Middle School: Our Pedagogical Toolbox
By Denise Colpitts, Head of Middle School
A year ago at this time, my colleagues and I in Middle School were busy preparing for a Divisional Visitation. Ravenscroft has continually embraced this practice with departments throughout the twenty-five years I have been a part of this amazing community. We are well-versed in the process of letting others look “under the hood,” as Head of School Doreen Kelly says when welcoming those joining us from other schools and organizations. We want their feedback on what is working and areas in which we can grow.
So, what was the big deal, you might think? Well, under my predecessor, Dave Monaco, who now heads Parish Episcopal School in Texas, Middle School was the first division to undergo this process. We did so about twelve years ago and learned much on which we have built.
Last year’s Visitation, then, marked only the second time (and third in the history of Divisional Visitations, as Lower School engaged in one two years ago), that Middle School went through this process.
We asked for feedback in three areas: 1) Best Practice, 2) Innovation and Distinction in Program and Practices, and 3) Student Life and Student & Faculty Culture.
if you were a part of our community last year, you may have heard the feedback – glowing comments about our strategic vision and how we implement it; comments that included other Middle School Heads wishing they could do what we do, asking for guidance on how to implement initiatives. Professor of Education at NCSU, Candy Beal, shared a reflection with us and our Board. How proud we all were (and still are) of our progress!
Along with the affirmations received, we were provided with observations about areas to improve. Some of these were institutional, such as extending 1:1 Chromebooks to sixth grade, which we did this year. Others were specific to the teaching and learning process. An area of note was our effort to make the learning process more interactive and visible for students. This was something on which we began focusing several years ago, and it was important for us to hear that, while we have made progress, there is ample room to grow. Our visitors were excited about the new schedule and elective opportunities it provided. Their input, along with teacher and student preference, helped inform our choices. Particularly, they suggested we more intentionally implement STEM/STEAM into our program. Fortunately, we have a new Maker Space and several elective courses which do just that!
As we craft our professional development initiatives, we take into account the Visitation suggestions; we also embrace research on current best practices. In doing so, we continually add tools to our pedagogical toolbox. Here is a timeline of key Middle School professional development efforts over the last several years, leading to where we are today.
- Digital Reading Skills: Several years ago, as we anticipated greater use of digital media, including online textbooks, the Middle embarked on research on how best to teach reading comprehension online. We also revisited how we were teaching reading comprehension skills of non-digital texts, work that continues every year to assure your students have a solid set of skills. We continue to engage with the New Literacies Collaborative to stay on top of current practices.
- Rubric Development: Deborah Wahlstrom, author of Designing and Using High-Quality Rubrics for 21st Century Skills, spent a full day on campus helping us craft rubrics that serve as guides for student projects and papers and allow teachers to accurately assess progress.
- Best Practice: Faculty read Harvey Daniel’s book, Best Practice, Bringing Standards to Life in America’s Classrooms. Key to our growth was how to move our teaching practices to foster more student-centered learning. This led to exploration of other initiatives, such as inquiry thinking and use of essential questions; thus, we also studied Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Department Chairs continue to facilitate discussions of what this means in their subject areas.
- Differentiation: The Hill Center has provided several sessions for MS teachers, which include meeting the needs of diverse learners and how best to use strategies in test-taking, critical thinking, and inquiry for all learners.
- Project-Based Learning: We engaged with the Buck Institute for Education on how best to add this strategy to our toolbox. PBL is not new; it has been used at the university level for many years. In our efforts to move students to the center of the learning process, our implementation of PBL units has resulted in kids learning to ask relevant questions about content material and learning how to answer those questions.
- Research Skills: Under the leadership of MS Librarian and Library/Media Department Chair, Angela Finn, teachers and students have engaged in using a systematic process of research, The Big 6. This paradigm aligns well with our work on developing essential questions and inquiry, as that is where students need to begin.
- Writing Across the Curriculum: Writing skills remain key to student success; perhaps, no more than at a time when they are using more and more shortcuts. The Humanities department worked to coordinate aspects of writing expectations in English and history classes. As well, faculty worked to develop greater opportunities to write in math and science.
- Design-Thinking: As we became more adept with PBL, we explored a variation related to the design process. Various faculty attended different workshops to explore and/or enhance knowledge and skills.
- Deep Learning: This year, our faculty will synthesize much of our previous work while exploring “What does it mean to engage in deep learning?” This two-pronged exploration is resulting in insights into faculty’s own learning, as well as that of our students.
- Lead From Here: Of course, Middle School faculty have embraced our work with Lead From Here, growing both personally in their leadership and developing authentic ways to apply the Citizen Leader competencies in class and advisory.