#vted Reads: The Successful Middle School

We’re here to talk books for educators, by educators and with educators.  Today I’m with Dr. Penny Bishop and we’ll be talking about The Successful Middle School: This We Believe, by Penny and her co-author Dr. Lisa Harrison.  Thanks so much for joining me, Penny.  Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Penny:  Well, thanks for having me, Jeanie.  I’m delighted to be back.

I’m Penny Bishop, as you mentioned. And I’m a professor of middle grades education at the University of Vermont where I teach teachers — especially those who want to become middle grades teachers.  And I conduct research on responsive learning opportunities and learning environments for young adolescents.

Jeanie:  Last time you were here was over a year ago and we talked about Personalized Learning in the Middle Grades. And we’re so glad to have you back.  So, I also know that you’re an avid reader and you and I have swapped books suggestions before.  What are you reading now?

Penny:  Yeah, I love that question, thank you for asking.  I just finished last night, The Vanishing Half.  It’s by Brit Bennett, and it’s a really interesting take on racial identity and gender identity and follows the lives of a set of twins from the 1950s to the 1990s and how their paths diverged in pretty significant ways. I was up late finishing it. Couldn’t put it down.

Jeanie:  Oh, that was such a good read! I loved that one.  That book really helped me sort of understand colorism a little bit more. The way that colorism plays out in people’s lives and their experience.

Penny:  Yes, yes, the whole idea of passing was quite a, quite a new one for me as a white woman here, so.

Jeanie:  There is a book that sort of touches on similar themes by Brandy Colbert. And it’s called The Only Black Girls in Town.  And so, The Vanishing Half is obviously an adult book, but if you wanted to talk about issues of colorism in passing in the classroom, this book would be an excellent one to share with young readers.

Penny:  Great, thank you, I’ll have to check that out.

Jeanie: But this book ,which is all about identity, sort of intertwined with identity in all sorts of ways, is the position paper for the Association for Middle Level Educators (AMLE). Is that correct?

Penny:  It is! And it’s the fifth edition of that position paper, actually.  The first one I think came out in 1982, so a long time ago.

Jeanie:  The one before this came out in 2010, is that correct?

Penny:  That is correct, yes.

Jeanie:  So, it needed some updating.

Penny:  It needed quite a bit of updating. The association recognized that. They were eager to have that happen. Absolutely.  It has been updated, as I mentioned, five times now. And each update reflected important societal shifts. Important changes in what we know, based on research, about what is effective teaching and learning for young adolescents.

And I think there was a general consensus [at AMLE] that it was overdue, in fact.

Now, you’ve had Kathleen Brinegar on previously, and she has talked about her terrific book, also with Lisa Harrison, and with Alice Hart: Equity and Cultural Responsiveness in the Middle Grades.

In some ways the themes are related. Plus, there’s been a pretty strong critique of the middle grades movement as one that was very much rooted in white, cisgender, middle class, Christian perspectives. And male perspectives to some extent as well.

The first four iterations of the text represented the best of what developmentalism can offer. That’s really encouraging teachers to take into account developmental perspectives of this particular time in one’s life.  But unfortunately that came perhaps at the cost of thinking about more diverse populations. So I would say that the most significant shift in this text was to ensure that there was greater attention to diversity. And equity in particular.

This edition, the fifth edition, overtly attempts to tackle that issue. It does it in terms of complicating the notion of developmentalism — but not throwing it out. It also does it in terms of grounding the work much more solidly in research. And particularly in research by, with, for, and about more diverse populations.

Jeanie:  Thank you; that’s really helpful.

What I’m hearing from you is that the previous versions — much like ourselves 10, 12 or more years ago — were perhaps colorblind. Were perhaps blind to all sorts of marginalized identities.

Penny:  I would agree! I think colorblind is one of many areas in which it was overlooked. It was an area the field was overlooking.  Young adolescents in all their terrific diversity.

Jeanie:  So, could you talk a little bit about the process that you and Dr. Harrison went through in order to revise this sort of association position paper into how it currently is?

Penny:  I’d be happy to! It’s an interesting question and I don’t know that I’ve been asked that before. It’s an interesting one to reflect on.

First of all, it was a terrific opportunity to partner with Lisa, Dr. Harrison, because we hadn’t collaborated on something before. And although we’ve known each other professionally and somewhat personally it was a great opportunity to work with her as a colleague and collaborator.

