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March 6, 2024

Teaching Channel Talks Episode 87: Middle School is the Niche Within the Niche (w/Jennifer Rose of AMLE)

In this episode of Teaching Channel Talks, we’re taking a closer look at the middle grades with Jennifer Rose, the Director of Professional Development at the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE). From the importance of differentiated professional development to understanding the complex changes students go through during this phase of adolescence, Jennifer and Wendy’s discussion centers around the niche of middle level education and how AMLE is working to support the teachers within it.

Our Guest

Jennifer Rose is the Director of Professional Development at the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE). Jennifer holds a B.F.A. from NYU, and an M.A. in Curriculum & Instruction from the Nathan Weiss Graduate College of Kean University. As both an educator and a leader, she has been focused on middle grade education, supporting middle school teachers and students since the start of her career in 1995. She also specializes in facilitating DEIB work and as an Ed Tech Consultant, helping schools effectively use technology to advance student achievement.

Our Host

Dr. Wendy Amato is the Chief Academic Officer at Teaching Channel’s parent company, K12 Coalition. Wendy earned her Master’s in Education and Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Virginia. She holds an MBA from James Madison University. Wendy began teaching in 1991, has served as a Middle School Administrator, and still teaches at UVA’s School of Education. She has delivered teacher professional development workshops and student leadership workshops in the US and internationally. Wendy and her family live near Charlottesville, Virginia.

Resources for Continued Learning

The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) is an international organization specifically for middle school educators. As the go-to resource for research, best practices, and professional development, AMLE is a community of over 350,000 middle level educators connecting and supporting each other.
Learn more and join the community!

During this episode, Jennifer mentions AMLE’s The Successful Middle School: This We Believe. Teaching Channel is proud to partner with the Association of Middle Level Education in upholding the 18 characteristics listed and offering professional development created specifically for middle school teachers.

AMLE also offers several books focused on the education of young adolescents aged 10-15, which Jennifer mentions in the episode. AMLE members receive a 20% discount on all titles, but these texts are available to all educators.


Episode Transcript

Wendy Amato: Welcome to Teaching Channel Talks. I’m your host, Wendy Amato. As often as I can, I jump into conversations about topics that matter in education. In this episode, I welcome Jennifer Rose, Director for Professional Development at AMLE. Jennifer, welcome.

Jennifer Rose: Thank you, Wendy. I’m really grateful to be here today.

Wendy Amato: What should we focus on in terms of your background?

Jennifer Rose: Well, I’m really grateful, and I think we all are, to be at a time in education where we can focus on the joy of being in middle grades education. My background has been All in middle school. I started as a middle grades educator teaching math. I spent over 25 years as a teacher.

I was an administrator, dean of students worked with different grade level teams, but always middle school. I think that may be because of going to 3 7th grades myself. I grew up in a military family, so we are very familiar with transitions and [00:01:00] middle grades offer huge transitions. So, being part of that.

Personal life informing my my public and professional life. I think it went well together and there’s a lot of gratitude for having the opportunity to do that as my profession.

Wendy Amato: Regardless of whether people like middle school for their own professional environment, they all acknowledge that it’s a critical time of development.

How have you managed to be successful in this critical time of development grade band?

Jennifer Rose: Wow, that’s a great question. So I hope I have been successful. I think I would measure that for myself professionally as knowing that I’ve had students come back and share their joy of the time rather than just being concerned or challenged by that time in middle school, being successful as a middle school educator does require those strong relationships.

It requires an interest in child development, young adolescent development engagement and [00:02:00] opportunities to look outside and think outside of the box and be flexible. So, as I’ve grown as a lifelong learner. I imagine that the students I’ve worked with and the faculty and staff I’ve worked with have seen that and also embraced that lifelong learning sort of mantra and ethos rather than thinking of it as a space and time that is just one part of their lives.

It really does inform everything.

Wendy Amato: Sometimes people talk to me in, in these conversations about middle school is sort of like a spillover from elementary, or it’s just a, a readiness for getting into high school. But when I talk to you, I hear the sacredness of that mid level experience where important things need to happen.

Where development’s critical, where social pressure is extreme, where student identities are beginning to form, I see and hear with you that, that mid level education has to be considered as the special thing that [00:03:00] it is.

