After more than 12 years of teaching high school English, I experienced what some teachers might call a bit of a mid-career crisis. I craved professional development that didn’t come in the form of a typical workshop. In an attempt to use other teachers’ classrooms as my own personal curriculum, I decided to leave my job and take a position as an upper elementary instructional coach.
I had the opportunity to observe how effective elementary school teachers create safe, engaging, and productive learning environments for their students. Thinking back to my time teaching high school, I realized that many of these elementary school strategies could be used—with some modifications—with middle and high school students.
Brain Breaks and Focused Attention Activities
When I first witnessed an elementary teacher stopping a lesson so that students could jog in place for a minute, I thought it was just a strategy to keep kids from bouncing off the walls. But over time I realized that the teachers who incorporated frequent brain breaks throughout their lessons were able to keep their students on task for longer bursts of time than those who didn’t.
It turns out that both children and teenagers benefit from a one- to three-minute mental and physical break every 30 minutes so that their brains can keep up with the academic and social demands of the classroom.
While jogging in place isn’t always an option in a room full of teenagers, here are some focused attention activities that do work:
- Taking deep breaths—with meditation apps like Calm—gives students an opportunity to focus on their breathing and harness their energy.
- Time-lapse videos (such as nature or food videos) sustain students’ attention so they can refocus on learning tasks.
- A game of thumb war or rock-paper-scissors gives students an opportunity to partner up for a fun, no-prep activity.
Morning Meeting and More
Morning meetings, student jobs, and other cute elementary classroom traditions are not just for fun. I found that elementary school teachers who used these approaches—which emphasize values like community, respect, and responsibility—had a far easier time implementing academic curricula than those who didn’t.
I also observed that the students who didn’t appear to feel safe, heard, or seen in the classroom didn’t willingly participate in workshops, centers, or other activities—indicating a need for the teacher to reach out or make changes in classroom management.
Here are some ways middle and high school teachers can create safe learning communities in their classrooms:
- Set and model clear expectations for kind, constructive student language and behavior. Anticipate, model, and explain behavioral norms before negative incidents occur.
- Greet students by name at the door at the start of each class period so they feel seen.
- Create an I Wonder wall where students respond to thought-provoking questions. This helps students feel heard and validated. You might designate I Wonder Wednesdays, or mix it up with Thankful Thursdays, Motivational Mondays, etc.
The Value of Manipulatives
Math manipulatives, such as colorful tiles and base 10 blocks, are found in many elementary classrooms. These manipulatives help break down abstract concepts into smaller parts so students can play around with and test different scenarios and solutions to complex problems.
As concepts in math, science, and the humanities get more complex, providing middle and high school students with a space to break down and manipulate abstract ideas allows them to create their own well-supported, logical arguments and proofs.
Here are two ways middle and high school teachers can bring the benefits of manipulatives to their lessons:
- Online simulators—like Gizmos—allow math and science students to observe, test, graph, and manipulate hypotheses.
- Concept maps allow students to visually assess relationships between concepts, problems, and ideas. Once students create maps—using software like Bubbl.us, Coggle, or Padlet—they can make arguments and observations about information.