Cross-Disciplinary Teaming and Active Learning: The Middle School Model

Ever since it sprang from a major study of American high schools and the publication of Theodore Sizer’s book Horace’s Compromise, the Coalition of Essential Schools has seen itself primarily as a high school reform movement. But some of the healthiest examples of Essential School principles and pedagogy can be found at the middle school level. A well-established national movement toward “developmentally appropriate” education in early adolescence has led to widespread acceptance in middle schools of cross-disciplinary and team teaching, strategies to promote active and collaborative learning, and personal attention to individual students’ progress.

Far from being an exception to this middle school reform trend, Jefferson County is one of its leaders. Nearly all of its 23 middle schools have already gone through the schoolwide soul-searching involved in the Middle Grades Assessment Program (developed by the Ford Foundation and North Carolina’s pioneering Center for Early Adolescence). The changes that followed were subtle at first, as teachers began to see themselves as the architects of change in their schools. But they soon burgeoned into a thriving culture of empowerment; middle school teachers are among the most energized and satisfied people working in this school district today.

“The best middle schools are a combination of the best elementary and the best high school people,” says Barbara Staples, a 24-year teaching veteran who works at Conway Middle School, which reflects many Essential School principles though it is not a CES member. In its sixth year of change since teachers there voted to restructure their school, Conway is organized around seven interdisciplinary teams of four to six teachers each. Each team has a common planning period, its own budget, and the flexibility to schedule to meet its students’ particular needs. Most teams serve one grade level only, but one is a multi-age group, and another focuses primarily on the arts.

Perhaps because they were not wedded to the more specialized subject-area focus of the conventional high school curriculum, Conway teachers were able to work closely in these teams on setting new learning goals for their students. “Before this, most of us were typical junior-high teachers,” Staples says. “Students didn’t come first; we just wanted them to stay in their seats.” She credits principal Dennis Boswell with pushing teachers to take new risks in the classroom, and to open themselves up to suggestions and non-evaluative coaching by their peers.

“At the start of the school year we all go on a two-day staff retreat at an out-of-town hotel,” she says. At one such gathering, Staples and co-teacher Susan Sharp led a workshop on “student as worker,” and when school started they made themselves available to other teachers who were trying out new ideas in the classroom. Conway has a grant for two “coordinating teachers” who take others’ classes during such times, underlining the school’s commitment to classroom- level change.

“The system is built on respect, on working with someone’s strengths,” Staples says. “There is a personal aspect to being willing to try all this–the team is truly a family. Even a conservative teacher is often willing to try something new just to keep the flow of the group going.”

Cross-disciplinary teams meet daily to plan curriculum and activities, but Conway’s departments also meet monthly–both to discuss active learning as it applies in their disciplines, and to ensure a sense of continuous subject-area progress across the grades. “At the high-school level this kind of thing will take on its own form,” Barbara Staples says. But for an example of how to structure a school around cross-disciplinary learning, she believes, high schools could do worse than to look at Conway’s plan. And the experience has clearly given Conway’s teachers new energy and professional pride. “After 24 years I don’t know the meaning of burnout,” Staples says. “Teaching is more wonderful every day.”