Students weigh in on curriculum, as Mount Abe transforms approach to middle school

BRISTOL — “If you could pick anything in the world, what are some things you’d like to learn about?” asks Mount Abraham Union Middle School teacher Jocelyn Foran.
Every last head in Foran’s seventh grade classroom bends over as students start thinking in earnest, chewing on pencils, scratching down ideas and brainstorming.
After a few minutes, each student gets to write his or her favorite ideas on sticky tags and post them at the front of the class. Together they then start grouping the ideas by category, figuring out whether “vets” means “veterans” or “veterinarians” and clumping together hunting/fishing, nature, wildlife and biology in one area and topics like politics, poverty, different countries, Africa and world peace in another. A few minutes later, they head out the door to go see what other ideas their peers have generated and another group of students troops through the door to do likewise.
It’s day five in the 2016-2017 school year. Foran’s students are taking the first step in developing this year’s negotiated curriculum for English language arts, science and social studies.
Once the 63 students on Team Apex finish brainstorming, they will work in small groups of two to four to develop a unit around their favorite idea, get help from teachers to match their ideas to district and nationwide standards, and then present their ideas to the entire Apex Team. Then the whole team — students and teachers alike — will vote for their top four choices, and the winning four will become the Apex English, social studies and science curriculum for the 2016-2017 school year.
The same process is under way for the other seventh grade team, Impact.
The integration of English, social studies and science into team-planned and sometimes team-taught units (math remains separate, as do such subjects as band, chorus and foreign language) and the use of negotiated curriculum are part of a multi-year, multi-step process that is bringing about what Assistant Principal Ellen Repstad describes as the transformation of the Bristol middle school.
“We really worked to understand how that middle-level student learns, how their specific needs are different from elementary and high school students, and to then design a schedule and a curriculum that supports those needs,” said Repstad.
“We wanted to establish a true middle school program. And in order to do that, we had to change our programming so it was developmentally appropriate and not just a junior high.”
The transformation process began in fall 2012 when Repstad changed hats at Mount Abe, from literacy specialist to administrator.
The entire middle school staff spent two years in intensive planning, rethinking how to best meet the needs of youngsters who weren’t little kids anymore, but who weren’t quite ready to be high schoolers.
Repstad and her team based their changes on recent discoveries about the adolescent brain.
“We’ve learned so much more about the development of the middle school kid. And frankly those years between 12 and 15 are as explosive as two to four in terms of language and social skills and all the nuances that occur,” said Repstad. “They go through this brain growth spurt at the same time as they go through a physical growth spurt.”
Based on this research, the middle school staff identified what kind of learning environment would get the best results.
“The first thing we did was blow up the schedule,” said Repstad, with a smile on her face. “I didn’t want learning to stop with the bell.
“We needed to be able to give the teachers as much flexibility as possible so that they could be responsive to the students’ needs. What we know about how these students learn is that the more you can integrate their educational experience, the more likely they are to make progress. So what we decided on was a schedule that allowed the core teachers (English, social studies, science) to have three hours of uninterrupted time when they had the kids on core. Those teachers work together to schedule those three hours however they want. So if you have a science lab that’s going to take two hours you can do that.”
The team prioritized creating a supportive community, designing motivating instruction, supporting social-emotional skills, and developing students’ autonomy. They also came up with a cohesive and unified approach to discipline.
“We have some common strategies that we use across the board to address behavior, common language, common verbal and physical signals to get to,” said Repstad. So now kids get the same message and the same expectations from class to class.
After the two years of study and training, the middle school was ready to implement curriculum changes.
Along with creating a three-hour block that could be used flexibly for the core subjects of English, social studies and science, the staff created a new block to start the day. Called the ME block, for “mastery” and “enrichment,” that block can be used for personalized learning, music or foreign language, and it’s also a time for teachers to provide one-on-one help in literacy.
Repstad also asked for core-subject volunteers to test drive the negotiated approach to teaching an integrated curriculum. The Apex and Impact teachers stepped in: teachers Foran, Nan Guilmette and Betsy Rippner for Apex; Katie Hamm, Brent Crum, and Bob Russell for Impact.
They first piloted the negotiated curriculum in the fall of 2014, starting with incoming seventh graders. They then “looped” with those students and continued the negotiated curriculum in eighth grade.
The other two teams, Endeavor and Summit, began working with integrated curriculum last year.
Now Apex and Impact teachers are starting with a new group of seventh graders and working to improve the negotiated curriculum based on what they’ve learned the past two years.
To explain how negotiated curriculum works, Foran brings out an example from last year: a unit on politics. The unit centered on the question, “How would we decide which presidential candidate we would want to vote for if we were allowed to vote?”
English assignments included researching and writing a speech in the voice of one of the actual candidates. Students could choose any official candidate they liked, from Jeb Bush to Bernie Sanders. The science strand of the unit had students investigate the science of global warming and then analyze each candidate’s platform on the environment. The social studies part included learning about the political parties and the electoral process.
For the equivalent of a unit test, students held a mock presidential debate and then mock elections. Parents, friends and community members were invited to the big debate.
“We’re seeing higher engagement and we’re definitely seeing more sophisticated products because students are so much more engaged,” said Repstad.
The units are not just anything goes. All units must conform to the Common Core State Standards in English; the Next Generation Science Standards; and the College, Career and Civic Life Standards for Social Studies. Units must also address the Mount Abe Competencies of communication, problem solving, personal development and self-awareness, global citizenship, and collaboration.
The day the Independent dropped in, kids’ ideas ran the gamut from ice cream and how to make slime to things like chemistry, terrorism, architecture, art and the human brain.
Repstad said that the first year the middle school used the negotiated curriculum, they saw a rise in standardized test scores compared to previous seventh grade classes.
More important to Repstad, however, are better numbers on attendance and other signs that students feel more at home, more engaged and more connected.
Current ninth graders who helped pioneer Mount Abe’s use of negotiated curriculum largely agree. At the same time, their criticisms of the pilot project also suggest the caliber of critical thinking skills they now bring to high school learning.
“I really appreciated having negotiated curriculum during my middle school career.” student Mae Peterson said. “It gave all sorts of students the opportunity to have an input in the units we studied. And this made them more likely to be involved in class.”
Max Konczal agreed that “negotiated curriculum led to an excellent experience for middle school,” but also said that sometimes, students didn’t always hold up their end of the responsibilities delegated to them.
Emma Campbell added, that “it was a stretch sometimes … to pick one topic that had all three core subjects and figure out ways to teach something in every class.
Still, Campbell felt that “overall, negotiated curriculum is a great idea … I know I’m not completely satisfied that negotiated curriculum helped every student become more aware in the classroom, but it sure helped a lot of kids. I think it is a great opportunity for kids about my age to choose what they are interested in learning and hope it will continue to help more kids be more enthusiastic in school.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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