Science Happens in MY Neighborhood

Science Happens in MY Neighborhood

Engaging middle schoolers in local issues helps them apply knowledge and become informed citizens

Environmental science knowledge intertwined with cultural practices have ripple effects that impact many aspects of society. For example, the increase in the use of fertilizer and practices of overfishing have resulted in red tides and dead zones within waterways, where nothing is able to grow. It is important for students to have formal instruction to engage with these topics, preparing them to be scientifically literate members of society. A powerful way to engage middle school learners is to use socio-scientific issues to teach environmental science. Socio-scientific issues (SSI) are those that deal with topics that can be debated and relate scientific understanding to making real world decisions (Zeidler & Kahn, 2014).

We cannot assume that middle school students have had experience with meaningful high-quality, hands-on science units. Therefore, it is important to provide them with appropriately challenging coursework that meets individual needs. Teaching with SSIs reaches students that come to the classroom with a wide range of background knowledge. This article provides an example of an SSI unit in which students review their knowledge of scientific thinking, ask self-designed experimental questions, and conduct an experiment to test their question. Their final writing project allows students to use their knowledge of science and their community to propose a solution to a local need. First, a brief overview will be provided about the value of these types of strategies.

Benefits of Exploring Local Socio-Scientific Issues

The National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) asserts that students need to know, understand, and be able to apply their knowledge of science (NSTA, 2016). This is part of being a scientifically literate member of society. To do this, students must be exposed to lessons that explore socio-scientific issues and be taught how to use their knowledge in a local context. Learning in this manner is highly engaging and personalizes science as a practice for students (Birmingham & Barton, 2013). Additionally, using local events provides an opportunity for students to connect personal experiences to the content they are learning and allows them to contribute to the community.

The utilization of SSIs also supports the middle school concept advocated for by AMLE. For example, students learn science concepts and applications in the science classroom, discuss issues of policy in social studies, refine their writing and communication skills in English language arts, and plan for budgets in the mathematics classroom. Integrated learning such as this is a powerful method for students to make realworld connections and understand content at a deeper level. In the next section, a brief unit of instruction is provided that demonstrates an example of teaching an SSI in the context of an ecology lesson.

SSI Environmental Science Lesson

This unit of instruction allows students to apply scientific practices in context and makes learning relevant for students. It fits in an instructional sequence where students have previously learned about asking scientific questions, experimental design, and a basic knowledge of ecology and needs of plants. Students are placed into research groups.


This lesson begins with the teacher showing the class an image of a vacant city lot (see figure 1).

Students are asked to quietly write out reflections on the following questions:

  • Describe the abiotic and biotic factors that you see in this environment.
  • What is growing here? Why?
  • What types of plants might we want to grow here? Why?
  • How could we engineer this environment to grow your chosen plant?

Figure 1
Vacant Lot

After five minutes of individual reflection, students discuss their answers in a group. The teacher places four posters around the room with the previous questions written on top of each as a prompt. This small group discussion allows students to build on prior knowledge and brainstorm ideas. A group representative writes the responses on the posters. During group writing, the teacher reads the responses to formatively assess student thinking. Then, she leads class discussions on each of the topics. Students are then presented with the project topic: They will determine needs of plants that they choose to grow in this space.

Community Garden – Lab Practice

To acclimate students to this type of research, they complete a practice lab analysis. Analysis should be completed in research teams, with student discussion about each of the prompts. During this time, the teacher formatively assesses student knowledge of experimental design and responds appropriately to clear up misconceptions. This activity allows students to practice their research skills that will be needed for future activities and provides an opportunity to practice collaboration (see practice worksheet in figure 2).


Explore: Research Proposal

Groups identify a plant that they wish to grow in this space. They justify the choice of a plant using a combination of research and knowledge of their local community. Each group develops a research proposal to identify needs of the chosen plant in their local environment. Students complete the planning template (see figure 3) and turn it in to the teacher for approval. After approval, they execute their experiments by collecting data over the next month. Students develop their scientific practice skills while taking ownership of their work as they watch their plants grow.

Figure 3

Research Proposal – Community Garden Initiative

(In order for your project to be funded your plan must be complete!)
  1. My question: (Remember the format)
  2. Experimental Design:
      a. Independent Variable (you can only have one)

      b. Dependent variable (what you are measuring)

      c. Constants (you should have many)

      d. Procedure: (step-by-step, be specific)

      ***Describe the types of data you will collect***

      e. Qualitative data:

      f. Quantitative data:

Explain: Poster Presentation

Finally, students present their findings through a poster presentation. The presentation highlights their experimental question, methods, and findings from their research. The conclusion section contains a discussion about whether their proposed plant would be a good fit for their neighborhood environment and in what ways it will serve a community need. The teacher assists students in putting their posters together and facilitates student presentations to the class. This activity helps students develop their scientific writing and speaking skills.

Evaluate: Individual Persuasive Essay

After the groups have presented their findings, students use their knowledge of all groups’ research to write a two paragraph persuasive essay arguing which plant should be planted in the vacant lot. The argument should be made based on ways this plant meets community needs, the requirements for growth, and the amount of work/cost required to engineer the plot of land. They make their claim using evidence from the research findings. This essay provides a rich opportunity for students to use their knowledge and skills in a real-life situation, forming a good foundation for developing scientific literacy.

Collaboration Opportunities

This activity could be modified to include all content area teachers. For example:

Social Studies – In depth research about identifying needs of communities, study of their local economy and community, or a study of food deserts,

English Language Arts – Writing letters to the local city council proposing their plan

Mathematics – Determining a budget and space requirements for the implementation of scaling up the project

Cross-curricular learning benefits students by allowing them to apply skills in a more complex manner.

Project Impact

This project helps students learn to think scientifically, solidify their understanding about the needs of plants, and apply their knowledge to serve a local need. All aspects develop students toward the goal of becoming a scientifically literate member of society. Although this example demonstrates the use of socio-scientific learning within an urban environment, the process could be replicated and modified to fit any school community. For example, students in a rural environment could explore the impact of local farming practices on water quality. Regular practice engaging in these types of activities engages students to promote civic action. Civic action by scientifically literate members of society is critical to maintain good stewardship of our local, state, and national communities.


Birmingham, D. & Barton, A. (2013). Putting on a green carnival: Youth taking educated action on socio-scientific issues. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 51(3), 286-314.

