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Meet Me in the Middle: Becoming an Accomplished Middle Level Teacher

reviewed by Suzanne Schwarz McCotter - 2003

coverTitle: Meet Me in the Middle: Becoming an Accomplished Middle Level Teacher
Author(s): Rick Wormeli
Publisher: Stenhouse Publishers, Portland
ISBN: 1571103287, Pages: 264, Year: 2001
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In my work with preservice middle and high school teachers, I find a marked tension between the kind of books they want to read and the texts I actually assign.  As college seniors close to (or in the midst of) student teaching, they’re anxious for ideas, tricks, and manuals – the kind of texts I call “How do I do this?” books.  I guide them to big picture texts, giving them the theory I hope will form a foundation for the decisions they make and begin to provide the tools that will lead to master teaching.  Although I realize that by overlooking the content they perceive as necessary for their preparation, there is a risk of them ignoring or disregarding what I see as essential.  I continue to hope, however, that the big ideas will stay with them and provide context for their eventual teaching.  What we all really need is texts that provide both the big picture and some substantive strategies to go with it.  This is the text that Mr. Wormeli has endeavored to create in Meet Me in the Middle:  Becoming an Accomplished Middle-Level Teacher.  Although ambitious, he’s met with a great deal of success.


There are enough “How do I do this” ideas in the text to make even the most anxious novice teacher feel as if there’s something to add to a bag of tricks or give renewed energy to the lessons of a bored veteran.  As a middle school generalist, Mr. Wormeli’s ideas are applied to all content areas.  The details are specific enough to give the flavor, yet general enough to be applied to different areas.  Appendices with greater detail supplement the discussions raised in the text.


As for big ideas, he introduces us to many general areas and draws on some of the key theories in education.  Ranging from brain-based research and multiple intelligences to standardized testing and accountability, this work provides an introduction to a lot of big areas.  This is a good overview for practitioners, but certainly just a beginning.  For a deep understanding of differentiated classrooms, for example, readers need to seek out Carol Tomlinson’s work; to truly grasp the notions of enduring and essential understandings, it’s necessary to go to Wiggins and McTighe.  Wormeli attributes his understanding of key ideas to these authors, and it seems clear that he would agree that readers but need to go right to the original source for more in-depth insight.


An apparent weakness of the text is Wormeli’s tendency to give examples that take the existing curriculum as a “given.”  He writes persuasively about getting to the big ideas, but also has many instructional strategies illustrated by traditional curricula without raising the question of who determines curricula and what is the importance.  There is an inherent danger, particularly for novice teachers, in paying more attention to examples than to philosophy.  For example, in his section on offering vivid lessons he suggests, “when teaching the order of operations … dress up as Aunt Sally.  Stumble a bit and apologize to the class for you clumsiness” (p.10).  The mnemonic device “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” is clearly part of the tradition of basic mathematics, but does remembering it help students understand why the order of operations is important to the language of mathematics?  Thoroughly reading the text assures the reader that Wormeli’s beliefs lie closer to the deep understanding end of the spectrum than to the rote knowledge end.  He asserts “high scores on standardized tests do not guarantee that students have accurate and deep knowledge of all subjects” (p. 37), but some of his examples seem to contradict this.


He also does an admirable job of distinguishing high standards from standardization, stating

...being held accountable for high standards shouldn’t be synonymous with documenting academic deficiencies or pushing adolescents to pass politically motivated standardized test.  The real purpose of accountability is making sure that students achieve authentic learning goals and that teachers have valid measures for their effectiveness in helping students reach those objectives.  It’s a reciprocal equation: both students and teachers are responsible for meeting high academic standards (p. 59).


There are several additional pieces that also would add strength to this text.  Wormeli’s focus is on strategies appropriate for middle level learners.  However, these techniques and ideas would be appropriate for many adolescent learners, and we need to think about them for older students as well.  He states in his introduction, “children between the ages of ten and fourteen do not need either the protected coddling of elementary school or the alienating subject departmentalization of high school (p. xviii).”  I know many excellent elementary school teachers who would bristle at the idea that they are “protective coddlers,” and hesitate to think that “alienating subject departmentalization” is appropriate for any learner.  I worry that the title and focus of this book will suggest to high school teachers (and preservice teachers) that they don’t need to provide the kind of engaging, provocative learning experiences suggested by Wormeli. 


Another gap is the absence of James Beane’s work on integrated curriculum and including student voice in determining what is important to learn and focus on.  It’s clear at several points in the text that Wormeli recognizes the need of early adolescents to take control of their learning and make knowledge their own; it would be worth going the extra step to include their voices in curriculum design.


The strengths of this book are clear:  in a thoroughly accessible way, Wormeli marries strategies to philosophy.  He advocates knowing children as whole beings, rather than automatic learners.  He incorporates high standards, deliberate planning, and the collaboration of thoughtful professionals to become successful teachers.  He envisions teachers as change agents in classrooms, and discusses authentic learning for not only students, but also their teachers through professional development activities such as National Board Certification and mentoring.  Much of this work can only be done with the logistical support of willing school leaders who can provide accommodating schedules, funds, and nurture a school climate that will lead to collaboration of professionals, making this a book to be read not only be novice and experienced teachers, but also by administrators.


Wormeli’s essence as an educator is captured in the book’s first chapter, when he says “I often walk into my classroom wondering what I will learn from students during the day and what they will learn from me (p. 4).”  This is the big idea that is supported by the theories and strategies throughout the work.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 1, 2003, p. 22-24
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10930, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 3:33:06 AM

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About the Author
  • Suzanne McCotter
    Millersville University
    E-mail Author
    SUZANNE S. McCOTTER is Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations at Millersville University, where she teaches courses in secondary education, supervision, and research methods. She also coordinates a post-baccalaureate teacher education program for interns in a local urban middle school. Dr. McCotter is a former middle and high school teacher. Samples of her research have appeared in Teaching and Teacher Education and The Qualitative Report. Her current research and scholarly interests focus on preservice teacher reflection on student learning and collaborating with school districts for teacher and leader preparation.
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