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Posts tagged ‘middle school teaming’

Helping Students Become Better Writers–A Team Priority!

“Why do I have to revise and edit my lab report?  This is science class, not Language Arts!”

“Why do you give essay tests?” This isn’t an English class!”

“Journaling in Math?  We do those in Language Arts; why are we doing them here?”

“You want me to write about an artist’s style? Why can’t I just show you with images?”

Most of us have experienced student complaints when writing-based tasks are assigned.  Students often compartmentalize skills by subject area, and in their minds writing belongs in Language Arts class. However, writing is a skill that crosses all disciplines and is a requirement for most professional jobs.  In fact, salaries often increase in proportion to one’s ability to write well.  Look at the infographic below.  It details the results of a study conducted by the folks at Grammarly.com, a popular web-based grammar checking service.

Grammarly.com Infographic

Grammarly.com Infographic

Over the next couple of blog posts, I will share several ideas for making the teaching of writing a team-based enterprise. Step 1 might be that the language arts teacher shares this infographic with his teammates and begins a conversation during common planning time by asking, “I wonder if it might not be worth our time to review how we reinforce good writing skills across our team classes, and then explore one or two additional ways to support our students as they work on becoming better writers?”

Next time: How Grammarly.com could be useful to students in all classes.

Elusive Academic Progress Frustrates Our Team! What Can We Do?

Sometimes, despite our hard work, we are disappointed by the lack of academic progress of our students. It’s easy to fall into the blame game. Our students would be doing better if only…

  • there was more support from home
  • we had more computers
  • our students were more motivated
  • our administration provided more resources.

However, deep down, we realize the only behavior we have any control over is our own; the solutions have to come from us.  The power of the middle school team is that it is a microcosm within the large community of a school that can directly affect the learning of its students.  Therefore a team can create solutions when they work in a thoughtful, collaborative manner.  Using common planning time to search out how other educators have successfully tackled lack of academic progress provides a starting place for taking a fresh look at the team’s instructional practices:

  1. What are we doing that shows evidence of being effective?  Let’s keep on doing these things!
  2. What specific practices have worked elsewhere?  How might we adapt them?
  3. What’s our plan? Our first step? How will we know if our changes in teaching practice are making a difference?

Edutopia has a short video entitled How to Engage Underperforming Students.  It was filmed at  Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s (North Carolina) Cochrane Collegiate Academy where every teacher is adept at incorporating these four instructional strategies into their classroom practice:

  1. Using a question to focus the work of the day
  2. Incorporating activators to engage and motivate the students
  3. Limiting their lectures to 10-15 minutes and then actively involving students in the lesson
  4. Teaching students to use graphic organizers for note taking

It is easy to watch this video and say, “Well we can’t do that–look at all of the professional development they have! And they have an academic facilitator/coach.” That may all be true, however middle grades teams have each other for support. Teams can learn and change practice together.

  1. Start by watching this video or another as a team.
  2. Use an informal protocol to guide discussion to stay focused on possibilities instead of “yeah, but!”  Here’s one–What we thought were positives, What we thought were minuses, and What we want to know more about.
  3. Decide to try one new instructional practice as a team for a set amount of time. Commit to using activators or limit teacher-talk time to 10 minutes and then actively involve every student in the lesson.
  4. Collect evidence of how the change is positively impacting students.
  5. Build on your successes.

Recognizing that our best efforts are not producing the results we desire is a painful process that strikes at our professional images of ourselves.  Taking steps to change our instructional approaches involves a lot of courage and hard workWorking as a team improves the prospects of success.

“If a seed of a lettuce will not grow, we do not blame the lettuce. Instead, the fault lies with us for not having nourished the seed properly.” – Buddhist proverb

Below are some good resources related to the topics in the video:

Everyone’s Invited! Interactive Strategies That Engage Young Adolescents

Glossary of Instructional Strategies

Graphic Organizers

Additional Graphic Organizers


Additional Activators

Interactive Lectures

Teams = “Cast of Contagious Characters”

I was reading Bernie Schein’s  If Holden Caulfield were in my Classroom when I came across the phrase “…there is no substitute for a cast of contagious teachers.” I immediately thought…what a great description for creative, effective middle level team teachers!

Contagious in their…

  • Love of and belief in the young adolescent
  • Belief that learning should be engaging, challenging, and fun
  • Excitement for the subjects/topics they teach
  • Conviction that all students can achieve at high levels
  • Desire to model life-long learning
  • Certainty that with their students they can build a team culture that is welcoming and inclusive

There is research that supports the concept of contagious emotions.  One definition I found is “a process in which a person or group influences the emotions or behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotion states and behavioral attitudes.” This quote is attributed to  Sigal G. Barsade, a professor at the Wharton School of Business. In a recent article in US News and World Report,  Justin Ewers writes that “Two business professors, Sigal Barsade of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Donald Gibson of Fairfield University, found in a recent study that employee moods have a measurable effect on just about everything anyone does at work-job performance, decision making, creativity, turnover, teamwork, and leadership.”

Another study done at Harvard found “Happiness really is contagious, according to a new study released by Harvard Medical School. Happiness can spread through social networks like social contagion. One happy person can trigger a chain reaction that benefits friends, friends’ friends and friends’ friends’ friends.