National Science Teaching Association (NSTA). (2016). NSTA Position Statement: Teaching science in the context of societal and personal issues. Retrieved from

Zeidler, D. & Kahn, S. (2014). It’s debatable: Using socio-scientific issues to develop scientific literacy K-12. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Lise Falconer, M.A., NBCT is a middle school science specialist with the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2020.
Author: Lise Falconer
Number of views (486)/Comments (0)/
Topics: STEMTeaching
A Haiku Master and Dreams on Display

A Haiku Master and Dreams on Display

Enriching the curriculum and boosting middle school student engagement with the arts

We don’t need statistics to know that a curriculum lacking in arts is boring, but too often when budgets are cut, the fun parts of being in school for children are the first to be eliminated. The notion that schools with limited budgets implies having limited resources or opportunities for students never crosses my mind. Instead, I believe that schools in high need communities can access ample resources that offer a more enriching curriculum and integrate the arts to empower youth, change mindsets, develop creativity, and engage students.

I teach English as a Second Language (ESL) at a middle school, and part of my role involves supporting content teachers in their classrooms. Last year I worked with a colleague—a seventh grade language arts teacher—on a unit about poetry. He wanted his students to write poems in the Japanese poetic form of haiku. My English language learners struggled to understand even after I translated the lesson. They lacked background knowledge on poetry and had difficulty breaking words down into syllables. Instead, they counted the silent endings like in the word “through.” Once they understood that part, they asked “What’s Japan?”

Opportunities for Collaboration

Even when our planning time is during the same period, too often it isn’t feasible to meet face-to-face with colleagues, so we found other ways to collaborate. Initially we exchanged ideas by e-mail and as the project time approached, we met before school. We both wanted our students to understand and enjoy the unit.

My colleague shared the language arts standards he wanted to meet and I shared those for English of other languages. Once we had outlined all standards we wished to cover, I began searching among my connections in our community and using LinkedIn for an available guest to help make the lesson more relevant and exciting. My colleague helped by creating an exit activity on Google classroom and sharing activities we could both use to prepare for the unit project.

Through my search on ways to enhance the poetry unit, I secured Mr. Satogata, a Japanese American Haiku master, artist, and calligrapher to spend the day with us. It was a rare treat. He came early, set up the classroom, and even brought treats for students to sample from Japan. This activity was offered to all students including English speakers.

Making it Special

As part of the planning, we enlisted the help of our librarian and reached out to the high school art teacher, who sent her students during each period to take photos of the activity. Prior to the visit, students composed their haikus, wrote thank you notes, and designed a large banner to welcome our guest.

Since I teach larger groups and have a bigger classroom, I swapped rooms with my colleague for the day to make way for the seating and art project. We also secured parental permission for students to take photos. For those who did not, we took note to respect their wishes.

Students expressed that they had been looking forward to the guest visit. At the end of each class, students lined up to take a photo with him and many asked for his autograph. At the end of the day, Mr. Satogata asked me what I was going to do with the welcome banner, so my students presented the banner to him along with their thank you notes. While he expressed it was a tremendous experience for him, students shared the same sentiment. One ESL student was so excited about the visit, saying “I never met a person from Japan before!”

On our school website, we posted the photos and sent the link to our guest. Although we didn’t have it in our budget to pay for his time or the food he brought, he eagerly volunteered to return again next year because he enjoyed his time with us. That is a critical component for all visits: making sure guests feel valued and at ease.

Elevate the Standards

In seventh grade reading class, students learned about the civil rights movement while the ESL students struggled to follow along with the televised recording of “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King, Jr. I asked students to write about a dream they have and what steps they would take to achieve their goal. The activity combined several prompts that my students were doing in different classes, including writing smart goals, learning about the social justice movement, and understanding Dr. King’s speech.

I extended this activity to all students including non-ESL students to write a detailed essay for a project called The Dream Goes On. As I started the activity, a few students asked to speak to me privately, so private that it needed to be outside of the class. We stepped in the hallway and one by one they confided their belief that people like them don’t dream—at all. I was baffled. How could youth so young already have this limiting mindset? “Besides, nobody will read mine anyway. Well you have to, but that’s it!” one student told me.

I don’t set out to prove my students wrong, but I wanted to show them a world that is caring and eager to read their dreams. I searched online for contact information and sent an email to the Freedom Center in Cincinnati requesting to meet face-to-face to talk about collaborating on this project. I didn’t hear back so I searched for a specific contact at the center. It worked. During the meeting, I shared about the work that students have done and asked for permission to have my students display an exhibit. This way a lot of people could read the dreams my students wrote. Permission was granted! It meant that I needed to guide students in installing a museum-worthy display.

Two students from my English Learners posing by their drawing of Martin Luther King, Jr. as part of a large display at the Cincinnati Freedom Center

13 Ways to Bring the Arts and Community Talent to Your Classroom

  1. Include the wishes of your students. Their needs and input help by showing you what matters to them.
  2. Focus on the standards instead of the activity. It is easier to partner with colleagues when their content standards are integrated in the activity or project.
  3. Expand your network by volunteering for various organizations.
  4. Take the time to find out what’s already available. When I seek ways to enhance lessons, I look for resources and opportunities that exist within the community because people want to invest in their youth.
  5. Be specific with your wishes. People want to help but often don’t know how.
  6. Teach gratitude. I take the time to teach students to thank their guests in person and with a handwritten note.
  7. Find creative ways to recognize your volunteers. My students have nominated guests for awards. Guests feel honored to be remembered and nominated, and the thought matters more than the outcome.
  8. Join different organizations. Through my membership in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, I have met many authors who have already committed to volunteering to talk at my school.
  9. Involve students in enlisting help. Their families may have unique leads.
  10. Being excited about an idea is contagious. I had family members sponsor my students for camps and donate to my projects or in my name to my school.
  11. Make it special for the guests. Students can offer to give a school tour and introduce guests to the administrators and other teachers. This creates a special rapport between youth and our guests.
  12. Obtain parent permission. This serves to inform parents about upcoming activities and to double check permissions for photo releases.
  13. Give grants a chance! It is not accurate that one must always dot all their i’s and cross their t’s—compelling proposals get funded.

Through the arts, students delved into the project. Ironically, although most students will not stay after school to catch up on missed work, many volunteered long hours on the weekend and after school to design this project. We had a very short timeframe for the exhibit creation, and through hard work these students did it. They put a lot of effort in being artistic. My advanced ESL students took the time to translate the “I Have a Dream” speech into Spanish, which helped those with less English fluency understand.

Using arts elevated the project, engaged students into coming to school during the weekend, and offered a forum to include parental help, making it possible for these students to have their dreams on display to be read by many. Next year, I have already lined up a Japanese Tea Master to demonstrate a tea ceremony and several authors, storytellers, and speakers have committed to volunteer their time at our school. These community guests are eager to share their skills and time to bring learning to life. When it comes to the ability to make learning fun and engaging, it doesn’t matter that my district serves youth from low-income homes or that we have 79% of students on free/reduced meals, because the resources and opportunities available for our students are abundant.

