Tag Archives: Middle School

Social Justice, Current Events, Diversity, and Peace for Middle School: Reflections from International Week

Recently, our school celebrated International Week.  Every year, our foreign language department and diversity committee plan a week of programs to help put world cultures and issues surrounding diversity at the forefront of our students minds.  Obviously, such ideas and concepts influence our lives daily, but I also think that it is a good idea to illustrate to our students that we think it is not only worthy of the interruption but important enough to take a break from our regular routine to look at the world around us more closely.  The theme this year was “Peace in a Divided World.”  Many students were astounded to learn that even though the Berlin Wall has fallen, there are many emotional,social walls, and even physical walls all over the world dividing people groups from one another still today.

The view from my classroom window.

The view from my classroom window.

A quick side bar: my classroom windows look out on to a very literal wall that my students frequently bemoan.  I think, though, that it makes us all the more grateful for the light that manages to sneak in around it.  There is potentially a nice extended metaphor here that may bear further exploring another time.

An event from the week that stood out the most to me was when Rafael Romo, the Senior Latin American Affairs Editor of CNN Worldwide, came to speak to our students.  He did an excellent job of engaging with them and was able to bring multiple perspectives on our theme to light for our students. He spoke of his own immigration story and his journey to reaching his current role.  He also spoke of the value of following current events and the importance of understanding the larger world around you.  I am afraid that I was not surprised when he asked an auditorium full of students how many knew the name of the President in France, and only a few could raise their hand.  Hopefully, they now see the value in this type of information and are encouraged to explore it further.

Romo also spoke of how important it was for him in his job to keep an open mind and explore all sides of a story.

One of the most important points I think Romo really drove home for our students was that it is important to understand reality and not to hide it, even if it is harsh, even if it is ugly, even if it is hard to watch.

His job as a journalist helps him to seek justice for those who may not normally receive it.  The danger in not paying attention is that it creates room for injustice.  I think that Romo’s visit helped many students to know only notice and acknowledge the walls in their world but also to envision ways around and beyond them.

It is a difficult thing for schools and teachers to put their regular routines on hold for programs, special schedules, and the like.  I am, however, grateful for this intentional pause we take each year to open our eyes and ears to the larger world around us.

Beyond Classroom Walls: Encouraging Independent Reading and Engaging the Community

Too often, students, at least those in middle school, maintain and apply the skills  and habits we seek to build in our English classroom struggle once they walk out of our doors.  Of particular interest to me today is how we build up students to read for pleasure.  There are many great classroom practices, such as free-choice book units and independent reading time built into the school days.  One of our hopes in these practices is that students will find an appreciation for reading within the school day that they will eventually pursue on their own.  For many students, though, even if they enjoy the practice of selecting their own titles and reading independently at school, it becomes more of a task in the real, often chaotic worlds they live in outside our walls.  Lately the question of turning a reading practice into a reading habit follows me everywhere I go.

Star Wars ShakespeareOne thing I think is key to creating independent readers among young teens, especially, is showing them that they are  surrounded by independent readers and that those independent readers are not only their peers.  I try to keep a book I am reading for pleasure on my desk at school at all times.  It usually takes me a long time to finish these titles since there is not much time for pleasure-reading in my day, but it’s presence and the slow progress of its book mark is still valuable.  Right now, you will find Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope by Ian Doescher presiding over my desk.  Despite my significant lack of Star Wars knowledge, it is clever, funny, and surprisingly well done, but I will provide a review when I finish in a few weeks.  My hope is that they will see that not all reading is assigned and that there is a surprising amount of variety out there.  Star Wars written in the style of Shakespeare? Who would have thought!?!

A screenshot of outrteacher book collage from my class website.

A screenshot of outrteacher book collage from my class website.

Still, I am their English teacher, and of all the adults they know, my students expect me to be one who reads for pleasure.  I needed to expand the picture for them.  I reached out to my fellow 8th grade teachers and asked them what they were reading for pleasure that would also be appropriate for our students.  The response was great!  I created a collage/slideshow on my class website (see screenshot to the right) to illustrate for students that reading for pleasure is not reserved for English teachers alone.  Math teachers read! Science teachers read! History teachers read! And, they read things you may be interested in!  I also wanted to provide these teachers with a new avenue for reaching out to their students by showing the kids what their teachers are reading and hopefully inspiring some new conversations and connections.

