December 2016, Vol. 24, No. 2: Who Are Middle Level Kids?

Link to FlipGridEditors' Note:  In this digital article, English teacher Jason Augustowski writes with several of his former middle-level students about what they learned together that transcended curriculum.  We invite you to transcend the boundaries of a print page by inviting your students to share their ideas and "lessons learned" to the Flipgrid embedded at the bottom of the page.  Mr. A's students have already gotten us started there, so be sure to read the posts as a part of the article, too.

Student to Teacher: What We Need You to Know

“I want my students to know that they have choices in their lives and those choices involve others as well as themselves . . . their ability to share their beliefs and opinions can nudge the world a little” (Rief, 2014, p. 211).

Students have to be the center of everything we do and create as middle school teachers. In this article, we feature the voices of four of my recent students who share big ideas about how we use space and instruction to come to know students and build real community, not classroom management. We believe that, paired with relevant and authentic tasks and assessment, this is the key to creating a classroom focused on learning.

I chose to compose this article with students for the same reason I choose to design my space and instruction with students—because they are our intellectual customers to whom we provide our service, and we must ensure their space for learning is the most engaging, effective, and efficient designs for their specific community.

Coauthoring an article with a table of students is infinitely possible and looks very similar to designing a curriculum or a classroom with them. We sit at a table and think about big ideas: What do students enjoy most about the typical middle school classroom? How is instruction effectively reaching students? What do students dislike about school, why, and how can we address this? What do students value most?

Simply creating an environment in which your students can talk about these big ideas, explaining why they are so important (if you can’t answer the “so what?” why teach it/do it?), and letting them go will surprise you. After all, they are living on the front lines. We may remember what it was like to be kids in school, but we don’t know what it is like to be kids in school today.

Classroom Design: Learning with Justin and Joe

Justin is a seventh-grade alum from the 2013–14 school year who presented at the 2014 NCTE Convention in Washington, DC. Joe was a seventh grader for the 2014-15 SY who presented at the 2015 NCTE Annual Convention in Minneapolis.

The layout of your classroom says a lot about both the teacher and how well students will be able to learn. We’ve noticed certain ideas that helped enhance the learning of our peers: the ability to move, relax, and work can be visually appealing to middle level students and also has advantages to progress student learning. There are several key elements that contribute to a well-functioning classroom including

1. Incorporating comfortable furniture

Comfort is vital to middle school students, as we are beginning to desire environmental factors found in the adult world. The typical classroom chair is uncomfortable, to say the least. Have a few areas in the room where students can stretch out and feel more at home. Beanbags, mushroom chairs, rugs, and mood lighting can go a long way. If you don’t know where to start, ask your students what they would change about the room. This is exactly what Mr. A. asked us, and we included our own unique ideas when we redesigned our classroom.

2. Grouping students to increase productivity

Middle school students enjoy socializing and feeling like they are part of a group. From our experience, that is why most students like table groups, so they are able to collaborate. When teachers talk to a group of students, the students don’t feel like the teacher is focusing on them as individuals. This realization takes some of the pressure off of the students and makes them more comfortable in their classroom environment. Table groups not only allow students to give help to other classmates, it also allows us to receive help. These groupings open the classroom space and let the teacher easily move around and interact with students. Kids don’t want to feel confined in the classroom. Who likes to shimmy past row after row of chairs and have to squeeze and lean into other students just to sharpen a pencil? Mr. A had recliners and a couch for us. It was so nice to be able to sit comfortably and read. I felt at home and was thoroughly immersed in my book.

3. The teacher’s desk

The location of your desk has an impact too. When it is tucked in the corner, students feel disconnected from the teacher’s guidance. Walking up to the teacher’s desk can seem intimidating. A centralized desk promotes questions and helps you connect with your students. When the teacher’s desk is in the middle of the classroom, students feel that the teacher is more approachable and truly a part of the class. Eliminating your desk altogether erases boundaries between you and your students, showing you are not going to sit back and watch.

4. Adding music

Physical comfort is only half of the problem faced in middle school; we also want to have mental stability. Even if the seat is adequate, too much background noise will counteract the environmental changes you’ve made. We think there is one factor that calms the students and improves the vibe of the room at the same time: music. Today’s middle school students have become so academically reliant on music that earbuds have turned into a school supply. If students are quietly laboring over classwork, invite them to take out their headphones and listen. If that worries you, bring in some of your own songs to play. Ask students what school-appropriate songs they want to hear. Tests and quizzes should probably be kept silent, but if the students are working on an individual writing assignment, music can help create a more welcoming space. We don’t believe all teachers realize the impact a classroom environment has on students’ behaviors and attitudes. It can change a class from being average to one that the students will look forward to and remember.

