Bridging the Great Divide: Adopting and Adapting the Middle School Model


PHS Grade 7 Team Teachers
The Team: Julie Le Monnier-Baxter, Wendy Moore, Roger Leblanc & Kerry Timm

Until recently, I hadn’t spent an inordinate amount of time pondering the impact of the transition from elementary school to high school on the psyche of our students here in Quebec. Although the tumble from “King or Queen of the Castle” in grade 6 to “Groundhog” in grade 7, may very well be considered an expected rite of passage, it is decidedly a difficult one for even the most self-assured 12 year old. Why am I thinking about this now, you ask? Well, because my very own flesh and blood started high school in September and I’ve been tagging along (emotionally) for the not altogether smooth ride.

It is purported that one of the ways in which schools can help students more successfully navigate the critical academic years from grades 5 to 9 is to implement organizational and instructional strategies that respond to the intellectual, emotional, physical, social and moral needs of early adolescents. A challenge…to say the least! According to the Association for Middle Level Education (formerly National Middle School Association), the most successful middle school models include variations of the following 5 key elements:

  1. Interdisciplinary teaming, whereby a core team of teachers work together with the same group of students
  2. Advisory programs
  3. Varied & differentiated learning opportunities
  4. Exploratory programs (such as intramural sports, music, student government, etc.)
  5. Transition programs (such as tours and orientation days)

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see how an adapted middle school model works during my son’s grade 7 parent-teacher interview at Pontiac High School, in Western Quebec. Once escorted to the meeting by my son (weird), I quickly realized that what I was taking part in was not really an interview, nor was it at all about me. It was more of a discussion with my son, and each of his four core subject teachers, about his goals, his successes (both academic and other) and some of the challenges he was facing (again, both academic and other). Of course, I felt included and was encouraged to ask questions. But really, the “interview” was about my son and how this team of adults had his back…and not just academically…but as the complex and ever-changing person that he is. I was so taken with the process that I asked the grade 7 teachers from PHS to tell me a little bit more about how their model works, how they feel it positively impacts on students and parents, and how it continues to shape their own practice.

This year, the Pontiac High School grade 7 team teacher roster includes: Wendy Moore (English), Kerry Timm (Math and Social Sciences), Roger Leblanc (Science and Math), and Julie Le Monnier-Baxter (FLS, Social Sciences). Each one of these teachers has at least a dozen years of experience, and has spent the majority of that time as part of the team. In addition to their specific classroom responsibilities, these teachers work in concert with student advisors, a school success coordinator, guidance and administration to develop and implement goal setting with students, panel interviews, a full-day orientation, Action Days (a variety of workshops targeting tweens & early teens), a much appreciated daily school e-bulletin, as well as a whole slew of extracurriculars.

What does your instructional model look like and how has it changed over the years?

Wendy: We introduced our model in 2002 to help with the transition from elementary school to high school. Since grade 6 students are accustomed to having one core teacher, we tried to organize our instructional schedule so that they would have a similar student/teacher ratio and the fewest number of core teachers: English, French, Social Sciences, Math and Science. We also changed the location in the building in which the grade 7’s were located. We occupied a total of four classrooms in one area and shared a grade 7 office. Originally, each group was assigned to one room and we as teachers moved between them. Today, things are still very similar.  However, due to our enrollment declining over the last 10 years, we now only have three groups of grade 7 students instead of four, resulting in only having one group of team teachers at the grade 7 level. This has certainly impacted on our ability to team teach. We used to run two groups of each subject at the same time allowing for collaborative teaching and group projects. For a number of years, we also looped (taught grade 7 and then followed the students to grade 8). This was very successful as it allowed teachers two years with the same students to teach the cycle.

Orientation Day seems to have a very positive effect on the students, how is it organized?

Wendy: Prior to the actual day, we provide an information night in June for both parents and students. Orientation Day is the first day of school for the grade 7’s…and only the grade 7’s. They come to school for the day and have the building to themselves to explore and get used to. We have them report to the auditorium where our administration meets with them and introduces the grade 7 team. Our principal, Eldon Keon, takes the time to go over the rules and expectations of our high school. We then divide the students into their groups, hand out their schedules and go over them together. Students are then given 25 minutes to rotate between the core team classes, the arts and phys ed. In the afternoon, members of our student government and other student leaders give a tour of the school and lead a scavenger hunt. We wrap up the day back in the auditorium for Q&A.

What are some of the benefits of this type of model (for students, for parents, for your teaching)?

