Senior Associate Bob Imholt says that working as a middle school principal was more fun than anything else he has ever done in his 25 years in international education. That being said, working with middle school kids was the most challenging job he has ever had. With all the changes young people are going through during this important developmental phase of life, “You never know which version of the student you are going to get on a given day!” exclaims Bob. How does a successful middle school classroom educator negotiate these stormy times?
Surviving middle school is not an easy task, but it is important to always remember that more growth occurs during these middle years than at any other time of life, with varying degrees of physical, social, emotional, and intellectual growth among individuals. Perhaps most importantly, the adult personality is formed during the middle level years. This includes basic self-concept, philosophy of life, values, and attitudes—ultimate determinants of one’s behavior, now and in the future. The more we know about our middle school crew and how to navigate the stormy years they are experiencing, the better we’ll prepare them for adulthood!
So, here are some rules for great middle school classrooms:
- Build on student interests as much as possible. Allow students to connect, anything and everything to their passions, as it will help make the larger world relevant to what they learn in the classroom. They will rise to curriculum that is relevant, challenging, integrative, and exploratory. Be sure to offer multiple learning and teaching approaches that respond to their diversity, without compromising assessment and evaluation programs that promote quality learning.
- Create an inviting, supportive, and safe environment. As much as possible, offer choice. Compliment, critique, and confront in private. Students can be easily embarrassed. Work with the class to create a shared social and academic vision that guides decisions. Make explicit high expectations for every member of the learning community.
- Encourage/maintain ESL immersion programs through middle school! Camilla Modesitt says in her blog for Education Week, “It is in middle school where students learn metaphors, slang, and different ways of speaking…People who learn a second language from a young age have better problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, as well as more perseverance and follow through…the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition recommends 3 hours a day in the target language in middle school.”
- Harness the middle school students’ need to a) belong and b) wiggle, by creating ample opportunity for active learning and building meaningful relationships. Encourage new interactions through team building, group projects, and positive rewards.
- Create learning opportunities that foster health, wellness, and safety. Physical, mental, and social wellness are all potent areas for education. Students’ deep sense of caring, of fairness, of sensitivity at this age is patchy. Callousness towards peers and/or their teacher creates a powerful teachable moment to discuss appropriate choices of words and actions and practice in forward thinking.
- Encourage forward and flexible thinking. What would happen if . . . critical to academic development but their survival in these risk-taking years. Also, provide opportunities to solve a problem multiple ways, also useful in tackling everyday challenges.
- Encourage your students verbalize some of their core values; assist them in understanding what integrity means. Expose them to some ways that people wield power and influence, so they can identify when they are being bullied or pressured beyond their personal values.
- Use your middle school stories whenever appropriate to show good and bad decision-making of your younger self. And to crack them up!
Along with the best of luck, Bob sends middle school educators some final words of wisdom:
“If middle school students know that you have chosen to work with that age group and that your classroom is designed with their specific needs in mind, your chances of a successful voyage are much improved. It is still going to be rocky, but what a journey it will be!”