Learning How to Learn

Middle School Teachers Lead the Way

Deciding to make fundamental changes to the way students learn, and, therefore, the way teachers teach, has huge implications for a district. Teachers and administrators often spend significant time researching effective strategies before adopting local innovation plans.

Just ask Randy Hollenkamp, Principal of New Tech Network's Bulldog Tech Middle School in San Jose, California. The student-centered school opened in August 2012 with 150 7th graders and is currently recruiting 150 new 7th grade students for the 2013-2014 year -- which will put it at capacity with 300 7th and 8th grade students.

I talked with Randy about his experiences starting a new public district middle school based on the tenants of deeper learning -- namely mastering academic content while also supporting students to develop critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication skills. "The New Tech method, most often used in high schools (there are more than 100 schools in the New Tech Network across the country) translates quite well to the middle school," explained Randy. "It just takes a little bit longer for a middle school student to 'get it' than a high schooler."

Randy noted there's a significant gap between students who grow up with technology and access to the Internet at home versus those students who do not have regular Web access, noteworthy for students at Bulldog Tech who live in Silicon Valley, home to the likes of Google and Apple. "The skills that one group will have over the other creates a huge digital divide that will not allow the second group to have the advantages of the other," he said. "The differences are quite obvious, especially when judged by some of the newer assessment tests such as the Smarter Balanced. These tests are done on a computer, with students expected to know how to drag items around and put things in difference places. Students without access to computers could have a huge disadvantage when taking these newer kinds of tests. We would see a direct correlation between high and low socio-economic schools which would translate to high versus low test scores," he continued.

This "digital divide" and concern over high versus low socio-economic demographics was one of the reasons that Randy's school district -- the Evergreen District of San Jose, CA -- decided to look at innovative educational methods. "We visited Napa New Tech in Napa, California, and saw all these "social communities" -- groups of students working together -- collaborating -- while the teacher walked around as a guide and facilitator. This was something we wanted to bring to our district," said Randy.

Teachers played a huge role in the district's decision to change how it will educate its students. "Educators don't enter the field to make money," said Randy. "They want to change the world. Usually public education doesn't allow you to change the world as much as you want -- and it's an uphill battle with bureaucracy. But with New Tech -- they take all the great things you learned in college to educate students and they put it into practice. When you do all the things you KNOW will work with students to help them develop a lifelong love of learning -- you become an educator who is empowered to teach in a way that promotes success and prepares students for life after graduation."

Now that Bulldog Tech has completed its first full year, I wondered if Randy had any "lessons learned" to share. "The collaboration/leadership model we use takes some getting used to," he explained. "At Bulldog, we decide everything as a team. I have a team I can trust. In the past I felt I needed to control things, and I realize now that I don't have to do that -- I can rely on my team of teachers to make the right decisions."

I asked Randy about the culture at Bulldog Tech. "When things make sense -- the New Tech way -- the students understand it, too -- and that's what changes the culture the most," he said. "When you're trying to do something for students that empowers them -- they respond positively and become advocates for their own learning."

How does this process work with middle school students? "It takes a month or so to deprogram them from the way they're used to doing things," said Randy. "It's a collaborative process for teachers, too -- because at New Tech teachers have to learn the same lessons as the students and facilitate them. At a New Tech school -- we are truly a family and we all develop a quest for learning."

But what differentiates a middle school from a high school in this type of learning environment? "The main difference is dealing with the students' physical and emotional development," explained Randy. "When they start school as 6th or 7th graders, they are really babies. But by the end of the year, they seem like young adults. Because they are developmentally so much younger, you need to be even more patient with them as you're teaching them new skills. New techniques don't always resonate with them immediately," he continued.

In a recent radio interview with KQED, Randy mentioned the need to go deeper into instruction.

"We want to cover the curriculum much deeper and to find all those little hidden things that can allow the child to connect it to other learning in their head. And once they do that, it's the kind of learning they never forget."

Carie Spannagel, a school development coach for New Tech Network, agreed with Randy and added, "The main difference working with middle school students is that structures need to be in place that adjust for the maturity level of the younger student. For example, the length of time for a middle school project would be shorter than it would be for a high school student because middle school students have shorter attention spans. Also, we need to consider how many standards can be incorporated into a project for a sixth or seventh grader," added Carie.

In addition, Carie explained that middle school students can't be told "just go and do the research. It's important to have significant scaffolding in place with lots of time reserved for talking and reflecting," she said. "It's also tough sometimes to get middle school students to work as a team so we need to be patient."

Professional development for an NTN middle school teacher differs from that of a high school teacher. "We look at instruction and curriculum mapping," said Carie. "We ask the question -- what does a student-centered school with project-based learning look like for middle schoolers versus high school students? We have found that middle school students can benefit from all the aspects of deeper learning including the skills of self reflection -- helping them to reflect on their learning is a great skill -- and we strive to teach them to revise and critique their work to make it better," continued Carie.

I asked Randy what he plans to do differently next year. "There's some little things I'd do differently," he said, "but I'd still want the same great results. I learned that I needed to be the collaborative instructional leader of the school and make sure the culture and teaching techniques are really working for the students."

According to Randy, some of the other changes he plans relate to recruiting new students by initiating more community events and "showing the world who we really are. We are fighting the 'traditional mindset.' We conducted more than 50 tours this past year, and I see that number increasing," he said.

Community outreach is not only part of recruiting, but also a way of demonstrating the success of what they are doing at Bulldog Tech. Becoming a learning organization means the adults involved embracing the "continuous improvement" mindset and, therefore, modeling "learning to learn" for students. These are great strategies for supporting students for success in high school, college and career.