We get it all the time. Those freshmen and sophomores cutting through middle school hallways to drop off little siblings or sign in to the office at lunch. Their arms full of textbooks, they make tentative eye contact with us, nod and maybe even say hello. And then they say it. They always say it:
“I miss it, you know. I wish I would have appreciated it when we had it.”
The students, of course, are talking about morning meeting – the practice of filling the commons with the entire middle school community for the first half hour of each and every school day to sing karaoke and play and share and strengthen the bond between everyone who inhabits Corbett Middle School. Certainly, in a time of high-stakes testing and pay-for-performance, it would be easy to abandon this daily “party time” for more “scholarly” endeavors, like spelling words, flashcard multiplication tables, or state testing preparations. But, although it may appear to be non-academic or lacking in rigor, morning meeting is actually thoughtful, planned, appropriate for middle school-aged students, and crucial to the success students enjoy at CMS and on into high school.
Even without music and silly games, gathering the whole school together every day is handy. Teachers and students can make school-wide announcements and trust that their message is consistent, administrators and teachers can make changes to the schedule quickly and efficiently, teachers can make preparations and communicate expectations for field trips, and visitors can give school-wide lessons or presentations. When behavior problems arise (like too many students forgetting their p.e. uniforms or mean graffiti problems in the girls’ restroom), morning meeting is often the venue for publicly airing expectations and helping the group understand individual standards. Students also become accustomed to behaving in a large group, which pays off when they attend field studies or group travel.
Certainly one of the primary reasons for morning meeting is to provide a buffer zone between stresses at home and school. No matter what chaos is happening in a student’s (or teacher’s) life, he or she can “snap out of their moods” as they try to hit the high notes to Boston’s “More than a Feeling” and can enter their classroom ready to study Ancient Mesopotamia or the stages of cell division without distractions. Students also take the opportunity to share news – like how they broke their arm or that their grandmother died – so as not to have to revisit the story and the emotions that accompany it repeatedly throughout the day.
Morning meeting also provides students with opportunities to earn positive attention. We all know that many middle schoolers crave attention, and they will do just about anything to get it. These students often find themselves taking advantage of dance marathons, animal noise making competitions, and sporadic chances to dance the Macarena rather than disrupting class, arguing with authority figures, or generally misbehaving to “get their fix.”
For the less adventurous types, many students – by watching their teachers singing, sharing stories, and acting goofy – learn how to have fun in appropriate ways. Each year, many students include in their reflections on the year how much they appreciate a school where teachers are not afraid to sing off key and dance in front of them as well as to greet them each morning with a smile. Certainly by watching the adults in the building engage in genuine fun helps young people understand that learning and fun are not at odds with one another, and that they are sharing their days and space with adults who have lives beyond the typical classroom subjects.
While middle school-aged students have unique needs physically and emotionally, they are also forming ideas about their identities and the communities to which they belong. Morning meeting is a daily ritual that provides each student with a safe, fun, and healthy community where everyone belongs. Students learn each others’ names and laugh together and hear each other’s stories during morning announcements, open microphone “sound offs” and eighth-grade speeches. During morning meeting (and for the rest of the day, for that matter) there are no cliques to speak of here, because everyone is a member the community, at large, and everyone is sent on to their classroom each day with the same songs “stuck in their heads” and the same goofy experiences to talk about.
The music at morning meeting is a mixture of “teacher” and “student” music, which allows the adults and students to share with one another. Students who frequently request and love the latest Coldplay or Rihanna song are often surprised to find that they enjoy singing Creedance Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner” too. Moreover, morning meeting songs are often the most popular during school dances, because everyone knows them and enjoys singing along to them.
Finally, morning meeting is an opportunity for teachers to diagnose morale or group problems and to fix them before they become too caustic. When one small group attempts to separate from the whole or petty drama occurs, it is often visibly noticeable in the morning, and teachers can help fix problems early. In short, middle schoolers will find groups in which they belong – some healthy and some not. Morning meeting reinforces to them that, like it or not, they are members of this school community which devotes itself to learning, kindness, and fun.
It’s a typical morning at Corbett Middle School. A student is introducing his service learning project in a British accent while members of the football team are in line to report on the game they played the night before. In the crowd, some folks are fidgeting in anticipation of the air guitar competition coming up next, and Mr. Leone is completing in his head the second verse to the song he wrote about mashed potatoes for the lunch announcement. “Fireflies,” by Owl City is cued up in the Karaoke machine, and Dr. Trani is giving a tour of our school to a team of ten middle school teachers and administrators from central Oregon. They watch in amazement as our talented students “do their thing” and insist that our school’s environment could never be fully replicated in their building. I listen as they list excuses and reasons why morning meeting would not work at their school, and I am left trying to imagine our school without it.