Leila Kubesch teaches at Norwood (Ohio) City Schools and is the 2020 Ohio Teacher of the Year and a finalist in the 2020 National Teacher of the Year award program. She is the recipient of a $10,000 Teaching Tolerance Grant for the project From Page to the Stage: Helping Youth Find Their Voice Through the Visual and Performing Arts, the 2019 Ohio Torch Teacher of the year, and the 2019 OEA Award recipient.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2020.
Author: Leila Kubesch
Number of views (874)/Comments (0)/
How to “F-L-I-P” Your Middle Grades Classroom

How to “F-L-I-P” Your Middle Grades Classroom

Four pillars of flipped classrooms to help teachers with distance learning during COVID-19

Recent mass school closings due to the COVID-19 pandemic have educators everywhere seeking ways to provide meaningful distance learning. In response, some educators are developing instruction around a hybrid model of the flipped classroom. Similar to the traditional model, students in a hybrid model prepare outside class assignments using online tools and technologies in preparation for their upcoming face-to-face class meeting.

The flipped classroom is built around the four “pillars” of a flipped classroom: F- flexible environment, L- learning culture, I- intentional content, and P- professional educator (Flipped Learning Network, 2014). We posit that these same “pillars” can be applied to develop a fully online flipped classroom in which students meet with the teacher either synchronously or asynchronously, instead of in person. We offer this alternative model of the flipped classroom to meet the growing demand for distance learning, especially given the current large-scale school closings. Developing a completely online flipped classroom is not difficult, but it can take time, so we have included numerous hyperlinks to resources to get you started.

(F) Start with a Flexible Environment
Begin by selecting a platform that will be the foundation of your online classroom and hub for all your instructional activities and resources. Developing a flexible environment is the first pillar of a flexible classroom, so don’t be afraid to mix technologies, such as a class wiki to upload presentations, photos, videos of yourself teaching, activities, etc. Using what is already familiar to students will streamline the process and make navigating the online flipped classroom easier for them. If starting from scratch, take advantage of online platforms available through your school or school district. Many middle schools, for example, use Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Schoology, or Edmodo. Free platforms such as WebEx and Udemy also work well.

(L) Create the Learning Culture
Once you’ve chosen your platform, determine a layout for the online space. Like your face-to-face classroom, you will want to create a positive learning culture. One way is by making the space aesthetically pleasing, organized, and easy to navigate. Sometimes less is more, so try not to go overboard with images and designs. These can distract learners. Next, decide how you will organize learning. For example, developing instruction around learning modules is a popular and easy way to manage your online flipped classroom. Within each module, it’s important to make learning standards and objectives visible so students can see at a glance what they’re learning. You will also need a space (tabs or folders) to store instructional materials, documents, activities, and presentations. Next, integrate collaboration, such as discussion boards (i.e., Quicktopic and NowComment) or online chats (i.e., Hangouts Meet, WhatsApp, Zoom), which provide user-friendly tools to get you and your students communicating and sharing ideas.

(I) Integrate Intentional Learning
The internet is a warehouse for educational resources, so select learning activities and tools that support intentional learning and engagement (Albert, Pettit, & Terry, 2016). Intentional learning occurs when we purposefully select the technologies, tools, and resources that align with our instructional standards, engage students in learning, and support them in achieving their learning targets. Interactive read alouds, games (Kahoot!; Quizlet), and simulations (Phet simulations) actively engage students. Also consider your textbook’s online resources and personalized learning resources, such as Khan Academy and CK-12 for an interactive curriculum. These provide a wealth of learning support through PowerPoints, audios and videos, practice activities, and assessments.

(P) Harnessing Your Professional Educator Self
As in face-to-face classrooms, the teacher’s role in an online flipped classroom is to facilitate learning. In online spaces this means being available to your students virtually, providing instructional support, and feedback. For example, you might include live instructional videos (Screencastify) or moderate synchronous sessions. An added bonus to streaming live is the teacher’s presence, which also contributes to a positive learning climate (see ClearSlide, Animoto, and Vimeo).

We acknowledge the barriers to developing an online flipped classroom approach, foremost access to technology and the internet by all students (Dugan, 2016). Fortunately, many providers are offering free Internet during this crisis for either those with K-12 students (Charter Communications) or for low-income families (Comcast/Xfinity and TDS Telecom). Other numerous challenges include the mental and emotional challenges students face due to anxiety over changes in routines, learning expectations, and family dynamics.

Despite these challenges, we live in a technologically-advanced world, one that allows us to connect, work, and learn across physical barriers. Albers, Pace, and Brown (2013) state, “Networked technologies have had a highly visible impact” so much that “we are not just connected, but networked, socially, technologically, and intellectually” (p. 100). Fully online flipped classrooms can stabilize learning during this fragile time, provide effective instructional experiences, and proffer social interaction that current social distancing does not allow. Additionally, an online flipped classroom, when implemented as suggested, meets the criteria for middle grades “curriculum [that] is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant” (NMSA, 2010, p. 17).

We recognize this is a challenging time for numerous reasons, particularly the anxiety of the unknown surrounding the virus, as well as acknowledging the vital role schools play in our daily lives such as feeding children who might not otherwise have a meal. Many uncertainties still exist, such as schooling during the summer and the legality of meeting special education accommodations in a virtual format. We can, however, offer the online flipped classroom as one solution. Given the current state of education under the COVID-19 crisis, implementing a completely online version of the flipped classroom makes sense so students do not fall behind in their learning.

This is an uncertain time in our world, our nation, and in education. Yet, we must continue moving forward, for to remain stagnant suggests powerlessness. So, go ahead, flip your middle grades classroom in favor of one designed fully online instead.

Albers, P., Pace, C. L., & Brown, Jr., D. W. (2013). Critical participation in literacy research through new and emerging technologies: A study of web seminars and global engagement. Journal of Literacy and Technology, 14(2), 78-114.
Albert, C. D., Pettit, S. K., & Terry, C. (2016). Flipping out: Understanding the effects of a general education flipped classroom on student success. University of California Press.
Dugan, M. J. (2016). Flipping the social studies classroom: More reasons you should consider flipping your classroom. AMLE Magazine.
Lage, M. J., Platt, G. J., & Treglia, M. (2000). Inverting the classroom: A gateway to creating an inclusive learning environment. Journal of Economic Education, 31(1), 30-43.
National Middle School Association [NMSA]. (2010). This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.

Christi L. Pace, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Augusta University, Augusta, Georgia.

Stacie K. Pettit, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the College of Education at Augusta University, Augusta, Georgia.

Author: Christi L. Pace, Ph.D. and Stacie K. Pettit, Ph.D.
Number of views (1514)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
Students Need Chances to Connect

Students Need Chances to Connect

Supporting students’ need for social interaction while physically distancing

When asked about social distancing, Peter Slavin, president of Massachusetts General Hospital, put into words a thought I keep having: "I prefer the term 'physical distancing,' it seems we need social connections now more than ever before." For middle schoolers, with the developmental desire to fit in and seek connection with each other, this statement is even more prophetic than for adults.

