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Ways to Engage, Nurture Middle Schoolers

Middle schoolers are active, inquisitive, impulsive, and that's what makes them fun, says author/educator Rick Wormeli. Rather than try to change the kids, he suggests ways teachers can structure their teaching to better engage young adolescents. Included: Strategies for teaching middle level students.

While there is no definitive handbook for teaching middle school, or any other grade for that matter, educator and author Rick Wormeli has put together a practical guide not just for surviving teaching middle school, but enjoying every minute of it.

Wormeli's book, Day One & Beyond: Practical Matters for New Middle-Level Teachers,covers adolescent learning styles, potential lessons, classroom management techniques, even how to set up a grade book. Wormeli wrote the book based on his research and 25 years of classroom experience teaching math, science, English, health, and history. He also is a columnist for the National Middle School Association's Middle Ground magazine and often speaks at conferences.

Wormeli talked with Education World about his approaches to teaching young adolescents, and the need for humor and flexibility.

"Every day, we middle school teachers laugh aloud, ignite imagination, heal pain, confront our own beliefs, quell fears, demonstrate the greater good, share our passion for our subjects, and invite morphing humans to make positive contributions to our world. What better job?" says author/educator Rick Wormeli.

Education World:What prompted you to write Day One & Beyond?

Rick Wormeli: Day One & Beyond is the book I wanted to have at my fingertips as a young teacher yet could not find. It also serves veteran teachers who are looking for smarter ways to manage the classroom that also advance student learning. It's full of practical tips many undergraduates hope to get in teacher preparation institutions but often don't, and it's that practical side of teaching that can make or break new and even seasoned teachers.

Every idea is grounded in 25 years of experience and the latest thinking in middle level pedagogy. For example, the best integrated, constructivist, and differentiated lessons will bomb if the teacher doesn't have a healthy relationship with students, if students' desks are not set-up to minimize distractions, or papers can't get graded in a timely manner. At the halfway point of my career in education, there was enough teaching experience to share some of it with those who were interested.

EW: Why would you recommend teaching this age group?

Wormeli: This is one of the great secrets in education: Middle level teaching is very rewarding! Many teaching candidates want to teach high school or primary grades. They cringe when they think about teaching students ages 10 to 14. Sometimes they are forced to do it, however, and when given the opportunity to move up or down later, they choose to stay; it's that meaningful.

In middle school, we can still make a difference in students' lives. This isn't to say we can't do that in high school, but it's palpable and unpredictable in young adolescents' lives. We see humanity in raw form as students are taking on the larger world and creating their own identity. Emotions are close to the surface. Students are hopeful and deeply interested in learning. They bluntly question every decision we make as well as every societal protocol, often pushing us to examine our own stereotypes, prejudices, and convictions. Just as much as we focus on the daily tasks such as conjugating verbs and multiplying binomials, we are also asked: What's my role in this world? Is the world safe? What does it feel like to die? Why are there poor people? Who do I believe? Am I normal? How do I get along with people I hate? Why do bad things happen to good people? What is the origin of life? Is this all there is?

Every day, we middle school teachers laugh aloud, ignite imagination, heal pain, confront our own beliefs, quell fears, demonstrate the greater good, share our passion for our subjects, and invite morphing humans to make positive contributions to our world. What better job? In middle schools we get a front-row seat to humanity, our students inviting us to see it through their eyes. We are better adults for having experienced it.

EW: What are some of the most important things to remember about teaching middle-school-age students?

Wormeli: Relationships are everything. We can't teach our curriculum blind to the emotional atmosphere of the room. Most of what goes into young adolescents' minds goes to emotional response centers of the brain first, not cognitive centers. We have to help them get it to cognitive centers, and that means we pay attention to relationships. To not pay attention to this critical aspect of young adolescents is close to malpractice.

In addition, we've learned a tremendous amount about how the adolescent mind best learns in the last dozen years. We need to use it every day in our classrooms. For example, we have to provide prior knowledge experiences before teaching something new so the new material will attach to something in students' minds. Or this one: We never ask students to take notes during a video or while listening to a lecture. It's impossible for them to think deeply about everything while also recording it at their own pace in their notebooks for later study. Instead, we stop every 10 to 15 minutes and give them a chance to process the material in their notes and with one another. It's vital to successful practice to be up to speed on the latest thinking in cognitive science.