I would say that to some extent we went with our strengths. We looked at the text very, very carefully. We both went in knowing where our strengths were, and how we might think about dividing things up.  But we also faced a lot of challenges along the way in terms of how we went about using our own voices and assuming a tone that was already laid out.

It’s really interesting to revise a text that you didn’t write.

It’s one thing to revise one’s own work — or even to revise our work together — but we were really building on something that generations before us had constructed.  We very much wanted to honor that work and build on the tone that was there — and at the same time update it.

Trying to figure out how to do that well presented some tensions.

Jeanie: Before we get too deep into the content, I want to stop for a moment and appreciate the way that you’ve woven in the voices of young people.  And so, there are these delightful quotes and poems and art and I just really enjoyed that part of the text.  And particularly, I want to share what is my current favorite.  Of course every time I look at it I have a new favorite, but on page 43, I just love this painting called The Reunion by AnLan X, 7th grader.

Penny Bishop: ""At my school, we do things as a team, whether it's finishing a project or thriving through a pandemic.  The vibrant background represents our joyful atmosphere at school where everyone is encouraged to achieve their goal.  The abstract body of people represents the school community all coming together to achieve a common goal which is represented by the red heart in the center of the painting.  This painting shows that no matter where a person is in real life, they will always have a community that has their back." --AnLan X., Grade 7


“At my school, we do things as a team, whether it’s finishing a project or thriving through a pandemic.  The vibrant background represents our joyful atmosphere at school where everyone is encouraged to achieve their goal.  The abstract body of people represents the school community all coming together to achieve a common goal which is represented by the red heart in the center of the painting.  This painting shows that no matter where a person is in real life, they will always have a community that has their back.”

That really gets at the heart of what this book is about to me.

Penny:  It also gets at the heart of what a good middle school is, right?  I kind of had shivers as you were reading.

Yeah, to me that one is the essence of the successful middle school, whether we’re talking about the book or a school, right? That’s how you want youth to feel in a learning community, right?  It’s the painted red heart in the center.

Jeanie: This kid really gets this in this language that we’re hearing about learning loss and recovery that comes out of policy around the pandemic and education.  She really gets it. We are surviving a pandemic together and she has a strength-based approach to the current situation that I just think is so wise.

Penny:  Yeah, and she has a really strong message in that about how we start out the “new” school year as well, right?  So, as some classrooms will be coming back together for the first time physically and as others are increasing the amount of time together, we’re really going to need to pay extra attention to how we build community. How we respond to the social and emotional needs of students. How we consider the role of trauma in any of their lives.

Yeah, it’s not going to be about this notion, this concept of learning loss that we’re hearing about, it’s really about that sense of community and building relationships and being responsive, being responsive to their needs and whatever form they’re showcasing, so.

Jeanie:  I think we can really learn something from AnLan, which is that our words matter. If we start the next school year talking about how behind everyone is, that that’s going to have not-great impact on students.

Penny:  Absolutely.

Jeanie:  Do you have a favorite poem or piece of art or quote you’d like to share from the book?

Penny:  There are so many that I love and let me just back up to say that.  I think this is one of my favorite pieces about this new edition: the inclusion of student voices and student art.  Those pieces are so important in the middle grades concept in general and yet, this is the first time that they’ve appeared in the position paper!

So I’m really grateful to the Association for Middle Level Education for reaching out to youth and inviting their perspectives into the text and then showcasing them so prominently because I do think that they reveal so much about what kids are thinking about and what matters.

Today’s favorite is actually the one that opens the book. And it’s the drawing by Mohammad, who was in seventh grade.

The Successful Middle School


And it’s a drawing of he says a character, could be a self portrait, could be a friend, could be just someone in his imagination, but the text on the drawing itself says: “Dream big.”  It’s a person looking up right?  He’s written underneath: “In this drawing, I made the character dreaming about his future and what he will do.  He has big dreams and is always positive about doing the best he can to achieve his goal in life.  He wants to make his school and family very proud so he can make a name for himself.”

And I chose that one this morning because I think it says a lot. The idea of dreaming. The idea of aspirations and goals and this time in life and all of the identity development and all of the aspiration-building that goes on in that time.

It also talks about pressure in some ways to me.

That young people are feeling pressure — and Mohammed’s not using that term right, I’m ascribing it. But he wants to make his school and family very proud so he can make a name for himself.

