Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Toughest Class You Will Ever Teach: 9 Tips for Engaging Middle School Students

     I have taught middle school students my entire career and found the article below one that will either confirm what you are doing or give you some additional perspectives. My comments are in red and I invite you to comment.

The Toughest Class You Will Ever Teach: 9 Tips for Engaging Middle School Students
Teaching little kids can be fun. They have energy and a fascination with the world that only comes from the innocence of childhood. Adult students, on the other hand, have a higher cognitive ability and can understand complex concepts even if their English language skills are at a beginning level.

Nonetheless, what does a teacher do when her students are too young to think like adults but are trying their hardest to escape childhood? This is the question that faces every middle school teacher. The awkward age that ranges from around 11 until 15 is a challenge for even the best of teachers, but there is hope. Here are some teacher-tested tips for the middle school teachers out there that will help you work with your students’ strengths and minimize their struggles.

How to Engage Middle School Students

  1. Get Physical

    Kids at that difficult middle school age are often brimming with energy, even in inappropriate moments. To harness that energy in a constructive way, try using physical games that include a language element. The physical exertion will tame the middle schoolers’ energy enough so they can sit and listen and the language tie in will ensure you don’t feel like you are wasting valuable classroom time. Try games like Simon Says, which require your students to listen for directions before they move. See ‘TPR Tricks: 5 Fabulous Ways to Use Total Physical Response in the ESL Classroom’. Without a doubt, middle schoolers need to leave their seats in controlled KAOS whenever possible. Action themometers where students can vote yes or now or have choices by standing in predetmined places in the room or taking notes by having a gallery walk or voting on student work using rubrics are just some choices. Students love doing this.

    Encourage Talking

    Talking can be a high priority for kids in the middle school age group, especially for girls. Though second language students may not be as chattery as native speakers, kids will still benefit from a chance to talk in class. Make sure your lesson plans always include questions for discussion. You may need to give specific questions for your students to cover rather than giving simple directions to simply discuss, but you will find that middle schoolers have opinions and they appreciate a chance to share them. The more you make kids quiet day after day, you will be the teacher they hate coming to. Students do need procedures so they stay on task and you have to have consequences explained in advance.
  3.  Be Creative
    Even though kids in the middle school age range are trying to mature out of their childhoods, being a kid is still a large portion of who they are, and encouraging creative expression through artistic elements will add an element of fun to your classroom they are sure to appreciate. Using Bloom's taxonomy, Gardner's Multiple Intelligences or student choices through jigsaws are just a few ways to engage students.

    Be Concrete

    Preteens experience a lot of brain development, but in middle school most students think in very concrete terms. They often cannot understand intangible concepts, so the more concrete examples you give during your instruction, the more effective your teaching will be. If you are trying to teach something abstract, try to explain it in as concrete terms as you can to help your students understand, and give lots of chances for students to put theoretical knowledge to practical use. This is an area I need to improve in. Bring the language down to their level. My students are amazed at my vocabulary but amazing does not translate into understanding. Keep the directions simple.

    Use Object Lessons

    Object lessons can be an effective way to make an abstract lesson more concrete. Think of ways you can teach a concept through an object lesson, and check online for successful object lessons other teachers have used.

    Be Flexible

    Not every traditional or even successful lesson plan will work well with middle school students. Be flexible and willing to change up even the lessons that have worked for you in the past. Because your middle school students have different needs than children or adult students, you should always be willing to tailor your plans to meet those needs. Yes, what works for one group of students may not work with others. Some students need a different type of activity than the class period before. Perhaps your three activity jigsaw needs only two activities if students cannot grasp a concept or they are too immature to pull it off and would be off task.

    Celebrate Success

    Everyone wants to feel as though he is successful at his work, and middle school students are no exception. Celebrating the small victories and accomplishments of your students will help them feel motivated and will inspire them to deepen their linguistic educations. Make sure this is authentic. Authentic praise is priceless. Do not tell a student their work is great when it needs improvement and is below their capability. Conversely, for students where the praise of going from below average to above average and reaching their ability is a huge win for them. That is celebrating success. Also, some classes need to receive the praise as a whole.

    Encourage Curiosity

    Middle school students are like children in that they are learning how the world works. Encourage your students to satisfy their curiosity about language as they learn. Allowing your students to ask any questions, and not berating them for it, will help your students get excited about learning. Then use this excitement to show them that they can be successful language learners. Encourage students to write new vocabulary down in their books and have them demonstrate the language in their daily work. Have students look up questions they would like to know on a classroom computer or even their phones to get an answer.

    Give and Take Respect

    The more you give your students respect, the more likely they are to return the gesture. Avoid talking down to middle school students, listen when you ask their opinions and talk to them like they deserve respect, and you will find your students are more responsive and engaged in class. This is huge. Being condescending is poor and will never win you to your students. Get to know your students. Never cut down their culture. I hate rap but many of my students of various cultures love it. Don't talk about it. If you like something about their culture, it is great to weave that into an assignment or vocabulary. Use application learning where they can make that connection to their daily lives.

Experienced teachers know that it takes a special person to work with middle school students.

By planning lessons to meet the needs of your middle school students and being flexible with your time and activities, you will be proud of what great students your middle schoolers have become.