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For many students success in middle school can determine whether or not they can navigate high school and leave with a diploma. This fact means that we as middle school teachers should guide our students to think on their own and make wise choices. While teaching 8th grade, I would begin the year giving more support and direction than I did after winter break. By mid-year, I would begin reminding students that certain things that they were used to in middle school would not be there for them in high school where they were expected to be more independent.
One of the ways that I found to help my students was to understand what is going on with these “tweens.” This age group deals with a multitude of simultaneous changes. They are growing physically, often in spurts. Their hormones rage and some of the resulting physical changes confuse and worry them. They want to belong to a group but often don’t feel that they do. Their brains are maturing but are not fully connected to the adult world. This is most easily seen in their lack of impulse control. Between the ages of 10 and 15 students are no longer children, they are functioning as adolescents. Understanding the characteristics of this age group gave me the ability to know when an action was worthy of comment and when I should ignore it. I also learned to visually recognize when something was causing a change in a student and found that if I took a private minute to ask what was wrong I could usually head off a behavior problem.
Students in the middle have very specific learning needs. While immature in many ways, they have made major strides in determining what they like and don’t like. They tend to like new experiences but need guidance in order to stay safe. This is why learning from experience is important at this stage in their education. Hands-on activities in the classroom allow them to “experience” what they are learning. After this type of lesson, it is then the teacher’s job to help the class construct the knowledge that they have obtained into an academic format. For example, if you are doing a unit on plant life and you have your classes grow plants and record the progress over a period of time you can bring them back together and discuss their data. As a class, you can draw the conclusions that you want them to take away from the lesson by recording group data.
Another characteristic of this age group is that they like to socialize. To tap into this interest, it can be helpful to have them work in groups. Before you shout “No way”, they will never get any work done, let me explain. I started using groups when I was assigned to the smallest room in the school. There was no way that I could place 33 desks in rows and be able to navigate the room let alone get the students out safely if there was a fire. So I learned how to use groups effectively.
Each group had to be a mix of boys and girls. No one could be in a group with a friend until the middle of the year when I knew who could handle that freedom and who couldn’t. Groups could not stay together longer than one marking period. Most importantly, I learned how to “eavesdrop” on the groups from a distance. As soon as I heard any conversation from a group that was not on task, I would comment. Sometimes I would just ask where they were in the activity which let me know if they were pacing properly. Often I would catch a word or two and say something like “I don’t think that show has anything to do with finding the area of that circle.” After a while, I got a reputation for having supersonic hearing and I didn’t have to monitor conversations as much.
Middle school can be one of the most rewarding and frustrating places to teach. The growth from 5th or 6th grade (depending on the school structure) through 8th grade is fascinating to watch. It is frustrating because of all of the changes that this age group goes through which too often affects their classroom behavior. With that in mind let me share with you the two best tips I ever got when I began teaching middle school. Treat your students with respect and as young adults, not children. Be a little sillier than they are on any given day.