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Sample Synthesis of Middle School Curriculum.

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Synthesis of Middle School Curriculum

Previous Student

Clemson University
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Many people have different ideas about what it takes to make an effective middle school.

In this paper, I will present my ideas about what makes a good middle school. My ideas reflect a

semester’s worth of reading from ED 641, Middle School Curriculum (Clemson University) as

well as four years of teaching at the middle school level. I have organized this paper to include

core beliefs, curriculum goals, and student expectations.

Core Beliefs

My core beliefs are closely aligned with the National Middle School Association’s This

We Believe statements (2003). I believe that middle schools should employ highly trained

teachers who understand the developmental needs of their students. Juvonen in Focus on the

Wonder Years states that middle schools often employ teachers that are not trained to teach at the

middle school level (2004). If a teacher is trained at the elementary or high school level, they

might still be capable of teaching middle school children, but they should take additional training

specific to middle school education. Furthermore, every effort should be made to match teachers

to subjects that they have studied at the post-secondary level. The more familiar a teacher is with

his/her* subject matter, the easier it is for him to teach.

I believe that middle school leadership should promote continuing education,

collaboration, and creativity. Continuing education should be encouraged and financially backed,

where feasible, by the administration. As a teacher attends classes, they become inspired, meet

other professionals, and continue to grow in their field.

*He will be used in this paper as a gender-neutral term.


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I think that collaboration is a key component to good teaching practices. Sometimes this

can be informal, where teacher’s brainstorm about lesson plans and problem solve about student

behavior. However, I think that the best method of collaboration is structured, organized, and

purposeful. After reading Teamwork: Setting the Standard for Collaborative Teaching, Grades

5-9, I have become convinced that team teaching is the best way to integrate curriculum. In this

work, the authors propose meeting regularly to discuss the curriculum and to plan together. They

advocate dividing responsibilities, and thoroughly overlapping subject matter (Wild, Mayeaux,

& Edmonds, 2008). For example, if the history teacher was doing a unit on segregation, the

literature class could be reading about the Supreme Court Case of Rosa Parks. In math, the class

could calculate how much the local bus system might lose without a year’s revenue from African

American customers.

Schools should be clean, safe, and inviting. Our school recently moved from the

basement of an old run-down church, to that of a clean, well-funded church. We now enjoy daily

central heat and air conditioning, sinks that drain, and an environment free of cockroaches. I

know that our students feel better in the new building.

Juvonen says that American schools are perceived as unsafe. Gangs, bullying, and the

presence of police at school are a way of life for many American students. Dealing with physical

conflict and bullying drains time from middle school principals in America (Juvonen, Le,

Kaganoff, Augustine, Constant, 2004). With the physical and emotional changes that take place

during the middle school years, the last thing that a child should worry about is their physical

safety at school. If a child’s psychological needs cannot be met at the base level of safety, then

how can that student be expected to perform academically?


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I believe school personal should meet with students to explain what bullying is and how

to avoid it. In our school, we have had a police officer from Greenville County come in and talk

to our student body about bullying. We role-play in groups, discuss bullying, and ask our

students to sign a contract stating that they will adhere to our anti-bullying policy. Teaching

social skills, forming peer groups, and having a school psychologist on-hand are methods that

schools can use to combat bullying and behavioral problems amongst students.

I believe schools should find ways to involve parents in their children’s education. The

teachers from Teamwork invited parents to an open house once a year, where students led tours

of the school, and showed their parents portfolios of their work (Wild et al., 2008). Another way

to involve parents in school is to give students assignments that need parental input. Last year,

our career preparation teacher asked her students to interview their parents about their jobs.

Students asked their parents why they chose their jobs, if they found these jobs satisfying, and

what education they needed to qualify for the position.

I believe that schools should be as aesthetically pleasing as is economically feasible.

Classrooms with carpets, lamps, and soft chairs appear warm and inviting. For some students

school is the only place of stability that they know, why not make it look and feel welcoming?

The corner classroom in our new school has no windows, and a cold, institutional atmosphere.

