Why Awaken the Middle School Voice?

By: Elyse S. Scott

Middle school voices are not always what their teachers want to hear.

Those voices can be high-pitched and rowdy, full of criticism and negativity, whining with complaint, or bent on distracting others, destroying the most well-intentioned lesson. So why would we want to "awaken the middle school voice"?

The answer is that the most glorious middle school voices can be dormant, in recesses that even students themselves did not know existed. Once unleashed they can be truly powerful, and once redirected, capitalize on those very qualities that often give adolescents a bad name. Once transformed, negative energy can translate to strength of conviction, enthusiasm, cleverness, and dynamism.

Classes once branded "unruly," "zoo-ish," "dysfunctional" transform into learning communities in which collaboration and an open exchange of ideas are routine.

Thirty years ago I began my middle school journey teaching English full of the best intentions. I was organized, planned my lessons meticulously, and was full of high ideals about what adolescents needed.

What did I really know when I entered my classroom for the first time: some background on adolescents from education courses that could never prepare me for my real life encounters in the classroom, field observations of other teachers' students, and an all too limited engagement student teaching. I taught "the way I had been taught" and stayed one step ahead of the students. I gave the kind of tests I had been given, as well as similar papers and projects.

But as my career progressed, my students themselves would come to inform the changes I would make in instruction, approach, content, projects, and most important, who I was as their teacher. You cannot last long with middle school students doing "the same old, same old." Adolescents can be painfully blunt, and they will tell you when things are not working. Luckily, my gut instincts were victorious before my students rebelled.

As young teachers we tend to focus on ourselves, but slowly my focus started to shift to my students, their interests, their needs.

In a caseload of middle school students, there will always be the respectful "worker bees" as we used to call them, but many students, then and now, shuffle into class after class, take a seat, and bear an expression that translates into something like, "Well, teacher, give me your best shot."

Long before all the technological distractions of today, middle school students were "checking out" in increasing numbers. If you sat in the wings and listened to middle school students complain about their teachers and classes, which they did, and still do all the time, you could glean some important information. Often you would hear comments like, "She always does the same old thing," "He spends two weeks on one story," "She talks and talks and talks, and we just sit there," "We read half the book in class; I want to read it on my own!" "He's very nice, but class is so boring," with a huge dramatic pronunciation of "b-o-r-i-n-g."

I really opened my ears, as well as my mind and heart, to what kids were saying, and as good teachers always do, examined my own practices. I realized early on that in order to make a difference, I had to be different. I had to be dynamic and energetic, and the only way I could be those things was if I loved what I was teaching. I had to embrace the material I was presenting. Literary works had to resonate with me, and I had to develop a sixth sense for what would work with my students.

I often used the students as guinea pigs for some materials, and gave them some control by having them give a thumbs up or down, with a rationale, of course. As an English teacher, I had limitless resources from which to choose, but my criteria for adoption had to include relevancy in some way for my students.

I also had to decide what my priorities were. If my main mission was to aid my students in discovery, promote a lifelong love of reading and writing, and tap their critical insights, then my own "inner curriculum map" had to include inspiring materials carefully engineered to get students hooked and to be active participants.

I would have to create models of my own design that would suggest alternate paths for my students who were caught in ruts of sameness. Projects, assignments, and assessments would have to be authentic, exciting, and fun.

My questioning, whether to the class or on assessments, had to be thought-provoking, challenging, mind-boggling, even, to elicit student voices capable of sharing wisdom and insight, formulating arguments and making judgments, critically analyzing and evaluating.

Even as standards and testing mania hit the middle level, I had to find a happy medium in preparing my students for assessments while staying true to the heart of my classroom—tapping students' voices, creativity, and critical thinking.

I did not have to "throw the baby out with the bath water" and start anew. I had been using wonderful materials all along; I just approached them with new perspective, adding and subtracting as student interest and perspective changed from year to year.

We have all heard the saying, "What's old can be new again," and that became my mantra as I massaged and tweaked old standbys that still had merit. I allowed content to be the vehicle of inspiration, embedding demanded skills rather than having the skills themselves be the lesson headliners.

All too often, I have noted that teachers plan their lessons as though they were laying out a buffet table—a sampling of this, a taste of that—too many loose ends that keep students foggy about purpose and relevance. Those of us who teach language arts, while often complaining how comprehensive and multi-stranded our standards are, also have wide flexibility in choice of materials, sequence of instruction, and types of projects and assessments.

Lately I have been hearing an outcry about literature being put aside in favor of the non-fiction and otherwise "neutral" text that students will encounter on standardized tests. Avoid the temptation at all costs! While there is wonderful non-fiction that will excite and inspire middle school students, literature allows adolescents to take emotional risks, respond authentically, and raise questions.

When teachers become facilitators of learning and students are vested stakeholders, possibilities are endless. There is truly only one method to awaken the middle school voice. The path begins by buying into the adolescent world and its demands. It's not about giving in; it's about giving up the old "ties that bind." The payoff is you won't be hearing the voices in your head telling you something is not working, but you will be hearing the voices of your students having something profound to say!

Excerpted from Awakening the Middle School Voice: Engineering the Language Arts to Excite Adolescents, by Elyse S. Scott

Elyse S. Scott is a retired English teacher who began her career teaching at the community college level but found her true passion: teaching middle school.


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