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

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.

Relevance

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.

 

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What do you think?