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Making the Middle Grades Matter

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“A place where your parents drop you off to be ripped apart by your equals.”

The Urban Dictionary’s definition of middle school is mostly accurate, slightly terrifying, and certainly something most teens and parents have thought at times. But when teachers use their knowledge of this unique age to structure their classroom routines, middle school can be years that truly matter, both educationally and emotionally. Focusing on a few target areas can help you and your students.

Creating a Culture of Predictability

The single most important tool for classroom success in middle school is to create a culture of classroom predictability. Having spent most of their elementary years contained in the same classroom, with the same teacher, the process of moving from classroom to classroom, trying to learn different teachers and their rituals, can be difficult for the typical, unorganized adolescent. By making your own classroom a haven of predictability, students will have a greater chance of success.

  • Avoid the inevitable question of “What are we doing today?” by writing the game plan on the board. A daily learning target, along with a list of activities to achieve that goal, will help students understand where your lesson is headed. They know whether they can look forward to a video clip or dread reading from the text. They know what materials to gather and what tools to have ready.
  • Make tools accessible and practical. Elementary classrooms are set up with art stations, reading stations, and computer areas. Do the same for your middle school class. Create spots to store everything they might need to do creative projects on one handy bookcase shelf, plan a storage area for textbooks, atlases, and other reference materials in a traffic free zone, and create a cozy reading nook with books to share.
  • Middle schoolers tend to be disorganized with their work. I try to plan a “loose ends day” at the end of each unit to give straggling assignments a chance to make their way to the turn-in basket. For students who have no loose ends to tie up, a video relating to the topic or an online enrichment or review activity can keep them busy while you personally touch base with stragglers who need to take care of outstanding work. If you keep extra copies of handouts in a labeled basket and have specific locations to turn in work assignments, you can alleviate stress for students while helping them learn to be responsible and organized.
  • Provide multiple seating choices. Growing bodies crave movement and comfort. Offer places for students to sit, stand, or lounge in beanbags as they complete work. Giving them a choice of seating options will work in your favor.

Build Parent Support

Parents of middle school students are often struggling themselves, trying to find the balance between being helicopter parents and giving their child independence to fail. Building and maintaining relationships with parents can make the difference in student success.

Make contact before you need to. A quick phone call or email before you have academic or behavior issues is like money in the bank! Strive to contact three parents each week, minimum:

  • Call or email the parent of a student you particularly enjoy. Parents of “good” students don’t always get contacted. It will be appreciated, and you will look forward to making the contact.
  • Call or email a student who has shown some improvement, in behavior or work habits. Even if parents were not aware of the struggle, they will appreciate knowing things are getting better. Their reinforcement of the improvements will help assure the trend continues.
  • Now, the most difficult. This one takes a little planning ahead. Choose a student whom you don’t particularly have the best rapport with, one who struggles socially or academically. Really, truly, make an effort the day before you plan to contact the parent. Reach out to that student and find something good to share with the parent. It can be a turning point in your relationship.

Maintain contact—good, bad, or otherwise. Encourage parents to stay in touch with you by continuing to reach out to them throughout the year.

Show Some Personality

Middle school students love to laugh and have fun. Share your own unique personality with them to engage them. Finding ways to have fun in class can turn the most mundane days into celebrations.

  • "Meet & Greet." I always meet my students at the door, every hour. Sometimes, we shake hands; other times, we fist bump or elbow bump. Some days, I hand them a paper I need them to use later. Making that individual contact sets the tone for personal caring in your classroom.
  • Have a game day. Students love competition, in small groups or individually. Games make great reviews before a test, give you valuable formative assessment information, and get your students excited. Some of our favorites are:

    1.) Kahoot: This website offers a variety of options, but I typically use the multiple choice questions for a quick review at the beginning or end of the hour. Sometimes, our Kahoot is a few questions, other times, I may review for an upcoming test with a half hour Kahoot review. But few things get my students more excited than seeing Kahoot on the board for today’s plan.
    2.) Jeopardy: I do this old school with categories and questions, written on note cards. There are online versions, but I have never found the ‘perfect’ one. I have my students work in small groups of 2-3 students to collaborate on questions.
    3.) Whiteboards: Issue each student or partnership a small whiteboard, a marker, and a "magic eraser,” aka paper towel. Read a question, wait time, then announce “BOARDS UP.” Count up points and tally. This goes quickly and engages all students with every question.

  • Have an auction day. Hand out tickets for a variety of actions you want to reinforce. It might be grades or behavior, or a combination of these. Make it different from day to day. Everyone with a sharpened pencil in hand at the door gets a ticket. Everyone on the correct page without being asked gets a ticket. Everyone with their homework completed gets a ticket. Announce the Auction Day, and tell students to keep track of their tickets. On Auction Day, have a variety of goodies for students to bid on. I try to plan these days for those WILD days, like Halloween, or the day before Winter Break, when you need something to help keep your sanity.

According to Dr. Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins researcher, the middle school years are the “most fertile years.” He advocates for a strong intentional approach to middle level education. By focusing on creating a predictable classroom, by utilizing parent support, and by letting your own personality shine, you as a middle school educator, can truly make these years matter.

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