The need to maintain academic instruction and to be socially connected collide when considering how we help our students connect when they cannot see each other in person. How we do this will probably change shape over the coming days, but we are aided by seeking the bright side and considering what we know of many students in the middle grades.

Middle schoolers see themselves in relation to others. As they try to understand and define themselves, many do so while comparing and contrasting themselves with others. COVID-19 provides a leveling of experiences as it impacts everyone, albeit in different ways.

Middle schoolers pick up on and respond to the expressed and unexpressed emotions surrounding them. A teacher once described to me, "middle schoolers all seem to be attentionally challenged." I can see how that may seem right. Still, I believe, middle schoolers are not attentively challenged, I think they're overly attentive, seeing everything, sensing the feelings of others, and driven by a desire to connect with others. I find them to be the most authentic group of people letting you know verbally or by action how they are feeling and how they experience you.

As we advance further into our time of physically distancing, the feelings of those around our middle schoolers may become more tense, anxious, and irritable, mirroring what they are experiencing. Among my favorite ways to understand how my students are doing is to ask, "What do you think adults should know about how some students your age might be feeling right now?" And "If you were to design a workshop for parents and teachers about how to best support students, what would you want them to hear?"

One of the most essential parts of a middle schooler’s day is the “times and spaces in between” meaning the times between classes and the spaces outside of the classroom. These times and spaces provide the connective tissue between classes and a chance to check-in, touch base, get information, and more. In fact, I once had a student tell me his relationship “began on Monday, ended on Friday, and was really intense in between” all of this while not seeing each other outside of school.

Remote learning and teaching through packets do not necessarily allow for these interactions, but scheduling this unstructured time is possible. Those teaching remotely might try starting class with mics unmuted, allowing the chatter when arriving at class, beginning with a game allowing students to “play together,” or scheduling a hangout.

My students are coming back from spring break this week and for our first class will begin with a Google doc with the prompt "Please answer one or more of the following 'How are you?',' How are those you care about?' 'How do you imagine others your age are feeling?'” and then we will play One Thing (one thing I noticed, one thing I heard, one thing I missed, one thing I ate, one thing wondered and so on) and for each class afterward, I am going to ask students to take turns creating a five-minute game for the group to play.

I began this piece with the intent to provide you with a list of things you can do to support students, but as I write it, I am reminded that the best answers about what kids need come from kids. The question, “How do we help students connect socially when they cannot see each other?” is not for us to answer; it's for us to pose to our students. We can ask our students to help solve a riddle perplexing most adults, co-constructing answers with them, and, most of all, listening.

My homework prompt, which can be done by remote learning, email, or phone calls, will be "Many adults are anxious to get things done, to teach you, to ensure you are learning, and I know that the brain is particularly challenged to take in new information when stressed. Adults often underestimate how important it is for students to maintain a connection with each other, so let's work together to generate a list of ideas for parents and teachers to read for ways they can support you to socially connect while physically isolating."

To process this question, we will have norms for how we collect each other's ideas, including listening for learning rather than debate, asking questions rather than disregarding opinions, and building on each other's thoughts rather than taking over. Students may not be able to answer the question for all, but in asking and listening, we are seeing and hearing them, which, after all, is the most robust social connection we can make.

Jen Cort worked as a counselor, principal, and senior administrator for 25 years before moving to consulting for schools on equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice. Jen is the host of a podcast called Third Space with Jen Cort.
Author: Jen Cort
Number of views (2935)/Comments (0)/
Finding Your Rhythm

Finding Your Rhythm

Eight ideas to help educators practice self-care and work with students from home

The pandemic has raised issues for people around the world, including health care, equity, mental health, and more, depending on the community and the resources available. Common across communities are the children, their caretakers, and for those with access to formal education, their teachers. When originally writing this article, I wanted to focus on how to support students. However, as I have listened to teachers and parents around the world, I am writing about how to help yourselves at this time (a message about how to support students will be my next post).

Some teachers are teaching remotely, and if so, perhaps you are learning with your students. Or maybe your students don’t have access to online learning, and you’re worried about how they’re doing, how they will learn, and concerned about educational equity. Maybe you have children of your own at home going through many of the same concerns.

Think back to the first weeks of school when routines were being established, previously learned material was being reviewed, and you were getting to know students and how they’ve changed since the school closed in the summer. Possibly you remember learning new protocols, figuring out how to communicate with parents, and feeling exhausted yet exhilarated by all the newness. Remember, you got through the start of the year and found a rhythm to the days and weeks of the year and got to know your students in new ways. I invite you to consider this time to be like the start of the year.

Because the care of children is one of the commonalities we hold across communities, we also know that all students are impacted, and we will have work to do when we return, but it will be a shared workload as we learn from and with each other.

My advice to you during this time:
  1. Establish a schedule for yourself. I find myself wondering what day it is more often than someone my age should, and having a plan is helpful to keep us on track.
  2. Allow your schedule to change. Rigidity is the opposite of how most middle school educators spend our days.
  3. Move. Hours can go by without realizing we have not moved from in front of our screens. Remember to get up and be active, and if you need help remembering, ask a colleague to check in.
  4. Engage in self-care. There is a reason airline attendants tell you when flying with a small child that in case of emergency, you need to use your oxygen mask first. It’s because there is no way to take care of your child unless you are first taking care of yourself.
  5. Connect. We are fortunate to live in a time where connecting with others is so much easier through devices. Use this time to research a project you are interested in, look for curriculum inspiration, collaborate with colleagues.
  6. Focus on your family (my definition of a family is you and anyone who loves you). Remember that if you have children at home, they will pick up on our anxiety and on the continued public panic and see our concerns for our students.
  7. Allow for curiosity. If teaching remotely, remember kids are curious about each other and about us. They may want to “look around” each other’s spaces or ask questions. The class I taught today had “seen each other” several times already. When I began teaching, I opted not to do the background screen this first time, telling them we will do green screens in the future to limit distractions. Still, for today, if anyone wanted to show something from the space, they could do so, and we ended up having a middle school show-and-tell which was not the curriculum but was a way to connect. Learn about each other and provide some respite from the long hours sitting down.
  8. Be kind to yourself and others. As we spend more time away from regular routines, tensions can arise in ourselves and in our relationships. Recognizing these tensions and engaging in self-care benefits all of us.

Most of all, please remember education by its very definition is moving us from one way of thinking to another. While the way we learn, teach, live, and commune with each other is different, we in education live in a continual state of flexibility, and therefore can navigate what comes next while allowing ourselves to have a range of emotions in the process.

