By Olivia Wahl
The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.
— Robert John Meehan
Transitioning from elementary to middle school is hard. Really hard. Changing classes, having different teachers for each period, merging children from several elementary schools into one building, getting (and staying) organized — these are just some of the obstacles that kept me up at night. Yes . . . me. My son, Benjamin, did not seem one bit concerned. Ben was over-the-moon excited about his upcoming middle school journey, and not wanting to freak him out, I kept my fears to myself. At least I knew he would have the security of making the transition with friends he had been with since prekindergarten.
And then . . . it happened. My heart skipped a beat when our soon-to-be middle schooler proclaimed he wanted to go to the school that only four other children he knew would be attending. What? How could this be? My only solace was gone. The first time he mentioned it was the middle of his fifth-grade year. I thought he would change his mind as fifth-grade graduation grew nearer, but his determination remained strong. You see, we moved in the middle of his fourth-grade year, and his elementary school was gracious enough to let him open enroll for the rest of fourth and fifth grades to stay with his friends. Yet now, Ben wanted to attend the middle school we were technically zoned for. He wanted to “reinvent” himself and get to know kids from our neighborhood through his classes. How could I say no to that? I finally got over myself and celebrated his independence and confidence — and thank goodness we followed his instincts.
I cannot sing the praises of the staff at Boynton Middle School in Ithaca, New York, loudly enough. We quickly realized that Ben’s principal and core teachers — Jeffrey Tomasik (principal), Gina Amici (English), Cara Salibrici (social studies), Brenda Osovski (math), and Alison Kepic (science) — looked out for Ben and each student on their team with the same care he had received throughout his elementary experience. It was incredible how well they knew Ben so quickly and were able to support him and connect with Dave and me as his parents with ease.
I was more and more impressed with their collaboration and project-based learning (PBL) connections between classes as the year went on. Ben thrived academically, and it was because of their planning and powerful instruction that seamlessly connected the learning between their classes. I had to know more about how they worked as a team to pull this off, not only for myself as a parent but also to share with the many other middle school teachers I have the privilege of learning alongside in other school districts.
After meeting with Gina and Cara, I learned there is a clearly established culture and structure their team follows to make the most of their daily team time — time allotted every day (usually one period) for teachers to meet with their colleagues. When I asked middle school colleagues in other school districts how they use their daily team time, most expressed that it often felt unstructured and unproductive and too often deteriorated into teachers catching up on paperwork or discourse not tied to children or curricula development.
Gina and Cara first shared how team time had evolved over the years in their building. Fifteen years ago, students were divided into three teams (Earth, Wind, and Fire) in sixth grade. Everyone on all three teams met every day (about nine general education teachers and four special education teachers), and most days focused on planning activities for the kids on all three teams.
Fast-forward eight years and three teams were reduced to two (Earth and Wind). Because team time had not focused on students or curriculum work enough, the teachers decided to shift how their team time was used. The team time structures and ideas that follow are still in place today.
The small teams meet three days a week. Over these three days, the teachers use a period for the Response to Intervention (RTI) process to identify students with learning disabilities, have parent conferences, and meet with guidance counselors about children. One day a week they use a period for professional learning community (PLC) time where team members choose to meet with each other based on curriculum planning needs for upcoming instruction (e.g., planning for a PBL project such as Night at the Museum, where students studied various ancient civilizations, visited the Johnson Museum of Art, designed a character based on their chosen civilization, and created their own costumes, posters, and monologues to share how life was experienced from their characters’ perspectives).
Another day (usually Fridays) they meet with all members of both teams as well as administrators. Norms are agreed upon by all members of both sixth-grade teams and charted at the beginning of each school year. When both teams meet on Fridays, the chart is posted and followed.
Small team success also relies on roles and structures being established and consistently followed when they meet:
- Meeting roles include facilitator, notetaker, timekeeper, and a sub in case one person is not able to make a meeting.
- Roles rotate every ten weeks.
- All meeting notes are housed in a digital document within Google Drive.
- Notes are added for each meeting and shared with the seventh- and eighth-grade teachers at the end of the year.
See a sample of the Earth team’s notes in Figure 1. They make sure to set next steps and the agenda for the following meeting at the end of each time they are together (e.g., one of the team members following up with a parent phone call/email).
Full disclosure — the members of the Earth team really like each other. They respect each other as educators and work tirelessly to ensure they share consistent expectations and routines with their students and families. This year, for example, they made sure their small team all used the same codes (e.g., M — missing, HC — half credit, EX — exempt) in the district’s SchoolTool portal system, which shows caregivers students’ assignments and grades.
Just when I thought I could not be more impressed, Cara shared how they get to know each of their incoming sixth graders before they begin their middle school journey (usually around the end of May to mid-June). Each teacher on the team is matched with one of Boynton’s elementary feeder schools. They receive sub coverage for a day to meet with fifth-grade teachers from these schools to create a transition sheet for each student (usually between 160 and 220 sixth graders). Gina recently revised their team’s transition sheet (Figure 2). These transition sheets provide a glimpse into what each student experienced during their elementary school years.
All children deserve this level of support and attention during the transition between elementary and middle school. I am so grateful that Benjamin had the gift of experiencing sixth grade with educators that invest their hearts, time, and brilliance into each moment of their school day. My hope in sharing how their team time is organized is that other middle school teams can be inspired to ensure time is allotted every day for team time and revise their structures to, in turn, experience the same productive, collaborative meetings every day.
Olivia Wahl has been an educator for over twenty years. She provides PreK-8 staff development in literacy instruction, focusing much of her time in school districts in New York, New Jersey, Indiana, North Carolina and Washington. Olivia has participated in coaching groups with the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City. Olivia has led institutes for teachers nationwide. Institutes have focused on helping teachers establish structures and routines needed for successful launching and sustainability of reader’s and writer’s workshops. She supports teachers with matching students to texts, conferring and using assessments to drive instruction and support responsive teaching. Olivia advocates for planning immersion through various balanced literacy components and reconceptualizing the Gradual Release of Responsibility to enhance student voice and engagement.