School & District Management

Schooled in ‘Purposeful Fun’

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 04, 2000 9 min read
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Standing Out

Higher test scores and national recognition have met with their share of hoopla at Barren County Middle School. But it is outside the glow of the spotlight that schooling gets really exciting, teachers here say, because on any given day, students can demonstrate with clarity and enthusiasm that they are “getting it.”

As when 8th graders hurl their carefully designed boxes—creatively lined with anything from foam to marshmallows to Jell-O to cushion the raw eggs inside—off a school balcony as a test of their scientific calculations.

Or as teams of serious-minded students taste peanut butter, saturate disposable diapers, and put dozens of other everyday products to the test to learn about the scientific method, mathematical applications, and consumerism.

Barren County Middle adopted an arts-focused curriculum to engage students—part of a revamp that has earned it national recognition.

And when one of the “biggest, meanest, cutup-clown boys” stands in character in a dented trash can reciting “The Dirtiest Man in the World,” showing off his understanding of the poetic elements of the humorous Shel Silverstein poem.

As educators continue their painstaking work to improve curriculum and instruction, they are heartened by these and many other dramatic changes here over the past few years.

“These kids are no longer bored with school,” says Linda Priore, the school’s counselor. “We used to have to fight kids’ going to sleep in class.”

Few students have the time, or the inclination, to nap anymore. Teachers and administrators have taken great pains to breathe life into school for these 570 7th and 8th graders, and to lay out high expectations for all of them to meet.

“What we try to do is create what we call purposeful fun,” says former Principal Michelle Pedigo. “Everything we do in the classroom must be high in interest and high in student engagement, but must also have a purpose and an assessment.”

That combination has helped Barren County Middle School take giant leaps on state tests in mathematics, reading, and science and to move from the middle of the pack among the state’s 336 middle schools to among the top 40 since 1995. It has earned Barren County the title School To Watch— one of just four nationwide to win that endorsement from the National Forum To Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform for their focus on academic excellence, developmental appropriateness, and social equity. And, as a pilot site for a whole-school-improvement initiative, Barren County is helping design a middle school program to raise student achievement through arts-focused curricula and research on “multiple intelligences” and varied learning styles.

Shedding a Legacy

The vision that now guides instruction here started to come into focus when the school opened six years ago. While the modern building and the introduction of the middle school philosophy were met with enthusiasm by students and teachers alike, the school was already marred by mediocrity, thanks to the legacy of the district’s junior high schools.

‘These kids are no longer bored with school. We used to have to fight [them] going to sleep.’

“When we opened the middle school doors, even before the first day of school, we were told we were substandard academically” under the state’s school rating system, says Bill Walter, the principal at the time. Moreover, says Walter, now the director of personnel for the 3,700-student Barren County school system, the wounds of school consolidation had left some residents resentful that their children were being torn away from their neighborhood schools at too young an age.

“It was a big job to sell the middle school, not only the middle school philosophy,” he says.

Walter and his staff decided that drastic changes to both the structure and academic program were needed to counteract that history and a reputation that placed Barren County schools a distant second, in many people’s minds, to the neighboring public school district. Most local parents with the financial means paid out-of-district tuition to send their children there. But in this predominantly white community where one-third of the students are considered poor, Barren County schools are the only educational opportunity for most children.

Pedigo, who left the principal’s position to become the district’s secondary instructional director this year, and Walter began to set high academic goals that are clearly defined for both teachers and students. Except for math, students at all ability levels are grouped together in class, though those identified as gifted are pulled out for a state-mandated program twice a month.

The principals also established a rigorous grading policy—which grants an A for 95 percent or better and a B for 84 percent to 94 percent—that has raised the bar for all students.

“If [Barren County Middle School was] going to be the best in the state of Kentucky, which was the goal, students knew we had to work hard,” says Aleia Shirley, who graduated from the school last May. “We were always aware of how much was expected of us and how much we could do.”

Proof of Learning

The ambitious attitude exuded by many students here has been years in the making.

In the beginning, Barren County fell into the same trap that has ensnared many middle schools: It initially veered sharply toward meeting students’ social and emotional needs and put academic rigor on the back burner.

District officials, however, believed a keen emphasis on the nonacademic side was necessary to lay the groundwork for an effective transition to the middle school concept.

“We spent too much time on exploratories [nongraded electives] and did a lot of cutesy interdisciplinary units,” says Pedigo. “That’s why we were 141st [among middle schools in the state]. But we had to swing hard that way in order for teachers to internalize what is developmental appropriateness.”

Eventually, teachers moved toward creating more effective connections across disciplines in ways that meet the varied needs of students.

