Sunday, February 8, 2015

What Middle Schoolers Want

Middle school kids are a special bunch.  This is why people say "God Bless You" whenever I tell them I teach middle school.  :)  If teachers can give students what they want, chances are they'll be more willing/able to give teachers what they want.  But what do they want?  I've got a few ideas...

1) Laughter & Fun
This one is a no-brainer.  Of course they love laughter & fun!  The important thing here is to find the proper balance between fun & learning.  There will also be some kids who have trouble finding the line between funny times & learning times, so be prepared to have some one-on-one conversations with those kids.  

We had a good hard laugh about this one...

2) To be praised for something meaningful
Just like adults, kids love being praised for meaningful stuff.  Here's a great example:  When a kid tells me I'm a good teacher, I feel happy for a moment.  But when a kid says "You're a good teacher because you make learning easy"... Well, that sticks with me for quite a while.  I love when they specifically verbalize (or write) why they appreciate me.  It is the same for our students.
Some examples of meaningful praise:
  • You are so good at working with the people in your group.  That is going to help you so much in the future when your job requires you to work on a team.
  • I am really impressed with your leadership.  You set a really good example for the class at lunch when you picked up that trash that wasn't yours.
  • You are such a hard-worker!  I just love that I ask you to do something once & you get it done.  I am seriously impressed!
  • [To the entire class] I just want to say thank you so much to everyone who is already seated & working.  You are going to rock today's assignment. 
3) A purpose
Everyone wants to know their purpose for doing something.  Before I give students an assignment, I try to quickly explain how it will help them in the immediate future (quizzes, tests, etc.) and their long-term future.  I try to be as specific as possible as well.  Instead of saying "This will really help you when you're older", I try to tell them an exact instance when it may come in handy.  One of my favorites for social studies?  "When you're sitting around a table as an adult, eating dinner with your friends, and someone brings up a current event that relates to government/economics, you want to be able to join in on that conversation.  You'll want to know what to say when that time comes so you can look like you know what you're talking about."

4) To feel smart
A bad grade automatically makes a kid feel dumb.  But we know as educators a bad grade does not equal dumb!  Let's find a way to encourage them even when their grades are not as good as they could be.  For example, "You did GREAT on the timeline assignment.  Now we just need to find a way to transfer that success over to your quiz grades."

5) Respect
Have you ever had a boss that made you feel disrespected?  If your answer is "Yes", I'm willing to bet you didn't ever feel like going above & beyond for that boss.  Our students are exactly the same.  If they feel respected, they will do ANYTHING we ask them to do.  A class is a family, and family members should respect each other.

6) To be weird sometimes (& know that it's okay)
I am a complete weirdo.  This is serious.  From the first day of school, I will occasionally (and not always on purpose) do extremely weird things.  It keeps my students on their toes.  They don't want to be absent because they know they could miss a moment.  They listen when I'm speaking because I might just say the most strange thing they've ever heard.  This is hard to do if you're not naturally weird (we can't all be gifted in this way), but middle schoolers want to feel like they aren't weird... So what better way to make them feel that way than to be EVEN WEIRDER than they could possibly ever be?? 

7) Occasional spontaneity
This goes along with the weirdness.  Obertopia is all about inside jokes.  But our jokes are never ever planned.  They just pop up, out of nowhere.  A few weeks ago, a student was absent.  While they were gone, we (our homeroom) came up with this really weird thing we would do whenever a kid asked a question (I can't give you more details than that because I was sworn to secrecy).  When the absent kid returned, they felt out of the loop.  Now this is not something I'm happy about, but want my students to feel like they missed something while they were out.  We (of course) caught the kid up on the inside joke, but my students are a little less likely to miss school (unless they are seriously sick or are having some kind of other emergency--in that case, please be absent!)

The kids who were in my room when this happened had a pretty amazing time... As did I!

8) To be known
I try to look out for the wallflowers.  Some kids are SO quiet (while others are VERY loud!).  How often do our quiet kids go the entire day without someone saying their name?  Without someone saying, "How have you been?" or "I think you are a really cool kid."  Middle schoolers really want to feel like someone knows them and loves them just the way they are.

9) A sense of belonging
EVERYONE wants to belong.  But this desire is SO strong in middle schoolers.  They are trying to figure out who they want to be, and this makes them really vulnerable.  If we can make them feel like they belong in our classroom, they will feel ownership & will do all they can to make it the best it can be.  In Obertopia, "We are a family.  You may not always like your family, but you will always love your family."

10) To learn meaningful things
This goes with purpose.  Students will learn thousands of things while they are in middle school.  THOUSANDS!  Sometimes I sit in a desk while my students are working and I try to think about what their day looks like.  They enter 6 different classrooms and learn from 6 different teachers.  How do they keep it all straight??  If I can teach them something meaningful, then they'll 1) Be more likely to remember it 2) Be more likely to carry it into their 'real life' and 3) Think about it outside of my classroom.

That's all I've got for now.  What stories do you have to share that give your students ownership in the classroom?  I'd love to hear from you!



  1. Even with a super busy curriculum and each class jam packed with learning and activities, I always find time to allow my students opportunities to share who they are with the class. The content isn't going anywhere. It's always there ready to be taught. It can be put on hold for the moment. But my kids are going somewhere. My time spent getting to know them is precious before they leave my class forever. Allowing them to be who they are and share a little of themselves creates a sense of community and builds strong bonds. I want them to enjoy walking though my door, wondering what each day will bring. While it's my class, they have ownership just as much as I do. Whether it's sharing a Google Doc of a funny story they wrote at home, demonstrating their epic rap skills, showing a video of when they earned a black belt in karate, or playing a random slideshow about unicorns that they made in computer class (today's little treat), it gives them a chance to express themselves, be who they are without fear of being rejected, build their confidence, and genuinely get to know each other. I have found over the years that it's important to have these silly moments to keep them engaged and enthusiastic. They work hard, so they deserve it! So, I resist the urge at times to say, "No. Sorry, we just don't have the time" because, in the end, the grammar and the writing and the reading and the tests and quizzes get done. I want them to feel like they have value and a voice. That's more important in my opinion.

  2. Amen. This was the perfect read 6 days before the END of this year. Thanks - AND, RIGHT ON. -MS Teacher of 17 years.

  3. You put it all together here. I was a seventh grade science teacher for 16 years and 4 or 5 years in, someone told me, " These are your clients. You have to take them where they are and lead them forward." From that day on I used the energy and exciteability they had to make them love science. The most awesome characteristic of seventh graders is their willingness to be goofy and try new things. If you create activities that incorporate these things, everyone wins and the kids will never forget your class. They'll also learn a lot of science. I started gathering stuff for Mr. Wizard type activities,( Bill Nye for the younger teachers) and had all kids have a hands-on experience with science. Then, I incorporated writing by asking the same three questions after each activity: 1) what does this activity make you wonder about? 2) What would you like to change about the activity in order to learn something new? ( Here I would say, "What other objects would you want to use to change this activity if you could?) and 3) Do you see a connection to something you already knew before the activity? They never had a problem writing for five minutes or so because they were bursting with new ideas about which they automatically hypothesized! those years in middle school remain special in my mind and I was a most successful teacher having so much fun.

  4. I soooo love this! I have seen a tshirt that says this: Having a weird mom builds character. Maybe, having a weird teacher also builds character?!? I hope so...