Jennifer Rose: I appreciate you saying that and it’s, it’s very true because there are often times that people think it’s just fifth and the sixth grade, it’s just more transitions for students, they’re going from class to class.

They don’t necessarily consider the cognitive and the social, physical, the emotional pieces of that changing. If you imagine a student who walks in the door the first day of a middle school education, which could be fifth grade or sixth grade, depending they walk out as another human being. When they head off to high school, there are years and summers where a student will walk through the doors.

Of September or August the beginning of school year, and they went away the year before and they look like completely different human being and there’s incredible change happening. The neuroscience of that is incredibly important and understanding the seeking brain of our middle school students, how they aren’t ready just to say yeah, I’ll do what you tell me to do.

They want to know what’s in it for them and why they’re doing it. [00:04:00] In a way that we want them to question. We want them to analyze the world around them. We want them to engage in deep learning about who they are. Who their peers are, what the world around them holds so that they can continue on that path and joy of learning.

That time of middle school is a, I like to call it sometime a crucible of change because you put them all together and you pack them in there and there’s so much happening at different stages. None of it is happening at the same time. And still somehow they create a community together. And there’s a lot of joy in that.

Wendy Amato: Because you fully appreciate a middle school experience, I think we’ve talked about it being a niche within a niche. How do we make sure that middle school professional development is providing what middle school educators need?

Jennifer Rose: I think it’s funny when we talk about professional development for adults and we forget to remember, or we don’t consider that [00:05:00] as educators, we want to differentiate for our students.

So, as professional development providers. We want to differentiate for our faculty, staff, administrators, the niche of middle school, you can go online and look up professional development for educators, and you will see a plethora of opportunities all over the place. Some vetted some not vetted some in person, some virtual, whatever it is.

There is one organization that’s been around for 50 years that is only geared towards middle grades education. That’s AMLE . They were an MSA before that, but for 50 years, they’ve been working solely focused on middle grades education solely on professional development, supporting educators. That is also provided by educators.

I’m an educator. There are other educators on our staff. We work with educators, administrators, people who have walked the walk, not just talking the talk. So we’re really grateful for partnering when we can do that also with [00:06:00] organizations who also have that same ethos. So I have to tell you we are really grateful to work with you, Wendy, and with Teaching Channel and K 12 because our work with the successful middle school, This We Believe, is such a seminal part of what we do.

And having the Teaching Channel K 12 coalition be able to partner with us on those 18 characteristics That make a successful middle school and align those for professional development resources that we will be able to provide our membership. It’s outstanding and we’re really, really happy about that.

So thank you.

Wendy Amato: I love that connection between our, intentionality differentiating for students, but are often clumsiness in differentiating for the educators. And that’s what AMLE reminds us. to do. It’s essential. The language is different. The student needs are different. The way it looks and feels, everything has to be just right for this precious time in youth development.

Tell me a little bit about working with experts in the field. I know AMLE is not a consulting group. You [00:07:00] really are about authentic educators sharing with authentic educators. I’d like to hear more about that.

Jennifer Rose: We have the opportunity to work with some amazing educators, and I would say there are authors that I read as a young educator who are working with AMLE, Rick Gormelli, we’ve got Jack Berkmeyer, Phyllis Spiegel did our keynote, her books have been outstanding on middle school superpowers, middle school matters, Rick’s book on meet me in the middle, Jack does all this work on teaming, and we’re able to tap into that level of expertise, having experts So who are also equally passionate about middle grades, education and middle level young adolescent development.

And provide professional development, either in person or through their texts, because we have several books that we are companion texts to our successful middle school this we believe we’re incredibly fortunate and I think that goes back to that niche you were talking about before Wendy, where people who work in middle school.

passionate about middle school. [00:08:00] Those are the, those are the educators who decided I want to work with young adolescents. I don’t necessarily want to be a content specific educator. I’m not just a math teacher. I’m not just a science teacher. I’m not there to work on, you know, AP US history. And that’s all I do.

Middle grades educators work with relationships with students every day to support their academic.

Wendy Amato: When I was a middle school administrator and in need of resources, I always wanted to source them from people who were in that work with me. And I hear you saying that that’s exactly what people find when they come to AMLE.

How does a school or how does an individual get involved with the organization?

