All the participants in my conference session on “Incorporating Student Voice” were taking turns introducing themselves, telling their names, where they were from and an experience they had in school growing up that in some way led to their being at the session. It was Tiffany’s turn, and she could hardly contain herself: “I’m Tiffany and I’m a student at [University] and I’m almost graduated. I’m doing my student teaching in the spring and I’m so excited because it’s 8th grade and 8th grade was the best year of my life; I know it sounds crazy, but it was.” Around the table, we smile encouragingly and tell her we don’t think she is crazy, and I can’t help but think that her future students are lucky.

That was the general tone at the 2009 National Middle School Association Annual Conference as 6500 middle level educators gathered in Indianapolis to share ideas, learn, seek inspiration, and in the process have fun. For me and many others, the centerpiece of the conference was the rollout of the 4th edition of This We Believe. This book, carefully conceived and rooted in research, is the National Middle School Association’s document outlining and explaining the major goals of middle level education and the four essential attributes and 16 characteristics of successful middle schools. The 3rd edition of This We Believe has guided our thinking in Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School since before our doors opened, and so we are making plans to carefully study this new edition to update our own thinking as may be needed.

Of course, the first moment I had any free time (and there weren’t many such moments), I dashed to the bookstore to pick up not only my copies of This We Believe and Research and Resources in Support of This We Believe but also Rick Wormeli’s brand new book, Metaphors and Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching any Subject. I wanted to show the five girls whose words were published on p.159 the actual copy. Indeed, my students were never far from my mind, and not just because they were emailing me daily.

I was sitting with Mark Springer, developer of the internationally acclaimed “Soundings” program at Radnor Middle School, talking over the advantages of democratic classrooms in how they develop cognitive skills and intrinsic motivation and the difficulty of implementing this model in an age where much of what passes for “reform” is a focus on and push for high-stakes testing (with the concurrent too-frequent focus on rote learning) and merit pay, in short the very kinds of extrinsic motivation research shows actually inhibits learning. It reminded me of the second or third day of class this September. My students asked with some degree of concern, “When do we take the MCAS?” and after I explained to students from out of state that this was the mandatory state testing, I told them that we didn’t have to do it because we were an independent school. After a moment of stunned disbelief – “We really don’t have to take them?” – the students erupted in cheers. “And why wouldn’t they?” said Mark. His parting words to me were, “Keep the faith.”

As I left this conference, I felt more than ever that SBMS is a guiding light, showing what can happen when you trust in and listen to students, when you can understand and apply what research tells us to do free of external restrictions. It is a big responsibility, but ultimately it is a liberating and even exhilarating mission.

Halfway through the flight home Saturday night, I couldn’t resist any more. I put my copy of This We Believe into my backpack for later and wrote my lesson plans for Monday. That morning, I almost skipped into homeroom. Back to work!