“We are so much more aware of what everybody’s teaching,” says Kathy Lowe, a veteran social studies teacher.

“This is real integration,” adds Tammy Stephens, who taught language arts here before becoming an instructional coach for schools in the area this year. “There is no more just introducing themes and connecting them in a surface way.”

The teachers credit the transformation to the school’s embrace of Different Ways of Knowing, or DWOK, a program created by the Los Angeles-based Galef Institute. The initiative combines a student-centered philosophy, intensive professional development, and an integrated curriculum—aligned with Kentucky’s academic standards—that relies on the arts to help students gain deeper knowledge of core subjects.

The three-year program requires up to 38 hours of professional development for teachers, including regular seminars and workshops, as well as summer institutes and monthly coaching sessions.

Barren County and the nearby district in Adairville, Ky., were the first in the country to use DWOK, which was initially created for elementary schools, at the middle level.

At least two independent research studies have found the elementary model effective in raising student achievement. Proponents attribute those results to the insistence that teachers not “cover the content” as much as concentrate on what they want students to learn. They then continually measure—through written and linguistic assessments and students’ demonstration of skills—how well students are meeting those expectations. The results are analyzed carefully by team members to determine how to help students improve.

“There is constant vigilance in asking [teachers] to show evidence through student work of what is being learned,” says Linda Hargan, the executive director of the Kentucky Collaborative for Teaching and Learning, a Louisville-based group that is helping schools implement DWOK. “They must be very conscious and purposeful in their teaching.”

‘Guinea Pigs’

But making the model work for middle school children has been frustrating for some Barren County teachers, in part because the Galef Institute is still designing materials and training sessions for the middle-grades program. The existing Galef materials are not easily adapted for the higher grades, and textbooks the school purchased for each subject area are inadequate and used primarily as supplementary materials.

In addition, teachers have had to search for ways to put a greater emphasis on math and science than is provided in the existing DWOK curriculum.

“We came into this as kind of the guinea pigs for the middle level, and I’m not sure that was a good place to come in,” says one teacher who had trouble adapting the program for her 8th grade students. “A lot of the activities were not appropriate ... or were too immature for 8th graders.”

The switch to DWOK has caused a handful of teachers to leave the school in the past two years. And at least one of the four teams of teachers, Pedigo acknowledges, continues to use the more traditional curricula and teaching strategies associated with the junior high program. Data showing how students in those teachers’ classrooms are faring compared with the other students are not yet available.

Finding meaningful connections between subjects is often difficult during hourlong, twice-a-week team planning sessions. And many teachers still struggle to cover the subject matter they say is necessary to prepare students for state tests.

The program has been difficult for students as well, but it also offers benefits. For example, ample chances are available for review and remedial instruction for students who are struggling with class lessons. And students can continue to pursue their own interests without missing valuable academic time.

The “exploratories,” which once encompassed an entire class period each day, have been relegated to the Clubhouse, an extensive after-school program for students in 6th through 8th grades and their parents. The program, which relies on community volunteers, provides recreational and club activities—from bowling to kung fu to banking and foreign-language instruction—as well as tutoring and mentoring.

More To Do

While educators here boast of what has already been accomplished, they say they have not let the spotlight blind them to the task ahead.

The school’s overall index score of 60 is among the highest for middle schools in Kentucky, but it still has a way to go to meet the state target of 100 points by 2010. Although math and reading scores rose last year, those in science and writing are still inadequate, officials say.

And last year’s professional development seemed to have less effect on some teachers’ practice than the first year’s, which produced dramatic changes. That pattern contrasts with the progress of teachers at elementary schools where DWOK is being implemented, according to Hargan.

But teachers are taking on even more challenges this school year. The school has started “looping” students—having teachers follow the same class from one grade to the next. And teachers and their colleagues throughout the district have started to create a standard, sequential curriculum to ensure that students are more uniformly prepared for the next grade level.

Lowe and most of her colleagues say the middle school program has helped revitalize their teaching, sharpen their own creativity, and bring innovation to the classroom. Even those veterans who felt more comfortable with the teaching strategies they had relied on for years eventually came to try accepting the newer concepts and activities.

“Before, I was an old-timey teacher,” concedes Becky Moon, a language arts teacher with 26 years in the classroom. Moon says her standard lesson was to assign chapters of a book, have the students learn definitions of key vocabulary words, and answer the questions presented in the textbook or teachers’ manual.

“Now, with DWOK, I use the book as a preview,” she says. “I have students look for other sources for information, and then they do research. I’ve completely changed.”

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