Middle school programming: How AHB Community School’s progressive model keeps middle years students engaged in the learning process

I asked AHB Community School Executive Director Sasha Cesare to explain the unique school’s approach to middle school education. In response, she submitted this guest post, written collaboratively by staff and other community members, including insights and images gathered from AHB teachers and real, live students.


What can middle school feel like? What should middle school feel like? Sadly, in our culture, it is often the accepted default that tweens and teenagers are “difficult,” and middle school is just basically a rotten time. “Everybody gets through it. You will too,” is often the response of even the most caring and connected parents.

But what if you don’t accept that? What if you expect something more for your child in their middle years? What if you continue to expect your child to be enthusiastic about and dedicated to school, and you expect school to continue to engage, nurture, and challenge your child?

What would that look like?

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“Every morning I am happy to come to school and have fun with my best friends!”
“Always fun, not boring. Always, just fun.”

These quotes are the words of middle school students at AHB Community School, a progressive K–8 school in Central Austin that has been providing a creative and collaborative educational alternative for Austin families since 2004. In those 15 years, we have learned a few things about how to keep middle school students involved, challenged, and happy, while preparing them for the target high schools of their choice. It is not the only good model for educating young adolescents, but it’s a model worthy of study.

The AHB Community School Middle Years Program (MYP) is a four-day-per-week (with optional fifth day) program designed for students aged 11 to 14, working together in what is known internally as the “Delta” class. The MYP, built on the best of international and national standards, emphasizes intellectual challenges, interdisciplinary understandings of the world around them, and a sense of belonging and service to one’s community.

Specifically, the AHB Middle Years Program is built around five key tenets:

  1. Inquiry-based, interdisciplinary projects

  2. A student-centered curriculum

  3. A developmentally appropriate social-emotional learning (SEL) environment

  4. A community-minded, service-oriented focus

  5. Strong academics

What does that look like in the classroom?

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Here’s a week in the life, as described by the MYP teachers:

Currently, the MYP students are studying world geography as their theme, and therefore, along with map work, we have math, reading, and writing work that all relates to our world studies. Each week, students have the opportunity to explore the part of the world on which we are focused through cooking, art, theater, poetry/literature, music, architecture, politics, and/or wildlife. We are learning about the building of the Panama Canal, the endangerment of the Amazon rainforest, and mining of precious metals in Africa by researching, presenting to, and teaching one another in small groups.

In math we did some algebraic arithmetic in the African language of Hausa, which is spoken by 40–50 million people. Students had to decipher what value each Hausa word meant in numerous equations using substitution. We then got into small groups and tackled a major algebraic and logic problem where we had to create a formula for how many fields were required to feed a community in Africa when concrete numbers were not known. The overall goals were to be able to manipulate variables even when the values are not known and be able to work with them in terms of each other. Each group did an amazing job and made huge conceptual headway in terms of learning how to think algebraically.

Later, we switched gears and did a Lorax Stock Market Game project that included reading Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, coming up with potential rules for the Once-ler to have created a sustainable business and environment, taking the Once-ler to trial and acting out the trial complete with judges, attorneys, jury, foreman, a bailiff, the Lorax, and the Once-ler. We also discussed the concept of environmentally responsible investing and how the students could diversify their own Stock Market Game portfolios to be more diversified, including incorporating more “green” organizations into their teams’ stock holdings.

In Language Arts we are learning how to write descriptive settings that use effective figurative language and how to develop an integral setting as a “character” that drives the characterization, plot, and mood of a fictional story. We are researching real-world geographic locations as inspiration for settings and creating different types of maps to illustrate settings for these original narratives.

Throughout each week, our students apply the concepts of theme to the learning objectives and are able to exercise significant choice in their projects.

—submitted by Kirsten Coleman & Alice Elder, the MYP co-teachers
Together, they have over 15 years of experience teaching at AHB Community School.

What do the AHB middle school students have to say about this model?

About the inquiry-based learning and interdisciplinary projects:

“AHB has a great way of teaching kids about how to tackle problems.” 

“The Delta teachers make understanding tough subjects a more community-centered and in-depth experience by including captivating projects into the curriculum.”

“AHB makes learning as fun as can be by doing project-based learning, which is better than sitting around doing worksheets.”

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About the student-centered curriculum:

“Students are engaged because we have choices, responsibilities.”

“The teachers will teach you according to your intellectual level, not your age/grade.” “The students get to have a major say in upcoming projects.”

