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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

What's So Unique About Teaching Middle Schoolers?

What's So Unique About Teaching Middle Schoolers?

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OK, so every middle school teacher that I've known has fallen into their current position. In other words, teaching middle schoolers rarely calls to new teachers so much as they discover how awesome it is.

What's so great about them, after all? Well, I've always said that Middle schoolers are ready to talk and ponder about the big issues, yet still yell, ‘Crayons!’ when the blessed colored wax sticks appear on their desk. Teaching middle schoolers is like working with a herd of wild fillies. You have to rein ‘em in and give them slack, rein ‘em in and give them slack. It’s harder to find a sub in middle schools then in any other grade level. Why? Because they’re crazy. And I love ‘em.

But why? I mean, they really are chemically crazy. They're wired for it. It's in their middle school DNA.

So why is it that we all love teaching this level? And what makes tweens and teens unique to teach in the educational world?

Come, join the discussion!

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Comments (27)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Tracie Weisz's picture
Tracie Weisz
Middle School teacher from Alaska

Middle school is probably the least desirable yet the best kept secret in education. They have the enthusiasm of elementary school students, yet are developing the logic and reasoning skills so that they are primed to see the world in new ways. They can take content and make new things from it - that is exciting to watch!

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

I love your thought on their being a "best kept secret." I would even say that while it isn't a secret, people just can't believe how fun teaching middle schoolers can be. I had an elementary teacher once ask me if I ever felt I was making any headway with those crazy middle schoolers, and I just had to laugh. Making headway is all you do in middle school. It's like they're back in their First 5 years all over again, just sponges for the challenges that adulthood will throw at them. And we get to be there to help them answer their own call. Exciting time of life to be witness to. Thanks for your comment!
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Sandy Cameli's picture
Sandy Cameli
Student Activities Coordinator, Yearbook, Journalism & Advisory

A true story.....

She stood at the front of the room fumbling with the remote control for the LCD projector. The ceiling lights were off, but the MacBook's glow illuminated the room, shedding light on a table and backpack with the 3rd installment of the "Twilight" series sticking out. Her clothes were slightly wrinkled, she had hair strands falling out of a ponytail, her fingernails were painted different colors, and a nervous smile held back a giggle ready to erupt at anytime. "Hi everyone, and welcome to my conference", Ashlei began. "Mom, this is my teacher, Ms. Kamele, and Ms. Kamele, this is my mom, Lisa". Polite nods were exchanged, then all eyes were back on the seventh grader ready to present her portfolio.

With a click of a button, the exuberant young lady launched into projects completed over the school year, standards achieved, interdisciplinary units explored and goals for her 8th grade year. This was not your average parent-teacher conference, it was a KeyNote (Apple's Power Point equivalent) presentation shared with family members and teachers, but facilitated by a student. This was a Student Led Conference, and more powerful than any dialog exchanged between two adults over meaningless letter grades on a sheet of paper. This middle school on the Big Island of Hawaii is just one of many schools that have introduced the concept of student ownership into their curriculum and programming to increase engagement toward student achievement. For many, new to the idea, it appears as fluff and often a waste of valuable time. However, for those who embrace the idea of student-centered learning, this model gives "wings" to the students grounded with "roots".

"An Effective Communicator is someone who uses their writing as well as their speaking to explain things", Ashlei continued. "For example, when we studied Ellis Island this year, we each took on the role of an immigrant. I came from England and had to write a diary entry about my life as a seamstress in 1905. That was an example of communicating effectively through writing. And, today's presentation of my electronic portfolio shows how I can communicate in a verbal way." Ashlei's mom looked amazed, even a bit stunned, while Ms. Kamele smiled. This was not necessarily the smile of pride, but of relief. For a student who had started the year with poor grades, and fewer social skills, this experience had allowed a child to gain confidence and tools which would follow her through life.

After 20 minutes of sharing examples from various subjects Ashlei wrapped up her presentation. "Thank you for listening, now does anyone have any questions?" A slight pause, and then Lisa asked, "Did you pass all your classes? Do you know your grades?" Ashlei and Ms. Kamele exchanged glances, they had prepared for this type of question. For many parents, their own school experiences were book-driven and conventional, there was little or no room for student choice or ownership. So, many family members did not know how to ask questions which showed true appreciation for the "real world" skills their children were acquiring. "Well...", Ashlei replied, "...I believe I passed all my classes, but I won't know my final grades until report cards are mailed out at the end of the month. This portfolio was a way to show you what type of learner I am and how I can meet the student learning expectations, which are just as important as letter grades in my classes. Does that make sense?"

As with most baffled parents, Lisa just smiled and nodded, she wasn't sure what else to say to a 12 year old who better understood the purpose of her own learning, than most people do about their goals in life. "OK - thank you for coming to my student led conference." With a quick flip of the switch, the projector was off, the book bag was snatched up, a piece of gum popped into her mouth, and Ashlei was heading toward the door. Handshakes and polite exchanges took place between the adults as chairs were pushed in. "Nice job, Ash. Enjoy your weekend, you deserve it.", Ms. Kamele called out. Ashlei's stretched wide, was contagious and even sparkled (part braces, part walking-hormones, but mainly from reading about teenage vampires in-love). She may not have said, "Thank you", or even, "I rocked this conference", but her dancing eyes said it all - she owned her learning, and that was the best message any teacher could receive. Just another day in middle school.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

Thank you so much for sharing this story. It's a true, "Show, not Tell" in that it says in all. I have thought long and hard about how to communicate to families about the skills that students will need in their future vs. the future that was their parents' graduation year. At my school, we will be hosting a parent evening workshop on the subject to proactively address the undercurrents of misunderstanding between the homes and the school. After all, it is our job to prep these students for what they will need, and this sometimes is at odds with what families believe their kids will need.

What I loved about your post is that you are using the students themselves as the empowered voice of their own learning. Would that more schools would allow us to use our charges to get such an important message across.

You may want to check out this list by Guy Kawasaki to help explain this very subject to parents who are still struggling to understand.


Thanks so much for commenting! Great to see your experiences on the Edutopia forum!
-Heather WG

Sandy Cameli's picture
Sandy Cameli
Student Activities Coordinator, Yearbook, Journalism & Advisory

Thanks Heather.....it's great to be in the company of those who share a passion for working with "walking hormones"!
Sandy :-)

Pat Young's picture
Pat Young
Middle school teacher from North Carolina

I love middle school because every day is a new day. You never know what is going to happen because the students don't know what is going to happen. They are not the same person they were yesterday, and are not the same person they will be tomorrow. The responsibility of teaching is awesome because you have so much power over your students' well being and frightening because you have so much power over your students' well being. They still want to be loved, and hugged, and get a smiley face on their paper, even at 200 pounds and six feet. And I'm here to give out smiley faces, and hugs, and a whole lotta love :) (and, btw, don't forget the project is due on Friday!)

Lyn Robinson's picture

My 7th grade reading classes have been gardening for the last two years during reading class. This experience has changed my teaching style completely. My students love working in the garden and learning very difficult information. I teach my skills through the garden experience. Middle school students want to use their hands and not always paper and pencil. They are learning life skills and love it.

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