That idea that other people are aware of what he’s doing, what he’s thinking and that his actions influence others and how important pride is in his world and in his life? It’s a beautiful thing, and it’s a weighty thing.  And I point that out because I appreciate that perspective.

Jeanie:  Yeah, I appreciate the way you’re sort of teasing out the tension between aspiration and you know, obligation if you will. Like this both-and of you want people to believe in you and think you’re capable of really great things, *and* it feels like a lot sometimes.

Penny:  And it may feel especially a lot to say in 11-year-old world, you know? That’s a lot to carry with you.

Jeanie:  Yes, it feels like a lot for me now!

Penny:  That’s what I was thinking! Yeah.

Jeanie:  Oh, thank you for that Penny.  This book in my opinion starts with a bang on page three.  I just want to read a quote because I just really loved this section about halfway down the page.

“Successful middle schools are responsive.  They respond to the nature of young adolescents in all their amazing diversity and are designed specifically to support the developmental needs and social identities of students.  Educators and administrators view students in a positive way.  Rejecting the deficit perspective too often foisted on middle schoolers by society.  They are critically conscious of the fact that student’s multiple and intersecting identities influence their experiences, opportunities and perspectives. Therefore, their practices and policies are just and equitable”.

I guess I wanted to talk a little bit about how this frames the rest of the document.

Penny:  Yeah, you certainly pulled out the right piece.  I would hone in right there on that second sentence. Successful middle schools respond to the nature of young adolescents and all their amazing diversity. Successful middle schools specifically support the developmental needs and social identities of students.

In the texts that came before this one, the four other editions would have said, “designed specifically to support the developmental needs of students”.

And so, by adding in social identities? We’ve taken that notion and expanded it. That’s the thread that runs throughout the text.

Whereas the text *was* focused on supporting the developmental nature and needs of the young adolescent, this version takes social identities places it soundly at the center. That problematizes, to some extent, the developmental perspective, but doesn’t throw it out, right?  It allows them to sit side by side, acknowledging that as an age, early adolescence, there are some developmental characteristics that we can ascribe to this age range. At the same time there’s a danger in doing so without also attending to the many varied social identities of students.

That is the thread that runs throughout.

As we go forward in that paragraph, you can see that there’s an emphasis on rejecting a deficit perspective. Coming at it from a much more asset-based lens.  Introducing the concept of critical consciousness for educators and introducing the idea of intersectionality, and then of course justice and equity.  So those are really several seeds that we planted that we then water and nurture throughout the book.

Jeanie:  Yeah. I want to dig into those a little further because I think they’re super important.

When you say “problematize the developmentalism”, the way that I’m reading this is upending the assumption that all of our young people develop in similar or the same ways, right?  And saying that, in order to truly understand young people, you need to not only understand this concept that young people are developing in these different ways, but that their experiences of that are different because of their different identities.

Penny:  Exactly! Exactly, Jeanie.  To understand that concept I think the best spot in the book is actually near the back. On page 55, there’s a section called Young Adolescent Development and Implications for Educators.  And in that section we break down various developmental domains. Physical development and cognitive development, socio-emotional, and so on.  And Lisa has taken the lead on developing the framework that introduces that in particular. She’s done a terrific job here of really helping educators understand that the developmental stage of early adolescence has some attributes that are in general and in common.

As you said, students experienced them in dramatically different ways. Often, it’s their social and cultural identities that contribute to that variety of experience.  I’ll point to one example. It’s the part about adultification of Black girls.

Jeanie:  That’s exactly the example I was thinking of in my brain!

Penny:  It’s a really, it’s such a good example. It’s on the bottom of page 56, and I’ll just read a section from there.

“Making meaning of students solely through developmentalism neglects the social realities that many youth experience.  For example, research indicates that Black girls often experience adultification or the assumption that they are older than their biological age.  The adultification of Black girls peaks between the ages of 10 and 14.  When adultification occurs, Black girls are perceived as less innocent than their white peers and because they are not recognized as being their actual biological age, their developmental needs are not met”.

That’s an example of problematizing developmentalism, but also recognizing that it is in fact something that occurs.

That these developmental attributes can be ascribed to larger groups with their experience.  But the way that you’ve experienced them is different.

Jeanie:  And these subtle sort of differences in the way young people are perceived based on their identities show up in the numbers of discipline. Like, who gets disciplined more? Who gets disciplined more harshly? They show up in who gets pushed out of schools.  We know young Black women are more likely to be pushed out of schools or labeled special ed for behavior issues.  And the same with young Black men right?  And that starts in preschools.  These are really critical additions to the field.