Jen Cort worked as a counselor, principal, and senior administrator for 25 years before moving to consulting for schools on equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice. Jen is the host of a podcast called Third Space with Jen Cort.
Author: Jen Cort
Number of views (2477)/Comments (1)/
Tags: COVID-19
Collectively Speaking while Socially Distancing

Collectively Speaking while Socially Distancing

How parents and educators can help students cope with social distancing

While on a socially distanced walk with my husband today, we heard a cacophony of caw-caws. My husband turned to me to ask, “What do you call a group of crows? A gaggle? A flock?” Without hesitation, I responded, “It’s a murder of crows.”

I have a deep abiding love of collective nouns. A murder of crows is one of my favorites. There’s also an ambush of tigers, an intrusion of cockroaches, a mob of emus, a stench of skunks, a thunder of hippos.

As with skunks, collective nouns are often spot on. For instance, an attitude of teenagers. As I continued walking, I thought to myself that there is no other time in our lives when our collective noun is more important to us than in adolescence.

We know how important social connections are to our health and well-being, and the need for social interaction is even more pronounced for adolescents. In fact, an adolescent’s ability to make and keep at least one close friend has repercussions for at least a decade, providing some inoculation from depression and anxiety (Narr, Allen, Tan, & Lomb, 2019). Remaining mindful of this is even more important given the rising rates of mental illness amongst teens (Twenge, et al., 2019). For teens and pre-teens, their friends are their life, and this virus is really throwing a wrench in their plans.

Perhaps many of you also experienced a wide range of emotions emanating from your students or children recently. This past Friday, our last day on campus before we began our impromptu distance learning program, I saw students hugging, crying, fist-bumping, backthumping. Even the ones who had earlier in the week been begging and pleading for us to call school off seemed strangely subdued. The reality of their request hit hard.

This wasn’t like a snow day. (Really more likely a rain day for our part of the States. I’m not kidding. No school for flooding.) It meant they wouldn’t see their friends for at least a month. Suddenly school didn’t seem all that bad.

The emotional roller coaster continued when I arrived home. My daughters were anxious and furious. When would their SAT be rescheduled? Was their entire crew season cancelled? How would they be able to pass their AP tests? When would they ever see their friends? The barrage of questions provided insight into despair so many teens are feeling right now.

So, what can we do to help them cope?

Encourage their parents to allow virtual social interaction.
I know, I know. I’m a little worried about their academic progress too, and though I often comment on the amount of time my daughters devote to social media, the reality is that they really do need it now. With no other way to interact with their friends, I know they will exceed what I would normally consider a sufficient daily social media quota. We will continue to ration food (a whole bag of Oreos in one day is excessive, stress eating or not), but for us, a little more FaceTime is probably in order.

Throw them a bone. Give them an excuse to have to interact.
You know they are dying to talk to each other. Provide some assignments that encourage virtual interaction. Interview a peer, share a draft of a paper. Studies have shown, that although sometimes friends working together in a classroom can become rowdy, they often are more effective when working together (Denworth, 2020). And, even if the assignment is a flop, at least we can chalk it up to a mental health exercise!

Christy Tomisek, Ed.D is director of middle school student support at Baylor School, Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Author: Christy Tomisek, Ed.D.
Number of views (1842)/Comments (0)/
I Have to Teach Middle School?

I Have to Teach Middle School?

A teacher’s story of finding joy working with middle schoolers

I didn't want to be a teacher. I just didn't. Even though I had teacher Barbie and played teacher on an old chalkboard in our basement, I didn’t want to do it. I think I just wanted to tell a bunch of stuffed animals what to do.

I hadn’t really liked school, especially middle school (or junior high as we called it). I barely remembered my junior high years, other than awkwardness and a few great friend stories when I had them. I had hidden them in the deep recesses of my school memories, behind all the picture days. It was also when I remember the worst of the teasing—bullying not having been an issue for discussion back then.

No, I would never be a teacher.

What I did love was learning languages. I took a Saturday class on French at seven years old and was instantly hooked. I took language all through high school and college, continuing with my French and adding Spanish and even some German. I wanted to do something with my language, but what.

No, I won’t be a teacher. International business? Maybe… No, not my style. Translator? Freelancing work is hard to find, and the computer age was making translation jobs scarce. Interpreter? Sadly, my skills weren’t there. Oh no, am I living up to the cliché? Those who can’t, teach?

So there I was with a degree and no job prospects. I started temping and a coworker tells me about a Master of Arts in Teaching program. Is the universe trying to tell me something? Ok, but I made myself a promise. If I don’t like it, I’m not doing it, no matter how much money I invested in the program.

I didn’t believe you should teach if you didn’t like it. Wish everyone felt that way, eh?

Midway through the program, one of my methods professors told me that Michigan secondary certification included grades 7-12. What? Are you crazy? It took enough for me to agree to teach high school… older kids, kids with whom you could have real conversations. Now, you’re telling me I might have to teach middle school, the age group that I dislike the most? No way. I would just make sure I found a high school job.

I did and I loved what I was doing. Go figure. Teacher Barbie and those stuffed animals must have affected my subconscious somehow. About 10 years into it, they added sixth grade to the certification. As I sighed, grateful that I was teaching high school, my administrator told me there were cuts (always to language and arts programs, right) and I’d have to teach part time at the middle school. I wanted to drop my certification right there. I wanted to find a hole and crawl into it or find a new life, anything except teach middle school. I had heard middle school teaching was a punishment for crime in a past life.

I remember that first day: the smells, the weird looks, the judgment, the DRAMA. There was drama in everything. I wanted to die and cry and scream and leave.

About three days in, I started to tell them about an adventure I had while in Mexico. They were silent. You could hear the proverbial pin drop.

Wait… they’re interested in my stories? They aren’t giving me that apathetic, “really, old lady?” look I usually get from my high school sophomores and juniors. What? They want more information? They’re eating this up! We’re interacting. They’re making me laugh.

It’s passing time and they’re talking in the hallways. We pass each other and I hear “Hola, Señora!” as they greet me with smiles. Wow, these kids are kind of sweet. They’re so young and full of life.

I realized that even though I loved the (sometimes) maturity and conversations with my high schoolers, I never got this: the sense of wide-eyed optimism not crushed by the harsh realities of the world yet.

It was innocence and it was beautiful.

Dana Diskin is a Spanish instructor and Quiz Bowl advisor at Detroit Country Day Middle School, Beverly Hills, Michigan.
Author: Dana Diskin
Number of views (1022)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
Building ELL Literacy through Argument-Driven Activities

Building ELL Literacy through Argument-Driven Activities

Helping students explore their opinions and develop vocabulary

In the Association for Middle Level Education's This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (NMSA, 2010), there is an expressed commitment to helping young adolescents become successful, responsible, global citizens. English language learners (ELLs) need meaningful opportunities to explore topics of global concern, though often, teachers do not know how to support and incorporate these learners as they move into more complex language-based tasks. Many ELLs struggle to support an argument or convey their opinions on issues. However, when provided with opportunities to construct argument, ELLs can develop essential content area literacy skills emphasized in state standards. One way to address this issue of ELL literacy is through the use of argument-driven activities.

