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.

 

What We’re Reading: 13 Books to Keep Your Learning Alive this Summer

Summertime: it is a time to relax, spend time outdoors, and possibly catch up on those tasks that fell to the wayside during the school year. Though the following books are not exactly “beach reads”, we invite you to join us in some fun summer reading that will stretch your mind as you stretch out at the beach. Here is what our staff is reading this summer. Be sure to let us know what you are reading in the comment box below!

Note: If you’re inspired by this list and decide to purchase a book or two through Amazon, we invite you to use AmazonSmile and designate the Christian Learning Center. When you do this, Amazon will contribute a percentage of your purchase to us! Simply click this link to enroll! 

  • Adam, God's BelovedAdam, God’s Beloved” by Henri Nouwen

    This is truly an excellent book that talks about the profound impact Adam had on Henri Nouwen’s life. Henri was assigned to come alongside Adam in the L’Arche Community called Daybreak in Canada. – Barbara Newman, consultant and director of church services

  • Design and Deliver“Design and Deliver: Planning and Teaching Using Universal Design for Learning” by Loui Lord Nelson, Ph.D.

    This is an easy to read, practical, and idea filled resource book on Universal Design for Learning (UDL). It explains key principals of multiple means of engagement, representation and action/expression for diverse learners. It also gives practical ways to put them into action. – Becci Zwiers, teacher consultant

  • Flipping 2.0“Flipping 2.0: Practical Strategies for Flipping Your Class” by Jason Bretzmann

    The chapters range from details on flipping certain content areas to philosophical reasoning and empirical evidence on the benefits of flipping.  I’m finding great details and suggestions so far! – Becci Zwiers, teacher consultant

  • Have the Guts to Do it Right“Have the Guts to Do It Right: Raising Grateful and Responsible Children in an Era of Indulgence” by Sheri Moskowitz Noga

    This obscure book is a treasure of common sense wisdom and practical strategies to assist parents in understanding their relationship with their children in their own styles of parenting.

    For example, in a section titled, “Manners”, the author points out the importance of teaching children to say “please” and “thank you”, a process which should begin as early as possible. The parent’s clear expectation is for their child to treat people with politeness, good manners, respect and appreciation. The author adds, “If you want your children to be polite and have good manners, work on relating to them [with good manners].”

    Other compelling topics in this gem of a parenting resource include: respect, autonomy, gratitude, boundaries, self-control, work/chores, computer use and access to media (as in “do not allow your children to have television sets in their bedrooms”). –Doug Bouman, S.Psy.S.

  • Lost at School“Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and How we Can Help Them” by Ross Greene D.

    I’m finding that this book is a really great reminder that when students are struggling, it is important to meet them where they are and work with them on developing the lagging skills, either behavioral or academic. – Linda Weemhoff, teacher consultant

  • No Greatness without Goodness“No Greatness without Goodness: How a Father’s Love Changed a Company and Sparked a Movement” by Randy Lewis

    I’ve recommended this book to several people in the short time since I’ve read it. Randy Lewis goes over the steps he took and lessons learned from helping Walgreens re-design their distribution centers to employ persons with disabilities. Although pithy at times, it challenged me to think more purposefully about how we design our work and organizations to unlock the gifts of every person. – Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski, advancement director (as of September 2015)

  • Quiet“Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain

    This book is PACKED with cool stuff.  This writer looks at introversion/extroversion from every possible angle.  She includes interesting data from psychology, sociology, history, neuroscience, anthropology, economics, politics, and education.  You could pretty much make a meal out of each section.  It would be a fun book to study with a book club…at least if the book clubbers want to gain personal insight and cultural awareness  It is possibly more a winter read rather than a summer read…but with that being said, it is very readable, full of stories and fun facts.  It feels like both a novel and a textbook.  – Dr. Sherri Rozema

  • The Wounded Healer“The Wounded Healer” by Henri Nouwen

    I was so taken with “Adam, God’s Beloved”, that I also intend to read “The Wounded Healer”as a way to understand Henri Nouwen’s encouragement to engage in ministry in our faith communities today. – Barbara Newman, consultant and director of church services

  • UDL in the Classroom“Universal Design for Learning in the Classroom: Practical Applications” by Tracey E. Hall Ph.D., Anne Meyer Ed.D., and David H Rose D.

    This textbook-type book dives into the theory, practice and evidence of UDL. – Becci Zwiers, teacher consultant

What are you reading? Leave us a comment in the box below!

