George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Voice

Setting Up a Student-Centered Middle School Classroom

Appointing student ambassadors and giving them significant responsibilities helps students take more control of their learning.

May 2, 2023
Maskot / Alamy Stock Photo

As a seasoned assistant principal, I spend a lot of time coaching teachers on creating a student-centered classroom environment. In my experience, this is something that both novice and veteran teachers grapple with.

So what makes a classroom environment student centered? Ultimately, all students should understand how they are being assessed, how they are performing, and what is required to achieve mastery. Furthermore, this process is student led and teacher facilitated. It’s highly recommended that teachers identify student ambassadors to lead the class in consistent reflection, collaborative conversations, goal setting, and analyzing data.

Identifying Student Ambassadors

A classroom will not become student centered overnight. It requires that a teacher be intentional and willing to relinquish some control. This can be achieved by incorporating an equitable calling practice and student-led routines into daily lessons. For example, a student ambassador can read the objective, essential questions, and agenda daily. The review of concepts, group work, classroom discussion, reflection, goal setting, and analyzing data can also be student led.  

How can teachers identify student ambassadors to lead the class? By spending the first two to four weeks of school collecting data, specifically looking for students who demonstrate leadership and are engaged in learning, teachers can identify good candidates. Once those students have been identified, the teacher will need to allocate at least 45 minutes a week to build the ambassadors’ capacity so that they know how to lead the class in various tasks. 

It may take some time during the students’ lunch or after school to explicitly teach them how to lead the class in collaborative conversations, as well as how to lead the class in using rubrics and student data profiles. Forty-five minutes a week will be worth it once the classroom becomes student led. Remember, when a classroom is student led, the teacher is a facilitator, not some star on a stage. 

Student-Friendly Rubrics  

When students are afforded a clear, concise, and objective rubric that outlines the behaviors they need to exhibit to perform at the highest level, they can self-assess, self-monitor, and self-reflect on their learning and academic performance to make improvements.

This process is vital to a student-centered classroom because it allows the student to be the driver of their personal development, and it makes the student more self-aware and accountable for their learning. Here is an example of a rubric we implement across all grade levels in math classrooms in my school building. 

This rubric highlights a student’s mastery of reading and writing strategies, academic language, and classroom discussions. We made the rubric less stress-inducing for our students by using the word sprouting to represent essential mastery, the word blossoming to represent proficient mastery, and the word pollinating to represent distinguished mastery. Rubrics are most useful for students when they’re objective, clear, and concise. 

Reciprocal Teaching   

Psychologist Lev Vygotsky asserts that people learn through conversation. For this reason, it’s highly recommended that teachers create a classroom environment that promotes dialogue.

One way to do this is by leveraging reciprocal teaching. Reciprocal teaching is an interactive teaching strategy that has been documented to improve reading comprehension because the educator leads students in a gradual release of applying four reading comprehension strategies: generating questions, summarizing, clarifying, and predicting to obtain meaning from text. 

Reciprocal-teaching sentence stems are an extension of reciprocal teaching that promotes student-led collaborative conversations. Here is an example of the middle school reciprocal-teaching sentence stems we are implementing to encourage collaborative conversations across all grade levels and disciplines in my school. These sentence stems support students in student-led discussions that allow them to become masters at predicting, inferring, clarifying, questioning, and summarizing. 

Student Data Profiles 

In classrooms nationwide, students are frequently assessed formally via state and district assessments and informally via teacher-created assessments. In fact, as educators, we are continually evaluating student mastery; as a result, we are aware of how students perform academically. In a student-centered classroom, the students know how they are being assessed and performing and what is required to achieve mastery. These students are also very skilled at analyzing data and goal setting. 

Here is an example of the student data profile we are implementing across all grade levels in math classrooms in my school. These student data profiles allow students to track and reflect on their grades, assessment scores, and mastery of claim-evidence-reasoning. They also serve as learning profiles, which help teachers get to know their students more holistically. This is powerful because student ambassadors lead the process. My math department uses this student data profile tutorial to guide students in creating data profiles. 

Ultimately, student-led classrooms require educators to plan and relinquish a lot of control. However, the reward is in the student ambassadors’ leading the learning through rubrics, reciprocal teaching sentence stems, and student data profiles. 

Sayema Tareq, Maria Thebaud Leonard, Sabrina N. Crusoe, and Kenneth Nance contributed to this article.

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