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.


Acceleration vs. Enrichment for Students with Academic Talents

There often seems to be two conflicting views when we think about academic planning for students with academic talents.


Young girl with backpackThe acceleration view has advanced learners jumping ahead to content that is academically at their level.  This is the group that would send an 8 year old to college.  It also appears in schools as having a student skip a grade in a certain subject.  For example, a 4th grade student would go to the 6th grade math class because the 4th grade math is too easy for them.

For some students this is an ideal situation.  For others they are uncomfortable emotionally at the more advanced level. It’s not uncommon for advanced students to struggle with emotional issues such as anxiety and depression.  Though a 3rd grader might be able to academically read the materials at a middle school level, they may not be emotionally ready to handle the materials.


The enrichment view has advanced learners working on materials at their academic level within the classroom, alongside their typically developing peers.  This is the group that believes a teacher can provide materials/instruction to challenge and enhance the high-ability students’ learning.  This method takes an instructor trained and able to provide materials at different levels for different learners.

Motivation is key to enrichment. Motivation is needed on the part of the instructor to create lessons and materials for all the learners in his or her classroom.  It is also needed on the part of the student to work hard at materials that may be different than their peers.

A Combined View

Students working on computerThere seems to be a way to combine the two views through online learning, which has shown to be a successful delivery for advanced learners.  Students can remain with chronological age peers but have content delivered to their academic age. It’s also helpful for classroom teachers, as they do not need to prepare the learning material at the advanced student’s level.

Online Learning: How It Works

Some online learning content deliverers (such as CLC Network) have developed materials for students with academic talents that fit the needs of both the gifted student and align with best practices in academically talented instruction.

These types of online courses employ teachers who are trained in teaching academically talented students by providing instruction and content at their intellectual and emotional level.  Because of the teacher’s training, they are able to focus on the unique strengths and difficulties of their gifted students and modify the curriculum, instruction methods, and course discussions to best suit their students.  Because handling stress and working well with others is often difficult for advanced learners, teachers can weave training on these items into the course.

Including Everyone in the Classroom

In most situations, students are placed in online courses for 1-2 subjects and then in the general education class alongside their typically developing peers for the remainder of the school day.   That seems to me to be a best fit for everyone… the student is happy because he or she is being challenged, their parents are happy because their student is being challenged, the classroom teacher is happy because he or she can now focus on the other needs within the classroom, and the principal is happy because the parents and the teacher are happy!

Our Solution: Academically Talented Middle School Online Courses

Boy Participating in Middle School Online CoursesIf this type of online learning environment sounds like a good fit for your student, I invite you to enroll them in CLC Network’s middle school online courses for students with academic talents. Courses available this Fall include:

Visit the CLC Network website to learn more about these offerings.


Becci Zwiers photoBecci Zwiers is an online educator and academically talented teacher consultant for CLC Network

Awesome Apps for Your Classroom

How do you find the “right” apps for education when there are more than 1.1 million currently available in Apple’s App Store?

Before You Begin: Apple’s Apps 

Kids using iPadBefore branching out too far, get to know the applications developed by Apple.  Learn how to use apps like Pages and Keynote for productivity, Garageband and iMovie for creativity, and iTunes U as well as iBooks to deliver content.

Most important, it’s good to know the Settings app on your iPad.  You can find everything from general setup to app settings to accessibility features there.

Once you know your iPad, think about the type of apps you’re looking for. Is classroom management a struggle? Do you want your students to easily create works of art? Are you trying to augment a class project? If you know what you’re looking to do, it will be much easier to find helpful apps!

Classroom Management Apps

Although I wouldn’t recommend buying an iPad and a projector just for these, there may be times when your class would benefit from some visual supports like Time Timer or Too Noisy.  In a one-to-one environment, you might use something like Socrative or eClicker for student response.  If you’re on a budget and don’t have student devices, try Plickers.  Other management apps that give you a place to start from are Class DoJo for behavior tracking, TeacherKit for attendance and organization, and Nearpod.

Girls using iPads in classroomContent Specific Apps

There are thousands upon thousands of these types of apps.  Want an app that teaches letter formation?  You’ll have to choose from nearly 1,000.  These apps tend to be more prevalent for elementary aged classrooms (it’s easier to find a good app that will teach the alphabet than algebra).  No matter what you teach, it’s still worth looking for something that will work for you.  Start by searching for relevant categories at Appolearning and Appitic.

Content Creation Apps

There are many apps that allow your students to create content to share with you and others.  Students can use the built-in camera with iMovie to create great videos.  Have them write a book using something like Creative Book Builder and then publish it.  Toontastic is a great way to quickly write, narrate, and animate a story.  The sky is the limit with these types of apps!

Augmented Reality (AR) Apps

This category has been around for a little while, but is just starting to take off.  These apps are really fun and engaging.  Although the content is still a little sparse, be on the lookout for more AR apps in the future.  In the meantime, check out apps like Shape Quest, AR Flashcards, Spacecraft 3D, Elements 4D and more.  If you want to venture into creating your own AR in the classroom, start with Aurasma.

photo credit: flickingerbrad via photopin cc
photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video via photopin cc

Peter Schaafsma photoPeter Schaafsma is the Assistive Technology Consultant for the Wexford-Missaukee ISD. He also leads the youth group at Covenant Life Church in Lake City, MI. Peter lives in Cadillac, MI with his wife and three children.





Ways to Make Your Church Inclusive on Easter

Ways to Make Your Church Inclusive on EasterIf you’ve visited a new church for the first time, you can likely relate to the confusion and unfamiliarity in these sentiments:

  • Do I stand or sit during this song?
  • I forgot my Bible. Is there one under my seat? Do I need to grab one from the usher?
  • How do we take communion here? Is it open to everyone? Is there a common cup?
  • Where is the bathroom?

