I taught elementary school for 12 years before moving to the middle school to teach 6th grade. While many 6th graders come to the middle school feeling nervous and unsure, most of them settle in fairly quickly and launch into that age of change that the tween/early teenage years bring. Middle school students are at an age where they want to explore everything, and for some, paying attention doesn’t come easily.
Keeping their interest and helping with the sometimes awkward transition between elementary school (where they were just kids) to high school (where the teens take over) isn’t always easy.
I’ve found it takes a special kind of approach to keep middle schoolers engaged.
Break Up The Monotony
I know that school is partially about teaching students the value of routines. It keeps them on track and prepares them for being an adult one day. However, I fully believe that managing middle school effectively means breaking up those monotonous routines. For instance, in the middle of a lesson, I might randomly assign partners and have them do a quick pair/share or a brain teaser to cement that part of the lesson.
I also stop for quick Q&A sessions. Many students won't raise their hand to ask a question during class, because they don't want to call attention to themselves or their need for clarification. But if I designate a few minutes as official QA time, they will. During these minutes, I allow them to ask me or ask a neighbor; sometimes asking a neighbor is more appealing because they don't have to ask in front of the whole class. If the neighbor also doesn't know an answer, then there's a "better" reason to speak up and ask me. As I circulate during "neighbor questioning," I can hear the types of questions they ask one another, which gives me an even better handle on their thinking.
Take Downtime Breaks
I’m not saying middle schoolers need nap time (though we probably all could use a nap break!) Downtime breaks are different. These involve giving the students a few minutes to simply process everything. Downtime also gives students time to shift their focus and reset. This is ideal when they’re frustrated over trying to learn something new. Instead of just pounding at a problem forever, a downtime break lets them step away and come back renewed. I’ve discovered it actually helps them learn more.
Offer Engaging Activities
Middle school minds work a bit differently than other ages. It’s considered a pruning time as the brain starts eliminating unused connections. This also explains why some middle schoolers seem so difficult to engage with. It’s not their fault that their minds are in a developmental period.
My solution is to provide engaging activities. Since the average attention span at this age is 10-12 minutes, I make segmented lesson plans that fit in that time range. After each segment, I’ll get more interactive. I might play a game with them, do a quick group activity or challenge them with a puzzle. Middle school students tend to learn best with interactive methods, so this approach provides the best mix of traditional teaching and interactive teaching.
Take A New Approach To Getting Their Attention
I used to have difficulty at the beginning of the class period, getting students to settle and be ready to start math class (particularly because math isn't always a favorite subject - can you believe that?!) However, I now teach my students that as soon as they walk in the classroom, they work on their warm-up. Sometimes they actually do the warm-up at the beginning of class, but often the warm-up was homework, and their job is to go over the warm-up together and discuss any disagreements. This is about a 5-7 minute time period (depending on how on-time to class everyone is) that gets them focused immediately and gives me a chance to circulate and see who has questions.
At other times, like during group-work, I use "Give me 5" to get their attention - I say, "Give me 5" and then count to five. When I get to 5, they are to be quiet and be giving me their attention. This technique is from the Harry Wong book, The First Days of School. I used this in elementary school, and when tried it out with 6th grade, it worked just as well!
Every once in a while, students just get off-task. When this happens, I will sit down and just look at them (I refuse to raise my voice). It only takes a few seconds for a couple of students to notice my silence, and then they all become silent as well:-)
Clearly Manage Progress
Finally, I think it’s important for middle schoolers to always know where they stand in a class. I like to provide feedback to students to help them know how they’re progressing and show them which areas they may be struggling in. This gives them a chance to ask questions about trouble areas and talk to me about ways to improve their grades.
For several years now, I have had students keep a tracking sheet in their binders. Every time they receive a grade, they record the points they earned and the points possible, and then convert that to a percent (this is great all-year practice for converting fractions to percents!). I teach them how to add ALL of the points (theirs and possible), to find their class grade at any given time. Grades are now available on the computer, but students often don't check that (their parents might), and some don't have computer access. Regardless of whether they check the computer system or not, I think it's important for them to know how to figure this out themselves, in order to understand exactly how the computer is calculating. Calculating for themselves can help them understand why the A they got on that 10-point quiz doesn't give them an A in the class if they already had a C on a 30-point assessment.....I might write more about this another time:-)
One final piece of advice is to simply pay attention to your students. Managing middle school gets so much easier when you pay attention and interact with your students. They appreciate the extra effort and they’ll reward you by helping you understand them better.
Hi, I'm Ellie! I've been in education for 25 years, teaching all subject areas at both the elementary and middle school levels.