The teacher that uses this room combated this problem by decorating her corkboard with bright

green paper, buying a fake fish that appears to swim, bringing in plants, and laying down a small

carpet. These small changes make her room appear bright and cheerful.
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Curriculum Goals

I believe that teachers should use the state standards to guide their curriculum, and that

they should work collaboratively as a team. As stated previously, team teaching has the

advantage of providing an environment where duties are shared and collaboration is encouraged.

According to Graham, schools that used collaboration had higher achievement rates than those

that did not (2007). Team-teaching, when used to integrate the curriculum, has the advantage of

showing students the connections between content areas, thus boosting student interest in the

material. Team teaching gives teachers a chance to develop consistent rules and expectations,

which makes it easier for students to know what is expected from them. Because the school that I

work in is so small, we all follow the same discipline procedure. At the beginning of the year we

discuss the “what ifs” of discipline. “What if Johnny refuses to follow directions?” We try to

think up as many scenarios as we can before we are faced with them, so that our response to

student misbehavior will be consistent.

Team teaching also has the advantage of allowing professionals to discuss their teaching

practices, and to learn from one another.

In the team environment, teachers are invited to seek ways to make learning more
invitational, interactive, and relevant. Clearly, many teachers do this apart from teams. However,
given the regularity of meeting with colleagues to examine our work, we are far less likely to
continue the deadening practices that can so easily predominate when we work in isolation.
Teaming is an invitation to reinvent teaching because our conversations lead us to see that there
are other possibilities (Strahan & Hedt, 2009, p. 2).

I believe that knowledge should be accessible yet challenging. Part of understanding a

middle school child, is knowing what is developmentally appropriate for him. The work of men

such as Piaget and Vygotsky has helped educators to understand how this age group processes
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information. I believe in challenging students in their Zone of Proximal Development, where

what they can do on their own is then further developed into what they can do with proper

instruction and guidance.

I believe that, “Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world

problems.” (Merrill, 2002, p.43). This year we gave our students the problem of creating a

slogan to use when advertising our school. The slogan needed to be not only appealing to

prospective parents, but to would-be students as well.

Balancing a checkbook is a real-world problem that many math teachers cite when

explaining to students why they need to be able to add and subtract. While this may not be the

hardest problem that students are asked to solve, it is appealing because it is represents one of the

many responsibilities that adults face. Having students engage in solving real-world problems

helps them to see the relevance of what they are learning. If problems become too abstract, not

only will they not be developmentally appropriate for middle school children, but they will also

lack relevance.

One middle school built a thematic unit around the Supreme Court Case of Brown v. The

Board of Education. One student made of video recording of Linda Brown explaining the

harrows of traveling to an all-black school miles away from her home. Other students calculated

the distance that Linda traveled to get to the all-black school; versus the distance, it would take

her to use a nearby all-white school. Students spent the day receiving and recording clues about

the court case into diaries, and then later had a chance to discuss and analyze their findings.

Because the students were engaged in working with a real-world problem, many did not perceive

what they were doing as “work.” (Wild et al., 2008).


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Every year we review measurements in math class, and then ask our students to create

part of a holiday meal. One class works on salads and side dishes, one class covers starches, one

class does a main course, and one class makes desserts. We have them write out their recipes,

including their sources, on an index card. They then cook the dish, and give a presentation on

how they prepared their dish to the school. Some students use posters that have step by step

photographs of the cooking process. Other students bring in cooking utensils and ingredients for

display and as “teaching tools.” While this project may seem simple to some, it gives our

students a chance to engage in a practical skill that they can use throughout their lives. It also

allows them a chance to share the experience of cooking with their peers, and enjoy the fruits of

their labor. The holiday party is a hit amongst the returning students, and they have already

begun to ask if we are going to do it again this year.

