Many elementary classes start each morning with a meeting that sets the stage for the learning that will occur during the day, but more and more middle schools are finding that this social experience is just, if not more, important in upper grades. Navigating the stormy seas of adolescence, kids in middle school crave the community and camaraderie that the morning meeting provides. Included: Four components of a morning meeting.
"We have a lot of students for whom life outside of school can be chaotic," reports Nell Sears. "Morning meeting has a calming influence. This is a structure they can rely on first thing, and it allows students to share any difficult situations that may have come up at home the night before."
At Paul Cuffee School, a K-8 maritime charter school in Providence, Rhode Island, morning meetings have always been a part of the lower school. When grades six to eight were added, the meetings were built into the middle school program, which Sears heads. Typically held at the start of the school day, morning meetings, also called "Circle of Power and Respect" (CPR), characteristically feature a greeting, sharing, a group activity, news, and announcements.
"Morning meeting happens in advisory [period], and the advisory group travels together from class to class, so the community that is built during that time naturally carries over into the rest of the school day," Sears told Education World. "It also is a way to reset expectations for engagement and behavior first thing in the morning."
Students often take more ownership and responsibility for the meeting rituals as the year progresses, and Sears finds this process exciting to watch. By spring, most advisory groups in her school organize and run their own meetings with very little direction from their teachers.
"I think as middle school and secondary educators we can get caught up in the pressures of covering academic content and skills, and it sometimes feels we don't have enough time for rituals like this and that students will feel that they're being babied anyway," she observed. "I think it's important to know that it does really work for adolescents and that it really does set the stage for academics. There's a very good return on the time investment."
At New City School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Sharon Greaves' seventh and eighth graders use morning meetings to practice respect by greeting each other appropriately, sharing with the group, and listening to others while they are sharing.
"The time spent is well worth it," says Greaves. "The community-building exponentially helps the academics. Students at this age really think more of the opinions of their peers than the opinions of the adults in their lives. Giving them room to be together positively takes the care and worry away so that they can concentrate more on the academics. And the community members challenge each other to greater heights."
"Empathy is a skill that gets much time and attention. Teens are emotional, and they can work through emotions when sharing and responding," Greaves stated. "We have rules for our meeting that include taking turns, paraphrasing, and using vocabulary that we are studying."
Most surprising for Greaves has been the depth and richness of the conversation among peers and the students' use of academic skills. The students have also shown unexpected growth in leadership skills through organizing and conducting meetings autonomously.
"It is frequent that a child who speaks very little and doesn't share much of himself in meetings at the beginning of the school year warms up by February and is sharing his life and his opinions about issues as they are discussed by the group," she adds.
Achieving the kind of investment in the morning meeting that draws out students who are often more reserved can be one of the biggest challenges faced by educators who implement this method at the middle school level. To reinforce the concept, Developmental Designs, which offers a framework for morning meeting at this level, refers to its program as "Circle of Power and Respect" (CPR).
"This is an important name to call the morning meeting because it helps when soliciting student buy-in," explains Dr. Terrance Kwame-Ross, director of students and founding principal of New City School. "Teachers who are successful at getting students to buy into CPR have frank conversations with their students about the importance of using the morning meeting to build community, get to know each other, have fun, and have a good launch into the day. After these discussions and several tries at doing morning meeting, students are less reluctant to get together every day for 15-20 minutes. Actually, they start to look forward to their meeting."
The morning meeting format is simple and easy for entire schools to implement at one time, but individual teachers can obtain impressive results by using the method in their own classrooms, even when it isn't a school-wide approach. Morning meetings traditionally have four components: greeting, sharing, activity, and warming up for learning in the day ahead. A primary advantage of whole-school implementation is that teachers can plan morning meetings together and share their ideas, but this also provides cohesiveness, as all students practice social skills and reinforce friendships each day.
"Teachers who have used this method have reported stronger relationships with their students, an increase in students' readiness for the day, stronger peer relationships, a decrease in tardiness to class, an increase in student attendance, and an increase in student leadership skills," added Kwame-Ross.
Essential to the success of CPR is that teachers should have fun while participating and facilitating the meetings because their enthusiasm will be contagious.