Jennifer Rose: Thank you for asking that. You know, I have to tell you I got involved as a member before I started working for the organization and there is a membership structure. It’s. A fee that I thought was quite more than reasonable and easy to manage, especially on any budget.

So there’s a membership. Base that those members then have access [00:09:00] to online PD have access to a variety of texts. There are resources for conferences and webinars that are included the partnership with K 12 coalition and teaching channel documentary film. We start with a membership structure.

There are also things that are available just at large. People want to check out our website to see what’s available, but the value really is a membership. It’s finding another cohort of middle grades, educators and administrators working with affiliates across the country, working with individuals and really finding out the information that you need to best support your own practice.

Wendy Amato: I love knowing that you can come into the organization as an individual. So if you’re, if you’re listening to this conversation right now, just know you don’t have to go and convince somebody in a central office somewhere. You don’t have to worry about the budget. This is the cost of a good book and 10 times more rewarding.

So, so come on and, and be part of us and, and make sure you’re connected to the resources that you know are informed [00:10:00] by people who share your passion for middle school education. It’s great. You mentioned some books and resources. Tell me a little bit, you have some new texts, I think maybe that support instructional technology.

What is that about?

Jennifer Rose: Yeah, so of course, AI is the big buzzword right now, but indeed technology that’s been around for a long time needs to be really focused on the again the agent stage of the students who are our end users in schools, the students who are learning how to use the technology be digital citizens be digitally literate.

Be able to have an inquiry based model. So we have an instructional technology book that actually launched this fall. We, we announced it at our AMLE 50 conference.

Wendy Amato: Congratulations.

Jennifer Rose: Really wonderful. Our authors, Tim and Ryan were wonderful and on hand to sign copies. So that was great, but we also have a book on, and it’s.

Again, that is a companion text to successful middle school this, we believe with the 18 characteristics of students and staff culture and community with curriculum, instruction and assessment, leadership and [00:11:00] organization. We also have a book on the counseling program, mental health and wellness, and our counseling program also launched this year.

We also have a book on advisory coming out in the spring. We have a teaming book that Jack Berkmeyer wrote. That came out last year. So when you’re talking about interdisciplinary teams, that structure, that’s a well written text that really corresponds to the work that we’re doing, and it’s a cornerstone of the Successful Middle School This We Believe program, just the teaming and advisory.

So, having all of those accessible for individuals, for school leaders, for educators is an amazing resource, and then having the opportunity to do book studies is also really amazing.

Wendy Amato: I get excited thinking about AMLE as a place that one teacher can just come on in and be part of the community, but oh my goodness, how much exponentially greater is it when a team comes in together and shares resources and begins to use the [00:12:00] same language or to celebrate the priorities that they can really emphasize as a, as a team.

That’s, that’s the real win. So if you, if you. Put a toe in, that’s great, but come on and jump on it. Take the dive.

Jennifer Rose: And, you know, we wanted to create the companion text because the original text is so rich and valuable and it’s not Tome. It’s not a 500 page book. It is a, a guide that’s based on research and best practices.

And so these other texts in, in conjunction with our original text. Make it an even deeper, more rich experience as you’re going through. Great. We want to have teaming. What does that look like? Or we want to make sure that our advisories are reflective of best practices. What does that look like? How do we support our counselors and our educators with a strong counseling program?

How do we incorporate instructional technology that allows students to also have career readiness? How do we have support for our new leaders and our existing leaders when the world is changing on a dime? So how do [00:13:00] we support being, being in leadership in that capacity? So all of these other pieces along with our original text really work together.

Again, with that nice, lovely niche of just middle grades best practices, and I don’t say just, it supports middle grades best practices. It supports middle grades learners and the educators who work with them.

Wendy Amato: I love the focus. I also love when you talk about the resources that are available to support mid level educators It, this is not just about getting mid level educators to a survival status.

I hear you describing the things that remind us of the joy of teaching and the, the pleasure, the satisfaction of helping learners. This goes through the educators all the way to the young people who are counting on us and to be able to bring the tools and resources that remind us of the joy and passion of our work.

That’s a home run. How are you making sure that this is not survival mode? What takes it up a level?

Jennifer Rose: [00:14:00] Well, I love, I actually love that because I call it leveling up. So we have so many educators who work. Have been working for years. Some are, we have some new educators, right? First, second, third year teachers.

