Monday, January 11, 2010

Remembering what is important...

The last couple of years have been hard on many middle schools in Michigan. Budgets have been slashed and teachers' jobs have been lost. These cuts can have a drastic impact on middle schools that attempt to operate under the true middle school model. Being able to implement common planning time, advisory periods, and an exploratory curriculum often means that middle schools are staff heavy.

My middle school was created in 1997, when the district built a new high school. The old high school had been a 7-12 building but would now house 5-8. The principal at the time decided if we were going to be a middle school, we were going to do it right. And we did! A comprehensive school reform grant allowed us to learn about the best structures and practices of a model middle school.

My school has not escaped the budget woes, and over the years, our staff numbers are down. We have managed to hang on to common planning time and we believe strongly that we teach CHILDREN not subjects. Yet many constraints had left us tired. This winter, with renewed energy and enthusiasm, the staff decided to revive a program that had been abandoned when changes in state testing times and other obligations and concerns made us feel too weighted down to continue.

The program was given that name SPARKS, which stands for Special Programs All Reaching Kids. Yes, we were in a crazy acronym phase when the program was developed! But really, despite its bulky full name, the program does have the power to spark interest and enthusiasm in both staff and students. It is a program that aligns with our values as a developmentally appropriate middle school with an exploratory curriculum and with a focus on students as individuals.

The goals of SPARKS are simple:
1. Give students a chance to participate in a skill or interest outside of the traditional curriculum.
2. Build relationships between students and staff by keeping groups small and class offerings anonymous.
3. Build relationships and mentorships between students by allowing mixed grade level groupings. (Our middle school is 5-8 and we usually keep very distinct and separate boundaries between 5-6 and 7-8.)

To achieve these goals, each teacher came up with a course offering and wrote a description. Students ranked their top three choices and were placed into a SPARKS class. In this current SPARKS session, we conducted our SPARKS classes on the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday before winter break, from 2:00 to 3:00. Many staff members chose to offer courses in which the students would be creating projects that they could use as holiday gifts. Others were designed to showcase the interests and talents of staff. Some staff members worked together to provide unique experiences for our students. Everyone was so happy that we took the time to remember what is important with our kids: building relationships as we build new skills and interests. Please view the videos to see the fun our students had!

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