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About the developmentally appropriate SEL environment:

“We do a lot of group projects that help you interact with your peers and get better relationships with them.” 

“There is both freedom and structure.”

“We have daily recess time and get to be outside.”

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About the community-minded, service-oriented focus:

“We do Hope Food Pantry every month.”

“We do projects that are aimed at helping our community.”

“We did science fair projects that were about solving world-wide problems.”

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About the academics:

“AHB is academically flexible but also pushes the students to the point of being ready for high school.”

“AHB is very good at preparing children for high school. It meets children at their level and tries to teach them in the best way possible for that kid. I have been here seven years and I have never experienced feeling unprepared for a certain task or assignment.”

“Some [students] are better at math, some at language arts, and we really accommodate that.”

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A Different Paradigm for the Middle Years

Every stage of childhood and the coinciding parenting phase has unique challenges, but the AHB Middle Years Program challenges the assumption that school bores “big kids.” We are convinced, and see daily evidence in our classrooms, that 12- and 13-year-olds can be just as smiling, curious, and energetic as our youngest learners. They simply need a classroom and teachers that grow with them, taking on the delicate dance of both nurturing and challenging the students as needed.

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Is your teen ready to take the dual credit plunge?

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About 40 percent of all US undergraduates are attending community colleges today, and that percentage is on the rise for many reasons, including lower tuition costs, smaller class sizes, and the ability for students to explore several interests before deciding on a major and transferring to a four-year college or university.

Zach Denton, ACC’s Manager of High School Programs – Enrollment & Outreach

Zach Denton, ACC’s Manager of High School Programs – Enrollment & Outreach

Here in central Texas, the Austin Community College (ACC) system is especially robust, with many opportunities for students who are still in high school as well as those who’ve just graduated. Currently, about 7,000 students are enrolled in high school “dual enrollment” programs, in which kids are able to pursue college credit and high school credit simultaneously. Zach Denton, Manager of High School Programs – Enrollment & Outreach at ACC, estimates that around 10 percent of those in dual enrollment programs are homeschooled.

According to Zach, the overwhelming majority of dual enrollment students are taking Core Curriculum courses, which cover a broad variety of traditional academic subjects, including math, English, history, life and physical sciences, foreign languages, and psychology. “The advantage to taking Core Curriculum courses is that they are widely transferable to other public colleges/universities in the state of Texas, as well as many private institutions.” And these courses are often eligible for reduced or waived tuition fees.

Camille North, homeschooling leader, consultant, coach, and parent

Camille North, homeschooling leader, consultant, coach, and parent

Camille North, whose three homeschooled kids all took advantage of ACC in different ways, now provides help for students grappling with college decisions through workshops, coaching, and lots of resources available on her website, Brain Bump Consulting. Camille warns parents and kids that going to ACC isn’t what they may imagine—it’s not all 18- and 19-year-olds out on their own for the first time. “The problem I’m seeing most,” says Camille, “is that kids are getting interested in going to ACC at younger ages, and they may not be ready socially or emotionally, even if they’re ready academically.” Most ACC students are adults, not teenagers, and therefore younger students have to be comfortable hearing adult language, possibly sitting in a classroom with other students who are trying to start over after having been in prison, being “hit on” by people five or ten years older, and lots of other things that could be a shock.

Zach agrees. “It’s one thing for a test to say you are college ready,” he explains, “but there are many other characteristics and skills that will determine whether a student (regardless of age!) is truly ready for college and will be successful.” Time management, maturity, attention to detail, and personal responsibility are all vital.

Both Camille and Zach also emphasize that students and parents have to understand that ACC courses stick with students as part of their college transcripts forever. Zach advises young people that “this is not a situation where you can just simply dip your foot in the water to see what it’s like—you have to be ready to jump in head first and swim!”

All these warnings aren’t meant to discourage kids, but to make sure their eyes are wide open. Camille adds, “I’m a big fan of community college as an option for kids who want to move ahead academically, but it’s not for every student. And that includes online courses, which some families opt for instead of on-campus classes.” Self-directed learning, she says, is a big transition for young people who are used to one-on-one guidance and learning in a close-knit community or family.

One of Camille’s own kids has chosen the “2 plus 2” option of living at home and completing a full two-year course of study at ACC after high school so he can make sure he knows what he wants to study before committing to a four-year college or university. This option, she says, is a nice, “gentle transition” to life away from home for students who don’t want an abrupt change at age 17 or 18.

