Dozens of middle school educators gathered at CMS this week for a four-day course that emphasizes an integrated approach to social and academic learning for kids in grade 5 – 9. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Roles were reversed this week at Colchester Middle School when dozens of educators took part in the four-day “Developmental Designs” course, a program that emphasizes an integrated approach to social and academic learning.

In a handful of classrooms throughout the building, teachers from the local district and all around the country traded tactics for enforcing behavioral rules in the middle grades and debated the merits of engagement strategies: Is cold calling on distracted students effective or humiliating?, one group pondered.

“Middle school students are social beings and so if they feel accepted socially, that has a positive impact both for them as social-emotional learners, but as academic learners as well,” CMS principal Michele Cote said.

Cote and three Colchester educators took phase one of the Developmental Designs course in Winooski last summer.

The trio of teachers who enrolled in the course last year reported fewer behavioral issues in their classrooms after implementing the routines — an assessment that prompted the move from participant to host, Cote said.

A typical day using the approach might start with a morning greeting written on the board, Cote said, and chairs and desks moved from their traditional linear lineup to a circular configuration.

From there, students would be asked to greet their peers and share something about themselves, like a favorite hobby or what they did that weekend.

The simple tasks may sound juvenile, but Cote said they can help students work on public speaking skills and reduce anxiety in group settings. Plus, it allows kids to interact with students outside their typical social circle.

More broadly, the program encourages teachers to have their students make a social contract for the classroom, deciding on rules to live by as a community.

Participants in the “Developmental Design” course at Colchester Middle School discussed effective strategies to promote student participation, including hand raising and cold calling. The four-day program ran from Monday through Thursday. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

The agreement could address everything from how to treat each other during conversation to the appropriate way to signal a needed bathroom break, Cote said with a laugh: Should students raise a hand and request permission to leave the room or quietly excuse themselves as needed?

Some teachers might cringe at the idea of handing the reigns to fifth-grade students, Cote noted, but said she’s found kids crave a social stability just as much as the adults at the front of the room.

“It’s really a lot about the relationship piece, not only teacher to student, but student to student within a classroom,” Cote said.

This week, 17 teachers and one administrator working in the district signed up for the classes, with four others (including Cote) moving on to part two of the training.

Participating teachers can be reimbursed for the program fee per their contracts and might use the hours toward professional development licensure requirements, Cote said, but won’t be directly paid for their summer work.

It’s a misconception that teachers only step into their classrooms when school is in session, Cote said. Seventeen CSD educators kicked off their allotted breaks with a different course in June, she added.

“There are teachers who are in the building an awful lot over the summer,” Cote said. “They just believe in the work they’re doing. They’re committed to working here.”