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April 2011 | Volume 68 | Number 7
The Transition Years
Teachers who know what young teens need can make middle school the best journey of their school years.
The middle school years bridge childhood and young adulthood. This bridge links the days of parent-directed, structured activities to the days of activities designed by young adults themselves. This three-year passage is often tumultuous. Navigated carelessly, the middle school period can set in motion a downward spiral for adolescents, frequently leading to serious problems in high school and even early adulthood. But properly navigated, the middle school bridge provides a smooth crossing and gives young teens the necessary guidance and freedom to make both good and bad choices.
As a longtime teacher of middle school students—currently a special education teacher at a rural middle school—I find that this age group evokes strong emotions from parents and educators alike. Parents are often confused when their previously compliant child transforms into a smelly, zitty, overgrown dork. Worse, the parents find that this dorky person now living in their home thinks he or she has a say in creating the rules that apply to family life and, consequently, demands that the parent rethink what is acceptable or forbidden.
Teachers either love or hate teaching this age group. I find young teens' changing attitudes to be refreshing, even remarkable at times. They are on the cusp of thinking abstractly about the world around them. Each new day brings a change in them, many of which they find confusing. As their teacher, you can become their role model, guide, and confidante—all positions of responsibility, but filled with excitement.
What can middle school teachers do to guide their students safely over this transitional bridge? Here are several strategies that make a difference.
Middle school learners crave predictability. Their bodies are growing and changing quickly. Meanwhile, their minds are racing, and school is just one more strange occurrence in their chaotic lives. Disorganized classrooms make school uncomfortable for already awkward preteens. In their first year of middle school, they shift suddenly from spending their school day with one teacher to moving hour-by-hour from one room to another—via their locker, the bathroom, and chat time with friends—all within four minutes. Predictable classrooms with consistent routines and expectations help ease the change from the elementary school's well-known faces and places to the complex middle school reality.
A little extra planning can set the stage for success. Before each class, I list on a small whiteboard outside my classroom all materials students will need for class that day, including assignments due on that day and in upcoming weeks. I write the plan for the day on the inside board so students can see what activities and assignments we'll be completing during the period. Every day may look somewhat different, but students are never surprised by what's coming next.
The one constant for each class is a starter activity, a quick review of yesterday's lesson or a bridge between yesterday's and today's. In the classroom I also keep three baskets: one where students can turn in their assignments, one containing work students may have missed on days they were absent, and one of extra handouts for those inevitable times when students lose a copy.
Adolescents are driven to be always moving and thinking. Harnessing this energy to lessons that engage students' bodies as well as their minds helps them learn material for the long term. Students love hands-on science labs and making models—such as maps, posters, and dioramas. They thrive when given the chance to be the teacher themselves, in either small-group or whole-class situations. Technology rules their world outside school and must be an integral part of learning in school. Tap into young teens' physicality and thirst for hands-on learning by making simple changes to daily learning activities:
Students need opportunities to make decisions and choices—bad ones as well as good. Successful adulthood demands that people make their own decisions and accept the consequences. When teachers give adolescents opportunities to make choices safely, then enforce logical consequences for poor choices, we scaffold responsible decision making for them and prepare them for more difficult choices later in life.
I watched one young man slyly copying all the answers from his neighbor's test paper. I didn't say a word or try to stop him. He didn't know I always make at least two versions of each test. When I passed back the tests, this teen was shocked at his low score compared to his neighbor, who'd gotten a 100. He brought both papers to me, saying he had the same answers as the student who'd scored well. When I pointed out that the questions were in a different order, he was speechless. We had a great conversation about cheating, learning, and the real reason for tests, and I let
him realize that he'd made a poor choice.
Young adolescents are impulsive. A clean slate approach makes school more bearable for them. If they know yesterday's sins are forgotten, they're more likely to come to school each day ready to give an honest attempt at productivity. Just as it's pointless to punish a puppy for the mess he made yesterday that you discovered today, it's pointless with this age group to extend consequences or make assumptions about students' behavior beyond one day.
We must hold students accountable for inappropriate actions, with clear and consistent consequences, enforced as soon as possible. But if a student misbehaved yesterday, the actual event is probably no longer fresh in her mind, so if a teacher holds yesterday's acts against her the following day, that student believes her teacher to be mean and unfair. Wiping the slate clean daily gives everyone a chance to be successful.
Middle schoolers crave acceptance. Building their social skills helps them create their own support network. Offer chances in class, as well as at various points during the school day, for students to visit with their teachers and friends.
If educators incorporate opportunities to work with a friend, perform group projects, discuss in small groups, or even lead discussion, they'll find students less likely to talk at inappropriate times. Social studies class can be a perfect place for this. Also, if teachers just stop in the halls to politely join conversations or wander into the cafeteria for friendly chitchat, it can lead to dramatic improvement in students' classroom behaviors.
Adolescents love to laugh at themselves and others. Building opportunities for fun into the school day encourages camaraderie and team building. Silly competitions, games, even something as simple as the joke of the day can help build a community that values joy rather than simply slogs through work. Giving students appropriate outlets for humor can also lessen the problem of humor erupting at inappropriate times and places.
I often share funny stories about myself, my family, or (sensitively) past students, including making fun of my own foibles. Middle schoolers appreciate humor that reveals a forgiving nature and makes light of mistakes. I've found that when a group of students is chatting constantly, quipping "Silence is golden, duct tape is silver" works much better than hissing "shhhh" or threatening detention—and I've been given many rolls of duct tape as gifts from students.
Middle school should be the best years of a child's life. Teaching in the middle, likewise, should be rewarding, enriching, and the most exciting job in the world. Students come to the edge of our bridge still vulnerable children of 11 or 12, looking for acceptance and guidance. If middle school teachers provide a stable transition, three short years later, we'll see smiling young adults step off the other side of that bridge, waving goodbye and heading for a successful high school experience.
Cossondra George is a special education teacher at Newberry Middle and High School in Newberry, Michigan.
Copyright © 2011 by ASCD
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