Effective teaching strategies for Middle School
Rick Wormeli is the author of six respected books in the teaching field, and an internationally known speaker on middle-level education, classroom assessment, innovation, and teacher professionalism. Before becoming a teaching coach and consultant, Rick was an award-winning middle school teacher in Virginia for more than 20 years. This article is excerpted from The Collected Writings of Rick Wormeli (So Far).
by Rick Wormeli
Effective instruction for 12-year-olds looks different from effective instruction for 8-year-olds or 17-year-olds. Combine the developmental needs of typical tweens and the wildly varying needs of individuals within this age group, and you can see that flourishing as a middle grades teacher requires special skills. It’s not as overwhelming as it sounds, however. There are some common sense basics that serve students well.
The five strategies described here revolve around the principles of differentiated instruction, which does not always involve individualized instruction. Teachers who differentiate instruction simply do what’s fair and developmentally appropriate for students when the “regular” instruction doesn’t meet their needs.
Strategy 1: Teach to Developmental Needs
Reports from the Carnegie Corporation (Jackson & Davis, 2000) and the National Middle School Association (2003), as well as the expertise of veteran middle school teachers, point to seven conditions that young adolescents crave: competence and achievement; opportunities for self-definition; creative expression; physical activity; positive social interactions with adults and peers; structure and clear limits; and meaningful participation in family, school, and community.
No matter how creatively we teach—and no matter how earnestly we engage in differentiated instruction, authentic assessment, and character education—the effects will be significantly muted if we don’t create an environment that responds to students’ developmental needs. Different students will require different degrees of attention regarding each of these factors.
Take tweens’ need for physical movement. It’s not enough for tweens to move between classes every 50 minutes (or every 80 minutes on a block schedule). Effective tween instruction incorporates movement every 10 to 15 minutes. So we ask all students to get up and walk across the room to turn in their papers, not just have one student collect the papers while the rest of them sit passively. We let students process information physically from time to time: for example, by using the ceiling as a massive, organizer matrix and asking students to hold cards with information for each matrix cell and stand under the proper location as indicated on the ceiling. We use flexible grouping, which allows students to move about the room to work with different partners.
Every topic in the curriculum can be turned into a physical experience, even if it’s very abstract. We can do this for some or all of our students as needed. We can use simulations, manipulatives, body statues (frozen tableau), and finger plays to portray irony, metabolism, chromatic scale, republics, qualitative analysis, grammar, and multiplying binomials (Glynn, 2001; Wormeli, 2005). These aren’t “fluff” activities; they result in real learning for this age group.
To address students’ need for self-definition, we give them choices in school projects. We help students identify consequences for the academic and personal decisions they make. We also teach students about their own learning styles. We put students in positions of responsibility in our schools and communities that allow them to make positive contributions and earn recognition for doing so. We provide clear rules and enforce them calmly—even if it’s the umpteenth time that day that we’ve needed to enforce the same rule—to help students learn to function as members of a civilized society.
Integrating developmental needs into tweens’ learning is nonnegotiable. It’s not something teachers do only if we have time in the schedule; it’s vital to tween success. As teachers of this age group, we need to apply our adolescent development expertise in every interaction. If we don’t, the lesson will fall flat and even worse, students will wither.
Strategy 2: Treat Academic Struggle as Strength
Young adolescents readily identify differences and similarities among themselves, and in their efforts to belong to particular groups, they can be judgmental about classmates’ learning styles or progress (Jackson & Davis, 2000). At this junction, then, it’s important to show students that not everyone starts at the same point along the learning continuum or learns in the same way. Some classmates learn content by drawing it, others by writing about it, and still others by discussing it—and even the best students are beginners in some things.
Unfortunately, students in non-differentiated classes often view cultural and academic differences as signs of weakness and inferiority. Good students in these classes often try to protect their reputations as being the kids who always get the problems right or finish first. They rarely take chances and stretch themselves for fear of faltering in front of others. This approach to learning rarely leads to success in high school and beyond.
Educators of tweens need to make academic struggle virtuous. So we model asking difficult questions to which we don’t know the answers, and we publicly demonstrate our journey to answer those questions. We affirm positive risk taking in homework as well as the knowledge gained through science experiments that fail.
We push students to explore their undeveloped skills without fear of grade repercussions, and we frequently help students see the growth they’ve made over time.