Physical movement is also huge. Young adolescents need to move about every 10 to 15 minutes or we lose cognition. Find ways to make abstract or symbolic concepts into physical manifestations and get students moving. For example, don't ask one student to collect papers while the others sit passively; ask each student to walk across the room to turn in his or her paper. It relieves stress on the growth plates at the ends of their bones. Don't take it personally when they slouch or lean back in their seats -- it's developmentally appropriate. If it's unsafe, provide other opportunities to relieve the lower vertebrae stress. Ask students to physically portray math, science, or technology processes with their bodies, rather than just via writing, for instance.

EW: What are some ways to keep sixth-through-eighth graders engaged in the classroom?


  • Provide frequent and specific feedback. Nothing motivates middle schoolers like feedback. Change the audience, too. Feedback from someone other than the teacher is very motivating.
  • Make it vivid. Don't just show diagrams of a skeleton in a health class, bring in a real skeleton and let each student manipulate it. Use simulations and experiential learning every week of the school year.
  • Prime their brains.Give them background knowledge, a purpose, and an understanding of the text structure before assigning reading and homework. Students are engaged when they are well-provisioned.
  • Engage the emotions. When I teach bibliographic format or paraphrasing, for example, I plagiarize briefly in front of them and get caught by a passing adult who admonishes me in front of my students. Students are astounded. They hang on every word later as I teach them to cite their sources properly.
  • Be novel. It's not just nice or convenient to be novel in your lessons with this age, it's vital. Examples: Velcro a prop for a lesson to your clothing, use the school parking lot for a lesson, ask a student to co-teach the lesson, incorporate a service project in a curriculum assignment, use the ceilings and floors as bulletin board areas, ask students to form their bodies into frozen tableaus to symbolically portray abstract concepts, invite them to try to outsmart you regarding a topic.
  • Use more narrative. Middle-schoolers are ready story-tellers and receivers. Relate boring, expository material in a journalistic or narrative form first, then share the regular text. They'll focus on every word.
  • Provide very specific models of what you expect, even if it means you'll get 160 of the exact same thing to grade. Vague understanding of the final product causes procrastination and disinterest. Students at this age need to copy models, but know that they will outgrow those models. This, "Begin with the end in mind" also extends to providing the big picture prior to teach each lesson. Students are more inclined to follow a teacher who has shown them the road map.
  • Remain passionate about what you're teaching, even if it's the fifth time you've taught it today. For those students, it's the first time they've experienced it. Your attitude shapes the classroom weather. Make sure it's the most conducive to student engagement that it can be.

    EW: What is the most rewarding thing about teaching this age group?

    Wormeli: When students come back to say they used what we taught. That's very cool. It's also wonderful when an experience we provided in our classes helps students discover who they are or a new talent or interest. We're creating lives and very real futures every day. Of course, seeing a student share the passion for our subject is rewarding, too, and it happens a lot in middle school -- students are naturally inquisitive and eager. In the end, though, keeping up with students through high school and college to see the amazing adults they become is the most gratifying aspect.

    EW: When you write in your book, "I've worked with both high school and primary/elementary schools: neither one shows as much evidence of students on the front line of humanity as is shown in middle school." What do you mean by that?

    Wormeli: The raw ingredients of who we will become as adults are most often displayed and tested in early adolescence. Ten-to-14-year-olds commonly demonstrate the best and worst in humanity, all while trying to navigate positively. They will be the first to extend mercy to others who suffer, but they may also lash out at loving parents whom they feel have wronged them in some way. All those behaviors that endear us to one another as well those behaviors that annoy us are publicly manifest in young adolescents, often without a governor. In younger grade levels, those behaviors haven't formed, and in older grade levels, students learn to hide them, or at least strategically employ them. In middle school, they are openly displayed, inviting guidance and affirmation.

    EW: What should teachers/teachers-in-training thinking about becoming middle school educators ask themselves before deciding to do it?


