Best Practice for Serving Advanced Middle School Students

//

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This is our last blog post on this domain! Be sure to subscribe at clcnetwork.org/blog to make sure you continue receiving this content in your email or RSS feed. Thank you!

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.

 

Advertisements

The Journey of Inclusion at Calvary Church

Inclusion has been 25 years in the making at Calvary Church, and as Judi Warner, director of special needs ministry, says, “Like every church, we’re still on a journey”.

Judi Warner

A former church consultant at CLC Network, Judi began at Calvary Church four years ago with a vision to bring inclusion to the 4,000-member Grand Rapids congregation.  The church had a well-established special needs ministry for kids and adults that grew out of Calvary’s belief that each individual has a place in the community of believers. Building on this foundational value, Judi and her three-person team have helped the children’s, youth, and adult ministries receive the gifts of persons with disabilities in an inclusive and interdependent environment by focusing on each person’s gifts:

“[From what I learned during my time at CLC Network], first and foremost, you look at the individual first and you ask, ‘What are their gifts? What are their weaknesses? What are some of their challenges?’ You focus on the gifts and what their desires are to serve, be served, and serve alongside. It all begins with getting to know that individual first,” shared Judi.

Paving the Way with Children’s Ministry

In such a large church environment, the natural place to begin inclusion was with the children’s ministry.

“It began with me sharing the vision that God put on my heart to see all of his kids included together. And I began asking, ‘How could special needs ministry become more ‘one’ with the children’s ministry (with special needs staff being the support piece)?’ In a beautiful way, God made that gradually happen as parents had their kids included at school and expected the same at church.”

Though they met with initial hesitancy, Judi and her staff consulted often with the children’s ministry staff, parents, and kids to make sure everyone felt supported and equipped.

Through this gradual process, the children’s ministry has been transformed. This fall, Judi’s dream for a unified children’s and special needs ministry will come true with combined staff personnel and training for staff and volunteers. The efforts to unify the ministries are a reflection of the impact inclusion has had on kids. Judi notes,

“It’s an amazing thing when you talk to kids in a classroom and you try to bring awareness about a child with a disability. The kids ‘get it’. It’s like they’re not even different.”

Focusing on Youth Groups

Calvary ChurchBut inclusion doesn’t stop with the children’s ministry at Calvary Church. The middle and high school youth groups focus on identifying the gifts and needs of students with disabilities and placing support structures around those students. “One of the more significant challenges is sensory overload. The youth group spends lots of time in large groups and the room itself can be over stimulating. The special needs ministry staff works with the youth group staff to accommodate or adapt different portions of the ministry.”

Because teens are used to inclusion at their West Michigan Christian and public schools, it was natural to have teens with disabilities in the middle and high school youth groups.

“The high school staff has done a great job of identifying [typical] students who can offer support to a student when needed. And if the staff needs us, then our team jumps in to offer assistance. It has been fun to watch the youth group staff and students take ownership of it. And if inclusion is difficult for an individual, then we invite them to worship and participate in Go-Getters, our adult program.”

Creating Interdependence among Adults

Go-Getters, which began 25 years ago as a self-contained program for kids with disabilities, evolved to serve adults as its attendees grew. Today the program offers worship services, activities, classes, and faith mentoring for more than 130 adults with disabilities and their families.

“God paved the way for each of these individuals to be part of a community within themselves. Our challenge now is to allow the entire Calvary Church community to learn and benefit from one another,” shared Judi.

Calvary Church Go-GettersThe adults are taking steps toward serving together in various ministries. If a member of Go-Getters wants to join a class or church activity, Judi meets with the individual to learn about their gifts and challenges and then matches them up with the right small group or activity. Judi and her team will offer assistance as needed to the leader and participants so that everyone feels equipped and informed. Through small groups, church baptisms, congregation-wide meals, and worship services that are open to everyone, full inclusion is gradually happening among the adults at the church.

“It’s a journey,” Judi acknowledges, with the hope that as kids and teens grow, they will become adults who view inclusion as normalcy. “And that’s what gives me so much hope for God’s vision of it all. These kids will be the adults of tomorrow who will welcome and embrace people with disabilities because ‘why wouldn’t you? These individuals have been part of my life growing up and they’re part of God’s creation just like I am…there’s no setting them apart.’ I look forward to the day when the majority of adults with and without disabilities serve alongside one another in the church.”