Penny:  I think there was no question that those types of pieces were really, really important to updating the text.  And I would say that some of them fall into this sort of category where we discuss them in terms of their youth development, but probably more often, we try to make links to pedagogy. And to policy, and practice. It’s one thing to understand them on a theoretical level, but it’s another to imagine what we might do as educators about those things. Where our sense of agency as educators lies in relation to those things.

Jeanie:  One of the things that came up for me too in this section was thinking about identity with young people, right?  And at the Tarrant Institute, we work with a lot of schools that do excellent work on helping students younger and younger understand their own identities and the identities of people who are different than themselves, in order to better understand the world. In light of this, this focus in this document in middle level education it feels more important than ever.

Penny:  It does! As we think about the ways that students make sense of the world and their own identities and that of others, I’m reminded of the intersection between this work and social-emotional learning. The whole idea of social awareness as a critical competency.

CASAL has done some really important work in this. Especially in relation to also examining their initial set of competencies and going back around and saying: “Okay, how do we think about these in terms of advancing diversity equity and inclusion?” I’ve been very pleased to see how they’ve advanced that work.  There are more and more connections between those.

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Jeanie: That just makes me think that in my own evolving thinking, more and more it’s not just about equitable teaching and learning, it’s also about preparing our students — all of our students — for the realities of a world that is systemically inequitable.

Penny:  Right. Developing students critical consciousness as part of our role as educators. Absolutely, yeah.  And therefore needing to think critically about our curriculum, our pedagogy, our policies, and our practices.

I think one of the biggest challenges in this book is that it’s such an overview, right?  It was designed specifically to be a slim volume that would provide a very broad overview of what successful middle schools look like, sound like and so on.  And as we think about those essential attributes and characteristics, because it is only an overview, we weren’t able to go deeply into any one of those things. The thinking was more that we would set the stage and then there are already and will continue to be deeper dives into all of these concepts and practices.

It was so tempting to provide lots more of examples and everything, but we really reserved the use of examples for things that we thought really required them. Things that might be new for readers because they were particularly new to the to the position paper. But it was a constant tension.

Jeanie:  Yeah. I’m thinking about the equity literacy framework, and about the first step is to recognize. It feels like a lot of this book focuses on that recognizing. Starting to recognize systems of oppression at work.  And I’m going to ask you a question that’s going to feel really out in left field.  But I’m going to ask it anyway because I’m kind of obsessed with something right now.  Did you learn square dance when you were in school?

Penny:  Yes, I did.

Jeanie:  I learned to square dance too.  Everybody I have asked has also learned to square dance.  It was in a lot of state curriculums, and I’ll tell you why: white supremacy.

Henry Ford hated jazz and also hated Jews, and he felt like the thing that would sort of sway us back to “wholesome white culture and recreation” was square dancing.

And so, he funded movements to get it both in our curriculums and declared as the state dance.  Most states didn’t have dances. And what I wonder — which is I think relevant, this is just not out of left field to what you said earlier about reconsidering our curriculum — is how many things are in our curriculum that we take for granted, but they’re there because of whiteness defending itself.

Penny:  I think the answer to why almost anything is in the curriculum is white supremacy.  But your point is an important one.

Not only do we see very clearly that white supremacy is rooted deeply in the curriculum.  But we don’t examine that, right? And that’s just curriculum right?  Then we could also be unpacking the learning environment and what students experience around them.  We could be unpacking the policies and how things like dress codes disproportionately target Black culture and other cultures, but not white culture.  And we could be unpacking pedagogy and the way in which we absolutely privileged compliance over pushback.  So yes, once you open the door, it’s a long, long hallway with lots of other doors off of it.

Jeanie:  Yeah. A can of worms if you will.  Well, I want to open that door a little bit.  I want to start with another quote because I think it has huge implications for educating both in-service and pre-service teachers at the middle level and beyond.

And so for you to achieve truly responsive middle schools, educators recognize these inequities. Multiple marginalized young people: students of color and LGBTQ+ young people specifically face these inequities.  Educators recognize these inequities and implement practices and policies to redress and disrupt them.  I think this really shifts our expectations for what middle school teachers, middle level educators need to know and understand in order to be able to do that.