This article discusses practical ways teachers can address ELL literacy issues by providing students opportunities to articulate their opinions. A brief overview of best practices for ELLs is provided, along with two activities about global issues that help students construct their arguments.

A Brief Overview of Best Practices for ELLs

Teachers are tasked with supporting ELLs' ability to develop an argument. ELLs work under a dual load. They are learning a new language and content and skills in a language they have not yet mastered. Like other students, they are still in the process of learning the necessary components of constructing an argument and the skills required to build and support their claims with evidence. Being able to argue and support a claim with valid points is a good indicator of control over a language. Our job as middle level teachers is to provide all students with the tools to develop their arguments. In the next sections, two activities are provided that allow ELLs to construct their own arguments about public issues.

Laying the Foundation with Academic Language

Supporting and developing a foundational understanding is important for ELLs. Short and colleagues (2018) stress that certain considerations should be made during the design and delivery stages of instruction. Teachers must consider how and why particular language and vocabulary is used. With this activity, students review the language of observation, analysis, and interpretation along with vocabulary critical to being able to analyze evidence, demonstrate understanding, and argue their own opinions (i.e., academic and lesson vocabulary). These types of language supports provide ELLs with key words and model language/structure, promote independence, and help them remember connections among words and concepts. As each chart is discussed, students should be directed to find the equivalent phrase or vocabulary in their home language.

The language of observation is the language used to describe "what we see" and what is actually there. Students are able to pull from the vocabulary listed in figure 1 to share their observations. They learn to make observations in simple, short sentences.

Figure 1
The Language of Observation Chart

The language of analysis is the set of vocabulary used to figure out what our observations are telling us. These phrases (figure 2) help students go beyond what they simply observe. It provides them with the necessary structure to verbalize the connections they made from their observations.

Figure 2
The Language of Analysis Chart

Language of interpretation is the set of phrases used to draw conclusions and articulate understandings. This chart (figure 3) provides students with the structure and opening statements that make sense of their analyses and present their conclusions in clear statements.

Figure 3
The Language of Interpretation Chart

In addition to these language charts, the teacher reviews examples of academic vocabulary and language objectives that students will see as they continue the activities such as develop, the result of, compare/contrast, increase/decrease, interpret, predict, and draw conclusions about. Key lesson vocabulary is also identified and reviewed with students. Examples include population, statistics, region, poor/poverty, scarce, resources, starvation, shelter, safe, and dangerous. Finally, the teacher focuses on the language used in collaborative conversation. Language used in collaborative conversations consists of different phrases and prompts (see figure 4).

Figure 4
Collaborative Conversation Chart

The benefit of this chart is that it provides ELLs with a template of phrases and responses to actively participate in dialogue.

Developing Literacy through Exploration and Argument of Global Issues

The students utilize the language charts introduced in the previous activity to produce their arguments. These charts allow them to deconstruct and reconstruct their argument. To build upon students' content knowledge and ensure that everyone has adequate knowledge to formulate their argument, they participate in three pre-argument activities.

In the first pre-activity, the teacher starts by discussing the meaning of "population" and asks the students to list the factors that make up a population, such as race, gender, or native language. In the second pre-activity, the teacher gives the students time to independently complete the handout titled "If the World were 100 People…" Then, they watch a video produced by the 100 People Foundation titled "100 People Trailer" ( to fill in the actual statistics. The video asks viewers to imagine what the world would look like if the total global population (about seven billion people) were actually 100 people. This helps students understand major issues that people around the world face everyday.

The teacher reviews the actual statistics when the video is finished and explains that the 100 People Foundation has identified ten areas of critical global concern. In the final pre-activity, the students write an official list of the Ten Areas of Critical Global Concern. The ten issues are: water, food, transportation, health, economy, education, energy, shelter, war, and waste. Then, the teacher asks the students to choose the issue from the official list that is most important to them. Initially, students start by focusing only on one main issue. A second issue can be included once students demonstrate mastery in developing their own argument, which should include supporting details.

To start the argument activity, students select an issue that is most important to them. They spend time adequately developing their argument about the issue, including actively looking for evidence as they read. Teachers can help this process by modeling for students how to dissect texts and infer deeper meaning. The teacher provides the students with a three-paragraph essay outline and prompts them individually to help them advance through the process. Figure 5 contains prompts that can be used to help them write.

Figure 5
Sentence Frames for Argument

This process is duplicated when students begin building an argument for a second or third issue. The teacher instructs the students to change their verbiage from "most important" to "another important" as they work on a second issue. Students create a well-built argument as their final product for one or two issues. As a class or in small groups students take turns listening to their classmates' arguments and sharing their own. From this activity, students are able to improve both their productive and receptive language skills and demonstrate their level of mastery.


Students come to school already fluent in many discourses (e.g., argument, narration, description, exposition, and transactional). Many of these existing discourses could be used to support language learning in the classroom. Classroom strategies, such as those identified in this article, give ELL students opportunities to explore and articulate their own opinions and develop language vocabulary.


National Middle School Association [NMSA]. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.

Short, D., Becker, H., Cloud, N., Hellman, A. B., Levine, L. N., & Cummins, J. (2018). The 6 principles for exemplary teaching of English learners: Grades K-12. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.

Carl Floyd, Jr. teaches middle level English language learners in Hoover City Schools, Hoover, Alabama.

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2020.
Author: Carl Floyd, Jr.
Number of views (745)/Comments (0)/
What's Keeping us From Doing PBL?

What's Keeping us From Doing PBL?

Mastering standards at a deeper level with project-based learning

John Dewey (1959), a great philosopher and educational theorist of the 1950s, had already warned us about the importance of an educational focus on the student rather than on the teacher. He argued that classroom methodologies should be reviewed since young people learn through experimentation. Dewey was not the only one to identify the problems of our usual educational methods, however, he was a pioneer in this area. Dewey expressed his view on the importance of valuing students' critical thinking, as well as emphasizing the democratization of teaching as one of the main elements for the transformation of school life. He was concerned about questioning reality and knew that young people would only be prepared for the world if they were given an education in which the focus was on freedom of thought.

The dynamization of learning and the rethinking of a teacher's role in the classroom is not new. Most educational theorists defend that knowledge must be created instead of simply transmitted. Knowledge has to be elaborated throughout a relationship with the students, stimulating their critical thinking and their autonomy during the entire process. It is not possible to speak of the democratization of teaching without rethinking the teacher's practice, leaving aside its centrality in the traditional learning process, thus giving space to the student as the protagonist of the construction of knowledge.