Providing Options for Families

Calvary Church The special needs ministry staff recognizes that an inclusive environment does not work for everyone all of the time. While Calvary Church responds graciously to distractions during the worship service, Judi knows that a large worship environment is not always the right fit. She acknowledges the importance of providing people with options and helping each one find their place in the Calvary community.

“We want to provide an opportunity for people to worship the Lord, and for their kids to be well cared for and to share the love of Christ. If that means a separate classroom for a time, then we provide them with options,” said Judi.

Though Calvary Church is still on a journey, their story serves as a testament to God’s faithfulness and desire for each of His children–regardless of their level of ability or disability–to worship and serve together.

Judi’s Advice: Don’t Say “No”

She encourages congregations of all sizes to make a place for each person in their community, “Get to know that individual and their family. Embrace them, welcome them. Have an opportunity very shortly after you meet them to interview them (and their family) and visit their home. Use that information to put together a profile on that individual. Don’t say, ‘No’, instead say, “We’re glad you’re here. We want to get to know you.”

 

Katie Barkley ImageKatie Barkley is the marketing communications manager at CLC Network.

Diverseability Week: How South Christian Celebrates Students’ Differences

Last week, we shared an article about Connections, a program at South Christian High School that seeks to encourage students to build relationships with students across ages, cultures, special needs, and social groups.  In today’s post, Sarah Ress, a senior at the school and member of the Connections leadership, highlights one school-wide activity that celebrates differences: Diversability Week.

Normal. It’s a word used all the time. We refer to this word frequently, and even idolize it. “Why can’t I be normal? Why can’t you act normal? Why does my life have to be so weird, I just want to be normal!” Or, we also comment on how abnormal things are, and how it makes us uncomfortable. “She’s so different, why isn’t she normal? They act so stupid, why can’t they be normal?” Well in all honesty, “normal” isn’t something that anyone can grasp. We are all abnormal in our own ways, and guess what – that’s ok. Being different does not  lower our worth, it gives us unique perspectives to share with the world!

South Christian DisArt Festival

South Christian’s student art show highlighted uniquely made masterpieces.

At South Christian High School (Grand Rapids, MI) this past April, we dedicated a week to celebrating the fact that we are not all made with the same cookie cutter. It was appropriately titled “Diversability Week”. Throughout the week we had a new, diverse focus each day and a devotion for every morning. Monday was our kickoff and students were given an overview of the week, along with a devotion about what it means to be a diverse community. Tuesday we celebrated our international students with 22 flags hung in our hallways representing the different ethnicities of our student body and a chapel with a guest speaker. Wednesday we encouraged students to go out of their comfort zone and befriend someone they normally would not, and then we put encouragement notes up on all of the students’ lockers.

South Christian Ability Fair

The Ability Fair allowed students to hear from a diverse group of community organizations.

We also had an “Ability Fair” in our gym, where students could step out of their normal routine and talk to diverse organizations from our community. A few of those who visited were Mary Free Bed, Camp Sunshine, and CLC Network. On Thursday, we focused on our students involved in inclusive education. We had a chapel with a senior testimony from one of those students, and songs led by some of the other students and their friends. Friday’s purpose was to show that being different truly can lead to great things. That afternoon we had the Grand Rapids Pacers Wheelchair Basketball team come in and play our varsity boys team in wheelchairs. It was an educative and fun way to end the week.

Since Diversability Week, I have had many students and teachers approach me and tell me what they learned from the week. Some people’s eyes were opened to our unique community by the chapels and the devotionals, while others learned more through the assembly and the fair. For me, the week always hits home. I enjoy watching students become more accepting in the weeks that follow and hearing kids talk about what they learned from the fair. I love that the week highlights people, cultures, and talents that are not the norm for most of us! It teaches us that this “normal” that we so often obsess over is not necessary. We learned that being different makes us special and unique but in no way less of a person, and that is why we love having Diversability Week. We should never be afraid to be ourselves!

Sarah RessSarah Ress is a senior at South Christian High School, where she’s been a part of the Connections Council for four years. Sarah will be a freshman at Aquinas College in the fall, majoring in Special Education or Psychology. 

Social Inclusion for All at South Christian High School

High school lunchtime can be an intimidating atmosphere, filled with uncertain social norms and expectations, depending on your grade level and social status. However, a step into the lunch hour at South Christian High School (Grand Rapids, MI) is bustling with students of diverse grade levels, abilities, and backgrounds eating, laughing, and playing games together as part of the school’s Connections Lunch Partners program.