Penny:  I agree.  I think it shifts our expectations for middle schools.  And let’s be clear: it should shift our expectations for all schools, not just those that are serving young adolescents. I will say that I think it’s especially important for schools that serve early adolescents particularly because of the profound identity development that’s happening at that time. It shifts our expectations especially given what we know about the demographics of the US population and what we know about teachers, right?

We know that white students are now the minority in US schools, and yet the educator workforce is still overwhelmingly white.  And it’s not changing any time soon.

In the year 2000, 84% of teachers identified as white. And in 2018 — 18 years later — 82% identified as white. That’s a shift of just negative 2% in more than 15 years.  So it’s pretty profound and it’s not changing any time soon.

And it matters.

It matters because teachers of color or teachers who are Indigenous, teachers who are Black, they’re more likely to have higher expectations of students, they’re more likely to confront racism when they see it or hear it or experience it.  They are more likely to advocate.  They’re more likely to develop trusting relationships with students.  And that’s especially true for those with whom they share a cultural background.

All of those pieces are really, really important for educators.

And BIPOC teachers are more likely to make those things happen.

There’s that disconnect between the white teacher and his or her or their population of students.  Then there’s that challenge of trying to recruit greater diversity into the teaching workforce.  And while that’s happening, it’s essential that we as teacher educators help educators learn to recognize inequities in policy and practice.

So it’s recognizing the square dancing in the curriculum and asking the question: why is this in the curriculum?  What’s the legacy of it being in the curriculum?  And what are the effects of it being in the curriculum?  Then it’s helping them learn to redress and disrupt them.

It’s recognition of course, but it’s moving beyond that as well.

When you think about it, the average teacher in this country is a 43-year-old white woman with about 15 years of teaching experience.  So, you consider her personality and then you consider all of these other factors, right.  There’s a lot of education to happen and certainly there are plenty of great teachers doing really good work. I’m not dismissing that.  But there are a lot of folks who have a long way to go in terms of understanding the role of racism in our schools, the role of white supremacy in our schools and culture.  And it’s a long journey to getting to the point where people are going to actually redress some of these issues.

As teacher educators, we need to work on multiple levels, right? We need to work in the teacher professional development space around this, and we also need to be informing pre-service teachers.  Pre-service teacher preparation programs really need to think about teachers who are just coming out into the field. There are multiple levers here for us to use but it’s a big project.

Jeanie:  It’s interesting because now working at the University of Vermont and with the College of Education and Social Services.  I see real differences in how teachers are being prepared to compared to when I was in my master’s program for library science.  They’re so much more talk about identities and oppression and I just love some of the things that are happening.  And one of the things when I’ve been doing my research that I became aware of is this whole line of research which is about how we’re preparing our teachers for cultural responsiveness, right.

Teachers do a lot of training, but then they land in schools where there’s not space for it.  And so then they revert back to the culture of the school which is not responsive.  And so I hear you at the both ends of that.  It’s not enough to prepare new teachers.  We also have to create schools that are ready for these teachers, so they can continue to grow those skills and thrive.  And thrive in order to serve their students, so their students can thrive.

Penny:  And I would add that maybe a third piece to that and that is that we also need to equip pre-service or the newer teachers going into the schools to understand how to disrupt the status quo.  So not just to resist the pushback, but also to persevere.  And that’s not a new challenge, right?

It’s one that for any sort of progressive movement in education has existed.  But perhaps while it’s not new, it seems like the stakes are higher than ever for that to happen.

Jessica DeMink-Carthy, one of our colleagues, is doing some interesting research on preparing teachers to be advocates in that work. She’s identifying some skills and dispositions that novice teachers find useful in that context.  And I think that’s going to be really important in the years to come.

Jeanie:  I’m so glad you mentioned Jessica because when I’m working with teachers who’ve come through the UVM program and are in schools? They’re like: I loved my literature class with Jessica, because it forced me to look beyond what I’ve been reading.  It forced me to look for diverse perspectives!

She’s having a real impact in our schools.

I want to ask you another question about this though because as I travel around Vermont — or travel by Zoom currently — there is something I hear sometimes that really bothers me.  And that’s: “Oh, well our school is mostly or all white. So we don’t need to talk about race.”

This book I think points to some problems with that statement.

Penny:  I sure hope it does because I think there are tremendous problems with that statement.  In fact I would argue that it’s perhaps all the more important to have deep and thoughtful conversations about race in predominantly white schools and classrooms.

