Best Practice for Serving Advanced Middle School Students

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As someone who is invested in online education and blended learning, my ears perk up whenever I hear about an online school or program for students, particularly one that’s geared toward middle school  students. It seems that every year there are more options to consider. I find myself asking and being asked by parents and colleagues:

“Is this course a good one for my middle school student?”

“Would these offerings fit with our middle school philosophy?”

“Is my academically talented student able to take a high school level course online?”

It is helpful for parents and schools to know what best practice is for middle school online learning. Knowing “best practice” helps you find courses that will meet your student’s needs. So, what is best practice for middle school online courses? I think it helps to begin with an understanding of best practice in middle school education.

Blending Student-Centered, Cognitive and Social

Best Practice Visual

Zemelman, Daniels, Hyde (2005) Best Practice: Today’s Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools. 3rd Edition. Portsmouth, Heinemann.

Authors Zemelman, Daniels and Hyde summarize the principles of best practice for middle school instruction well in their book, Best Practice: Today’s Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools.   They highlight three main principles: student-centered, cognitive, and social.

Education needs to be student-centered, meaning it is centered around their needs and their interests (unlike many high school courses which are content-centered). It also needs to be cognitive based, meaning it is taught in chunks that middle school brains can handle and allows them to be reflective and expressive with the content. And education needs to be social — students need to be able to collaborate with others and have a voice in the educational decisions.

Consider Brain Development

Gogtay N, et al. Dynamic mapping of human cortical development during childhood through early adulthood. PNAS 2004;101(21): 8174 - 79, Fig. 3.

Gogtay N, et al. Dynamic mapping of human cortical development during childhood through early adulthood. PNAS 2004;101(21): 8174 – 79, Fig. 3.

Another thing to keep in mind as you look at options for middle school students is the recent research in brain development (there’s a great blog post on that here). Research has confirmed what many middle school teachers have known for a long time: their age tells us they are in middle school but they can act more like preschoolers!

Because of puberty, what has seemed like a normal growth pattern until now is suddenly disrupted. The hormone/chemicals that set puberty into motion create a flux in emotions. The limbic (emotional brain) is fully developed. Middle school students have all the emotions but the prefrontal cortex (the part that controls the emotions) is underdeveloped. So, using the car analogy, they have all the parts and their accelerators are fully developed but their brakes are not developed yet! This has an effect on their cognitive learning, social functioning and also emotional stability.  This means that items that may be appropriate for high school are not appropriate for middle school students.  They are a special group!

So, how do these best practices come together when evaluating online courses for middle school students?

  1. Be sure that the courses are taught and developed by highly qualified teachers. It is important that the teachers are trained in working with middle school students and they are highly knowledgeable in their content area. They should also be trained in online instruction. It’s important to ask, “Is this a course for an advanced middle school student or a remediation course?’. Be certain the instructor is trained to work with academically talented learners.
  2. Make sure that that the courses are teacher-directed. Teacher-directed means that the teacher is guiding the learning. He or she is directly involved in finding where the student is at with the material and is helping him or her to achieve the required course content. This is unlike a computer directed course in which the computer is auto-scoring and opening/closing content.
  3. Pay attention to class size. A course in which the teacher has more than 20 students does not allow the teacher to focus on individual students. (For more research on online class sizes, read this U.S. News article.)
  4. Look into how often formative assessment occurs. Frequent formative assessment needs to take place. This means that the teacher is paying attention to where the student is at with the material, evaluating what the student is comprehending and learning, and adapting curriculum to meet the student’s needs.
  5. Be aware of the creativity required for the course. The curriculum should allow the student to be creative, which builds the student’s capacity for problem solving.
  6. Ask about the type of work required. The curriculum should include both independent work and group work. Middle school students and academically talented students need and want to work both collaboratively and independently.
  7. Inquire about the opportunities for community. Does the course provide opportunities for the students to communicate online (within a safe environment) beyond the curriculum? Middle school students are a social group and need time to socialize with their peers, even through the internet. This can be particularly beneficial for students who are academically talented

Several years ago, I was part of a team that helped develop CLC Network’s online courses for advanced middle school students after realizing there was a significant need for courses that were Christ-centered and implemented best practice. You can learn more about the Advanced Math and Honors English courses on the CLC Network website.

