Dru Tomlin

Growing Our Middle Grades Educational “Gardens”

After a long winter season with continual blankets of snow and ice sleeping on the ground, the warmth of spring is finally waking up the soil. Seas of grass are rising in front yards and eager blooms are curling upward toward the sun.

Like careful, measured areas of hope, fresh garden plots are starting to appear in back yards. These gardens—and the work that goes along with them—mirror what should be happening in our middle schools. Critical and basic actions are needed to make gardens flourish, and if we want to see the same kind of sustainable growth for every student in our classrooms, we also need to plan, till, sew, and constantly nurture our educational gardens.

Like a garden, in order to grow middle schools from fundamental elements, we need to start by developing a plan with students in mind ... and in heart. The educational gardening process begins by figuring out who we are serving and what we need to grow based on who they are.

While we embrace the essential characteristics that make a successful school for young adolescents, we must also understand our young adolescents themselves and the key attributes they share. This is especially important because students ages 10 to 15 years old are trying to achieve in many ways in areas beyond reform-oriented academic standards, data capstones, and content area knowledge benchmarks.

They also are growing and achieving socially, behaviorally, psychologically, morally, physically, ethically, and more, and we must create our educational gardens with that knowledge in mind.

Therefore, in addition to plotting our tracts with curricular seeds, we need to ensure that we are including fruitful programs that address all of the areas in which our students are achieving. That is how we can grow sustainable change in the middle level.

Our middle school master gardens should include a plethora of rich offerings for our students such as:

  • Advisory programs that build relationships by providing students with adult advocates and dedicated time to discuss ideas, concerns, and questions that are relevant to their lives
  • Intramural athletic initiatives and other clubs and activities that give students consistent avenues to pursue health, wellness, and physical activity in a non-competitive space and to connect, reflect, and promote their interests and aspirations
  • Exploratory courses that offer students the chance to discover art, music, and other creative pursuits
  • Interdisciplinary lessons and units that illuminate the links that exist across the content areas

Just as critical, this foundational soil must be enriched with passion, cultivated with joy, and nurtured by the dedicated effort of pedagogical gardeners who value and understand young adolescents.

As the director of middle level services for the Association of Middle Level Education (AMLE), Dru Tomlin, PhD, has a commitment to educational improvement and a passion for teaching, learning, and middle school. A former teacher and administrator, he also has been a school system staff development trainer and a faculty member for AMLE's Leadership Institute, believing firmly in the power of professional learning. For his work, Tomlin has been recognized as a school system Teacher of the Year and as Georgia's Middle School Assistant Principal of the Year. Read more on school culture and staff morale in the middle grades and ways to celebrate

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