Overall, says Zach, there are some clear positives for students who decide to attend ACC before moving on to a four-year school: 1) the cost, 2) smaller class sizes (which are usually capped at 36 students), and 3) lots of convenient locations. If you have (or are) a teen who is interested in “jumping in head first and swimming,” check out these ACC sites:


Shelley Sperry

Austin’s STEM schools are fueled by kids’ and educators’ natural curiosity

The technology and engineering sectors are producing valuable jobs in Austin and the rest of the nation, and, perhaps as a result, a growing number of parents want to encourage a love of science and mathematics in their children. It makes sense that we’re seeing more and more schools promoting Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) curricula. STEM courses and camps are popular in public and private schools, but as you might expect, the alternative schools in Austin offer some special twists. To learn more, I talked with local innovators who are taking STEM in new directions: Rebeca Guerrero and Dorothy and Kori McLain.
 

Geologists rock on at Copernicus.

Geologists rock on at Copernicus.

It’s important to be able to take a radio apart, and not get scolded!
—Rebeca Guerrero, Copernicus STEM, Language and Arts Academy

Rebeca Guerrero’s warm and supportive preschool, Copernicus STEM, Language and Arts Academy, has served children age 18 months to 5 years for the past two years.

Rebeca is a scientist herself, with a decade of experience as a microbiologist. When she realized that most young people today leave high school and head for college believing that science is too hard to master, and only for the smartest kids, she knew she had to try to make some changes. Rebeca’s own mother encouraged her to take an interest in the world and to ask questions and explore when she was very young. “As someone who used to take radios apart for fun, with my mother’s help, it was a shocking revelation that so many students are intimidated by science.”  

Invertebrates are awesome. (Copernicus)

Invertebrates are awesome. (Copernicus)

Rebeca moved into teaching and then, when her son was born a few years ago, decided to open her own preschool, allowing them to spend time together, playing and learning with other children. In the fall of 2015, Copernicus Academy started with four students, soon grew to 20, and today has about 50. The preschool combines STEM-focused play with learning in English and Spanish.

“Most of our kids speak English at home, but we have also had children who speak Korean and Farsi.” Parents at Copernicus understand the value of a bilingual education, says Rebeca, but “more than anything, families are looking for a place where kids can grow and feel supported emotionally.” With that supportive base, Copernicus educators pursue play-based learning with intention, making sure the students have experiences that spark a love of the natural world. For example, kids might spend a month learning about the solar system, including Earth’s rotation, the moon’s phases, integrating art and reading into their projects.

On an average day, you might find kids at Copernicus perfecting catapults made out of spoons, cooperating, experimenting, and showing off what they’ve done by launching pompoms. The usual routine includes time in the sun room or outside, snacks, small-group play, centers, and circle time. The staff joins in games and activities, asking questions but never telling the children what or how to play. And then there’s the music: “We sing and have dance parties every day,” says Rebeca. “We want to make sure that later in life they will say: ‘Science is not boring, it’s fun! Science is not for someone else—science is for me.’”

 

LTSA students on a NASA field trip.

LTSA students on a NASA field trip.

Everything is connected in our studies at LTSA,
like everything in our world is connected and integrated.

—Dorothy McLain, Lake Travis Stem Academy


At Lake Travis Stem Academy (LTSA), founder Kori McLain was not only inspired by her mother, she recruited her. Dorothy McLain spent most of her career as a college educator specializing in English composition and literature. Now she and Kori and the rest of the LTSA team are preparing about 25 students in Kindergarten through 9th grade for the 21st century, with a curriculum integrating STEM, critical thinking, and experiential learning. LTSA is now working on a partnership with UT High School that will allow older students to continue on at Lake Travis while benefitting from the resources the larger school can offer.

Dorothy has always believed in an interdisciplinary approach to learning. “It’s important to become well-rounded,” she says, citing a recent project in which middle-schoolers learned about the history, economics, politics, and culture of the Great Depression by writing and staging a three-act musical play.

Inspiration. (LTSA)

Inspiration. (LTSA)

“We are both experiential and project-based,” Dorothy explains. Students are engaged in hands-on, real-world activities that give them the opportunity to collaborate with each other and with outside experts to come up with solutions to problems or answer questions. At the end of each unit, instead of a traditional exam, students present their findings to the rest of the school and to the experts who have helped them. “They’re able to share their ideas with the rest of the community and have to think on their feet when the audience asks surprising questions!”