  • Are you willing to forgive students their digressions as they learn to be competent, loving citizens? This is important. We can't look at the mistakes students at this age make, even chronic mistakes, and declare the end of civilization due to today's youth. We have to understand that it is only through our patient responses and clear vision for these students that they will rise. We have to be willing to look beyond the surface of students to see the "gold" potential inside, despite what they present to us. We shelve exasperation in favor of perseverance and constant support, and we find ways to do it without blowing a mental gasket.
  • Are you willing to be flexible in your teaching and discipline? We teach in whatever ways these students best learn, not the way we best learn. One-size-fits-all teaching often doesn't work with young adolescents. To teach effectively, we have to be willing to look beyond our own comfort zone. That means taking risks from time to time, and steering away from absolutes in our thinking about middle schoolers.
  • Are you willing to be a ceaseless student? Every year I make a promise to unlearn something in which I've become complacent or haven't objectively seen how wasteful it is. What works one week, may not work the next, but it'll work two months from now. We can't throw out a technique because it didn't work once. Twenty years from now, will you be willing to read the latest books and go to the latest conferences to update your teaching techniques? Just like pilots and other professionals, we have to see this training as a plus, not an intrusion.
  • Are you willing to closely examine your own beliefs and personal practices? Students will watch you model successful and not-so-successful behaviors every day, often asking you about them. In middle school, you can't be fake; you have to be the real or students will stop respecting you, and even worse, they will stop learning from you. We go into it knowing that our very selves are under scrutiny and that we must withstand the analysis of the next generation.
  • Do you find fulfillment in serving others? We have to be able to find joy and meaning in facilitating the experience of others, no matter how slow or troubling the journey. This means we see middle school teaching as something we get to do, not something we have to do. It's not my classroom, it's my students' classroom. We don't feel like we're tolerating students or sacrificing something else when they ask us questions or demand our attention. We actually look forward to being in their company.
  • Are you willing to dedicate yourself to this age group? Middle school is not a stepping stone to other grade levels, nor is it a place you visit until you can get something better. It requires unique and focused expertise beyond just subject preparation. You can't take someone trained in teaching high school juniors and seniors and place them in seventh grade, and they thrive. You are wasting everyone's time, your own included, and will find the job tedious if are not committed to the unique nature of 10-to-14 year-olds.

    EW: What do you think about the growing trend of replacing middle schools with K-8 schools?

    Wormeli: I hope people come to their senses. It's not the K-8 configuration I protest so much as it is the mistaken assumption that the middle concept doesn't work so they have to change things, pulling these unique individuals back into the primary/elementary fold. Such motivations show lack of understanding for the unique needs of the young adolescent. When done properly, the middle school concept is a resounding success.

    Schools may re-configure to K-8 for economic or facility reasons, but they shouldn't do it because it's better for young adolescents. The K-8 and the more conventional grade 6-8 or grade 7-8 configurations work well for young adolescents as long as the basic elements of the middle school concept are in place and teachers are trained in the unique nature of the young adolescent. The important factors in whichever one we choose is whether or not we have teachers with expertise in teaching 10-14-year-olds and whether or not they have the resources and freedom to implement the middle school concept. Effective middle schools will have teaming if the schools are large. They'll use a vibrant teacher-advisory program, offer exploratory experiences, and they will incorporate a variety of instructional experiences as they differentiate instruction to meet diverse needs. They'll teach a deep and substantive curriculum that provides ample opportunities for students' self-exploration and meaningful participation in communities. They will provide a basic core of knowledge as well as the tools and inclination for students to learn on their own.

    Given an insecure world in which life is thrown at students faster and faster every day, middle schools are needed more than ever. If anything, we need to increase the conversion of junior highs and other structures to middle schools. Middle school teachers are trained in helping pre-teens and teens makes sense of their lives while also making their subjects compelling to their unique needs. K-8 schools that can't offer the middle school concept will fail their charges. If they have the facilities and trained faculty to offer the middle school concept, however, more power to them.

    This e-interview with Rick Wormeli is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.



    Ellen R. Delisio
    Education World®
    Copyright © 2006 Education World


    Originally published 09/21/2005; updated 09/25/2006