And we have people who’ve been in education for 15, 25 years and each year we want to level up our practice and think about reflectively what worked well, how are these new students coming to us or we can better serve them, you know? When I went to school, I was smelling the purple mimeograph, you know, from when the teacher might have run something off.

Yeah, I’m right there with you. Yeah. And then I remember when my youngest went to school and there was a purple mimeograph, I thought, well, this teacher may need to level up their practice because that’s clearly the purple ink that was being used when I was in school. So we want to make sure that we bring that joy and that leveling up of best practices to educators in a way that is sustainable.

There’s initiative fatigue, decision fatigue. We, we understand that we were in the trenches. We are together. [00:15:00] In community working with educators to support that work and level up their practice. It is a time to really be joyful and think about that opportunity. The narrative that middle grades education is just a challenging, really hard time that needs to change and it can only change when you change your thought patterns around that.

Right? There’s a great quote of, you know, when you change the way you look at something, what you look at changes, and that’s true about middle grades. So, Think of it as just this wonderful opportunity where you have human beings with the world ahead of them. Now able to learn how to make choices, now able to learn how to collaborate in ways that are gearing them towards a world that they can create and co create with their peers.

So it’s a, it’s a great opportunity. And I think being an educator now is even more exciting than it ever has been.

Wendy Amato: Jennifer, we talk in education about how [00:16:00] important it is to have relationships and to remember that we’re not in the work alone. I feel like that same concept is. in action with our two organizations working together.

The same way we ask educators to recognize their relationships, we have our organizations recognizing a relationship. Why, why do our organizations get along? Talk to me about mission and purpose.

Jennifer Rose: Well, if we, if you take us separately, amazing organizations who serve a number of educators and, and professionals in the education space, but together it’s working with A group of educators, because both of our organizations really are founded and run by educators.

So, finding people who walk the walk and talk the talk, do both, who are passionate about education, who know what best practices and research based best practices are, who find resources that are curated to support best practices, [00:17:00] all of that together, it’s, again, leveling up, Our practice and middle grades support and professional development, professional learning.

So I’m really grateful that we have the alignment because again, working back from successful middle school with their really important three buckets of the culture and community and curriculum instruction and assessment, leadership and organization and the 18 characteristics that fall within that and having a place for teachers.

For educators to go both to find additional resources to know what they’re getting is vetted. That’s invaluable. So I’m grateful for that partnership.

Wendy Amato: Another question for you, Jennifer. I’d, without us getting negative, I’d like to ask you a little bit about some common pitfalls that you may have seen in different middle school programs and not focusing on the, on the pitfall or the weakness, but what are some common pitfalls and how has AMLE helped people right the ship?

Jennifer Rose: Well, I think it’s [00:18:00] not just with middle school education. I think in general, there’s this like. A shiny new thing, you know, so we want to look at this new initiative or we have this new acronym that’s helping us make sure that we are reaching our students or we want to make sure we’re doing this because of testing or that new thing.

So there are many great ways to work in education and Again, we need to reflect and refine and adapt as students change and as information changes and we’re presented with new opportunities. However, grounding work in research. Best practice, understanding the neuroscience of our young adolescents, understanding those real fundamental core needs before launching into following an initiative down a pathway, following a program down a pathway, it has to go back to, how does this serve our students best?

Are we getting what we need [00:19:00] for them? Or is this a checkbox? Because we need to do a program. We’re going to check this box. We, we signed up for something and we’re going to do it. So I think the pitfall can be following something that sounds good, because it’s, you know, got all the bling on it, but may not be based in real core practices that elevate capacity and support students.

Wendy Amato: This has been perfect. Jennifer, thank you for sharing a conversation with me.

Jennifer Rose: Oh, thank you so much. It has been such a pleasure speaking with you, Wendy. I do appreciate the time. Can I just say with joy and gratitude, that’s how I like to sign off, with joy and gratitude.

Wendy Amato: To our fellow educators, thank you all for enjoying this conversation with us.

If you’d like to explore the topics that Jennifer and I discussed today, including some of these book authors and resources and programs, please check out the show notes at teachingchannel. com ​podcast. Be sure to subscribe on [00:20:00] whatever listening app you use. It will help other middle school educators to find us.

I’ll see you again soon for another episode. Thanks for listening.

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