“We learn more from our failures than our successes,” adds Kori. If a model airplane a team has created doesn’t fly, then it’s back to the drawing board for more experiments. Just like in real life.

The overarching goals at both Copernicus and LTSA are to free the natural curiosity in each student and to keep them engaged and asking why? “They all see things around them and want to know more,” says Dorothy. “After that initial curiosity is aroused, we can then go deeper, encouraging them to think, ask more questions, and stay excited about learning.”


Shelley Sperry
 

P.E. for the soul


Guest contributor Kim Hiles teaches physical education for Kindergarten through 5th grade at Austin Discovery School, a homegrown, progressive charter school in East Austin. She has training and expertise in special education, behavioral coaching, mediation, and conflict resolution and is a Third-Degree Reiki practitioner. She blogs at Kim's Korner. Empowering others is her passion.   


I have been fortunate to have found a school that thinks outside the box and encourages the students to do the same. This was a school that called to me, over 10 years ago, because of its weekly hikes, gardening program, academic philosophy, and positive approach to discipline. After working in a Montessori School, and learning so much about what respect looks and feel like, I knew I wanted a school that fosters the whole child. I wanted this for my child and for myself—a place where professionals cultivate this in each other.

I am a physical education teacher at Austin Discovery School. My job is to teach students to love their bodies, take care of their bodies, listen to their bodies, and feed their bodies nourishing things. This can look different from one person to the next, so I teach students to do their own research and find what works for them, which also helps nurture tolerance and acceptance.

I love starting the beginning of the year with our Cooperation unit. In this unit, our focus is on character building, integrity, and honesty. Students begin by practicing what it means to really trust someone by doing free fall and other trust activities. We encourage teamwork with games such as the Human Knot, Parachute, and BLOB. In this unit students also learn how to assertively take care of themselves by speaking up as well as listening compassionately.

Students at most schools are taught to go to an adult so that the adult can fix their problems. At our school, however, and in this class, we teach students how to problem solve so that they have the skills to go off into the world as solvers, innovators, and bringers of peace. We use Conscious Discipline by Dr. Becky Bailey, a wonderful program that fosters love of self and others. Our school also uses restorative practices. Starting class with circle and ending class with appreciations/shares (and using the talking stick) fosters connection, and connection is the key to everything.

P.E. must be a positive experience for every student. In our classes, we introduce a wide variety of activities to help students find a love in something fun and healthy for the body, so they will enjoy an active life. I also offer dance, yoga, and guided meditation. The students love it when they practice “sponge” (a yoga pose) and I take them on a journey.
 


I like to think that I teach P.E. for the soul, wellness for the whole self. In truth, wellness isn’t just about what we do physically but is more about how we treat ourselves holistically. It is about the messages we give to ourselves and the focus of our thoughts and beliefs. When a student is struggling and saying, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” I remind them that it is very true when this is their focus. Instead, when we give more positive messages to ourselves, we are feeding self-love into the body, which in turn can teach us new things and keep us strong, healthy, and confident. I tell the students that our bodies are listening to what we say, so it’s important to feed our body kind thoughts. In our classroom we have a Safe Place (all classes on campus have these), and on the wall are affirmations such as “I can handle it,” “I am enough,” and “I am doing my best, and my best is enough.”

P.E. for the soul is my journey. It’s a full and fulfilled life with no regrets. It’s a celebration of mind/body/soul and an awakening into awareness. It's a realization that I am doing what I came here to do. Look for my memoir coming soon.


Kim Hiles
 

Synergy Middle School: “Together we can do so much.”

Rachel Green Soto is one of the most creative, hard-working, and accomplished people in Austin. She is a community organizer and educator with over 14 years experience in the public, private, and co-school communities. Rachel is best known as the founder, director, and teacher of Verona Schoolhouse, a pre-K and kindergarten program in southwest Austin; founder and board chair of the nonprofit Kairos Ed; and founder and executive director of the new Synergy Middle School. We invited Rachel to the blog to explain how she dreamed up the unique Synergy program and what makes it so special.


“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” Helen Keller recognized the power of a community that brings together its unique gifts to serve all more fully. I couldn’t agree more, and this thought has inspired me to continue my life’s work of responding to the educational needs of our community in collaboration with some of the biggest names in essential youth programs in Austin. Together, we have redesigned the middle school experience to be one where students thrive, not just survive as so many young teens currently find themselves doing in conventional schools.

