Ask Ms. DeBose About Teaching the Middle Grades

Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow Geneviève DeBose answers teachers’ burning questions about middle grades education.

TEACHER QUESTION (TQ):  Why are educators using the term middle grades or middle level instead of middle school?  What’s the difference?

MS. DEBOSE:  When I was a kid, I went to John Burroughs Junior High School in Los Angeles. Today that school is called John Burroughs Middle School. When I attended, it included grades 7, 8, and 9. Today John Burroughs serves students in grades 6 through 8. Why all the changes? Because students in the middle grades today attend many different types of schools, the term “middle school” doesn’t always fit. Some are in schools that serve grades 6-8, others are in K-8 schools, while additional students may be in a school setting that serves only grades 7 and 8 or K through 12.  While their school structures may be different our young adolescents experience similar changes and challenges.

Middle level youth are recognized as students age 10 to 15, often in grades 5 through 9. Regardless of the type of school setting they are in, as educators we have to ensure that we work to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of students in the middle grades. Whether the school my 13-year old cousin attends is called a middle school is not nearly as important as what takes place inside the building. As the Association for Middle Level Education says, “We’re about kids ages 10 to 15, not the name on the school.”

TQ:  What makes someone a good fit for teaching in the middle grades?

MS. D:  Middle school teachers need to have a diversity of skill sets to be effective with this age group. First, teachers must truly enjoy working with young adolescents. If you like the quirkiness that comes with being 10-15, then this is the right fit. Middle school students say that they want a teacher who is both demanding and caring. They want to be challenged and held to high expectations, but they also want to know that their teacher loves them and is there for them. Teachers need to be flexible and easily adaptable because every day with middle level kids is like a “Forrest Gump” moment:  you never know what you’re gonna get. Lastly, we need to be creative and engaging. These years are critical in influencing the ultimate success of our students. So many students check out in grades 5-9 that we must work diligently to create opportunities for learning that include student voice and get our kids excited about coming to school.

TQ:  I’ve heard a lot about middle level students and brain development. What’s actually happening up there?

MS. D:  Researchers tell us the adolescent brain develops faster than any time other than birth to two years old.  Early adolescents are moving from concrete to abstract thinking and are developing their ability to think critically, solve complex problems, plan, and control impulses. (So for all of the 6th grade teachers who wonder why one student keeps yelling out the answer after constant reminders to raise their hand: don’t worry; it’ll get better.) Many of early adolescents’ skills are dependent on the frontal lobe of the human brain, which neuroscientist Jay Giedd says is the “part of the brain that most separates man from beast.” During adolescence the frontal lobe is not fully developed, often resulting in poor organizational skills and decision making. According to Giedd, “[It’s] not that the teens are stupid or incapable of [things]. It’s sort of unfair to expect them to have adult levels of organizational skills or decision making before their brain is finished being built. …”

The good news is that the adolescent brain is developing so that the cells and connections it does make will survive. Increasing the opportunities students have to engage in music, athletics, debate, robotics, the arts, and other diverse, hands-on learning experiences will result in lasting patterns that will be “hard-wired” into the brain. 

To learn more about adolescent brain development, check out this interview with Jay Giedd.

TQ:  So, what do all of these changes mean for a middle level student?

MS. D:  Our middle level youth often demonstrate a heightened sense of self-consciousness and feel like everyone is as concerned with their behaviors and thoughts as they are. They also tend to believe that no one else has experienced similar emotions. This is shown through overly dramatic reactions like outbursts of, “No one understands what I’m going through!” Early adolescents may also make poor decisions and take unnecessary risks because they don’t think anything bad can happen to them.

For some this sounds overwhelming, but there are benefits to working with this age group. Because these students are developing abstract thinking, they have heightened interest in causes and justice, interests that teachers use to draw them into learning. Involving them in student-led school or community campaigns is an excellent way to channel this energy. Their interests will also develop and change a great deal during this time, which means they will be open to trying new things in an attempt to find what they are good at. Students who want to try new things and explore? A teacher’s dream!