I believe in using a variety of instructional methods including direct instruction, inquiry

method, differentiated instruction, backward design, and the Star Legacy Model. I refer to direct

instruction as a method of delivering material through a lecture process, where the time standing

in front of the class is limited, and sufficient time is given to practicing the targeted skill. If

scripting is involved, I think that the teacher should “script” the text himself so that he

thoroughly understands the content, and can be fluid in answering questions. I use this method

when introducing topics in grammar and math, but I also use pictures and props to support what I

am trying to communicate. For example, when I taught a unit on measurement last year, I

explained the difference between a pint and a quart by bringing in an empty creamer pint, filling

it with water, and pouring it into a quart container.

I like the inquiry method in that it gives students a chance to look at a problem from a

different perspective than their own. For instance, when studying A Jar of Dreams by Yoshiko
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Uchida, I asked students to write in their journals about how Aunt Waka's visit changed the

protagonist's life. Following the inquiry process, I might have asked my students to explain how

her life might have been had her Aunt never come from Japan for the summer?

I believe that being able to differentiate instruction is critical in today’s diverse classroom

population. “Not all students are alike. Based on this knowledge, differentiated instruction

applies an approach to teaching and learning so that students have multiple options for taking in

information and making sense of ideas” (Hall, 2009, p. 1). In my small classroom, there are

many different learning styles. For instance, one of my students learns well through direct

instruction. I think of him as a sponge able to absorb whatever is given to him. His twin sister

has trouble processing information through this means. She learns best through reading and using

her hands. In math class, I explain new concepts to the former student. However, for the latter

student I have made up a series of cards with various multiplication, subtraction, and division

processes on them. She follows the colored steps on the cards to solve her equations. Thus far,

both children are making progress, but through completely different teaching methods.

Student choice is a part of differentiating instruction (Hall, 2009). Last year, after our

class read Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, I allowed them to choose from several

“alternative” book report projects. Some students used posters to advertise their books and

convince others to read the book. One student took a crucial scene from the story and depicted it

in cartoon form. Each student presented their “book report” to the class and answered questions.

By giving students a choice in how they wanted respond to the text, they were able to use their

imaginations, while also showing me that they understood the key elements of the story.

I believe that backward design is a great way to get teachers thinking about outcomes

before planning a unit of study. Backward design begins with the end product in mind (Wiggins
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& McTighe, 2004). If used at the beginning of the year, teachers can identify what they want

their students to have mastered by the end of the year. This method can also work with individual

lessons. The teacher starts by deciding what objectives he wants his students to meet, and then

builds lessons and tests around those objectives. The nice thing about backward design is that it

can be combined with other instructional methods. For instance, a teacher can begin lesson

preparation by figuring out what he wants his students to know. He can then try a differentiated

approach by evaluating learning styles, and delivering instruction in accordance to each student’s

unique processing needs.

I believe that well-designed models like the Star Legacy Model have their place in an

effective middle school curriculum. Using the Star Legacy Model, the teacher first looks ahead

at the learning goals, and then presents the students with a challenge in the form of a problem.

These problems can vary in their levels of complexity (Merrill, 2002). For instance, the

“problem” could be for students to figure out the best way of setting up the cafeteria for a

holiday party. The students might then be given a variable to increase the complexity of the

problem. They could be told that eight of the parents that were invited, have not said whether or

not they will attend, and that the school will be charged for each table they rent. Students will

need to decide whether they should spend the money on a table that might not be used, or if they

should rent one less table, and risk not having enough space for parents who decide to attend at

the last minute.

Next, the student generates ideas by working with other students. This is the

collaboration stage, where students help each other solve the problem. In the research and revise

stage students gather ideas, and then use them to test solving the problem. The check your mettle

stage is where students get feedback from the group about their solutions. Finally, going public
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involves students presenting and defending their ideas. There is even a reflection stage in this

process where students can look back and see what they might have done better (Merrill, 2002).

Like many of the other instructional techniques, this method is problem centered, and can

be used with true to life applications. It lends itself to student-centered reflection and

collaboration. It also asks students to demonstrate their knowledge through going public.

Students are put in the position of having to thoroughly examine a problem, generate a solution,

and then prove what they have learned.

