Three years ago, Principal of Glasgow Middle School (Fairfax, Va.) Deirdre Lavery found herself face to face with the classic middle school dilemma: how to make all students in her diverse population feel a part of large school community while also setting rigorous academic standards.
Not an easy task for any middle school principal. But Lavery’s dilemma was intensified because hers is an International Baccalaureate (I.B.) school offering eight content subjects. The variety of academic courses gave students choices and let them dig deeper in subjects of interest, but it also made it tough to organize teachers into grade-level teams who work together with teams of students in the same grade level.
Still, Lavery was determined to offer a middle school experience where students feel that they belong, where they have a strong relationship with at least one adult, and where students are engaged in their own learning and 21st century skills (collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication) could be discreetly taught.
Where did Lavery turn for her answers to the challenge? To her greatest resource: her teachers.
Lavery commissioned a group of teacher leaders to conduct a survey of research strategies to engage students and develop a program for Glasgow. Give me “a program and a structure,” Lavery told the team. “We’re going to do what’s right for the kids.”
According to Stephanie Barrus, a newcomer to the school who led the team, the group followed the classic design structure that they teach their students in class. “We defined the problem, investigated alternatives, created and implemented a pilot program, and then evaluated and adapted it to fit the school.”
Their result is called REAL-Time — an advisor/advisee program that fits Glasgow’s unique circumstances.
- Every teacher has 15 students from three different grades. Mixing the grades helps the 6th graders to be mentored by the older students and cuts down on bullying.
- Staying with the same teacher, counselor and administrator for three years helps helps students to bond with at least one adult who knows them well and advocates for them.
- REAL-Time meets every day for 25 minutes during sixth period (so students aren’t tempted to sleep late and skip it).
- Tuesdays-Thursdays, there is a planned curriculum for REAL-Time that includes organizing, team building, meeting about academics, and holding group discussions. On Mondays and Fridays there is flex time to help with homework, work on IB lessons, and sustained silent reading.
How is REAL-Time working?
The truth is in the numbers. In the pilot conducted during the 2010-2011 school year, 80% of students reported that their REAL-Time teacher knows them and their academic goals; 63% said they are learning skills in REAL-Time that will help them be successful in school and life; 81% reported that REAL-Time has helped them improve organizational skills; and 70% reported that their REAL-Time teacher is helping them develop skills to increase their grades.
More than that, students are developing very specific skills cooperating with one another and helping each other to grow. When I visited a REAL-Time class at Glasgow, students were discussing a short video about setting goals and practicing interacting in an academic environment. Reviewing the norms for group work, one student reminded the others about the need for everyone to “speak with good purpose.”
At the time, I thought, that is a lesson that adults everywhere could stand to be reminded of from time to time.
Laurie Calvert is a Teacher Liaison at the Department of Education, on loan from her school in Buncombe County, N.C.