Roger: There is a definite continuity of the content taught between cycle 1, year 1 and year 2 using this model. Both students and parents seem to better understand the teacher’s expectations from one year to the next. The model also allows us to really “target” students who are struggling in one or more subject areas. I remember one student who really turned it around after a difficult first term. At the interviews, the team pointed out his challenge areas and reinforced his belief that we thought he could succeed with concentrated effort and an improved attitude. I have definitely become more student-centred in my approach. In spite of teaching the same topics every year, my presentation of each concept constantly evolves and changes to adapt to the class, as well as to the group of students. I very rarely give the same assignment twice.

Julie: Working with such a close team is great! We communicate all of the time about any issues that arise and this truly makes like easier in the classroom. Parents also know that we work together and love the approach when it comes to interviews. Working this way has made me a better teacher, a better team player and a better communicator. I also remember when we first started to implement the QEP, we would orchestrate large scale cross-curricular projects involving all of the grade 7 students. It was certainly interesting and did produce some unexpected results.

Wendy:  If a student is having a bad day or experiencing difficulties we know about it immediately. Daily communication is key. As well, once a month we have a scheduled grade 7 meeting to discuss academic, social and attendance issues…as well as IEP’s. We discuss strategies to help these students and share best practices.  Before we implemented the current model, we had approximately 10 teachers teaching grade 7 and often you would not find out until Christmas whether a student was having difficulties in more than one course. Now, if a student is struggling, all of the teachers are aware of it within days and an Action Plan is put into place. This, to me, has been the most significant benefit.

What about the challenges?

Wendy: Honestly, the main challenge for the team is the time required to meet with all of the parents. This year we have 80 grade 7’s, so at a minimum of 15 minutes per student, you are looking at over 20 hours of dedicated interview time. This impacts on both our teaching schedules and our personal lives…as most of us have small children at home! Thankfully, at our school, we are fortunate enough to have a School Success Coordinator who is in charge of organizing the Action Days that take place (in part) during the interviews, as well as the interviews themselves. She prepares the letters that go home with all of the students, and is in charge of scheduling and confirming the interview times. Our expectation at PHS is that all parents and students come to the interviews. We do everything we can to make that happen.

And I, as both a parent and an educator, will be forever grateful for your efforts!

Kristine Thibeault


If you are interested in reading about the middle school model, and how it is lived across the border, check out this series from the New York Times.






Imagining a more meaningful and contributive future for education

Last year I wrote a blog entry about my online History course, and about my efforts to bring “reality” into my classroom.  I described trying to make my course relevant to 16 year olds, went over some of the projects and portfolios of work we put together, and finally reflected on the ways current world events peeked their way into the program.  Though the year ended on a high note, and the experience was rewarding, it wasn’t quite enough.  I think I was searching for something more “meaningful” in terms of what we were doing and making but I really didn’t know quite what that signified.

This year, back in my consultant’s role at LEARN, various articles related to a more constructivist approach to education passed through my mailing lists and caught my eye.  Most though read like this one, “Ensuring Meaningful Classroom Activities” at  that is to say, they focussed on the importance of making activities “engaging” to students;  they talked about how students learn better when working “actively” on projects that require questioning and problem-solving;  and in the end they found relevance mostly in teaching and “practicing” the kind of 21st century skills our students would most likely need in their future. (See to remember these include technological skills, but also collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.)    These type of articles are all well and good, but I couldn’t help thinking that what they were describing was still a process contained in a fake, safe, laboratory classroom environment, where students work through “scenarios” that imitate life but aren’t actually involved in the real-world.

Reflecting on why this bothers me at all, I often fall back to an inspiring lecture by Alan November.  In “Myths and Opportunities:  Technology in the Classroom” November talks of his home town of Marblehead, Massachusetts’  and its 17th century global vision.  He describes how back then they used their “technologies” to trade, make money, and work “with the world.”   And above all else, he is impressed and fascinated by an environment where youth not only knew about the world, but where they contributed to the community’s function within that world.    Kids at 10 went out to sea, they became apprentices, they worked in the port, and in doing so they really used the technology of the times.  Sadly, for November,  technology today (and education today!) prevents students from actually working, and thus they don’t have a sense of what it means to really make a contribution.  I was drawn to one line in particular:  To fix this we need to “change the concept of learner to someone who becomes a contributor doing their work.”  [My emphasis]  And, he goes on to say, “that means we also have to redefine the work!”