You can learn more about this topic in the free archived webinar, “Challenging Students with Digital Learning: Best Practices for Academically Talented Middle School Students” with Becci Zwiers. This webinar was recorded last spring through Christian Schools International

Becci Zwiers photoBecci Zwiers is a teacher consultant and the online courses coordinator for CLC Network.  She has certifications in education, gifted education and online education.

 

10 Tips for Church School Classroom Management

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Kids at churchPerhaps you’ve had a student like Aiden in your Church School or other ministry class. A young and energetic boy, Aiden was constantly interrupting his class with, “Teacher, teacher!” He began to dominate the classroom with his frequent talking and interrupting, distracting his peers and making it difficult for his Church School teacher to get through the lesson.

Knowing that it was important to share expectations for the class and teach Aiden and his peers the appropriate behavior, his teacher made a sign in the shape of a hand and explained that if you wanted to ask or answer a question, you needed to raise your hand and wait to be called on to speak.  When Aiden would begin to speak, his teacher would simply raise her sign, prompting him to remember the rules and stop speaking until she called on him.  Aiden learned that it was okay for his teacher to call on his peers and he felt rewarded when he was called upon to give an answer.

If you have ever led a Church School class or another ministry event with children, you know that classroom management is important. From my experience as a parent, special educator, and children’s ministry leader, I’ve learned that many issues that arise with classroom management can be prevented by being proactive, just like Aiden’s  teacher communicated classroom expectations. I hope you find these suggestions for classroom management helpful; feel free to share your ideas in the comment box!

  1. Understand the age group.

    Before you begin leading, it’s important to understand the developmental level of the age group you are teaching, as it will help you plan your activities. If you’re unsure where to begin, talk with your children’s pastor or a local teacher to get some insight on realistic expectations for the children you serve.

  2. Preparation is key.

    If you are a teacher at your church, you should plan for the lesson and have all your supplies ready to use. Don’t try to pull everything together when the students are with you.

  3. Focus on routine.

    Set up a basic routine for classroom time and communicate it with students and helpers. This is important especially because many churches have volunteers that rotate from week to week, so it is helpful if they are all using the same basic schedule for the class.  Students will then know what to expect, taking away some anxiety.

  4. Set clear expectations.

    Tell your students what you expect at the beginning of each class. For example: when you raise your hand, students should raise their hands, stop talking, and look at you for instructions.

  5. Use motivational tools.

    Implement reward systems for participating or good behavior (for example: if you answer a question two times, you get to pick something from the prize box). Words of affirmation can also be motivating to students.

  6. Be a student of the kids in your class.

    Think about how you can get kids involved in your ministry or class, allowing them to contribute their gifts (for example: allow them to write the verse on the board, pass out a snack, assist another student, or put story figures away).  Giving students purpose within the class helps them know that they’re important, which can help them behave and even attend more often. Focus on their giftings and even ask them how they would like to serve.

    For help with this, ask their parent/guardian to fill out a short survey. (We created one that you can download for free at this link. Though this survey was designed to help you get to know the gifts and needs of individuals with special needs in your church, many of the questions can help you get to know persons with a variety of ability levels.)

  7. Think about special needs.

    Understand if there are any special needs (physical, socio-emotional, or cognitive disability, medical condition, or allergies) that students have in the classroom. We blogged about that recently in this post, “Preparing Your Ministry to Receive Individuals with Disabilities”.

  8. Be prepared for misbehavior.

    Before a student misbehaves in class, it’s important to have a plan. Often, many ministries have a discipline plan, so be sure to check with your children’s pastor or appropriate leader. Share with your class what students can expect if they misbehave (for example: they will go back to their parent for the remainder of the class, take a break, miss an activity, etc.).

  9. Communicate difficulties with your leader.

    Whether it’s over a phone call, email or coffee, share your struggles with your children’s pastor or leader before the situation gets out of hand. Conversely, if you are the children’s pastor or are in charge of volunteers, be sure to provide an opportunity for teachers to express any difficulties they may be having by checking in with them throughout the year.