Obviously, then, the team’s teachers’ attitudes, actions, words, and body language are going to have a huge impact on the team’s culture.  The next question might be…what can a team do to nurture a contagious positive environment for both their students and themselves?  Some things to consider:

1. Be crystal clear about your purpose as a team.You need to know what your contagion is!

  • Why will your students be better off for spending a year with all of you?
  • How is your whole (team experience) more than the sum of your parts (individual classes)?  (Aristole’s thought, not mine.)
  • How will you create synergy–“… may be defined as two or more things functioning together to produce a result not independently obtainable.” (Wikipedia)

2. Develop rituals that focus on the positive.

  • Weekly meetings with the entire team to build community and spotlight accomplishments (Avoid team meetings to chastise everyone —praise in public, discipline in private.)
  • Team teachers eat lunch together once a week to chat and laugh
  • Celebrate birthdays
  • End of the quarter celebrations of learning

3.  Set a team goal that everyone believes in–goals might focus on any one of a variety of things:

  • Add more interactive lessons
  • Increase technology integration
  • Improve advisory
  • Review lessons together to ensure higher level thinking skills are embedded

4. Help students assist others by adding service learning component–check out…

5. Ask yourselves before every lesson–would I want to study this topic in this fashion or read this text?  If the answer is no… find an engaging alternative! Don’t settle for mediocre curriculum and materials.

Sometimes it is hard to stay contagiously upbeat. Throughout the year go to Ted Talks or search RSAnimate on YouTube  and view one of their  videos.  The ideas will pump you up and send you back to the classroom  with a positive, can-do attitude.  Some of my favorites are below:

RSAnimate on Daniel Pink’s book Drive (motivation)

RSAnimate in Changing Education Paradigms

Sir Ken Robinson & Creativity

After School Writing Program

Tinkering School

Child Driven School

Create Effective Teams with Some TLC!

Effective middle level teams make a difference.  For over 30 years studies have shown that students achieve at higher levels, are more engaged, feel less isolated and depressed, and generally like school better when they are part of a team.  This research also shows that the most effective teams have common planning time at least four times a week and use this time to plan in a collaborative manner.  So…we know that effective teams impact students’ lives in very positive ways. The question then is…how do teams become effective?  Are they born? Is an effective team created when the wise principal magically puts the just the right combination of people together?  Or, do effective teams develop as a result of nurturing?

I vote for nurturing.  A middle grades team is a living organism whose development is affected by its environment and the actions of others around them. When I think about ways to develop high functioning teams I am reminded of Tom Kelley’s book The Ten Faces of Innovation.  He often suggests that clients look beyond their industry to others that share similar tasks.  For example, a hospital emergency room staff looked at the way Indy car pit crews organize and work together to change tires and make repairs in seconds.  The hospital staff observed general procedures in the “pit” that they could apply back in the ER.  Using this strategy I went searching via Google to find out what characteristics professions other than education nurture in their teams.  I located comments from the business world, a religious group, and psychologists on this topic.  Below is a chart which summarizes what I found.  It also has information from an education class at Stanford University.


Advice on nurturing team development.


“Characteristics of Effective Team.”  http://www.stanford.edu/class/e140/e140a/effective.html

Eikenberry, Kevin.  “Nurturing effective teamwork.” The Sideroad: Practical Advice from the Experts. http://www.sideroad.com/Team_Building/effective-teamwork.html.

Foster, Gary. “ Five essentials to nurturing a effective teams. ChurchLeaders.com: Lead better every day. http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/140063-five-essentials-to-nurturing-effective-teams.html.

“Positive psychology at work.” Psychology for business. http://www.psychologyforbusiness.com/articles_alternative2.htm

“The 7 Traits of Highly Effective Teams.”World-Wide Success. http://ww-success.com/blog/index.php/2007/01/17/the-seven-traits-of-highly-effective-teams/

There are trends that show up across professions:

  • Shared responsibility
  • Clarity of purpose and roles
  • Positive and nurturing atmosphere
  • Good communication
  • Responsive leadership

These key characteristics exemplify the manner in which effective teams operate.  It needs to be an ongoing school goal to develop the capacity of team teachers and team leaders in these areas. A team that collaborates well is able to develop instruction plans that support students across the curriculum. These plans might include organizational skills or a coordinated approach to literacy or building a supportive community with their students or all of the above.  When there is not an explicit plan to help teams build their capacity for working as a collaborative force, this powerful structure may fall short of its potential for making a huge difference in students’ academic and personal lives. This capacity building does not need to be an expensive proposition. Most schools can plan and implement an ongoing professional development teaming initiative.  Here are a couple of ideas:

Team building activities are transferrable to the classroom and advisory.

1. Include physical team building activities in faculty meetings and spend 5 minutes processing what went on. What did you do to successfully solve this challenge? How might we adapt and apply these lessons to our work in teams? Check out http://www.teachmeteamwork.com/ and http://www.teampedia.net/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page for ideas.

2. In the fall, each team should meet with the principal to have a conversation about team goals for the year.

3. Have each team share procedures and/activities they are using which they find to be really helpful.  Once a month a different team shares an idea at a meeting.

4. Provide team leaders with specialized training in facilitating meetings and dealing with difficult people. There are many websites that give good suggestions.  Read them together and then do some role playing and processing. Visit:

5.  Make very clear what the expectations are for the teams. 

Model strategies for including everyone in discussions.

Ask them to clearly state why students will be

better off on their team rather than in

several separate classes.

6. Practice together the 7 Norms of Collaboration from Garmston & Wellman. http://csi.boisestate.edu/Improvement/7%20Norms.pdf

7. Model strategies like consensogram, carousel, and think-pair-share that encourage everyone to be part of the discussion.  Be sure to mention that these strategies all transfer to the classroom as well as working well in meetings.

If a school is going to be organized in teams then it just makes sense to help them become collaborative, problem solving entities that are able to nimbly and successfully address students’ needs.

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