Hitting the Target, Missing the Point

For the past decade, middle schools throughout the nation have been working diligently to hit the targets set by national and state guidelines for academic achievement. These new targets helped focus attention on the need to get all students' achieving at a high level, but the laser-like focus on the target numbers have led many middle schools to miss the point. The point being that learning in a 21st century environment requires learners that have proficiency in literacy and numeracy, but also have a set of essential skills like information literacy, strong sense of community, and an ability to work with others at a high level. Many schools have struggled to be nimble in this changing landscape, and many have been lulled into believing that their excellent test scores are the only important target. They are missing the point.

The point...the focus...the metaphor for learning at the Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School is School as an Expedition. This means taking students beyond the school walls throughout the year for community-embedded learning. Our expectations for these expeditions go beyond the typical field trip. We use these experiences to build background and create a shared or interdisciplinary study. In each shared study, a complex concept is investigated from multiple perspectives creating an integrated learning experience. One teacher commented on the expeditionary experiences by saying, "when we leave the school building it’s as though the school layer comes off. Students see teachers in a different light. We become more human and in some ways more vulnerable. This helps build relationships—which is perhaps the most critical part of what we do with teenagers."

The capstone expedition for our seventh graders is a trip to the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont. At Tremont, there is an opportunity for our students to learn more about their environment, its importance, and the delicate balance between humans and nature. Experiences for students include a salamander hunt, an eight mile hike, a trip to the summit of the mountain, and literary readings that help connect students with the natural world.

For our eighth graders, the final expedition takes them to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama where they are introduced to estuaries and their importance to marine ecosystems. Students measure the salinity of the water at the beach, take water temperature readings, and measure wave crests and wind speed. Working side-by-side with scientists at the Sea Lab, students identify a variety of marine organisms collected to prepare for their trip on the lab's research boat where they assess different physical parameters of the ocean. Next door to the marine lab is Fort Gaines, where the students spend time learning about the history of the area and the importance of the fort to Mobile Bay.

Not only do these week-long expeditions provide a depth in understanding cross-curricular concepts, they also foster a keen sense of love for surroundings. By embracing our students' desire to learn on these topics, we continue to grow our sustainability programming throughout the middle school. Our guiding principles are very close in nature to the work of the Center for Ecoliteracy and their framework for schooling known as Smart by Nature™. Smart by Nature™ is based on four guiding principles. Nature is our teacher. Sustainability is a community practice. The real world is the optimal learning environment. Sustainable living is rooted in a deep knowledge of place. Further influence on this focus comes from The Caldwell Collaborative, an organization focusing on sustainability education and school design. They outline the essential knowledge, skills, and values of sustainability including: ecological knowledge, the ability to think systemically, the ability to think critically and to solve problems creatively, the ability to assess the impact of human actions and decisions, and the ability to envision long term consequences.

Looking for a set of techniques that would complement the expeditions and learning surrounding sustainability, MRH middle school has committed to using cooperative learning structures throughout the school day. At its best, our cooperative learning allows for purposefully developed teams, containing students of different levels of ability, to use a variety of learning activities to improve understanding of a subject. Teachers continue to build their proficiency in using these structures, but great moments of learning have already come from using structures like: think-pair-share, round robin brainstorming, three-minute review, numbered heads together, team pair solo, and circle the sage. These structures ensure that each member of a team is responsible not only for learning what is taught, but also for helping teammates learn, thus creating an atmosphere of achievement. We have seen increases student retention, enhanced student satisfaction with their learning experience, greater development of oral communication skills, growth in students' social skills, and better harmony in our race relations.

Our efforts with cooperative learning are buoyed by our knowledge that twenty-first century learning requires a new way of cooperation that isn't bound by classroom walls or national boundaries. Global classroom collaboration continues to grow and grow, and can be seen through use of Web 2.0 tools like Twitter, Skype, and projects like the Flat Classroom Project. Our staff truly understands that, though many jobs are increasingly isolating people behind computer screens, the best careers and leadership positions will require a keen sense for cooperation and its more mature relatives; systems thinking and collaborative leadership.

Both expeditionary learning and cooperative learning have been essential elements for our "screenagers" as it has provided them the foundation, experiences, and intangibles needed to dive into our digital world. Our true success though has been coupling these forms of learning with our dedication to providing a 1:1 laptop environment for our students. Having this level of technology available has moved the Internet, Web 2.0 tools and a variety of learning software into the heart of the classroom. Project Headware, as we have called it, has sent a clear message to students that we want you interacting with the possibilities of our global society as often as possible. This has meant having student learn by using digital tools like Voicethread, IMovie, Garageband, and Animoto. It has also meant teaching a high level of information literacy including how to search for information, use our suite of Google educational tools, deal with the pressure of cyberbullying, and demonstrate the etiquette of using social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook, and You Tube.

The greatest outcome from this mix of opportunities has been the passion for learning shown by students. Students are excited about the possibilities included in their middle school experience. The students know that they are going to have an opportunity to experience new places and ideas during their time in our building, and they know that there will be no opportunity gap in the area of technology.

The students of today are truly locked into the realm of computer, television, and smart phones, but this doesn't mean that the experiences of learning about how to sustain our land, our rights, and our form of government coupled with our work of gleaning wisdom from our follow thinkers aren't essential. On the contrary, the essential nature of these areas are growing because to truly hit the target and nail the point of our duty as educators, we must insert these bigger ideas into today's technology rich environment.