I believe that assessment should be varied, and that students should be given

opportunities to participate in the grading process, where appropriate. For instance, rubrics are

good for assessing things that can be subjective, such as writing and art. I like to give my

students a chance to see my grading rubric before beginning their assignments. I put things on

the rubrics such as “followed directions,” “spelling and punctuation,” “humor,” etc. My rubrics

for writing and art usually have a combination of criteria that is either right or wrong (e.g.

punctuation), and a section that allows for flexibility, such as “use of color.” Rubrics are

something that students can develop themselves, and then use to judge their work.

A good informal assessment tool is a check system, where a child gets a check mark if

they participated in class that day. Most of the grades that I use in typing class follow a check

system. If a student follows directions, and does their daily passage then they get a check plus.

I think that there are times when standardized measures of achievement are important

too. For instance, MAP (Measure of Academic Achievement) testing scores show students where

they need to improve, and how they compare to students of the same age. It also has the
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advantage of assigning students with Lexile scores, which help their teachers know at what

reading level to assign books.

I believe that community involvement should be part of the curriculum. Within the school

community, students can serve as mentors, group leaders, and teacher aides. Students can also

take part in their local community through the guidance of school personnel. I think that serving

food in a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving or Christmas day, is a good way for a young people to

see and help others in need. School is more than a place to learn academics, it is also a place to

build character and learn compassion.

Student Expectations

I believe that students should be given responsibilities. Students at my school are

expected to clean every Friday. They organize the library, sweep the halls, clean the microwaves,

and scrub the toilets. We also ask them to clean daily after lunch. This means wiping down the

counters, sweeping under the tables, and taking out the trash.

In an ideal middle school, students will learn to take responsibility for their learning.

This can mean anything from remembering to do their homework, to thinking independently.

Schools should be places of high expectations. Students should be challenged, asked to think

critically, and have practice solving problems. Education is dummied down when thinking and

responsibility are taken out of learning.

Students should set long-term goals. According to Radcliffe, middle school is not too

soon to start thinking about career preparation and college (2008). He feels that middle school

students, particularly students at-risk for failure, benefit from long-range planning that involves

looking at colleges. Some programs teach middle school students how to start preparing for
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college by showing them videos, having them tour college campuses, and connecting them with

mentors. Comparing college graduate to non-college graduate salaries can also motivate students

to consider furthering their education. The students that had participated in college planning

programs in middle school had a higher rate of college attendance than those that did not

(Radcliffe, 2008).

I believe that students should use their talents to help others. Whether coaching younger

students in sports or joining an academic support group, when students help others they become

less inwardly focused. My mother was involved in a very successful high school program where

students discussed problems that they were having in school and got the support of their peers.

The group met after school a few days a week, with two teachers acting as mediators. I think that

a program of this nature would work on the middle school level. However, I think that it would

have to be carefully planned out by administrators and teachers, and potential problems would

need to be discussed before starting.

I believe that pairing students in the classroom builds confidence in students, and helps

struggling students adjust. I have had many students volunteer to help another student in my

classroom. As I see these children interact, I am impressed with how patient they can be with one

another when explaining a concept. Because I work with struggling readers, my students will

often ask each other how to pronounce a word or what something means. Just as teachers can

benefit from the aid of other teachers, students can learn from each other.

I believe that acquiring good reading habits is at the core of promoting knowledge. When

we used the MAP test last year, we were surprised to see that the school’s best readers did the

best in all areas of testing, including math. Flexibility with reading and vocabulary can aide

every area of learning. One way to foster good reading is to find books that compliment what
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you are teaching. For instance, our history teacher asked her students to read Sara, Plain and

Tall by Patricia MacLachlan when she was teaching about Westward expansion.

I believe that students need to learn how to write persuasively, factually, and creatively.

Persuasive writing can help a student get their ideas across and defend their arguments. Factual

writing skills are necessary for college and in certain careers. Creative writing can be for

enjoyment, but it can also help students learn how to use their imaginations. Writing is another

activity that extends across curriculums. It can be used in math to explain theories, it can be used

in science to defend observations and summarize findings, and it can be used in history to

describe ancient cultures.