The video is really worth watching to the end.  It eventually focusses on that redefinition of work, talks of “shifting control” from teacher at centre to a network of children and learners.  He talks of allowing students to get involved in “conversations,” and of letting them out to connect with the rest of the world.  November sees that as a way to better engage students, where teachers need to first give students a say, then they need to ease off on their “constraint of filtering” information,  allowing students to use the social tools available to all of us.  He suggests letting students practice jobs in class like “global communicator, global researcher, tool builder, internal collaborator, etc.” and reminds us that these are skills that are essential in the workplace.   It is a compelling and even radical challenge to teachers, but again, for me, his talk ended by not going far enough, by falling back on a process of modelling and of practicing skills.  Again, I pictured students in a closed and protected building, working in a laboratory, while outside the world happens all around them.

So what would be really different from that picture?  What could immediately break those walls?  Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is related to the most popular of current technologies.  Computers?  Well in part.  But that’s not what students use daily, that’s not what people use most in their workplace.  Fact: In most student’s pockets a cell phone lingers that they could use to call the world.  In around a fifth of those pockets (easily enough to be used with other in groups), student already have “smart” devices that can pull up more information than the entire Library of Congress in a single click.  With these devices they could…  explore an issue, record information, investigate perspectives, formulate a hypothesis and propose a solutions.  Sound familiar?  Actually, here’s what the real world looks like too (based on  An analyst needs to find a production solution for a company, she researches on her device, she contacts focus groups on her device, they gather data and share on their devices, they use their devices to project information.  Key words:  HER DEVICE, THEIR DEVICE, and REAL-WORLD.

Unfortunately, whenever I mentioned to teachers even the idea of letting students use their own devices, the response is less than encouraging.  Someone usually chants out vehemently, “this will never, ever happen in our school, because students might film what the teacher is doing and then broadcast it to the world!”  Now, I am not really sure how forbidding the use of devices like cell phones in all settings, including even pedagogical settings, can help prevent this.   In any case, I tend not to argue against possible disaster scenarios like that.  Instead,  I simply imagine, then present, what I feel is the most likely and most unavoidable of futures.  I recall that CNET editor (I believe) I heard on Charlie Rose one night, when they were talking about the future of the Internet itself.  He said something like, “Can you even imagine us having this conversation in 10 years?  It will be like inviting someone to speak on national television about the importance or future existence of something as banal as the telephone!”  I see that sort of perspective as applying to the powerful portable devices kids carry, and I ask, can you really imagine a world of the future where we are not letting students use their own devices?  I sure can’t.

And so, what I imagine instead is this inevitable future of education that includes technologies that are personal, mobile and social.  And then I stretch that thought, to include an image of education that also serves a function, in that it contributes to community…  and in this way, for me at least, it finally has real, lasting meaning; and in this way it truly differs from education as we know it today.

Thing is… my internet searches, and even emails to many colleagues, didn’t come up with many well-documented examples of what I am getting at here.  Oh, I found good examples of project building toolkits and guides on how to get started, like Taking It Global’s “Action Guides”  ( or the Do Something site (, where you can find great examples of causes to tackle and campaigns to start as a class or school project.  And I certainly did stumble upon sites that described their own process for setting up community-based projects outside of school, like the “What we need is . . . a community education project” page at (  But I didn’t really find the kind of examples that transformed education in the way I was imagining.

Finally, I looked back to my old school board, Kativik, which serves several quite small Inuit communities, and where school projects are often already more central and important to village life.  In their Anngutivik Magazine archives ( classes were doing things like building  kayaks and even igloos!, thus contributing usable items and training students in culturally and economically relevant skills.  I even found one school that set up a used clothing store, though there wasn’t much use of technology there.  Then I remembered how important the FM radio was in the north and I pondered a situation where a school or class might regularly get involved in local media production and news.   Unfortunately, I didn’t find a good high-school radio or television station project anywhere online to share.  (Comment if you know of one!).  That being said, I did find a podcasting site ( which had good examples of schools doing regular shows that reached beyond the walls.

Now, these were all small examples indeed, but they gave me hope.  Communication technologies, using portable devices to record witnesses, using computers and the Internet to disseminate opinion to the community, that seemed much closer to what I was getting at.  And it might even be an ideal example for our educational needs too, since podcasting allows for set curriculums to come into play.  Schools could, for example, help the community to reflect upon world news items by comparing them with historical examples.  Or, local economic development projects could benefit from students in math and science incorporating their knowledge and opinions into their broadcasts.  School could, through something like radio, through news and through commentary, become relevant again, become contributive and engaging in a whole new sense of the world.  And perhaps, by letting something like that actually happen on its own terms, where students use familiar technologies with less control and more real-world variables, the skills we teach our kids could truly prepare them for the unpredictable future they will face.

Most certainly though, these are not the only examples of truly connected, long-lasting community and school-based projects.  I am sure there are many more examples out there, and  I would love to hear your ideas, suggestions, stories in the comments to this article.