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Blog: Monday, January 27th, 2014

Guest Blog: This We Believe

This post from Dexter Horton, Principal of Clayburn Middle School, describes what Abbotsford’s Middle Schools are doing to address the educational, social and emotional needs of middle school aged students. As he tells us below, all our middle school teachers and administrators have spent considerable time refocusing their commitment to doing what is best for the adolescents throughout our district. 
~ Kevin Godden

Clayburn Middle School has a population of almost 600 students, from the ages of 10 through 14, in grades 6 through 8. Kids at this age are going through a unique period in their lives where they are changing physically and emotionally, and developing a large portion of their self-concept. The challenge for middle schools, such as ours, is to provide an appropriate learning environment for students during this time of flux. Middle school administrators in our district have met to discuss commonalities within our schools and what we want to be the cornerstones of the Middle School experience in Abbotsford. The following is my attempt to summarize our discussion. Thus, in no particular order, this we believe:

1. Looping: Building relationships with students is key to motivate and allow students to achieve their best. As a result, our middle schools loop their grade 6 and 7 students with their teacher. If you are not familiar with the looping concept, it can be best described as a 2 year commitment with one group of students. This 2 year commitment provides the opportunity for teachers, students, and parents to develop a sense of community that focuses on student learning. Looping has been shown to improve achievement, improve attendance and foster the social development of the student. In the second year, classroom routines and expectations are known, thus lowering the students' anxiety of starting a new year. Academically, teachers are responsible for the students' development over a 2 year period so ownership over student learning is increased resulting in fewer 'gaps' in the curriculum as teachers are able to develop a two year program. This two year commitment, which includes the learning support service team replaces an advisory program that can be seen in other middle school models. Strong, positive relationships built over this period of time allow for students to develop an adult advocate for their intellectual and social development.

2. Teaming: Students and teachers are organized into interdisciplinary teams. These teams are organized into Pods of 2 teachers who are responsible for the education of up to 60 students. Pod teachers are responsible to develop the educational program for their 60 students. They develop the schedule of all subjects for their students and are responsible to teach all subjects between them. Students may move between these 2 classroom teachers but rarely do they receive instruction from another teacher. Exploration teachers are an exception as these teachers cover the preparation time for the pod teachers. The scheduling of the exploration courses allows both pod teachers to have preparation time at the same time. This provides time in the schedule where they can meet about discipline issues, scheduling issues, parent meetings, developing curriculum, common assessments, and organize field trips and/or outdoor education events. Teaming is, by far, the most positive aspect of the middle school model. I recently met with my pod teachers to discuss "What make this a great school?" Each teacher referred specifically to the teaming opportunity provided by our schedule as the most positive aspect of teaching at Clayburn Middle. Moreover, the references were focused on doing what's best for our students and their learning.

3. Flexible Schedules: Because middle schools are organized into interdisciplinary teams, it seems natural to provide a flexible block schedule for our teachers and students. Flexible block scheduling allows pod teachers to provide a schedule that meets their students' needs. As an administrator it is necessary to schedule prep time for teachers. This is accomplished by providing teams with an exploration schedule. At Clayburn Middle explorations are scheduled for one hour, every other day providing teachers with an average of 150 minutes of preparation time each week. Gym space must also be scheduled as all middle schools in our district have only one gymnasium. Students at Clayburn Middle receive one hour of PE every second day also. These are the only 2 subjects that are required to be scheduled in our 'timetable'. Pod teachers develop the remainder of their students' 'timetable' together. Our learning support service team works with the grade level teams to provide a schedule of support that fits each pod's schedule and student needs. Flexible block scheduling eliminates the need to have a 'bell schedule' during instructional time. Bells in our middle schools are only heard to identify the start and end of the day, nutrition break and lunch.

4. Exploration: Students at the middle school age tend to be very curious. As a result, our middle schools provide an explorations program through which students can engage in activities they might find interesting and want to pursue as a career or a hobby. Clayburn Middle offers four explorations – Digital Visual Arts, Music, Home Economics, and Technology Education (shop) – that all students rotate through. Students spend about 10 weeks in each program. In some middle schools, students may choose to take Band while in others it may be a part of the exploration rotation. At Clayburn Middle, for example, Band is a choice for students, but the band schedule is outside the daily schedule (early morning and after school) so that students are not pulled out during the day to attend band classes. As a group of Principal's we recognize the benefits that the arts provide to students and their academic achievement and are searching to include Fine Arts requirements through our explorations programming.

5. Learning Support: Learning support services are provided through what is referred to as a generalist model. This model provides 1 learning support service teacher per grade level. This teacher provides support in all facets for 1 grade level. This includes managing IEPs, programming for all designated students, including ESL and gifted students, and testing non-designated students. Providing counseling services, mediating conflict with restorative techniques, supporting anxious students and our low achieving non-designated students adds to the case load of these non-enrolling teachers.  As these teachers tend to work with our most at-risk students, they also loop to provide time and opportunity to develop significant positive relationships with the students they work with. The LSS team works with their grade level team to provide support for their students within the flexible block schedule and this may include small group work within the class or pull out programming.

Middle school students are at a unique time of life. Educators who choose to work with this group of students should recognize the challenges these changes bring about, and our schools should be organized accordingly. As Principals, the organization of our schools should reflect what is best for our students and their learning. Each middle school in our district has its own distinctive challenges and each is at a different place along the continuum of this vision. However, wherever we are as individual's, we are heading in the same direction as a group because we believe these are the cornerstones of the middle school experience.

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