity to make every day more personal. Using whatever platform we have, students can share their lives in new ways, introducing us to special parts of their lives. Maybe they have special hobbies we never witnessed or treasures tucked away at home they never had the chance to share. Students need to feel a sense of belonging and connectedness with us and their peers and sharing real life stuff matters now more than ever.

Above all, this pandemic has the capacity to move us toward greater interpersonal intimacy. We are all equally vulnerable.

As such, this is a lesson in our common humanity we don’t want to miss. Keep your classroom plans open to feelings and emotions, and give yourself and your students permission to bring up the tough stuff. Structure time each day for some sort of check-in, whips around the room, or share time. Most of all, make it human and make it personal.

4. Stay close and connected to students.

While Advisory meetings held on Google Meet or another virtual platform enable students to see friends and experience fellowship, students also need our support in more individual ways.

5. Consider weekly Dialogue Journals with your Advisees.

If you don’t have Advisees, you could initiate peer Dialogue Journals. Students can write to you or a peer, and you or the peer write back. I find this a powerful way to gain tremendous insight as to how students are doing emotionally.

If you try peer Dialogue Journals, students can use a shared doc, and share with you once a week. Peers can shift partners after several weeks. This will allow you to see into the hearts and minds of students you were once able to discern from a face to face glance.

There are of course many other ways to let students know you care. As you see certain students struggling or losing heart, try to reach out by email, phone or facetime. Obviously, it would be wonderful if we could google meet with every student but that may not be realistic. We can however, reach out in many different ways. A short note can mean the world. Even snail mail notes can be a lovely and fresh gesture of caring.

6. Play more and often.

If ever there was a time when we need humor, laughter, joy and play, it is now. And, there is considerable research on how play can enhance well being and improve sense of belonging.

To smile things up, one 7th grade team at Stowe Middle School, took to wearing different, playful hats each week to virtual Advisory. It was fun — even funny —  and always created good feelings that were contagious. Try games, like Charades, or Pictionary or other virtual friendly games. Infuse play and laughter in some way in Advisory or in your classroom life.

At Stowe Middle School, a leadership group of Advisory Advocates have been giving feedback on virtual Advisory. They all declared two things to be critical during COVD19: daily check-ins where we share our lives and playing games where we remember to have fun.


Right now, as a civilization we are facing a world challenge of grave importance. It has nudged many of us to question much of what we once took for granted.  The current conversations in print or media repeatedly recount a renewed appreciation for quality relationships, the pleasures of a simpler way of living, the sacredness of the earth’s resources, the critical importance of civil discourse, and the certainty of our interdependence.

On the school front, educators and students alike are experiencing in sometimes painful ways, a hard truth about the school learning. When stripped of the trappings of school life including lunch with friends, sports, proms, graduations, what is left, is not all that compelling.  Students talk of missing friends and teachers, but algebra apparently is not that memorable.

Over the past several decades, educators have used the word “relevance” to capture a sought after quality in school learning.

The hope has been that somehow what students learn in school could be compelling: real and relevant to them.

Ambitious efforts have been abundant as creative teachers have designed projects that address real life issues and often engage students directly in working on such projects right in their local communities.

These projects generally win enormous student investment so much so that at the close of a school year, when asked about what learning had been most significant, it is only these projects that students can remember and recount.

While these projects have a powerful impact on student enthusiasm for learning, they also have had a tremendous impact on skill development, and abiding understanding of how the world works.  In effect, they represent relevance at its best in contemporary school learning.

Authentic school projects, while wonderful, have historically only punctuated the typical school curriculum.

The hefty load of student studies often consists of addressing a massive number of content standards in fragmented and discrete subjects that are only indirectly connected to life as it is being lived. This is not to suggest that the disciplines of knowledge (eg; history, science, math and so on) are not needed and useful in human inquiry. They are. It is to suggest that they are only useful, relevant and meaningful when they are applied to address the questions or problems of living.

All of us know this truth: knowledge stays with us when we need it, yet so much of school knowledge is given to students without relevance. Content without a cause is content lost.

Today, as this pandemic has the attention of the world, we are asking students to engage in doing assignments that have little to do with this enormity swirling around them.

Like us, students have a zillion questions about COVID19, about how any virus spreads, about how families, communities, states, nations are dealing with this crisis, but instead of exploring those very questions in school, they are heading into on-line assignments that suggest nothing has changed.