Synergy Middle School’s vision, adopted from Kairos Ed, is to maximize meaningful learning opportunities within and beyond the classroom by facilitating a culture of collaboration that ignites curiosity, nurtures strengths, and empowers students, families, and educators.

Austin is bursting with amazing youth programs that offer learning opportunities as afterschool classes, spring break and summer camps, and homeschool classes. As a co-school family for many years, we have had the ability to pick and choose our own combination of classes that we consider “essential” parts of our schooling rather than “enrichment.” These programs have provided new experiences, broader content, and refined skills that, as my child’s primary teacher, I have been able to build on, connect to, and weave into our full learning experience. The combination of outside programs with integrated academic content has proven to be a very effective way to deepen learning and make it fun and relevant. Our “a la carte” version of schooling has gone far beyond the four walls of our house and my own expertise as a homeschooling parent. Instead of being limited to my skill set, my kids have had the privilege of also learning from a handful of other teachers with their own knowledge, skills, and passions.

Middle school can be an uncertain and sensitive time of life for students. So much is changing, physically, emotionally, socially, and academically, that these students require the most engaged learning environment possible. Additionally, middle school is an ideal time to introduce a more flexible, yet still structured, environment that allows students new freedom and independence where they naturally desire it, variety to keep things interesting, and a socially and emotionally supportive team of educators to help them navigate these crucial years of development.

Inspired by the positive experience of my family’s a la carte co-schooling years and with a heart to provide wraparound support to students and families during the critical middle school years, I created Synergy Middle School as a full-time, alternative education school that will open in Fall 2017 to its inaugural class of 6th graders and grow by one grade level each year to serve grades 6–8. Synergy Middle School is combining the expertise of established local programs already providing classes to the community and the skill and oversight of professional classroom teachers into one school program.

The handpicked essential youth programs with whom Synergy Middle School is partnering includes outdoor education from Earth Native Wilderness School, visual arts classes from The Art Garage Austin, theater and robotics through the Paramount Theatre, aerial yoga and mindfulness from Yogapeutics, and guitar/voice lessons from Don’t Stop Rockin’.

Teacher-Mentors, the Synergy name for classroom teachers, will provide the students with content area instruction in math, language arts, science, and social studies, multidisciplinary curriculum design skills, and the heart and training to mentor middle school students during these pivotal years. Teacher-Mentors intentionally weave together the five days of programming into one amazing middle school experience connecting academic, social, and experiential learning together in the minds, hearts, and bodies of middle schoolers.


Rachel Green Soto

Holistic eating, playing, and learning make for healthy kids at Integrity Academy


The sign in the Casa de Luz dining hall, which serves Integrity Academy’s students and mentors—as well as the public—in central Austin says simply, “Nature is our menu planner.”

At Integrity Academy kids ages three to thirteen experience lunch time and snack time as opportunities “to commune over food in a public setting, with manners and reverence,” says Executive Director Ali Ronder. As beautifully shown in a recent video (above), they use real dishes, glassware, and cloth napkins instead of styrofoam trays and plastic sporks. The kids also help to grow their own food in an organic garden, including a “rainbow garden,” where they are currently planting the red end of the spectrum, including strawberries.

Students learn about nutrition in twice weekly classes, making yummy snacks like banana “sushi” and blueberry smoothies. Ali says that taco day is everyone’s favorite, but all the lunches on the weekly menu are tasty, colorful, and vegan.

Celebrating Integrity Academy’s dedication to serving students plant-based, healthy, organic meals, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine recently awarded the school a “Golden Carrot” and a prize of $750.

“Not only are these foods helping students stay focused and energized in the classroom, but they’re also reducing long-term risk for chronic diseases,” according to Physicians Committee dietician Karen Smith.
 


The academy’s educational philosophy has always included devotion to a whole food, plant-based diet as the basis for healthy learning. Two full hours of the students’ day are devoted to learning how to care for their own bodies through yoga and games, in addition to nutrition and gardening classes.

Parents and mentors at Integrity Academy point to the fact that even kids who are initially wary end up enthusiastic vegan eaters as their palates develop over time. And with healthy bodies come more energy and the “emotional resilience” that makes learning and getting along with each other so much easier and more fun. All you have to do is take a look at the academy’s blog to see that’s true.
 


Shelley Sperry