I entered into No Man’s Land this school year. It’s a stinky, emotionally complex yet surprisingly fun land called… sixth grade! Who knew I would be personally and professionally challenged by a very diverse group of tweens? Several colleagues have been shocked by my decision to move from a long career in primary education, so I thought I would share a few of my favorite things I have learned about middle school.
#1 Favorite Thing: Relationships
Relationships are key to success in middle school. Not just for the students, but for the teachers as well. Yes, it’s true in any aspect of education, but they are vital to a positive, respectful, thriving classroom environment. I need to give credit to a former teacher who gave me that understanding. I remember a high school English teacher who would start her class every day with a funny real-life anecdote about her family. We all knew about her husband, daughter, pets, and her love for gardening. She would share journal entries and poetry that she wrote, and every student felt deeply connected to her. Because of her honest transparency, students worked hard to make her proud with their academics and behavior. I’ve been trying to follow her model, and it works! When I spend a couple minutes a day sharing about my real life (time with my boys, my stinky dog, working in my vegetable garden, or my hiking adventures), the students noticeably sit up and pay attention. They realize I’m human, and after I share, they are so excited to make connections to my life. We feel closer as a family, and they realize I’m invested in their lives. That kind of investment pays off in long-term benefits- better classroom management, increased attendance, and excitement about learning!
#2 Favorite Thing: Writer’s Workshop
Writer’s Workshop is the most powerful tool of teaching English Language Arts in any classroom. Yes, that’s a pretty bold statement. What is my evidence? I’ve taught it for decades in various grade levels and schools, and it doesn’t decrease in value throughout the test of time, popular pedagogical trends, or ages of students. Giving the students the power to choose what to write and encourage/support their writing goals through the process is the most rewarding experience in Language Arts. Spending quality time in conferences and encouraging students to build relationships through peer revising strengthens your classroom community. You can identify specific reading and speech deficiencies through the power of writing. This year I have already received a very encouraging e-mail from a parent who stated, “We had so much fun talking tonight outside about his writing a story today about whatever he wanted to write about. I heard all about his candy world, it was amazing and he said that he had so much fun and couldn’t believe that he didn’t want to stop writing. I think that’s awesome!!” When you internalize the full impact of Writer’s Workshop being consistently implemented in any classroom, it’s breath-taking, earth-stopping, goosebump-popping.
#3 Favorite Thing: The Rite of Passage
I never realized what a big deal “being in sixth grade” is to children and families. We might as well roll out the red carpet the first day of school! As an unspoken rite of passage, sixth grade is the entrance into middle school education. It is an emotionally daunting journey for students and their parents. The number of phone calls and e-mails I receive on a daily basis about grades and behavior is rather overwhelming at times, but I’m finally getting it- we are these families’ life preservers. Missing assignments, low test grades, and makeup work are usually the hot topic of conversations with parents. Lately the hot topic of conversations in my classroom: the responsibility of digital citizenship, being kind at recess, and wearing deodorant. Don’t forget the extra sensitive nature of these tweens who will act like the world is coming crashing to a stop! This is the part of middle school that makes many educators turn and run away screaming. But I’m learning to embrace it. If you peel away the layers of emotions, there is one common theme- the need to be successful. Middle school heightens the awareness of success in academics, relationships, and behavior. Add a little hormones from the kids and stress from the parents, light a match, and kapow! You have a typical middle school meltdown from any one of the stakeholders. I am learning that I need to not view this is a cumbersome element of my position, but an important part of counseling these children and their families. We can make a better impact when having a positive attitude!
My Charge to You
It’s simple. No matter what grade level, have fun with your kids and let them see who you are as a human being. Build relationships. Try Writer’s Workshop and don’t give up! Don’t judge too quickly when a middle schooler and/or parent is having a meltdown- listen and offer support.