"Take it slow, and go for quality," Kwame-Ross advises. "Implement the components of morning meeting one by one, and introduce each one in an explicit way by modeling and having students practice, practice, practice."
Done well, morning meetings can energize young adolescents. They foster a sense of safety and a feeling of connection, which are factors in school success. These meetings also lay the foundation for the types of relationships that make students believe that adults at school really do care about them.
"Middle schools need a reliable structure to build community, teach (rather than assume) social skills, and prepare students for learning each day," observes Linda Crawford, executive director of Origins, a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering learning and community in schools and other educational institutions.
"Activity Plus" structure is made up of a brief greeting, an extended activity that is sometimes in the gym, and a brief reflection at the end. A+ allows two or more advisory groups to at times meet together and engage in more robust morning activities that build relationships, get them moving, and stimulate the mind -- all in a safe, self-controlled way.
"In addition, CPR and A+ wake up the minds and bodies of young people who could probably have used another hour or two of sleep," Crawford shared. "A student in New Jersey wrote to us to say: 'I believe the circle has helped me improve in academics so much. I went from all C's to A's and B's last term.'"
Middle level students are interested in topics that are different from those that are important to elementary students, so the themes addressed in meetings reflect their maturity: adolescent needs, citizenry, getting along in a diverse world, and serving the community. Another important difference between middle school morning meetings and elementary ones is the middle schoolers' desire for independence.
"The craving of young adolescents for autonomy makes it especially important that they have an advisory structure that is clear and consistent enough for them to lead, and enough fun for them to want to lead," advised Crawford. "Students tell us that having the opportunity to lead CPR is a great enhancement of school life for them."
"We cannot for one minute think we do not need to create a place in school where students feel safe and are trusted. What is learning but a risk? How will students take a risk to read out loud, try a new skill, or volunteer to try something they have never done before if they feel they will be ridiculed, or lose face by taking the risk?" Scott Tyink questions.
As lead consultant for Developmental Designs, Tyink is an expert in morning meetings in middle school and develops training and consulting methods about them. With the current emphasis on test scores, he notes that relationship-building and social skills activities are often the first to be eliminated. But Tyink argues that these activities are needed now more than ever. Much of the communication young people experience today is not face-to-face but through instant messaging, cell phone, online, and more.
"Developmental Designs, along with other organizations, is working hard to provide the necessary tools and research to support the profound effect building emotionally and physically safe places can have on student success in middle schools," he reported.
"Depending on the grade level, students are more inhibited and much more concerned about peers' opinions. Because of this, the community-building process must be carefully scaffolded at each grade level to build safety slowly," Tyink stated.
"The very structured design of CPR gives teachers a way to build community without having to dream up ways to do it. In many of the middle schools in which we work, the advisory period no longer exists because teachers were not given enough training and tools to be successful. CPR is the structure that allows teachers to be successful."
Middle school students often gravitate to cliques for security, which inhibits their ability to seek out new people and experiences. A solid knowledge of middle school development and refined community-building skills are necessary to construct a safe and trusting community. A question Tyink sometimes fields from educators is how to deal with classes that resist morning meetings and don't seem to enjoy them at first.
"When dealing with middle school students, it is imperative to look for the meaning behind the statement. When students say they do not like something, sometimes it is because they are uncomfortable with it," he said. "Eighth graders are desperately seeking the connection and acceptance by others that CPR offers, yet they often do not know how to go about doing this in school."
The process of forming a community in middle school begins gradually in ways that make each student feel safe. "This is boring (or stupid)," may be a coded message that means, "I am not feeling safe."
"A teacher must be skilled enough not to give up because of what students say," Tyink recommends. "Instead, the teacher should think, 'I know what they need is not always what they say they want. What is an emotionally safer way I can deliver CPR?' Then go back and begin from there."
This spring, Origins will publish The Advisory Book, which contains a complete description of the Developmental Designs "Circle of Power and Respect" and "Advisory Plus" formats. The book features sample advisories and a rationale for making the effort to start every school day for young adolescents in a way that is likely to produce learning.
Article by Cara Bafile
Copyright © 2009 Education World
Originally published 04/21/2008
Last updated 05/08/2009