First of all, let’s trouble that perspective a little bit.  There are a lot of assumptions that are made about people’s backgrounds and cultural and racial heritage.  So teachers that are saying that for example here in Vermont. Which is a predominantly white state.  Despite the fact that we have very rich and diverse refugee resettlement communities in our state, we have a lot of what might be *perceived* as predominantly white communities.

And yet we have a very rich heritage of Native Americans. There are folks who identify first and foremost as Native Americans.

We also have folks who identify as Indigenous.

We have folks who identify as French Canadian.

Each of those has its own historic legacies.

And then we certainly have a lot of people of color who may or may not identify first and foremost as that.

So we make a lot of assumptions based on visual appearance.  That’s probably one of the first things I would trouble is: do you think your classroom’s really all white?  What does white actually mean? Folks who come from other places, how do they identify?

Which really invites that conversation around identity as curriculum.  How do we invite identity into the curriculum, including about race and ethnicity? So there’s that.

Jeanie: Let’s back up a minute, just for people haven’t read it yet.  Because you’ve structured this book in a really interesting way.

There are five essential attributes that you outline.  Those are that education for a young adolescent must be:

  1. responsive
  2. challenging
  3. empowering
  4. equitable, and
  5. engaging.

And then you have 18 characteristics that you divide up into three categories.  Before digging deeper into those, do you want to talk a little bit about that structure?

Penny:  Sure, yeah.  Lisa and I have used this as a way to talk about what’s new in the text. Engaging is the additional attribute from the earlier editions.  Although you would think that equitable would be, given our emphasis.  We really changed the language in how it was described, to elevate the importance of justice.  There was very little conversation about justice in the earlier version.

When we talk about equitable, that’s a really key feature of it for us.

And then engaging. We just recognize that given the nature of young adolescents that an education could be responsive and challenging and empowering and equitable and in fact not be engaging.

So yes the attributes are important. What they serve to do is that they’re sort of infused across the text.  And then the characteristics really drive the structure of the text and the content of the text.

Then we have three categories of characteristics:

  1. culture and community
  2. curriculum instruction and assessment, and
  3. leadership and organization.

We also changed the order of these three.  Not that they are essentially in order of importance.  But we did intentionally frontload culture and community. Culture and community seems to be the very foundation upon which everything else can be built.  As is the notion that anyone working with young adolescents absolutely must respect and value them, that is a non-negotiable.

Jeanie: I love it!  Put that front and center on page one.  Educators respect and value young adolescents.  That does seem like a no-brainer and yet it feels necessary to say it out loud.

Penny:  It’s interesting — not to go too far down the policy conversation — but I think this is one of the reasons why having middle grades teaching licensure is so important. Because it really does say I have made a deliberate choice to work with this age group.  I love this age group.  I want to spend time helping them learn and thrive and grow in all different kinds of ways.

And in our state, as with others where there is overlapping licensure, you have folks who are licensed and could conceivably teach this age group without having had any experience with them.  You could have teachers working with this age group who are doing so by default. Who really want to teach AP Bio, but ended up getting a seventh grade general science position.  And so having this front and center is really saying: we need teachers who want to work with young adolescents.  It’s not a plan B.

Jeanie:  Teachers who see them in all their glory.

Penny:  Exactly and celebrate that.

Jeanie:  Yeah, I really love this section on culture and community. I’m doing a lot of reading about culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy right now.  I see that showing up throughout this document over and over again.  These practices are so important.  And I just want to acknowledge and honor the Black scholars who have done the foundational work in culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy. Gloria Ladson-Billings. Geneva Gay. Django Paris and Samy Alim. And I’m sure there are others we should name.  Do you want to give any shout outs for the folks who have influenced the thinking here?

Penny:  I would love to, yeah.  I would add Bettina Love. Who I’m sure many of your listeners know and respect her work.  She’s done really important work on the intersections of Black and queer identities and has used what she theorizes as a “ratchet lens” which I just find fascinating.  And also her amazing work on abolitionist teaching which offers some important frameworks for us on how to do some of this work.

Gholdy Muhammad’s work, particularly on literacy development and writing practices among Black communities.  And I especially appreciate her work as she was a middle school teacher herself. Those are her roots.

And then absolutely my coauthor Lisa Harrison who’s doing really, really incredible work in this area and is moving this entire field of middle grades education forward. Huge, huge shout out to her.