Instructional Design: Learning with Sam and Ben

Sam and Ben are seventh-grade alumni from the 2013–14 school year who both presented at the 2014 and 2015 NCTE Annual Conventions.

Elementary schoolers are full of energy, and high schoolers are worried about college. Middle schoolers, however, are simultaneously trying to prove their independence while conforming to trends and norms. Their social lives take up a lot of their attention, and they have thousands of ideas they are waiting to express. Usually, this finds a way into the classroom.

1. Starting the year

Assignments are usually force-fed to students. Whether the work is helpful or not, it is mandated by the teacher. Students do not necessarily get a voice in determining what we have to accomplish by the end of the year, but we do deserve a voice in how we complete those goals. This voice needs to be established on the first day of school. Begin your class by allowing students to list problems they face throughout a usual school year. Next, brainstorm solutions that can be utilized to resolve them. Teachers can veto unrealistic suggestions and students can veto unhelpful ideas. This creates a balance between what teachers and students are implementing. Allowing the opportunity for compromise to occur also shows the dedication you have toward students’ education. Finally, execute the ideas that you and your students have agreed upon.

2. Harnessing chattiness

As middle schoolers, we know that chatty kids disrupt classes daily. Rather than squandering that energy, teachers should utilize middle level students’ talkative nature. One of our past teachers had class discussions in which she used polarizing topics found in books we were reading to spark debates. Everyone would participate simply because they felt their opinions had to be heard. She had taken a group of off-topic side conversations and turned them into a large class assignment. These discussions allowed our teacher to understand the way we thought and the way we articulated those thoughts. She was able to give us individualized advice on how to better comprehend our reading and express our writing.

3. Sharing your authentic voice with students

Students have their own voices and opinions. Most teachers dissuade them from showing that individuality, fearing distraction. Instead, they should embrace that most students are eager to share their thoughts. Mr. A was entirely open about the passion he had for English. His whole purpose for teaching was to share his love for the subject with students, upon whom he was centrally focused. We felt connected. We knew he actually cared about our academic advancement. He managed to mitigate a good amount of class disruptions, gain our trust, understand us better, and tie it all into the curriculum. When done correctly, sharing personal stories with your class and working with them to create a more welcoming space allows you to connect with your students in a manner that simultaneously builds rapport.

4. Gaining students’ respect

One 21st-century problem is that educators are overlooking the students. School is all about grades, essays, busywork, high-stakes tests/assessments, and no flexibility. As soon as school becomes about the teachers, the students instantly lose. I never looked forward to school to learn—and that’s a problem. School must be about inspiring students. Teachers must actually gain students’ respect (and not take it for granted). Beginning around the middle level, the whole teacher-student paradigm is shifted: simply being an educator is not enough to gain your students’ respect. In eighth grade, we had a teacher who gave us packets or worksheets to do and said, “Get it done.” This same teacher demanded respect (in the form of total silence) and became easily flustered when students did not automatically offer it. Rather than demanding respect, get to know the students you teach. Talk to them in the hallways and in the lunchroom. Get to know their hobbies, interests, and friends. Doing so will help in designing instruction. The more you know about your students, the more effective you can be as a teacher.

Co-Learners

The rapport cultivated is imperative because it translates directly to the quality of work produced by students when they truly care about a class. In our classroom, students complete assignments from a menu of state standards, which results in total differentiation for both instruction and assessment.

This is the kind of learning we are seeking—learning in which students are truly invested, smiling about content. Eventually most of this discussion is unprompted as well—imagine standing back and watching as your students lead class. In these moments, we become facilitators who have given students the space to explore the possibilities of their English education.

These methods allow students to work at their own pace. As soon as they can prove mastery of a concept, they move on, only stopping to wrestle when they come across a standard with which they struggle. At that point, because they have been pacing themselves wisely, they have the necessary time to dedicate to more difficult material.

For the past three years we have been instructing (each other) in this fashion with amazing results. Students are fully engaged in their learning and with each other, are completing the entire seventh-grade curriculum each year, and scoring higher on their state standardized tests than ever before. They read, write, and engage as self-directed, self-motivated students who know how to take charge of their own learning. This is the type of learner school—and specifically the ELA classroom—should build. This is all possible when we listen to our students, hear their words, and take action.

References

Rief, L. (2014). Read, Write, Think: Choice and Challenge in the Reading-Writing Workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

About the Authors

Jason Augustowski currently teaches ninth- and tenth-grade English in Loudon County, VA, and worked with this team of coauthors when they were in seventh grade. He has been teaching and presenting at NCTE for six years, serves as musical director for the local middle school, and has been honored to serve on the Middle Level Section nominating committee. Along with author Lester Laminack, Jason is the leader of the #bowtieboys, a group of high school students dedicated to representing and advocating for student voice within education.