Here’s the hard part: hasn’t this been a pattern in education?

And, isn’t this the very reason why what kids miss from school has nothing to do with the curriculum?

I am not suggesting that everything that students should be invited to explore in their on-line learning should revolve around COVID 19 because it is the issue of the day.

I am however, advocating for serious and planned attention to the questions this raises for students and for us. After all, an issue of such complexity if it is to be understood, would demand that we call upon a wide array of knowledge, drawn from many disciplines or subject areas.

  • When this pandemic ends, what will our students have learned about it?
  • What will they have learned from it?
  • Do we have to wait until this life changing event is over and logged as a chapter in a history book before we dig in?

There are many ways to ensure that life as it is being lived can become the curriculum of study.

As one example, we could begin by culling from our students all of the questions they have about this pandemic, identifying those dominant questions we and our students have in common, and then crafting pathways to explore, understand, and share our common learnings.

With the work of serious investigation and sharing, the transferrable skills needed for lifelong learning would be emphasized.

Ultimately, this curriculum would be a democratically created curriculum and as such enormously relevant to those who created it.

Students could effectively specialize in areas of most concern or interest to them (personalization), while also providing a service to their peers and communities, by sharing their new knowledge and wisdom with others and applying it to crafting promising solutions to real local problems.

Imagine students working alone and in small groups charged with investigating different identified areas of inquiry and then finding many ways for them to share, report and extend their learning and ours.

No doubt this would be an integrated unit of study, where the separate subject boundaries are blurred. A unit like this could go on for many months, letting all dig deep.

The products students could create could become a legacy of sorts reminding us all of what we’d learned from this crisis and helping communities garner wisdom for our lives ahead.

No doubt it would be messy and imperfect, and would demand team teaching, but imagine the authenticity and relevance of such a learning model.

Imagine the many critical skills students would be honing in this kind of work.

Imagine the capacity of such a curriculum model to be a great equalizer.

Most of all, imagine the relevance of using school learning to study this unimaginably challenging problem.

Lastly, imagine all school learning centered on addressing the real life issues of personal and social significance as students and teachers collaborate to create a worthy education.

This is not a new idea.

Some years ago, James Beane advocated for such a novel approach to curriculum planning. He called that approach curriculum integration: to propose a school curriculum centered on life itself.

He wrote:

“Curriculum integration is …concerned with the organization of curriculum around significant problems and issues, collaboratively identified by educators and young people, without regard to subject area boundaries…In curriculum integration, organizing themes are drawn from life as it is being lived and experienced.”

The true dream for curriculum integration was that it would not only be compelling to many more learners, but ultimately by its very design, would model the purpose of being educated.

That knowledge and research are essential to managing our own lives and to creating a saner, safer, kinder, and better world for all.

There are too many Americans who were happy to exit school style learning and are fairly committed to staying clear of it for the rest of their lives.

Some are now middle school parents.

When I talk with the adults who hated or merely completed school, they tell me they could never see the point.

What they often say is what students at times will confess:

‘When will I ever use this? What does this have to do with anything real? Why do I have to wait until I graduate to explore issues that demand real knowledge in real time?’

It is time to craft better answers to those questions, not so much to please students or merely engage them, but to ensure that school is about what matters to us all.

While it may seem fitting to engage in such a progressive model of curriculum only now while we are in the midst of this pandemic, this is a model we need to take seriously as a promising pathway to better schooling in the years ahead.

I once heard a talk by behaviorist B.F.Skinner entitled “Why we are not acting to save the world”.

In that talk, Skinner argued that human beings tend not to make huge needed changes unless the pain is sufficient to force them to do so.

As a student, I wanted to believe that Skinner was wrong and that humans were capable of dramatic proactive change.

But maybe he was right.

Maybe it takes a pandemic to get our attention. I know it has prompted me to rethink many aspects of life.

The crack in our schooling foundation has us all buzzing.

We are all wondering what to make of this new way of doing school.

I say we use this hefty nudge to think bravely about bold steps we can take to make middle grades education richer in both relationships and relevance.

Most of all, I want to clear out the clutter we now know is strikingly useless and replace it only with what will lead us all towards living life more humanely, more creatively, more sustainably and more equitably.