I will also note that one change in the book is the integration of research which wasn’t in the book in prior editions. You’ll find an embarrassingly long number of endnotes in the book.  But they’re really important because they are our way of saying: if you want to learn more, go to this person, go to this scholar.  We were really, really careful to be thoughtful about which scholars we were relying upon.  Whose truths are centered?

And so I hope that those that ridiculously long list in the back is actually a gift. That it’s useful for folks who want to dive deeper.  And that it also does highlight and celebrate these Black scholars and many others from marginalized identities.

Jeanie:  I have already added so many things to my reading list from this list.  So thank you; I see it as a gift.

The second bucket of characteristics of a successful middle school is in the curriculum instruction and assessment chapter.

And there’s just so much great text in this little document.  I mean it’s really only like 70-some pages, right.  Yet there’s so many things that I was highlighting and putting explanation points next to.  One that stuck out for me is from page 35.  It says, “instruction fosters learning that is active, purposeful and democratic”.

And I wondered if you wanted to paint a picture of that.

The Successful Middle School


Penny:  Sure, yeah.  I’ll point out that “democratic” is an additional term. It was sort of used in the earlier text but it’s been elevated to the point of a characteristic. That felt really important to us.  I think that we’ve talked about democratic classrooms and democratic schools and education in the middle grades field for a long, long time.  And we were very fortunate, are very fortunate to have James Bean who has done some fundamental work in middle schooling in relation to that.  His book with Michael Apple was foundational.  So, it’s not a new concept but we did feel like it was really important to elevate.

There are a lot of well-known approaches that can meet the description of active, purposeful and democratic.  But they don’t always end up that way when they’re enacted, right?

Project-based education, for example or project based learning. There’s so many iterations of that, thinking about a continuum of practice. It’s one of many places where you can have active, purposeful and democratic characteristics of the practice.

Jeanie:  Where would you point middle level teachers to to find some examples, or some paths forward to learning that are active, purposeful and democratic? Or more active, purposeful and democratic?

Penny:  There are lots of practices that could meet that if they are in fact implemented fully.

We have so many good examples: project-based learning, place-based education, service learning and especially critical service learning. Negotiated curriculum. The James Bean model of negotiated curriculum which has been riffed on a number of times in different ways and exciting iterations.  Particularly youth participatory action research, I think is an incredibly exciting way to engage learners.  And I would apply those characteristics as a set of questions as you’re implementing them.


  • In what ways is my application of project-based learning active?
  • In what ways are my learners active?
  • And in what ways are they pursuing something purposeful?

And this is the one I think that is sometimes the trickiest and sometimes gets left out: in what ways is it democratic?  How have our students or how of my students been involved in identifying what and how they learn?

Identifying the problems they want to solve in the world. Contributing to learning that is personally and socially meaningful.  Those are the kinds of questions to pose when you’re pursuing those different avenues.

Jeanie:  Thank you.  That was super helpful for me.

Let’s touch on the last section which I also really appreciated, which is the leadership and organization section. On page 46, you clearly make anti-racism and equity a top priority and you even share what it looks like.  I wondered if you could read a good portion of page 46 out loud for our listeners.

Penny:  I’d be happy too.  Let me see here.

“Middle school’s policies and practices significantly impact school culture, programming, instruction, improvement efforts and family and community engagement.  Successful middle grades educators and leaders intentionally examine the policies and practices that guide teaching and learning within their schools to ensure that all student’s academic and personal needs are met.  This goal is upheld when policies and practices are student centre, anti-racist, academically rigorous and responsive to the realities of students and their family’s lives.

Middle school professionals are keenly aware of the historic and present inequitable educational experiences and outcomes for students particularly culturally and linguistically diverse, economically disadvantaged and LGBTQ students.  This is seen through disciplinary practices that result in higher school suspensions and expulsion rates of Black and LGBTQ students in school tracking practices that result in an overwhelming absence of Black, Indigenous and Latin X students and gifted education and under funding of schools in impoverished communities.  However effective middle schools purposefully work to create equitable outcomes for students and their families.

Such practices include incorporating service learning within the curriculum that connects learning to active community engagement, implementing clubs that demonstrate to students that their varied identities are valued and welcomed, incorporating ethnic studies as an integrated part of the curriculum, using restorative justice approaches as an alternative to exclusionary in punitive discipline practices.  And offering weekend and summer food programs to ensure that students who are food insecure have access to food when school is not in session.  Middle schools that implement such practices support the wellbeing and academic success of students while also showing their commitment to the communities in which they’re located.”