TQ:  What do all of these changes mean for a middle level teacher?

MS. D:  Given that students encounter these changes at different times and develop at their own pace, our jobs as middle level teachers can be difficult. Peter Lorain, a retired middle school principal, from Beaverton, Ore., wrote an article that offers advice in this area. Lorain states, “The middle school classroom should be an active, stimulating place where people talk and share, movement is common and planned for, and the teacher uses a wide array of approaches to introduce, model, and reinforce learning.”

TQ: Sounds good Mr. Lorain, but how exactly, do teachers do this?

When planning lessons, middle school teachers must keep the goal clearly in mind and make sure that students can reach the goal in multiple ways. Teachers must check in with students along the way to keep them working toward the learning objective. As thinking and learning become more abstract, students need predictable and safe environments so that they can risk, explore, and grow. Teachers must structure and facilitate these experiences. Students need to learn how to problem solve, think critically, and develop processes for learning. Teachers need to structure and facilitate these, too. Teachers should:

  • Teach students how to study. There are many resources for teachers to structure these experiences.
  • Establish, teach, and practice consistent expectations and routines. Don’t expect to tell students once and have them remember and follow the “rules.”
  • Use process charts to detail steps on a long-term project and revisit these steps periodically.
  • Use graphic organizers to assist in visualizing problem solving.
  • Distribute assignment sheets that clearly articulate benchmarks and timelines.
  • Color code materials (e.g., assignments in blue, new information in red, long-term project information in violet) to help students put the material into a context and take away the thinking and categorizing work to orient the brain as to what should be done next.

These steps and others are tools teachers can use to facilitate learning through the new experiences and adventures in thinking that are part of the young adolescent’s life.

TQ:  What are effective practices used to help middle level students develop strong relationships and an awareness of the world around them?

MS. D:  There are a variety of ways middle level schools can meet these goals. I’ll share two ideas from my 10 years in the classroom as a middle level teacher.

1)     Advisory: There are many different ways to create and conduct an advisory, but the opportunity for students to meet in a safe, small group with the same students and adult on a regular basis is key. The space should provide students with an adult advocate at the school while promoting opportunities for positive social development, relationship-building and academic support. I have been in schools that didn’t have an existing advisory structure, so I worked to create these opportunities within my classes or at my grade level. 

2)     Service Learning: Because young adolescents want to be engaged in hands-on experiences, to try new things, and to create a more fair and just world, service learning is an excellent opportunity for them to do all three. My students and I participated in school-based service learning programs, becoming reading buddies to younger students or starting our school’s first recycling program. We also connected with community organizations like a local food pantry to pack bags of food for hungry families twice a month. These activities gave students the opportunity to see themselves as agents of positive change in the world and helped them recognize how their actions impact others. 

TQ:  What new and relevant research exists about middle level education?

MS. D:  There is a body of research that focuses on the middle grades. I have listed some of the articles below.

  • Robert Balfanz and the Association of Middle Level Education’s report Putting the Middle Grades Student on the Graduation Path
  • The Southern Regional Education Board’s Middle Grades Commission’s report A New Mission for the Middle Grades: Preparing Students for a Changing World
  • The Bush Presidential Institute’s Middle School Matters Initiative
  • EdSource’s study Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better

TQ:  What different middle level organizations can I get involved in?

MS. D:  The first that comes to mind is the Association for Middle Level Education (formerly the National Middle School Association). They are a national education association dedicated exclusively to the middle grades. They publish a number of publications that are helpful to middle level educators, and they hold excellent national and state-level conferences each year. There is also the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform which is an alliance of educators, researchers and national organizations committed to promoting the academic performance and healthy development of young adolescents. They seek to make every middle grades school academically excellent, responsive to the developmental needs and interests of young adolescents, and socially equitable. One way this is accomplished is through their Schools to Watch program.