Connections Lunch Partners

Each group of Connections Lunch Partners meets once every two weeks throughout the semester to eat lunch and play games together.

Lunch Partners, which began fifteen years ago, is just one way that South Christian seeks to encourage students to build relationships with students across ages, cultures, special needs, and social groups through their larger Connections program.  By creating opportunities for purposeful interactions, Connections’ mission is to help students see one another through God’s eyes.

South Christian High School started Connections nearly twenty years ago when they began including students with more significant needs in their general education classrooms. They realized students with disabilities were getting the support they needed academically, but the school needed to do more to connect students socially.

“We started with a small group the first few years; I would personally ask students to come alongside one of our students with a disability to offer tutoring or eat with them at lunch, which grew into genuine friendships over time. That first year, we based it on the Circle of Friends model, but tweaked pieces of it to fit high school and it grew from there,” shared Ellie Van Keulen, Inclusion Specialist at South Christian for twenty-one years.

“I appreciated the encouragement from CLC Network to keep going, even when student participation was low. God has truly blessed our efforts. The placement of my classroom is a testament to that – I moved from the back corner of a hallway to the very heart of the school,” remembers Van Keulen.

Currently, more than one-third of the South Christian High 660-person student body participates in Connections in some capacity through peer tutors, special events, Connections Council, themed chapels, or Diversability Week. As Van Keulen shares, “The only qualities we require are a willingness to reach across boundaries, a willingness to serve, an ability to meet weekly, and a sensitivity to the needs of others. If a student has the right attitude, we can coach them on the rest.”

Often, students are eager to participate because they have heard it is a fun way to get involved at school.

“Participating in Connections is a great opportunity to get to know people. It is a free environment where you can be yourself – it’s very welcoming,” shared Cody, a senior.

“I got involved because I thought it was a good way to meet new people and get connected,” commented Sam, a senior Connection Council member who has been a Lunch Partner since ninth grade.

Impacting Students’ Hearts and Lives

Connections Council Bowling Party

Members of the Connections Council meet regularly to plan events, a yearly chapel service, and to hold each other accountable as Lunch Partner leaders.

Vocationally, Connections is preparing students for future careers in special education. Ashtyn, a senior, credits Connections for helping her realize she wanted to specialize in cognitive impairments as part of her future special education degree. Madeline, a senior who wants to become a paraprofessional after she graduates shared, “Peer tutoring helped me become more prepared [for this job] – I’ve learned patience and joy.”

Connections has created competent, compassionate leaders, genuine friends, and better students, not to mention a generation of Christ-followers who daily interact with friends of diverse abilities and backgrounds – something that’s become commonplace at this inclusive Christian school.

“Inclusion has come into every part of our students’ lives – we’ve seen graduates [without disabilities] take what they’ve learned here and bless their communities in so many other ways,” shared Van Keulen.

George Guichelaar, principal at South Christian High for more than twenty years stated,

“What’s absolutely blown us away is how [inclusion] has transformed our school. We initially focused on how it would change students that were receiving services, but we should have focused on how it would impact everyone else.”

Sarah, a senior at South Christian reflects on how she’s grown through her involvement with Connections: “When people think about programs like Connections or inclusive education, they think the helpers are only benefiting the student. But when you start working with students who have Down syndrome or autism spectrum disorder or any kind of disability really, you get so much out of it at the same time. It’s not just a one way benefit.”

“Connections is a gift that keeps on giving,” stated Kevin, a senior Council member who has been a Lunch Partner since entering high school, “You don’t realize how much you’re impacted by it until you step back and realize what a great experience it’s been. I’ve learned that everyone is different and has obstacles to overcome. Helping them through that is a great experience.”

Connections Banquet

Every spring, high school students and alumni celebrate friendships at the annual Connections Banquet.

Sarah continues, “When I started doing peer tutoring, Lunch Partners and working on the Connections Banquet, I was a little bit judgmental and snobby. When I started teaching [students with disabilities] life skills and how to live independently, they taught me so much about myself. I was teaching them, and at the same time they were teaching me how to love unconditionally, and not care what your differences are…”

Like many of her peers, Lindsey, a junior, shared that she has learned pure joy from working with persons with disabilities, “It’s given me a different perspective on life. I’ve learned how to help others even when I don’t feel like it.”

