Coming of Age

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The teaching in this classroom, as in many of the others, features a lot of direct instruction— another vestige of the traditional junior high school.

The teaching in this classroom, as in many of the others, features a lot of direct instruction—another vestige of the traditional junior high school. Teachers frequently stand at the front of the room, talking students through math problems, sentence structure, or photosynthesis.

In a science class on classification, teacher Jimmy Tadlock hovers over an overhead projector, helping students slot rye, butter, cream, and other food products under the group headings "Dairy," "Bread," and "Poultry." Then he shifts to a fill-in-the-blank exercise: "What is nomenclature?" "What is a binomial?" "Give an example of a genus name."

The class is disciplined, and the responses come fast and furious. But that doesn't mean that the material covered is going to stick, as the teacher himself acknowledges over lunch. "I get frustrated," says Tadlock, a soft-spoken African American who came to Canton after a career as a naval intelligence officer. "They don't remember the information they've learned in the past. For instance, they couldn't remember the periodic table from a year ago. And while they do know some things, like what a hypothesis is, they can't relate it to the real world. All they know is the textbook definition."

Tadlock is particularly concerned about his students' difficulties with conceptualizing. Once, he had his students make paper shoes of different kinds and sizes as part of a classification lesson, but a lot of them couldn't get past the first cut. "They have a lot of trouble with abstraction," he says, "and a lot them needed me to tell them they were doing OK every step of the way. It's the same with the Internet. It's hard for them to use it as a tool. If what they're looking for is not on the 'page' right before them, they're lost."

But for all of his hand-wringing, Tadlock says he's made progress with these students, in part because he's had many of them for three years. "I push them so hard that they cringe, but they'll work hard for me now."

Tadlock and the rest of the Canton faculty are trying to improve their students' conceptual thinking by giving them more complex problem-solving tasks. "We need to hit different modalities of learning—to involve them in projects that get them to move, touch, feel, smell," says Patrick Mogge. "Textbook learning just won't do it for them."

Canton teachers recognize that maintaining order and emphasizing the basics are necessary first steps, but they also believe that they need to do more to promote the development of intellectual skills. Although Canton's test scores have jumped dramatically over the past few years, the increase has come on basic-skills exams that do not assess higher-order thinking. On a statewide assessment that involves a lot more problem-solving, only 17.5 percent of Canton 8th graders performed at the satisfactory level last year. Although better than many other Baltimore schools and a dramatic improvement over Canton's 6.4 percent showing in 1993, the results are certainly nothing to brag about.

"We had to address the culture of the school first, building the infrastructure," Spilman says. "Curriculum could not be our priority in the beginning, but it's our biggest priority now."

Canton has implemented an expeditionary-learning program promoted by New American Schools, a national reform project.

This year, in an attempt to introduce more challenging, hands-on work, Canton has implemented an expeditionary-learning program promoted by New American Schools, a national reform project. Essentially, an expedition is a complex investigation into a real-world situation. In a social studies expedition called "American Can," students pay several visits to an old Baltimore cannery that is being converted into a shopping mall and meet with the architects, designers, and developers. The expedition culminates with the students surveying the community to see what stores and services area residents want in the new complex. They then send their recommendations to the developer along with a detailed floor plan of the site.

Canton students take four expeditions over the course of a school year. The other three projects this year are: "What Is a Metropolis?" in which students design and build a model city; "Ethnic Diversity in the Canton Community," which features a dramatization of the immigration process at Ellis Island; and "What Does It Mean To Be Green?" a study of plants that includes fieldwork at parks and nature conservatories.

The expedition classrooms are busy, noisy, and productive places. The Metropolis classroom is set up like an architectural firm, with teacher Sarah Karlinsky acting as the chief partner. The students are just beginning the unit, and Karlinsky asks them to draw a bird's-eye view of their desks to scale.

"What's a bird's-eye view?" a student asks.

"It's like how things look from an airplane," someone answers.

"I've never been on no airplane," the first student says.

Some find the drawing surprisingly difficult. They are not accustomed to this kind of conceptualizing. One kid transposes a pencil holder from the left side of the desk to the right; another draws a pencil the size of a hat pin. But eventually, with the assistance of Karlinsky and classmates, everyone gets it right.

For homework, Karlinsky asks the students to draw their kitchen tables to scale. Eventually, she will ask them to do a scaled drawing of a city.

"They'll have to know the difference between commercial and residential construction and learn how to see things in three dimensions instead of just two," Karlinsky says after class. "And they'll have to be able to use some math to calculate area and perimeter. It's hard for some of them, but it gives those who have trouble with reading a chance to express their skills with drawing and drafting."

Karlinsky opens the door to a room where a completed Metropolis model city is stored. The cardboard houses and buildings are a bit ramshackled, and some lean to one side, but it's a city all right—a city perhaps not all that different from the one in which the students live.

In the final analysis, a middle school's success must be judged on the academic achievement of its students. Placing special ed kids in the regular classroom, eliminating ability grouping, freeing teachers to develop their own philosophies and approaches, and teaming them long-term with groups of students—these are important only to the extent that they promote learning.

In the final analysis, a middle school's success must be judged on the academic achievement of its students.

"In the early years, the middle school movement was affective, too affective," Spilman says. "There was too much talk about making kids feel good and not enough talk about curriculum and standards. We're changing that."

Johnston of the University of South Florida points out that middle-grades reform has its roots in humanistic psychology. "And it's a valuable thing, too," he adds. "Basically, it says that kids develop at their own pace and that if you screw it up too much you'll have trouble. But this idea was sometimes carried to the extreme, and too many middle schools wrapped themselves in the banner of 'helping children grow,' neglecting the fact that the public holds educators accountable for achievement."

The Long Beach, California, school district, which is nationally known for its middle schools, has avoided this pitfall. Some eight years ago, the district began teaming middle school students and teachers. It also rewrote the middle school curriculum and adopted school uniforms. But it wasn't until the school system implemented academic standards four years ago that student achievement began to turn around, says Kristi Kahl, a district spokeswoman.

"Standards have really driven change rather than the prevalent idea that you have to create something that looks like a middle school," Kahl says. "Teaming won't do it nor will uniforms and portfolio assessments. Frankly, you could have a school that still looks like a traditional junior high, and if the kids are meeting standards you must be doing something right."

Canton Middle School is clearly doing something right. Test scores are rising, suspensions are falling, and students are being asked to meet standards for the first time. But unlike Kahl, most Canton teachers insist that none of this could have been accomplished if the school had continued to look like a traditional junior high.

"We nurture kids for three years," says LeJerne Cornish, principal of one of Canton's two houses. "In some cases, we mother and father them. We stay on top of kids who are having problems or are not working up to par. We find out what's bothering them and take steps to help. That's why this school works."

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