I believe that middle school students should be given opportunities to use research. While

methods of research are continually changing, the internet seems to be here to stay. This is a

tremendous tool for students to use to explore topics and defend their ideas. However, the proper

way to conduct research and document findings, giving credit where do, needs to be explicitly

taught. Prior to having a guest come in to speak about growing up in Japan, I had my students

explore on the internet and paste pictures into their journals about their findings. I gave them

specific things to look for such as current and ancient styles of dress.

Conclusion

Forming core beliefs, evaluating curriculum, and setting student expectations are a good

beginning, but there are still other factors to consider when developing a good middle school.

What works successfully in one school, may not work as well in another. I work in a small

middle school, and our procedures might not be as effective in a large, public school. The socio-

economic backgrounds of the student body will also play into how well certain practices work.
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For instance, it is hard to get students to take responsibility for their learning when they come

from homes where parents do not value education.

Teachers and administrators need to be constantly growing in their fields and looking

critically at their practices. One reason that I embraced the idea of team teaching is that it allows

teachers to collaborate and look at their teaching through another’s perspective. However, in

teaming, teachers need to be able to let go of some of their individual control for the greater

good. Teachers that are flexible will be more successful at teaming than those who are not.

Principals and administrators need support too. Our administrator recently formed a

board of directors. She chose a group of successful people in the community. These people have

been involved not only in education, but in running businesses, and fund-raising as well. The

new association with the board, has freed up her time, and given her new perspectives when it

comes to making decisions critical to the school.

As educational research continues to evolve, teachers and administrators should be open

to the idea of different teaching methods. However, I believe Juvonen when she says that,

“Thrashing about from educational fad to educational fad is not likely to pay high dividends”

(Juvonen et al., 2004, p.119). Our school has purchased an Interactive Metronome that is

supposed to help students with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). The program comes with

software, headphones, a hand trigger, and a footpad. Students listen for a beat, and then try to

clap, or touch the footpad, at the exact same time as the beat occurs. In order to use the program,

a teacher must spend half an hour two days a week to work with just one student. The premise

behind the program is that by tuning into a beat, students will increase their ability to

concentrate. It is a theory that does not have a lot of research to back it. We have not noticed any

improvement in concentration from our students, but we have noticed that it takes a lot of time.
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The problem with “thrashing about” from fad to fad is that it takes time away from the practices

that are proven effective. For instance, I work with struggling readers one-on-one using the

Wilson Reading System. I know this method works. Unfortunately, I cannot spend a lot of time

on Wilson, when I am tied down using the Interactive Metronome.

Even in an “ideal” middle school there are bound to be problems. For instance, one of the

wonderful things about the school where I work is that it is small, and I can spend time one-on-

one with my students. However, on the downside, is the fact that a small student population

means limited funding for a private school.

In conclusion, there is a lot of critical thought and development that needs to go into

planning a successful middle school. There will be shortcomings in any educational model. The

best interest of the child needs to be at the center of every design and theory, and having teachers

that understand the developmental needs of middle school age children is essential.
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References

Graham, P. (2007). Improving teacher effectiveness through structured collaboration: A

case study of a professional learning community. RMLE, 31(1), 1-17.

Hall, T. (2009). Differentiated instruction. NCAC, Retrieved from

http://www.cast.org/publications/ncac/ncac_diffinstruc.html

Juvonen, J., Le, V., Kaganoff, T., Augustine, C., & Constant, L. (2004).

Focus on the wonder years: Challenges facing the American middle

school. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation

Merrill, M.D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology

Research and Development. 50(3), 43-59.

National Middle School Association. 2003. This we believe: Successful schools

for young adolescents. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.

Radcliffe, R. (2008). Preservice teachers are creating a college culture for

at-risk middle school students. RMLE, 32(4), 1-15.

Strahan, D. & Hedt, M. (2009). Teaching and teaming more responsively:

Case studies in professional growth at the middle level. RMLE, 32(8), 1-14.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2004). Understanding by design. Alexandria,

VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Wild, M.D., Mayeaux, A. S. & Edmonds, K.P. (2008). Teamwork: Setting the standard

for collaborative teaching, grades 5-9. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.