Acknowledge the Challenge:
Maximize the Opportunity
It’s surprising how many educators accept jobs in middle schools not because it is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to teach pre-teenagers, but because working there will serve as a stop gap, a place to work until a high school position opens. Are your middle school teachers treading water until they can get a “real job” teaching literature and composition the way they were taught in college?
Most of us who choose to remain as language arts teachers in middle school do so because we recognize that teaching young adolescents can be pure joy. We realize we’re in the prime place, at pivotal time in the lives of our students, a time when they either develop a healthy respect or a deep resentment for school. Our job, we see, is to help our youngsters discover how they learn while they are acquiring skills and consuming information.
Language arts is the one course students take nearly every year they are in school. We know that we who teach them have the time and flexibility to adjust our instruction in ways that enhance student learning across the curriculum and thus increase student enjoyment of schooling in general. What do I mean?
The core components of the language arts curriculum – reading, writing, speaking, and listening – are skills that form the foundation for learning in all other academic courses. Proficiency in these areas is expected when these youngsters enter their middle school social studies, science, and math classrooms. When such aptitude is missing or deficient, we language arts teachers usually are the ones called on the carpet to explain why we are not doing our job. How do we respond? What can we do to reduce the angst when accused of being ineffective educators?
First, we must acknowledge the challenge of teaching young adolescents. Yes, most of them come to us in the throes of puberty, dealing with raging hormones, startling physical changes or lack thereof; distressing emotional roller coasters; and uncertainty, trying to figure out what all these different teachers want from them! For the first time, most middle school students have multiple teachers daily. Not just one teacher who knows Gabrielle, her likes and dislikes and knows how she learns. Not just one teacher who makes allowances for Sydney when he’s moved mid-year from living with Dad for six months into the house with Mom , her new husband and their new baby. Not just one teacher who understands that Juanita freezes when she’s asked to read out loud without having time to practice. And these students now have to learn their way around a larger school, change clothes and shower for gym, and find a place to eat lunch with people they don’t even know. How can they attend to class work?
All this is just too much for some of these early teens. Add to it learning parts of speech and elements of fiction; researching a contemporary topic using equipment they’ve never seen before; writing a persuasive essay on a controversial issue with correctly formatted endnotes and then presenting the report out loud to the class with visual aids in a PowerPoint presentation on the day of their first menstruation!
It is overwhelming to be expected to know which teachers will make Lailani work in small groups with Duong, the guy she has a crush on and with Shakira, the girl she had a fight with during soccer practice. Anyway, Andrew’s teacher last year didn’t teach him how to use a wiki and all the rest of the students in the class seem to know what the teacher’s talking about. It’s just too embarrassing and why did Mom and Dad make Kwami come to this school anyway!
It is in situations like these that we language arts teacher have a curriculum to cover, a set of standards to see that each student reaches, and parents who expect us to do what they may not be able to do – keep Sally and Salvador happy. How can the teacher of young adolescents be professionally effective and personally satisfied enough to feel successful in middle school?
Maximize the opportunity. Students in middle school want to learn and they need educators willing to learn how to teach them – as individuals, not as receptacles of information. Research in the past twenty years has revealed what experienced teachers have known for years: our classes reflect multiple intelligences and students learn in different ways; cultures make a difference; males learn better in certain settings than females do. The researchers urge teachers to adapt instruction to enhance all learning. No, this does not mean creating individualized educational plans for every student we teach. It does mean designing lessons that teach the same lesson in a variety of ways and offer students choices on how they show what they know.
What does this look like in the real world? For some classes, it means incorporating more 21st century technology in our teaching. It means recognizing that students come to us with access to a range of technology or with no access at all. It is our job to help them understand educational applications and encourage them to use what they know to learn what we teach. For example, in many middle schools, the majority of students come to classes with their own cell phones, many with features that do as much, if not more than classroom computers did just a decade ago.
Rather than forbid students phones in the classroom, incorporate that technology into lessons. How about using the camera on their cell phones? The next time you introduce a new piece of literature and select vocabulary you expect the students to learn and use in their own speaking and writing, invite your students to use the camera capabilities on their cell phones to help show the meanings of those vocabulary words you distributed on lists that include page on which the word appears.
Since middle school students love to talk anyway, create small groups who will be responsible for just a few of the words on the list. For example, if your list is twenty words, have five groups who each are responsible for showing the meaning of four words In addition to the traditional information usually required in vocabulary study, add photos that can be uploaded into a computer program and then shared on a class wiki as a movie or presented in a PowerPoint presentation. For school settings with not enough phones, invite students to draw pictures and make group posters or collages instead.
Cell Phones and Drawings for Vocabulary Study
* Locate the assigned word in the literature being studied.
* Determine how it is used (what part of speech) in the context of the literary work.
* Look up the word in a good dictionary that includes more than synonyms.
* Photograph(or draw) images to help classmates understand the meaning of each assigned word. The image should reflect the literal and/or figurative meaning – one that will serve as a mnemonic for the word. Create and photograph original art work, use computer graphics, stage a scene with toys, or have classmates pose for a scene.
* Consider color, font, image or music to portray the meaning of the word as used in the context of the literary work being studied.
* Then, as a group, create a 1-2 minute PPT or video presentation that reflects what the group has learned about the words, including original sentences using the words and synonyms, antonyms, and or appositives to help clarify the meaning.
This assignment utilizes the range of skills of a typical group of middle school students who represent the multiple intelligences and it has active and passive tasks that appeal to both the male and female students in both categories.
Suggestions for an Overall Plan
1. Design the lessons carefully to last three to five days.
2. Have written instructions to supplement the oral ones.
3. Demonstrate a sample product with the class helping you gather information on one vocabulary word.
4. Allot ten to fifteen minutes of class time during the final fifteen minutes of class the first week that the new piece of literature is being studied.
5. Set a kitchen timer each day to reserve the closing fifteen minutes for small group work and five minutes for clean-up and closing class in an orderly fashion.
6. Present your introductory lessons, as usual, orienting students to the literary work: historical background, personal information about the author, working through the exposition facts of the fiction or text structures for non-fiction.
7. By the end of the week, invite students to present their vocabulary projects.
It’s worth the in-class time for such group work and language study, providing an opportunity to do no-stress formative assessments of your students that will help you adjust your instruction as you plan for further lessons. It gives students time to do what they do best – work together and learn from one another.
More traditional and contemporary strategies are in my new book, TEACHING MIDDLE SCHOOL LANGUAGE ARTS: Incorporating 21st Century Literacies published by Rowman and Littlefield and available through on-line book sellers. Explore this companion website teachingenglishlanguagearts.com for additional resources and strategies.
So, whether you’re teaching middle school language arts because it’s your dream job or until you get an assignment teaching high school, do what you can to make these crucial years for young adolescents ones during which they learn to love learning because you have recognized the challenge and are maximizing the opportunity to enjoy and teach each student as a unique individual.