On the Conditions of Middle School
This was a research project within my Master of Teaching program. During the first semester of our program, we did two observations at two different schools. During one of those observations, we were asked to take note of the structures within the school that helped or hindered teaching and learning. As I sat in the middle school classroom, observing the structure of the day, I began to see how time was an overlying theme over everything that was happening.
On the Conditions of Middle School
A Look at the Structures of Middle School through Jason Lee
Authored by Jonathan Anscher
Review of Task
The project given to me was to assess the structures within Jason Lee and particularly the classroom I visited. My observation began by spending three full days at the school (from 7:00 am to 2:40 pm) for the first three days of the school year. After that, I spent three to four hours a day, four days a week, for about five weeks and was primarily observing a seventh grade Language Arts class. There were opportunities, however, to visit both Special Education and Reading classes.
I attended all staff meetings, team meetings, and grade level meetings. I was present and back to school night and some parent-teacher conferences for particular students. I have observed both a certificated teacher, and a student teacher. So, not only have I seen both teach but also I have seen the transition from a teacher to her student teacher. I have observed and interacted with students around the building. I informally interviewed and interacted with the students. I also mentored and coached students through their work and spent some time instructing the class.
During my observation, I took various notes ranging from general observations, to detailed scripting. I took note of most of the decorations on and around the primary classroom I visited and how that classroom was arranged. I focused my notes from the perspective of a future teacher. I observed student interaction, classroom is set up, teacher’s methods, and the material provided. I watched students in the halls, the cafeteria, and at recess. My notes range from specific analyses on particular students to general observations of the entire class dynamic.
So many forces wreak havoc on our schools today. Jason Lee experiences many of these forces which can help or hinder the learning process. For the sake of this report, I will pay particular attention to time. There are three main aspects of time that I will cover. The first is teacher time. (1) Teacher time plays and important role in teacher alertness, the ability to tailor the classroom learning to the students he or she has, and teacher burn out. (2) Student time is also important. It determines social settings, and controls how much students can break and refresh their minds. Full, tired, frustrated, and cranky minds make a poor medium for learning. And finally, (3) Cooperative time is important so that students can get the most rounded education possible and find connections amongst all their classes. In the rest of this letter, I will explain some of the details of a very large subject in the world of education.
These times also have various interruptions such as Bobcat TV, PA announcements, bells (sometimes meaning different things to different classes), and differing time allotments for different class periods. These interruptions and irregularities can often distract teachers, break a train of thought, and throw off students. They can, however, also work to connect the school, and give students down time during classes. They also help keep students abreast of what is going on around them, to remind them they are not here alone.
1. Teacher Time
Time is an issue that affects all teachers, and many of my observations here can be found across our nation. However, it is important to note that my observations of time are specific to Jason Lee and do not necessarily appear the same in other schools.
The primary teacher I have observed, Ms. Jackson (this is a pseudonym for her privacy), is a part of several committees. As such, she has after school meetings 3 out of 5 days a week. First period is a planning period for all the teachers on her team, and lunch is from about 10:45- 11:20 am every day. Planning period is usually from 7:55 until 8:55 each morning. Wednesdays the planning period is from 7:55 to 10:00 and Thursdays she has no plan. The result is very little time for Ms. Johnson to work on her lessons on a daily basis.
One morning, I spent an entire planning period cutting out laminated alphabet cards in script. With tasks such as that, photocopying, gathering resources, grading papers and various written assignments, taking care of administrative requirements, and connecting all of these things to the Washington State EALR’s, there is barely time to get the bare minimum completed and be gone every evening before 5:00 pm, much less to think about her development as a teacher.
When thinking about time, you must also consider the differences in Math and Science as opposed to History and English. Math and Science are fairly regimented curriculums. The Math and Science EALR’s, GLE’s, and curricular resources lay out everything that must be covered in a year. Lesson plans, possible assignments, even tests are all readily available. English and History, however, are not so easy. In these subjects, there are no curriculums aligned with the EALR’s. Instead, each unit and every assignment must be created by the teacher, then back referenced to the EALR’s and GLE’s to make sure that it is fulfilling enough of them. This means that lesson planning time is much more time-consuming for these subjects. Furthermore, with Math and Science, the actual physical load of writing on assignments tends to be decreased. Though there is no easy judgment call here, it is fairly safe to say that given the intense and constant writing everyday in Language Arts classes, that there is significantly more time required to grade a Language Arts class. The result is an imbalance in the man hours required by English teachers to accomplish the required tasks.
