Mariane Fisher, IMLEA PRESIDENT
Asst. Principal, Jeffersonville High School
Middle School Musings: On Mermaids and Mudpuddles
by Dr. Mariane Fisher
Thus we begin another chapter in this adventure we call middle school.
Ah, the fresh notebooks; the new folders; the well-sharpened pencils…the looks of obsequious joy and wonder that fill the classroom with the light of expectation as pens poise above the Cornell Notes Graphic Organizers freshly printed on maize-colored copy paper. Hearts swell with the wonder of learning and the warmth of opportunity.
…but I digress. This vision is just that: a vision. A picture of what could be in a perfect world in a perfect time in a perfect kingdom by a perfectly turquoise sea. The reality is that students come to us from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences, some ready and some not so ready to focus on their educational goals. As middle-level educators, it is important to remain cognizant of the factors which provide early wanting signals—as early as sixth grade—which may very well preclude these children from making it through ninth grade, much less high school graduation.
According to Hanover Research (2014), the top five early warning signs with predictive power are attendance rates below 80%, failure of a core English or mathematics course, excessive school suspensions—and, for those who give them—behavior grades. In addition, standardized state and national test scores are also predictive: Fewer than half of students scoring below the 50th percentile will graduate. This research-based conclusion is applicable to every grade at the middle-school level.
Alas: Mermaids cannot swim in mudpuddles. So what are we to do with these data which comprise what the Hanover researchers refer to as Critical Academic Indicators related to student success? Johns Hopkins researcher, Dr. Robert Balfanz, has observed that the process of “dropping out” begins in middle school where “critical habits” are formed that create a “make or break” period (2012). Balfanz’s Middle School Moment focuses on Middle School 244 in the Bronx which “created targeted interventions for some of the most troubled students” based on critical factors from his research. Balfanz observes that these at-risk students need constant monitoring and encouragement; “they need an adult counter force, they need another adult or several adults in [their] lives reminding them in simple ways that schooling leads to a good future and [they] can succeed in school” (2012). Schools could do this by organizing teachers in to teams which share a “common set of kids” and coordinate with other teachers to determine why “he or she might be missing some classes and not others, and who will focus on a particular student if there is a problem” (Balfanz, 2012).
At Middle School 244, statistics are collected and reviewed by a team of counselors and teachers every week; students “most in need” are flagged, and their assigned counselor organizes “an intervention” (Balfanz, 2012). The approach has been tested in different cities and states around the country and held for “more than just the high-poverty cities” they studied; “cut rates” varied by locality; but the basic findings were applicable to all.
While perfection may never be achieved and that perfectly turquoise sea may only exist on that much-awaited Spring Break vacation, the bottom line is that monitoring these critical factors—what Balfanz refers to as “the ABCs”—is not an easily-accomplished task. Kermit noted at one point in his film career that it wasn’t easy being green; well, neither is it easy being a middle-level educator. If it were, everyone would be clamoring for a middle-school position; however, those who do aspire –or who accidentally end up in the trenches here –are stubbornly dedicated to the Silk Purse Theory. Nothing less will do. Whatever it takes—(thank you, and God Bless You, Rick DuFour)—is a mantra not only repeated but lived each and every day. There are systems which have been developed to ensure that this close monitoring of the ABCs occurs…and that is the topic for my next article. It can be done; it is being done…right here in Indiana at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.
I am always asking my students if they know the Starfish Story; they invariably say “no” until I begin to tell it; and then they typically say, “Oh, yeah—it matters to that one.” Or a similar comment. They get it; they want to be the starfish that is rescued and thrown back into the ocean to thrive and persevere. Developing a systemic approach for making this happen takes time, but it can be accomplished and begin to flourish within a year. A dedicated team, data-based analyses based on the ABCs, and a varied set of interventions owned by the majority of stakeholders can truly “make or break” academic success at the middle level. This is not a self-fulfilling prophecy; these students are not doomed to failure. It’s a drill-down, one-on-one, data-driven, intensive, never-give-up, Jack Sparrow conversation with Robert Greene from Pirates of the Caribbean:
Jack: "Look at what a good influence you’ve had over me, these past five years."
Robert: "Good influence! Jack, you still drink like a fish, gamble, and I long ago lost track of the wenches….”
Jack: "Ah, but think of how wicked I would have been if I hadn’t had you to slow me down, mate."
Mermaids and starfish—and apparently Jack Sparrow-- thrive in the ocean, you see. Our job as middle-level educators is to drag our students from the mire of those mudpuddles and find the ocean of attention and intervention that sustains them. It might even have a perfectly turquoise beach. You never know.
-Mariane Fisher: firstname.lastname@example.org