Although thinkers such as Dewey remain in our collective consciousness as inspirers of today's schools, our educational system remains static, especially when we refer to teaching methodologies. School remains far from the reality that most students face, and this difference grows every day due to rapidly changing technologies. With instant access to all information online, it becomes increasingly necessary to return to Dewey's concept of movement in order to rethink the teacher's role and teaching methodologies.

Based on Bloom's taxonomy (1976), we can see that to achieve higher levels of abstraction and maturity, classroom procedures and methodologies should be adapted for such purposes. This was, indeed, one of the proposals for the creation of the cognitive taxonomy in 1948, to identify the different levels of cognition, from the lowest to the highest, and how to reach them. This is undoubtedly a challenge for most teachers, since educators want their students to achieve a level of maturity and knowledge often incompatible with their stated objectives and with their procedures, strategies, and content.

In a world where nothing is certain, where jobs can appear and disappear in the blink of an eye, to teach our students how to think creatively and critically, instead of just memorizing and reproducing knowledge, seems like the right thing to do. Taking students out of their comfort zones to show them how to connect their school learning with real life situations will better prepare them for adulthood. Project-based learning (PBL), for example, engages students in real-life problems, which not only develops knowledge in a more complex way, but helps students develop 21st century skills such as emotional intelligence, communication skills, and complex thinking.

Not even the lack of technology is an obstacle to this type of learning methodology. In schools with few resources such as access to the Internet or laptops in the classroom, it is possible to create projects based on questionnaires and using newspapers and real-life situations. Working together and fostering creative moments such as sharing examples and sharing difficulties, are key to PBL's success in schools.

If all these statements about the benefits are true, what prevents schools from promoting PBL methodology? Why do most classes remain traditional? Why can't we actually turn classes into student-centered environments? The obstacle to this school transformation is simple to identify, yet incredibly difficult to overcome: curriculum design.

John Spencer (2018), in his article How Do You Teach to the Standards when Doing Project-Based Learning?, states that for project-based classes to be successful, teachers must adapt their assessments based on the standards described in the curriculum. If teachers connect the standards to the corresponding PBL approach, it will be easier to transform our teaching methodology more substantially.

Spencer has created a table that shows how to do this type of correlation (see figure 1). As the table shows, there will always be an overlap with projects. The important thing to keep in mind is that teachers should not create an additional project for the school year. They must, on the other hand, reorganize their plans to replace the expository classes and tests with project-based learning activities. As a consequence, students will learn during the project and not before. That is why the pedagogical team must be incredibly prepared for the task. If the project proposal is too loose, students will feel lost and may not achieve the skills teachers expect them to acquire. Having guidelines to help them manage their time will help students divide tasks across the group and deal with unexpected situations, thus improving their performance.

Figure 1
Connection of Standards to the PBL Framework

Model Flexibility of Standards The Standards-Model Fit
Inquiry-Driven Flexible Content Standards with Specific Skill Standards The standards must allow for students to ask their own questions and find their own answers.
Interest-Driven Content-Neutral Standards with Specific Skill Standards The standards must allow students to pursue their own interests.
Product-Driven Varying Flexibility on Content Standards with Specific Skill Standards The standards must fit within the idea of designing a tangible product.
Problem-Driven Specific Content Standards (with a Focus on Concept Attainment) with Flexible Skill Standards The standards must allow students to engage in problem-solving.
Empathy-Driven Varying Flexibility on Content Standards and Skill Standards The standards must connect to creative design and empathy with an authentic audience.
From "How do you teach to standards when doing project-based learning," by J. Spencer, 2018.
Retrieved from Reprinted with permission.

Will teachers be able to create PBL projects for all the standards required by the school? Unfortunately, no. Such inability does not lie in an incapacity to think creatively and propose a learner-centered approach to a specific subject or topic, but rather because process-based learning projects take time to develop. If the curriculum remains as extensive as today, teachers will not be able to develop long and complex projects that promote higher levels of cognition than a typical lecture, which only achieves memorization and comprehension.

In a lecture, the same ability could be achieved more quickly since teachers provide all the responses instead of giving the necessary time for students to build their own knowledge. This does not mean that lectures are not successful at helping students learn content. A teacher full of empathy, who motivates students with intriguing questions and an engaging and didactic explanation, will be able to make students leave the class satisfied. However, we must bear in mind that sitting at a table listening to a teacher for 50 minutes is not the same as a student being challenged to construct the same knowledge by herself, seeking information and later teaching what she has learned to her colleagues.

This kind of involvement develops a variety of skills, not only the understanding of certain content. The student will achieve greater critical thinking skills through the research she must do to find the information she needs; she will develop the ability to synthesize by merging and summarizing such information; she will increase her social-emotional skills by having to negotiate with her peers throughout the learning process and reflect retrospectively on what they could improve; she will also improve her organizational skills in developing all the steps involved in the project.

This description of the numerous skills developed when using project-based learning reinforces William Glasser's theory of learning, which states that students forget what they have learned if they do not participate in the process of building knowledge in the classroom. For the author, the student in a traditional class is only able to retain 20% of what was said by the teacher. If listening is combined with visual aids, that retention increases to 50%. Through PBL methodologies, however, the student will retain 80% of the knowledge since he becomes the center of the learning process, even by helping compose his own grade, being able to reflect on his performance and the performance of the other members of his group. It also helps students understand the evaluation process that composes the final grade, which helps in their understanding that the final result was not given intuitively by their teacher, but rather conquered through their work during all stages of the project. Therefore, although it takes longer to plan and for the ultimate goal to be achieved, students in classes in which they are at the center of the methodological planning are more successful in absorbing knowledge and developing the skills and competencies needed for real-life situations. If we decide that this methodology is necessary to improve our schools, we need to reevaluate the content orientation of our curricular structure and principals should be the first ones to encourage teachers to take this next step.



Bloom, B. (1976). Taxonomy of educational objectives. The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. David Mckay Co. Inc.

Dewey, J. (1959). Reconstrução em filosofia. 2a. ed. São Paulo: Nacional. Tradução de António Pinto de Carvalho.

Spencer, J. (2018, February 9). How do you teach to standards when doing project-based learning? Retrieved from

Isabel Cristina Fernandes Auler, PH.D. is the middle school principal at Our Lady of Mercy School,
RJ-Brazil. She is author of the 2011 book,
Memórias de Carlos Lacerda. Evocações de um Passado Presente (Editora Multifoco).

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2020.
Author: Isabel Cristina Fernandes Auler
Number of views (965)/Comments (0)/
Panic Anxiety Disorders in Middle School Students

Panic Anxiety Disorders in Middle School Students

Informed educators can have a positive impact on students who are struggling

In her 1994 book of poetry, Something Permanent, writer/poet Cynthia Rylant gets inspiration from the photographs of Walker Evans, a photojournalist who documented rural America during the Great Depression in the 1930s for the Farm Security Administration. In one photo, a young boy sits barefoot on a chair in a small room of a struggling family. The thin wooden walls are decorated with pictures cut from magazines, and the furniture, curtains, and boy's clothing seem old and tired. The boy sits up in his chair, though, interested at the prospect of having his picture taken. The last line of Rylant's companion poem for this photograph reads:

It gave him, briefly,
some sort of feeling
of just being

There are volumes spoken in these spare, few lines. What are all those factors in his life that convinced him he wasn't enough, what is lost because he never felt like he was enough, and where will this lead as he grows up?

