When I was in middle school, study hall was my favorite period of the week.
Though it was pitched as a quiet time to catch up on homework, it was really the opposite. With minimal supervision, it was our version of Lord of the Flies—an oasis in the school building where students ruled and any semblance of focus vanished.
Years later, when I became a middle school teacher, the first school at which I taught had a starkly different approach, demanding that their students be absolutely silent. The slightest squeak was disciplined to keep the environment distraction-free.
The problem, though, was that this environment was actually quite distracting—a simple clearing of the throat would draw the group’s gaze. While there’s merit in setting aside time for students to work on assignments during the school day, educators shouldn’t be relegated to the role of zookeeper or reduced to mere disciplinarians. This is where the WIN approach comes in.
WIN: ‘WHAT I NEED’ TIME
I implemented What I Need (WIN) time as a dedicated one-hour session that occurs weekly and offers students opportunities to reflect on their needs and set purposeful goals like working independently, collaborating with other students, or conferencing with teachers.
Students might spend the period taking a test they missed, consulting with a teacher about lingering questions, or working on a group project, eliminating the hassle of weekend meet-ups.
WIN also encourages students to pursue passions beyond academics. A dedicated student athlete might practice field hockey reverses on the field while a peer dives into Python programming or practices mindful breathing.
However, WIN’s value lies in intentional structure, not unbounded freedom. The session comprises seven sequential, interconnected components, each of which advances the period’s purpose.
Each WIN period begins with the full middle school—students and faculty—gathering for a 10-minute lesson on executive functioning (EF) that I lead alongside our learning support teacher.
We adapt our content based on classroom observations, occasionally addressing other topics like digital citizenship or email etiquette. Our goal is to provide strategies for navigating learning challenges. Instead of prescribing a “right” way, we offer various methods, allowing students to discover what resonates, acknowledging that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.
Each presentation starts by revisiting content discussed in previous weeks. From there, we dive into the week’s lesson—designed to be a component of a broader, three-to-five-week topical module (on prioritization, for example). This structuring ensures a consistent narrative across lessons.
Next, students and faculty head to their advisory locations. Advisers guide students through that week’s WIN slide deck, which includes a list of teachers available during the period, their locations, and a review of our “Who I Need” sheet—a Google Sheet on which teachers list, in the days between WIN periods, students with whom they wish to meet, the expected duration of the meeting, and its urgency. This setup ensures that if a student is requested by multiple teachers, they can prioritize and schedule their time.
Informed by the sheet, students complete a goal-setting form, identifying what they’ll do during the period, why they’re choosing to spend their time this way, how much time they anticipate spending on each facet of their goal, and what resources they’ll need.
Students sign out with their adviser; using a tracking sheet, advisers document where students are going, with whom, and when they anticipate returning. This live document includes a tab for each adviser and allows us to monitor students’ whereabouts.
Students spend the next 40 minutes following through on their plans—from meditation to math practice. They return with five minutes to spare and complete a reflection form that asks whether they met their goal. If so, it prompts them to consider what strategies they might employ in the next WIN period. If not, it asks them to consider alternative approaches for future sessions.
This process serves as a nonpunitive, nonevaluative chance for students to hone self-reflection skills.
In middle school, it’s not uncommon for students to become less communicative with their parents. Often, when asked about what happened in their day, their response might be a simple grunt or dismissive “Nothing.” We recognized that WIN time presents a unique opportunity to give parents insight into what students are learning, so we initiated “WINning Ways Weekly,” an email distributed during WIN time that gives parents a snapshot of what topics and activities we covered.
We also share a “Dinner Table Prompt” that parents can use to talk with their kids about what they learned in WIN. Prompts encourage parents to share their own experiences with topics like managing tasks, discerning priorities, and taking notes.
Our goal is straightforward: We want to help parents understand what’s happening in the classroom so they can better support their child’s learning journey.
A WIN-ning Impact
We envisioned a study hall that balances student autonomy and learning. To see if we succeeded, we conducted a student survey at the end of our first year implementing WIN: 92.6 percent of students reported that WIN helped them achieve an academic or personal goal; 95.5 percent reported acquiring a new executive functioning tool; and 97 percent felt that WIN had alleviated stress related to schoolwork.
Yet the influence of WIN extends beyond what we quantify in a survey. The impact of WIN is a vibe. It’s something palpable that you can feel around the middle school. Students are diving in, taking charge, and feeling more in control of their workload.
WIN time isn’t just another slot in the school day; it’s changing the learning culture of our middle school.