In the midst of a busy morning arrival time, a few middle school students greeted me as I walked through the crowded hallway toward the room in which my meeting was being held. "Sup Dr. W. Are you coming to our classes today?" one student asked.
I replied that I would try if I had time, but that I was there for a meeting. The student went on to tell me that he didn't understand what we do in meetings all the time. When I explained that we meet so we can try to improve teaching and learning, he responded, "Ah man, Dr. W, you don't need to have a meeting on that. Just ask me!"
Sitting in my meeting I reflected on this brief and casual conversation. I got excited at the thought of asking kids about their school experience, and decided to talk with students during their lunch period—the most informal part of their day.
I visited three different middle school lunchrooms, and although I blocked off a short amount of time for each visit, ended up staying longer than I expected. Not only did they provide me with rich information, they also asked me some very powerful questions about the process of teaching and learning.
My conversations with these amazing students in their own unfiltered middle school voices, shared here, offers much middle school leaders can learn from. However, the most meaningful learning for leaders comes if they replicate this activity in their own schools.
Question: What makes a middle school awesome? Describe the ideal middle school.
- Freedom to be who I want to be.
- Teachers who let us be in charge of our own learning, they aren't too teacher-like.
- Nice teachers who respect that we are going through things, just like they are as adults.
- Fun in the class, but not crazy. Teachers have to be sorta strict when needed.
- Choices at lunch.
- Down time during the day so my brain doesn't overload.
- When we can use our technology as a part of learning, just like a textbook.
- Snacks in class. I can't focus when I'm hungry and I'm a growing adolescent so I'm always hungry.
- No bullies. Everyone just respects each other even if they don't like everyone.
- Modified class times for those of us who learn differently.
- Sports at all grades.
- Staff would understand the power of play.
Question: What is your favorite part of middle school?
- All the activities I can get involved in.
- Meeting new friends.
- Lockers instead of cubbies like in elementary school.
- When it is time to go to my favorite class during the day.
- Down time at lunch.
- Moving classes instead of staying in just one all day like elementary school.
- Times when I can be social with my friends.
- Learning something new.
- Getting my brain ready for high school.
Question: What is one thing you would change about middle school?
- Lunch times. Some start too early and some go too late.
- More time during passing period.
- Ease up on the dress code. We are just expressing ourselves.
- Add in more opportunities for free time.
- Allow us to design the lunch menu sometimes with the cafeteria staff.
- Overall use more technology in classroom.
- It's how we are wired.
Question: What do you wish all middle school teachers knew about how you learn best?
- We don't always say when we don't understand so we don't look dumb in front of our friends. Give us other private ways to say we don't understand.
- Our minds move quick. Keep the activities changing all the time.
- We learn at different paces.
- We feel things and have valid emotions that impact our work.
- We need to talk to learn.
- Fun is required.
- Different kids connect in different ways.
- Group work like the real world.
Question: What advice would you give middle school administrators?
- Give kids a clean slate coming from elementary school.
- Change up the lunch food and make it reflect our cultures.
- More community-building activities between staff and students could make learning better in the classroom.
- Try more peer-led class activities.
- Community service during school as a regular part for everyone, not only during certain parts of the year or as a punishment.
- When you have to deal with a situation, stay on both sides until you hear everyone out.
- Take care of mean kids.
- Find and hire more teachers who look like me (African American).
- Don't give up on us.
- Take it easy on the fifth graders; thelearning curve is high
Question: What advice would you give an incoming six grader?
- Just do the homework.
- Stay out of drama with friends.
- Practice lockers before school starts.
- Come prepared.
- Make good choices. They will find out if you didn't anyway.
- Know your way around the school.
- Get involved right away with some activity that is of interest to you.
- Be aware of bullies, and know that someone hurt them before they hurt others.
- Meet new people.
- Don't get on teachers' bad sides; it never ends well when you do.
- Be ready for the work.
- Help out others around you.
- Make the best of it, you are only a few yearsaway from the big beast, HIGH SCHOOL.
Nikki Woodson is superintendent of schools for the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is a member of the AMLE Leadership Institute faculty, serves on the board of governors for International Baccalaureate, and is a co-founder of Change Makers International.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, September 2016.