Jeanie:  That was perfect!

So. This is hard work. I think this is really challenging for schools.  But we can do hard things, and we must.  And so I wondered what would be your response if a school said, “Well, wait. We already have too much on our plate.”

Penny:  I worry about this.  I think nothing else is going to work until we get this work done.

Jeanie:  Yeah.

Penny:  I was actually just having a conversation last night with my husband who is a 35 years veteran teacher.  We were really grappling with sort of, how do we move schools forward in this area when there are so many other pressures brought to bear.

I was asking that question maybe even rhetorically because I didn’t really expect an answer.

And he was the one who reminded me. He said: you know what, nothing else is going to work until we get this right.  Spending time on those other things, it’s not where our energy and time and commitment is best used until we have the other piece in place.  Until we have more equitable anti-racist schools and educators, we’re not going to make the progress that we need to make on the other things.

And I would say it’s sort of a both-and, because the other piece to that is it should be embedded in everything we’re doing.

So, it’s not as though those other things get put on hold.  It’s that they’re done differently. That they’re done with an eye toward equity as front and center. As we’re examining how we improve our literacy rates, for example.  It’s about unpacking all that surrounds that and undergirds the literacy rates.  And it won’t do any good to just adopt another literacy curriculum.

Jeanie:  I totally hear and appreciate your answer.  One of the things I would add is that we’re doing work all the time in schools.  And if we do the work with equity and anti-racism at the front of our brain, we won’t have to redo it later. Focusing on it as we’re doing the work we’re doing, saves us time in the long run. It’s the right thing to do.  It’s not just that we do it because it’s efficient.  If we’re doing the work, doing it with equity and anti-racism in the center of the work is the best way to do the work.

Penny:  Completely agree. It must be done in partnership.  That’s another piece of it.  In states like ours, where we are predominantly white, and as we know with our predominantly white teacher workforce in the country, we’re going to make a lot of mistakes along the way.  It’s going to be really important to do this work in partnership. To admit mistakes and to recognize where we don’t know enough.  It’s an ongoing journey.

Jeanie:  Oh, I appreciate that so much.  It reminds me of a quote that I often think of that it stands with me all the time to remind me of my own frailty.  And that is “Nothing about us, without us, is for us”.  And so thinking about we really need to engage communities of color, LGBTQ community members and our students in this work because without them it’s not for them.

Penny, how would you like to see middle level administrators and educators using this text?

Penny:  Well I have spoken with a number of folks who are and it seems like it’s turning out to be a very useful text for a whole faculty read.  So, I’ve heard of principals, for example, who are using it as sort of the shared book for faculty development.  They’re also using it to analyze their practice. To do a self-assessment of where they are based on some of the characteristics and attributes.  I’ve heard of others who are using it in community.

They’re using it as invited text for a four-week session where they unpack a little bit of it each week with community members and parents and families.  And it seems like that’s been pretty exciting way to bring a community together around what they imagine for their school and their learners.

What I haven’t heard of yet but what I keep hoping for is the engagement of kids in it. That they will in fact encourage students to do some sort of self-assessment of their school.  And then tie it to some youth participatory action research. Because I think it’s incredibly relevant for youth and would be a great example of the kind of active and democratic and purposeful learning that we were talking about earlier.

Jeanie:  I love that so much.  Listeners, you got to let us know.  If you start unpacking this text with your students, we want to hear about it! We want to hear all about it.  Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Penny:  I’d like to thank you.  It’s such a privilege to talk with you today.  I appreciate that you’re interested in the book and I’m appreciative to any listener who’s trying to do this work in his or her or their classrooms and schools.  And I just want to give a shout out again to the students who contributed their voices and their work to the book because I think they are the ones who made it.

Jeanie:  Yeah, thank you so much for talking to me about this.  And thank you to you and Dr. Harrison for this reframing.  I’m really grateful and appreciative of it.  And yeah, it’s always a delight to talk to you Penny.  Thank you.

Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a former (and always!) school librarian and a Professional Development Coordinator for TIIE. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, she is passionate about student engagement, equity, collaboration, and questions. Jeanie likes to hike the woods of southern Vermont with her dog Charlie and is always in search of a well-brewed cup of tea and a good book.

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