Celebrating Pierce’s Gifts: A Blessed Partnership

Reuben and Pierce

Mr. Van Til and Pierce work together in the storage room at West Side Christian School.

You need to walk quickly to keep up with Pierce. He’s one of West Side Christian School’s (Grand Rapids, MI) hardest workers, and one of the fastest. When he and Reuben Van Til, West Side Christian’s custodian, get together, it’s all business… and Pierce clearly loves it.

Depending on the season, Pierce and Mr. Van Til will rake leaves, shovel snow, or work in the garden. “Once it snows, he has his own snow shovel,” Mr. Van Til shares. “Typically at recess he’ll just take that out and clear the sidewalk, without ever being asked.”

Pierce came to West Side Christian in fourth grade, after attending a public school. Right away, he began staying after assemblies to help clear the chairs. His teachers also noticed his interest in working with Mr. Van Til. Kim Mast, paraprofessional, remembers,

“Pierce would be doing reading, writing, and math. Every time Mr. Van Til rode the tractor or walked by, he was very focused on that. He wanted to see what Mr. Van Til was doing, so we would start watching. That’s how we discovered Pierce’s gifts were in manual work and his interest was in whatever Mr. Van Til was doing.”

The next year, Pierce’s teachers arranged for him to officially work with Mr. Van Til. “It makes school much more enjoyable for Pierce,” Mrs. Mast explains. “Just like gym or art class makes school enjoyable for some kids, this kind of work makes school fun for Pierce… It makes for interesting sentences in writing. If Mr. Van Til is the topic, it really helps. It’s so much more interesting to Pierce than other things.”

“If it’s a snow day, Pierce has tears in his eyes,” shares his mother, Koley Hockeborn. “He wants to go and be part of the school. He’s learning from the other kids, too.”

Pierce has a cognitive impairment, and was placed in a segregated classroom for his early schooling. A neighbor encouraged his mother to consider West Side Christian for Pierce, noticing that when he was around other kids his ticks and language would improve. After meeting with West Side Christian’s leadership and teachers, “They said they could teach him. It was scary and a big step, but he has improved in leaps and bounds.” Pierce is now reading, he is learning penmanship, and he is doing multiplication.

“The academic piece is hard for Pierce, but his gifts are his strength and hard work,” explains Maria Bultsma, Educational Support Services Coordinator.

“This arrangement is really using Pierce’s gifts as best we can. He’s still spending time in class, but he’s using his gifts to do things like distributing the milk, picking up chairs after chapel, and paper recycling. The scheduled days with Mr. Van Til are motivation for him.”

Pierce and Reuben working together

Mr. Van Til shows Pierce how to use the leaf blower.

Pierce’s favorite job is riding the tractor. “Last week when we were doing leaves, we’d fill my trailer full of leaves and he rides in the trailer. You don’t see him a whole lot happier than that, and it was a big help to have him out there with me,” says Mr. Van Til. “He likes it when we go in the storage room. He takes my keys and opens the door and turns on the lights. He’s a very hard worker, he works just as hard as I do.”

Pierce’s mother has noticed the difference in Pierce. “Pierce’s teachers at West Side Christian know him, they are so in tune with him. He and Mr. Van Til took to each other right away, and now he’s learning life skills. They created this program for him,” Mrs. Hockeborn shares. Mrs. Bultsma credits CLC Network teacher consultants for providing additional brainstorming and encouragement. “They have provided insight to possible options [for Pierce],” she reflects. “Most of all, [CLC Network consultants] have listened to our concerns and have been very encouraging to our staff.”

“We are working on goals for his future, what he might do after books and after school,” adds Mrs. Bultsma.

“There is a lot of learning going on, a lot of happy things, and a different kind of learning. Pierce has a lot of gifts given to him from God and we’re just trying to figure out how to use those gifts.”

Before working at West Side Christian, Mr. Van Til built custom cabinetry. He’s had the chance to show Pierce his shop and hopes to teach him about a few tools and their basic functions. “It’s a lot nicer than my garage,” says Pierce. “I got to try the air hose,” he remembers with a smile.

Watching Pierce and Mr. Van Til together, their connection shines in both of them. As Mr. Van Til reflects, “It’s advantageous for me and for Pierce to be doing this. I feel a little more important when we work together. It’s not the most glamorous job in the world but I’ve always felt called to be here and share some of my knowledge with the kids.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 Inclusive newsletter – a biannual newsletter published by the CLC Network advancement office. Sign up on the CLC Network website.

Elizabeth Lucas DombrowskiElizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the advancement director 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.