  10. Know how to utilize helpers in the room.

    Often children’s classes have teens or adults on hand to offer assistance with students who are being disruptive or need some extra assistance. To make the most of these extra volunteers’ time, consider these suggestions:

    1. Plan for how you want to use them. Can they run a station? Get a craft ready? Sit with a particular child? Think beforehand how you would like them to serve in your class.
    2. Communicate with them beforehand. Be sure to connect with the helper before class and share how you would like them to serve in your upcoming class or ministry gathering. When the helper is prepared, they will be able to take more initiative within the classroom setting.
    3. Share ideas for how to help particular students. Again, preparation is key. If the helper is working with a particular student, brainstorm some ways that they could work with that student. If you’re out of ideas, talk with your ministry leader or collaborate with other classroom or ministry teachers.

Kim LuurtsemaKim Luurtsema is a church consultant for CLC Network. She has a background in special education and has served in children’s ministry for more than twenty years.

 

photo credit: via photopin (license)

Preparing Your Ministry to Receive Individuals with Disabilities

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Kids at churchBefore you know it, school will be starting and your children’s and youth ministries will be starting again. How can you prepare your church to welcome the magnificent variety of God’s children into your community this ministry year? Director of Church Services Barbara J. Newman shares four tips for preparing your ministry to receive individuals at all levels of ability this year.

1. Offer a preview on your website.

“Something I’ve been recommending to many churches lately is to utilize your church website to give a preview of what visitors can expect at your church,” said Barbara J. Newman. “Similar to checking out hotel photos and your seat on an airplane prior to a trip, some individuals will benefit from photos or a video of what they can expect when they come to your church, church school class, or youth group.”

What does worship look like at your church? What kind of music can one expect? Who are the key people a child or teenager might meet? What does the building look like? Consider including photos, video, or music snippets on your website for potential members to use in getting to know your church. We share other items to consider on your website in this post.

2. Work with parents to create an information story.

Church Welcome StoryUsing elements from your website above and more personalized photos, create a story about what MAY happen when this individual comes to your church or a specific ministry. (For a pre-written story with customizable pages, consider the Church Welcome Story by Barbara J. Newman.) You can show details such as where they might pick up snack during children’s church, where they may stand when they sing in the choir, some of the friends they may meet on Wednesday night, and other details of their time at the church program.

“It is important to include words such as ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’, and ‘probably’ in your preview so that if the order or details change, your story is still accurate,” shared Newman, “Also, try to stay away from giving specific times, and instead provide a sequence of events. Some individuals get upset if you are off by a minute or two if the specific time is listed.”

3. Ask the right questions.

The information you collect about an individual during the intake process can help you and appropriate leaders understand their gifts and needs, and use this information to create an environment where they are included and supported.

As you’re getting to know individuals and families at the beginning of the year, consider asking them to complete a survey to help you get to know God’s handiwork in their son or daughter. (Don’t worry, we have already created the survey for you — you can download it for free here)! This survey asks questions such as:

  • What activities does your family member enjoy doing the most?
  • Tell me a bit about your story. What has your journey been like over the last few years.
  • What are your goals and dreams for your family member as it relates to the church environment?
  • What is your biggest concern for that type of environment?

We invite you to use the information collected on this survey to create a confidential “welcome page” to share with appropriate leaders so that they can get to know God’s knitting pattern in this individual and create a place for him or her to grow in Christ.

4. Be equipped with the right tools.

“The furniture, seating options, toys, writing instruments, and other environmental factors can tell you a lot about how a school or church thinks about children,” said Newman. “I encourage children’s ministries to have a variety of seating options and attention tools (think wiggle cushions, carpet squares, thera-band and exercise balls), writing tools (such as fidget pencils and various pencil grips), and reading tools (like highlighter tape and EZC Readers) to accommodate for a variety of learning and attention supports that children need.”

Inclusion Tool KitWhen parents are determining if a church or program is the right fit for their son or daughter, the ministry setting helps them know if a church is open to a variety of individuals. “At CLC Network, we wanted to make it easy for churches and schools to try out different attention, writing, and reading tools, so we created the Inclusion Tool Kit. The kit contains tools with instructions and websites to create or order more. I always recommend that anyone that works with kids give these tools a try!” said Newman.

 

Barbara J. Newman photoBarbara J. Newman is the director of church services and a teacher consultant at CLC Network.

photo credit: 20120801-519 via photopin (license)