So, now students know that there are adults out there who read for pleasure, but you may have noticed by now, that one critical element is missing.  Parents.  Teachers are a unique subset of adults in the minds of teens, and what applies to teachers does not always apply to the world around them.  Teens need to see adults in the world outside their school, and their parents in particular, reading – maybe even reading to them!  On numerous occasions, I have had eighth grade parents share with me that their children used to be readers, but that their enthusiasm has drop as they progressed through middle school.  Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon pattern as students go through dramatic changes that seem to consume their thoughts and more demands are placed on their time.  Just because it is a pattern, though, does not mean it needs to persist.  In communication with parents, I usually give three pieces of common, research-based practices in encouraging a student’s at-home reading practice.  Feel free to share with the parents of your own students:

  • As a family, make sure that reading for pleasure is a visible act from time to time.  If reading for fun is modeled, it will become a more normalized activity that teens are more likely to pursue on their own. 
  • Have casual conversations about what your teen is reading.  These conversations should not feel like work or a quiz.  For instance, I know that [insert student’s name] just started a book for independent reading titled [insert title and author].  This title could be a great jumping off point for some dinner table conversations.
  • When appropriate, recommend something you have read to your teen, or read a book you may both be interested together. 

Hopefully,at least some of these practices are already a part of a family’s environment, but even when they are, I remind parents that being a little more intentional in them can make a difference.

How do you move beyond reading logs and book reviews to help students turn reading independently into a valuable habit?

And Then, Sometimes, They Get It.

There have been moments where I have told my students that they cannot silently out-stare me.  “When I ask a question,” I say, “you cannot stare me down to the point that I feel awkward, give in, and spill the beans on the answer.”  They try any way.  Among our students there seems to be a growing pattern of passivity.  They would rather be told than find out; they would rather get than build.  On a recent survey of my students, one in particular complained about the fact that I don’t just tell them answers but instead make them look it up and discuss possibilities with their peers.  The tone was negative, but I smiled slightly at the comment.  It meant I was doing something right.

As teachers however, we do not only want students to learn how to learn and think critically.  We also want students to learn to enjoy the process and make it a habit for how they approach and interact with the world around them – even if it’s hard.  As middle school students, the ideas and suggestions of adults are often dead-on-arrival.  What do grown-ups know anyway?  Still, we are planting seeds and hope that students will recognize the value of these days in the days to come.

Every now and again, though, they get it in real-time.  Some will share there revelation with you; others will try to hide it, but I bet you catch it anyway.  For my classroom, these moments most often come during my Romeo and Juliet unit.  There is much digging in of the heels and protesting at the start. “He wrote in Old English!” they cry.  “False,” I calmly reply. “Stomp your feet all you want. It’s okay. We will agree in a few weeks.”  Then, I get to catch them having fun.  It is the best kind of I-told-you-so.  Last week, I had a student verbalize this moment for the class.  We had spent several days writing our own sonnets.  On Friday, students were given the opportunity to share their sonnets if they wish, and a surprising number of students signed up.  Towards the end of one class period, one student shared with the class that she had been frustrated for most of the writing process and didn’t really understand why we had to do it.  “Today, though,” She said. “I’m so glad that we did!” Yes!  I wanted to plant her in each of my classes so they could hear her, as well.

Feel free to share your own “They get it!” moments in the comments.

Using Pecha Kucha to Help Students Review

Many of you may have heard of the Pecha Kucha presentation technique.  The general premise is this:  A presenter can have twenty slides and twenty seconds a slide in which to convey his or her point.  The slides advance automatically whether or not the speaker is ready.  There is more to it than that, and it has an interesting history; Those are the basics, though.  You can learn more about the concept in general here.

I want to share with you how it made a big splash in my 7th grade English class this week.  The class before a test, in middle school at least, is always interesting.  The students know it is coming, of course, but the realization that a few weeks of hard work is coming to a culminating assessment the next day can be overwhelming.  Middle school students are not always prepared to understand the reasons teachers have for assessing their understanding  or for understanding the ways we might go about it.

That is where the Pecha Kucha adaptation comes in.  We had been reading a novel, Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick, but the activity could be adapted to anything.  I divided my class into thirds.  One group was assigned literary devices, one was assigned plot points, and the other characters.  Each student developed one slide based on their assigned category and according to the instructions below:

For Review Activity

I had a number of goals for adapting and presenting the idea this way.  Mainly, it would help the students learn to think critically about what we had discussed, prioritized information, and present ideas in a manner other than simply regurgitating the way we originally learned it.  The following is an example that I showed my students.  I had them time me as I explained it in under 30 seconds.  It may only make sense to you if you read the book!