“You learn to respect everyone and treat them like you’d treat your friends,” commented Kerri, a senior Council member: a statement that affirms she is learning and practicing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22 firsthand.

An Encouragement for Schools

From listening to students and staff alike, it is apparent that Connections has transformed the community at South Christian High School. A transformation they adamantly encourage other Christian schools to pursue:

 “Just do it. Start somewhere! Get permission from your administration, and then begin with a small group of students. We’ve learned that lunch is the best time for high school students to connect with one another. After we began Lunch Partners, Connections grew exponentially.”

Van Keulen continued, “The Council (made up of juniors and seniors) has been critical to the success of Connections. They do the brainstorming and organizing for Connections events, hold each other accountable as Lunch Partner leaders, and plan a yearly chapel. Even within the Council, friendships have developed that would not have happened otherwise.”

“Each spring as our senior leaders graduate, I pray for the right students to be part of the Council the next year. And every year without fail, God always raises up the amazing student leaders that we need!” shared Van Keulen, indicating a deep reliance on faith that has been crucial to the school’s twenty-year journey with inclusive education–a journey that clearly God has blessed.

Katie Barkley Image“Social Inclusion for All” by Katie Barkley was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Christian Home & School, a publication of Christian Schools International.

Katie Barkley is the marketing communications manager at CLC Network.

Connections Church: Connecting All Members of the Body

Connections Church logoWalking into Connections Church (Wyoming, MI), you may notice that there is something distinct and unique about the building, the atmosphere, and the people. The building is not a sanctuary with an organ in the front, nor a room filled with pews and Bibles. Rather, there are couches in the middle of a large open space, and a fireplace against the wall. Games are on the outskirts of the room, and a storage closet with some snacks and eating utensils reside in the back of the building. As I walked through the building and talked with the pastor of Connections, Rev. George Grevenstuk, it became clear to me that Connections is a place of warmth, welcome, and acceptance.

Pastor George explains, “The mission of our church is to connect neighbors to God, others, and our community.” One of the ways in which Connections Church does this is by reaching out to those in their community who have special needs.

Their reaching out was something that began with a simple prayer walk. Pastor George shares,

“It was sleeting that night, but the members of Connections decided to go on a prayer walk. It hit me that the church had two fifteen-passenger vans, and we decided that we were going to do a prayer ride instead. I went through the plan with the folks and I said, ‘sometimes you just get a feeling that you need to talk to somebody. You take that risk and you try to help. And sometimes you feel like you did absolutely the right thing. That’s God speaking to you.’”

That night, they noticed a house with a wheelchair ramp. They prayed for the people in the house, and after a few more prayer rides, the church discovered that the people living in this house, as well as many other people in the surrounding houses, had special needs.

Getting Equipped

As a church that’s focused on serving those in their neighborhood, Pastor George realized that they needed resources to support their neighbors with disabilities. He contacted CLC Network and received the G.L.U.E. Training Manual and DVD, a set of church training materials that takes an individualized approach to including children and adults with disabilities. They watched the training DVD, had workshops with their congregation, and brainstormed ways in which they could best contact people with special needs and put what they learned from the training materials into practice.

Connecting the Community through Block Parties

Rev. George Grevenstuk

Rev. George Grevenstuk, pastor at Connections Church (Wyoming, MI)

One of the ways they connect with the people in their community is through block parties. At these parties, people within the community gather together to eat, play games, and develop relationships with one another. After going through the G.LU.E. training, Pastor George wanted to connect to his neighbors with special needs by inviting individuals from a local group home. However, he quickly learned that it would take more than an invitation to help these men and women feel welcomed.

Though the members of the group home would attend block parties, they would quickly leave after finishing their meal. After the group attended a block party one evening, Pastor George reached out to them and thanked them for coming. Upon thanking them, the facilitator looked at him with tears in her eyes and explained that she expected him to ask that they leave and not come back, due to the many reactions that they had experienced in the past. Pastor George explained that having them leave was the very last thing he desired, and he invited them to attend their church and block parties as often as they wanted. Ever since then, the members of this group home have been attending services at Connections Church.

Today, about one-third of the people at Connections have disabilities. The other two-thirds of the members are people who come from broken families and homes. Pastor George explains,

“It’s simple. It’s about our mission… To connect neighbors with God, others, and our community. And it’s about love. And for some reason, people never get tired of it.”

 

Jacki Sikkema photoJacki Sikkema has a background in Special Education and currently serves in the Church Services Division at CLC Network.