With the approaching Easter service, many churches will have an influx of new attendees as well as changes in the typical service routine as we remember the crucifixion and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

How can your church welcome all? Offer a preview with your website. 

Take full advantage of your church website. Just as many of us Google our hotels and vacation spots so we can see what they look like ahead of time, many individuals benefit from a preview of what to expect at church.

What can a church website show before a person ever visits?medium_3493485063

  • Show a collage of people worshiping: Can you raise your hands? Is there a piano? Band? Organ? Do you use hymnbooks and where are they kept?
  • Play snippets of the music. Perhaps include a song you will actually sing on Easter Sunday.
  • Offer a picture tour. Include the sanctuary, hallways, classrooms, or a layout of the building. How can you help people feel comfortable before they even walk through your doors?
  • Show how communion works. Let people know the process, what it means to your church, and who and how you participate. Does your church medium_5100092467offer gluten-free options for those wishing to participate in the Lord’s Supper?
  • Provide a schedule. Do you know the order of worship for Easter Sunday? Some people benefit from a schedule. If you click on that schedule, people may even be able to print it off on their home printer and take it along so they know what comes next. If you include words and pictures of the event, readers and non-readers can enjoy the schedule. (WARNING…I suggest you not include times, but only a sequence of events. Some individuals get upset if you are off by a minute or two if the time is listed.)
  • Think about Sunday School. Will Sunday School students have a special role in the Palm Sunday or Easter service? Are they singing a certain song or acting out a scene? Some children benefit from previewing their role ahead of time through pictures (or even a story, think of the Church Welcome Story) of the event. Help them anticipate and understand their role by providing visuals beforehand (online or in person).
  • Who’s who? Are there key people identified by a name badge or special clothing? Do you have an area where you can ask questions? Make sure your website covers that and even includes pictures and names of key people that visitors may meet on Easter Sunday.

Photo - Easter BookFor more ideas, explore The Easter Book from Friendship Ministries, which contains a plethora of activities, crafts, and tips to help persons with unique needs respond to the love of Jesus.  If your church wants to help individuals preview your church in a more personalized way, walk them through the Church Welcome Story. We shared ideas for communicating the Gospel and the love of Jesus with persons with disabilities in these previous posts, Sharing Jesus with a Child with Down syndrome and Sharing the Christmas Story with Kids with Disabilities.

Offering a preview can help in areas outside of church too, like before a family vacation. Learn how to create a preview of your family vacation so it can be enjoyable for all family members.

photo credit: freefotouk via photopin cc

photo credit: khrawlings via photopin cc


Barbara J. Newman photoBarbara J. Newman is the director of church services and a teacher consultant at CLC Network. She also teaches at Zeeland Christian School and is the author of several books, including Autism and Your Church, The Easter Story, and Body Building: Devotions to Celebrate Inclusive Community.





ToryWhite01Tory White works in the Church Services Division at CLC Network. By God’s grace, she has been a part of the inclusion support staff at Zeeland Christian School since 2005, and has spent nearly a lifetime working in children’s ministry.





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



Making the Most of Technology in the Classroom

The buzzword in education seems to be technology: technology integration, technology in the classroom, and technology tools.  It appears that using technology in the classroom is here to stay.

How do we as educators evaluate the technology use within our classrooms and within our schools?  How do we decide if what we are using to deliver content, engage students, and produce product is the best option out there?  How do we stay at the top of the ever-changing list of apps, videos, and tools?

Flipboard Application

As teachers we need to be active consumers of the digital world.  We need to use apps and tools ourselves.  Teachers who are able to navigate the digital world for themselves will be able to guide their students in the process.  A tool I have found useful is Flipboard.  Flipboard is an app for both the Apple and Android markets.  It is social magazine application.  You pick a few topics that you are interested in and the software brings together a visually appealing “magazine” for your reading pleasure.  It continually updates, bringing you the latest news in the topics you picked.  On my Flipboard a few of the topics I picked are “Instructional Design Daily,” “All Things Digital,” and “The Kid Should See This.”

Another way to stay on top of ever changing technology is to do a search for blogs that apply to you and your teaching situation and then to subscribe to those blogs.  I have found several bloggers who continually blog on new items that they have found useful in their teaching.  It is always good to hear from someone else how they use a tool and what they have found good and bad about it.  Some of the blogs that I follow and enjoy:

Free Technology for Teachers

The Innovative Educator

Web 2.0 Connected Classroom

Being both an Apple computer user and working with students who might need assistive technology, I often check the “Special Education” area of Apple apps.   Many computer systems have assistive technology features built into the operating system of the computer such as voice over, sticky keys and guided access.  You can do a search of your operating system and also assistive technology to see what is offered for the computer you are using.   An educator I follow who often sends out a list of free Assistive Technology Apple apps is Mark Coppin.

At times it is overwhelming all that is out there and how to use it within your classroom.  I suggest you evaluate the technology use within your school and classroom using a technology rubric.  Evaluate where you are at, what is working well for you, and where additional technology could be used.  This will focus your searching to a specific area and be less overwhelming.  A few rubrics for evaluation are:

The Technology Integration Matrix – Florida Center for Instructional Technology

Jobs for the Future – Technology Integration Rubric

Rubric for Effective Teacher Technology Use – ASCD

To stay current and knowledgeable in the “buzz” of technology we as teachers must remain informed, continually evaluate what we use and be able to articulate why we use what we do.

Becci ZwiersBecci Zwiers is an online educator, teacher consultant, and instructional designer.  She can be contacted at or followed on Twitter as @BecciZwiers.