Regarding the book DRUMS, GIRLS, and DANGEROUS PIE by Jordan Sonnenblick

The kids loved the concept and how we adapted it.  They got creative with how they portrayed their thoughts, as well.  A number of students did some interesting work with the wordle-like website Tagxedo.  I pulled all of their slides into one presentation and they could come by to get at the end of the day if they wanted to use it for review at home.

What other ways could you use Pecha Kucha to help kids?  I think it could be a valuable tool for growing their critical thinking skills.

All About Transitions – Middle Schoolers and Me

When I was getting my education degree, I was pretty sure I would end up teaching High School English.  I loved student teaching in a 10th grade classroom and assumed that something similar would follow.  Surprisingly, the job I ended up taking was in a middle school classroom teaching one section each of 6th through 8th grade English, among other subjects, as well.  Like a meet-cute in a movie, I remember meeting my first homeroom of 7th grade students as a first year teacher and realizing that I love middle school.  Before, when I was still in college, I would tell people that I planned on teaching high school English, and they would say, “High School? But, you look like you’re in high school yourself!”  Now, when I explain that I am a middle school teacher, I get funny facial expressions, comments on what a “unique” age group that is, “well some one’s gotta do it” sentiments, and (because I’m in the south) that slightly condescending endearment, “Well, bless your heart!”

Image from Flikr User AwesomeJoolie

Middle school students are a unique group, for sure, but my heart also does feel blessed to be working with them.  What I’ve learned most about working with this age is that, to put it as simply as possible, it seems to be all about transitions on the part of the students and all about flexibility on the part of the teachers.  For middle school students so much, even the familiar things, are new.  Having a locker and a class schedule without spending the whole day with the same twenty-five kids is enough to send some sixth grade students straight to the floor in the middle of the hallway surrounded by a confusing shower of papers.  Then there’s the fact that your friends, especially those of the opposite sex, are suddenly different and so your friendship now has to be different, even if you were perfectly happy riding your bikes all over the neighborhood and running through sprinklers two summers ago. To add to the chaos, there’s also this strange phenomenon where all of a sudden friends have broken themselves up into little groups and each group seems to have its own social expectations and code.  Whew! I get kind of dizzy just thinking about it, and then I remember that all of those things are being towed behind my students when they enter my classroom each day.  I smile, though, because they are bringing these things into my English classroom, and, among other very important things, English is all about communicating about my world and your world and the worlds that have come before us and those that will follow.  It is using this great gift of language to deconstruct our ideas, philosophies, understandings, and questions.

This past school year, I came to the decision that it was time to make a transition of my own and decided to seek employment at a different school.  When I began the process of applying and interviewing, I knew without a doubt that, no matter what other changes I made, I wanted to keep teaching middle school.  I may have stumbled into middle level education, but I have no desire to leave. This sentiment is viewed as crazy-talk by some (even some within the field of education) but that also means that the majority of teachers you have on a middle school faculty really want to be there.  Others may have stumbled into it, like I did, but I’ve also found that those who find it is not for them don’t seem to hang around for long, which means you are left with a faculty who is largely happy that they are working in a middle school – at least in my experience.

This coming July, I will begin the move to my new school where I will teach 7th and 8th grade English.  It is an independent k-12 school just outside of Atlanta, and also just happens to be where I attended high school.  A lot has changed since I was in attendance, and I am excited for this next stage in my career.  Looking ahead, though, I am also finding a few more ways to relate to my transition-laden students.  I will be learning to work within the new codes and expectations of a new faculty and a new curriculum.  Additionally, the school has a couple of innovative programs and ideas in place.  For one, in the 6th-8th grades, Math and English classes are gender divided.  I am eager to see how this new dynamic will affect my classroom, but also want to make sure I am preparing myself for this new class element as much as possible, so that creating the right environment for my students is not too trial and error based.  In the upcoming school year, the school is also launching a one-to-one tablet program.  I am glad that this is a transition that all faculty members will encounter and not just the new additions.  I’ve brought my tablet home and am excited to begin playing around with it.

For my students, middle school is all about transitions.  As for me, I am in full transition mode, too.  It can seem a little overwhelming at times, but overwhelming in a way that fills me with energetic enthusiasm for the year to come.  So now, dear PLN, I am calling on you to help me in this transition, and hopefully we can all learn a little be from each other in the process.  Do you have any great resources on teaching to different genders? One-to-one tablet programs? Entering a new faculty and curriculum?  I appreciate all the ways you help guide me and will be sure to share what I learn along the way, as well!

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