This present a threefold challenge. (1) It often discourages teachers within their first few years, greatly reducing the retention rate. (2) It can quickly result in teacher burnout and consequently a reduced physical ability to focus attention on the students needs (3) I makes much harder for teachers, to maintain connections with new ideas in the field and limits their ability to come up with inventive curriculums and assignments tuned to his or her different student bodies.
How to change this is by no means simple. Some suggestions such as getting college readers to read and grade papers is one suggestion. This could help take busy work off the teachers. However, with all things, these readers need incentive, and money is short in the field today.
2. Student Time
Just as teachers are challenged by time, so are students challenge by time. Although middle school is potentially best attuned to the students prime times (for their age), there are many aspects of how time runs at Jason Lee that are both effective but also potentially de-constructive.
First there is the passing time. Three minutes. For parents who have visited back to school night, the luxurious five-minute passing periods seem all too short. Granted, parents do not know their way around as students do, however, with such a short passing period, there is little time for interaction or taking care of issues like the often difficult to operate lockers. Shorter passing periods do offer some protections. First of all, it is very hard to start something in only three minutes. And if you do, it will doubtfully get too far in too short a time. This restriction, along with before and after-school restrictions (students are not allowed unsupervised on campus before 7:25 am or after 2:30 pm), helps limit the violence that occurs on the property of Jason Lee. That, along with a now strictly enforced bullying policy, have changed the reputation at Jason Lee. It has created a safer environment for students to learn. What, however, happens outside these walls, is harder to control. The challenge I see is that students are being run around so fast that social interaction, and productive down time may be needed for students to be better focused on their learning.
There must be some social interactions outside class, in order for learning to happen in class. I would like to also make note of the block schedule for 7th and 8th graders. I have found that this change in the schedule allows for some interesting learning and brings some interesting challenges. By having a two-hour block, classes are able to work with their curriculums and invent creative lessons beyond the scope of the regular 45-50 minute class. Furthermore, it allows for a little more stability for some of the day and a little less distracting movement mid-week. I hear mixed reports from students about how they feel about block days, but I have seen some of the lessons created specifically for block days, and often students have had more fun, and learned more than on any other lesson. The challenge, however, is that even for an adult, sitting in a classroom for two hours is painful. The result can be restlessness if students are restricted to their seats for too long. The block day, therefore, requires special attention to keeping students engaged and allowing them release to move around and interact.
3. Cooperative Time
Time for teachers on the team to meet together and talk about their students can be a very positive and helpful experience. Information is shared not only about various committees that team members are on and new school policies, but also on the 86 students they all share. Challenges with students are shared along with team decisions about strategies and possible solutions for various students. They can also work together to contact parents so that they get the same message and can avoid four calls a day from four different teachers. They can also share what has worked in their own classroom and how the student interacts with other teachers and groups. I think this can be a very positive way to help students and tailor plans to student needs. It also prevents students from pulling the wool over teacher’s heads. If the teachers have time to talk about students, they can get their stories and messages straight so as to keep on top of the students.
It does, however, have a risk. Teachers, if they are not careful, could also end up turning to biasing particular students. By leaving labels on them like “bad student” or “poorly motivated” they can create a self-fulfilling prophecy for students. Thus, a careful balance must be walked when discussing students. Furthermore, the team I observed spent time writing postcards to students who had done well, or were improving in class, or whom they felt deserved some recognition. This positive reinforcement can help improve problems in the future and reduce discipline measures.
Cooperative team time, also allows for a support network to form. Through connections activities and developing group norms, this team can be the support when others are low on energy or having challenges. They can also plan joint activities for students that really connect their learning together and show they are not just taking four unrelated courses, but rather an academic regime that will connect up and build on each other.
This report is by no means complete, however, I feel that it addresses some of the challenges and benefits of the forces and structures that influence our middle schools. There are no easy answers to many of these forces (whether they are productive or not, what they result in, how they affect learning), however, I do challenge you to continue to observe these forces and maintain an open mind for new ideas, and new possibilities to help make our educational institutions become better and better.