One of the things I have enjoyed the most about teaching and leading independent middle schools is the opportunity to travel with my students. Day trips, overnight trips, or service trips are all unique and provide me with a unique perspective of my students. I am such a huge proponent of student travel that I practically had to force my daughter to go on her eighth-grade trip a few years ago. She was one of those kids who never wanted to spend the night at a friend’s house or go away to sleep-away camp. I felt it was such a valuable learning lesson that I insisted she go with her peers to Washington D.C.
Having spent many years coordinating trips for students, I often have heard that it is too expensive, students have been there before, or “I” will just take them there on our next family vacation. All of those are valid reasons why you might not want to send a child on a school trip, but here are just a few reasons why I think that student travel (without parents) is so important:
A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Nancy Doda and Mark Springer at a Middle-Level professional conference. Their passion for education, especially the education of middle schoolers, was inspiring. Attending sessions with them led to a lot of the work we do as a seventh-grade team, but it also has influenced how I teach.
As a teacher, I am always striving to improve my craft. In addition, as I become more comfortable with transitioning from a more traditional pedagogy to leaving the stage, I have looked for ways to incorporate more student voice in my classroom. In an ideal world, I would love for students to drive the curriculum more than I do, but one of the common constraints many teachers feel is a lack of time and a more-or-less mandated curriculum. I am fortunate that I do not have to worry about state mandated testing, but unless we move away from a structured grading system, I will never be able to fully relinquish my mandated curriculum.
A personal goal that I have for myself is to generate lessons where students are able to construct meaning on their own within the confines of my structured curriculum. Each year, I get better at doing this, but the students are different every year. What works for one group of students does not work for others. That is still a work in progress. However, I have been finding other ways to incorporate student voice in my classroom:
Inspiration comes from the most unlikely places. I read a lot of blogs for my personal edification. Sometimes, I find that a blog post about a personal matter can sometimes relate to how we approach educating our students.
This article on spending five more minutes on those things that are important in life resonated with me. I was thinking about how five extra minutes a day for a single student could make the difference in that child’s day, week or school year. Or, how five extra minutes could turn that “difficult to love” student on a different trajectory in our classes.
One of the challenges we face at my school is that our teachers crossover grade levels and teach multiple preps. I personally enjoy teaching two grade levels because I get to see children at different developmental levels. Sometimes, I am able to teach kids two years in a row, which allows me to develop great long-term relationships with my students. So, while teaching this way is personally rewarding, it can make it difficult to lead a “team”.
Currently, we have 23 teachers who teach seventh grade. That becomes an unwieldy number when trying to plan and work together. It is no surprise that we seemed to have many obstacles to creating a team approach, but with careful planning, it wasn’t impossible. Here are a few things I learned in developing a team without an actual team:
Using the word “team”. We tell our students that words have power. It is no different for adults. One of the biggest obstacles to creating a team was overcoming the inertia of teacher autonomy. Many teachers become teachers because they really enjoy working with kids, not necessarily adults. When I first started working in an independent school, teachers often bragged about their degree of autonomy. By using the term “team”, we created an environment where faculty feel as if they are all in the same boat, and we entered into a more collegial relationship with one another.
Do what you can. This may seem obvious, but when we first began implementing a “team” approach, we couldn’t start too big. The first thing that we could do was create a time and space for faculty to be together. Since our schedule couldn’t be adjusted to accommodate shared planning, we had to make the time. A core group of teachers committed to meeting after school one day a week in the beginning. Our focus was always on how we could improve our teaching for our students. We evaluated what we could and could not do with the time we had, within our current curricular standards, and with the busy schedule of our students. We started with the simplest tasks first such as just sharing what we were doing in our classes. Eventually, we were able to create a daily schedule that allowed us to meet during the school day.
Set goals and expectations. We set two goals right away in our work: 1. Create a student community, 2. Generate themes that can be woven into all of our curricula. By setting goals early on, we were able to always have a focus when designing curriculum. Often, we focused primarily on core content first–math, English, social studies, and science. Whenever we had a new idea, we used those two goals as our “litmus” tests. If it didn’t fall under those criteria, we were able to make a quick decision to either table the idea, or expand our goals.
These simple ideas are not all that different from what teachers do in a traditional team setting. However, we had to take these baby steps in order to create a more team-like approach with such a large team. Every year it gets a little bit easier.