Leaping forward 80+ years, do our students today feel like they are never enough for those around them? Almost hourly our students wonder if they are pretty enough, smart enough, normal enough, connected online enough, Hispanic/Black/Muslim/Jewish/Christian enough, athletic/creative/funny enough, male/female enough, or whether or not they are worthy of friendship/trust/respect/love. And what do we do as teachers to assure students that they, as they are right now and without conditions, are enough, that no apologies are needed for who they are or where they've been, that they are ceaselessly valued, legitimate individuals in their own right?

Fear of being enough is one of the many concerns that students identified with anxiety and panic disorders feel intensely. And this fear is often accompanied by real depression, though it may not be immediately identified as such, which can lead to unnecessarily long and painful recovery if not treated. And here's the thing, anxiety and panic disorders among students in middle school through college years are on the rise nationwide, but mental health training for teachers and the number of counselors assigned per school has not kept pace with the increasing demand.

If we have not experienced severe anxieties or panic ourselves, we may not appreciate the level of despair and real fear our students feel. For some of our students, we're talking about the involuntary heart-wobbling, muscle trembling, chilled (or warming) skin, sweaty palms, nausea inducing, let me out of this plastic bag before I suffocate, my toddler brother just ran into the street in front of a speeding car and I'm too far away to save him with my cement legs, my mouth is open but no scream will come kind of fear. This is the kind of fear that is only abated by pulling our limbs into the center of our bodies, closing our eyes, placing our face against a cool surface, and talking ourselves down from the precipice.

Some research suggests that your body's natural fight-or-flight response to danger is involved in panic attacks. For example, if a grizzly bear came after you, your body would react instinctively. Your heart rate and breathing would speed up as your body prepared for a life-threatening situation. Many of the same reactions occur in a panic attack. But it's unknown why a panic attack occurs when there's no obvious danger present.

To this day, I still wake up at night from time to time with the willies and cold sweats, recalling the stories of my cousins growing up and caving in Texas. They would crawl face forward, then wiggle, inch by inch to the very end of severely narrowing crevices deep in the earth while their headlamps faded in the heavy darkness. Soon their arms were pinned to their sides due to the now tight confines of the shaft, their faces wedged against the floor of the crevice, inhaling ancient dirt, because their skulls were jammed tightly against the rock ceiling above, leaving only six inches of breathable volume before the solid stone wall they can barely see. And now, before the oxygen depletes and panic sets in, they have to somehow communicate with their toes to the three climbers who lay end to end on their bellies in the crevice directly behind them to start backing up, and to do it pretty darn fast. I imagine the welling anxiety and crossing threshold for panic in students is something akin to this.

The weird thing about panic attacks is that they occur any time and without cause, and they can last just a few minutes to something much longer. Imagine driving a car at 65 mph on a busy highway and such an attack occurs—heart-racing, sweaty hands, dissociation from reality, feeling complete incompetence at the task, sucking oxygen like it's your last, unable to assimilate all the incoming data into your mind, and feeling like you've missed something vital, and you're three lanes over from the shoulder. You pray someone will let you over quickly and that there's a safe place to stop and pull over to let the panic subside.

This actually happened to a member of my own family who suffers from panic-anxiety disorders. This person misses work from time to time, struggles to maintain some conversations, can be significantly challenged navigating the grocery store, suffers from depression, and is exhausted by all of it much of the time—yet the person is brilliant, happy, extremely capable, and contributes mightily to the world. What a trapped feeling! For others I know, they feel ashamed of this condition, living in fear others will find out, which in turn can trigger panic. Many, including my family member, have these attacks in moments of great happiness as well. Anything can trigger it, and that's scary. Many of our students become anxious to an unhealthy degree just worrying about whether or not they will become too anxious to function.

The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) reminds us that anxiety in students is quite normal. It becomes an issue, they say, when it prevents students from participation in class and extracurricular activities, and when it affects their learning, test performance, and social interactions. In their blog, they elevate a big concern, as well: "Often, anxiety in students goes unnoticed and their unpredictable behavior, such as missing class, might be assumed to be lazy or irresponsible (

IBCCES says that anxiety and panic disorder students can obsess over perfectionism, feel "on edge," irritate easily, make out-sized emotional responses to non-threatening comments, refuse to go to school, isolate themselves, ceaselessly procrastinate, have difficulty focusing on simple tasks, and experience, "…derealization or feeling as if they are dying or going crazy."

In their online piece, "Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms," the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) includes the following as indicators of panic disorders:

  • Sudden and repeated panic attacks of overwhelming anxiety and fear
  • A feeling of being out of control, or a fear of death or impending doom during a panic attack
  • Physical symptoms during a panic attack, such as a pounding or racing heart, sweating, chills, trembling, breathing problems, weakness or dizziness, tingly or numb hands, chest pain, stomach pain, and nausea
  • An intense worry about when the next panic attack will happen
  • A fear or avoidance of places where panic attacks have occurred in the past
    index, downloaded December 4, 2019

Other indicators of anxiety and panic disorders include feeling helplessness in daily activities, insomnia, difficulty dealing with transitions, cutting one's skin, constantly feeling threatened, alcohol/drug use, unhealthy fear of failing, problems interacting with peers or family members. Doctors add that too much caffeine, thyroid problems, phobias, stressful work, financial worries, and experiencing or witnessing trauma can spark anxiety and panic attacks as well (

This is a lot for an already insecure middle school student to handle. Unfortunately, it's becoming more prevalent in our schools.

Anxiety and Panic Disorders on the Rise

I work with thousands of teachers each year to improve grading practices, and grading, of course, causes a lot of anxiety and sometimes panic in students. The number of teachers and principals—whether or not they work in urban, suburban, rural, affluent, underserved, well-served, diverse, homogeneous, faith-based, public, international, or charter schools—who report serious spikes in mental health referrals for anxieties and panic disorders in the past five years is stunning, disconcertingly so. They describe it as a tsunami.

Officially, the National Institute of Mental Health ( reports that 31.9% of adolescents have some sort of anxiety disorder, with 8.3% having severe impairments as a result. They say that anxiety disorders are higher in females than in males.

In her March 28, 2018 (updated March 2019) NEA Today article, "The Epidemic of Anxiety Among Today's Students," Mary Ellen Flannery writes,

[A] Pew survey found that 70 percent of teens say anxiety and depression is a "major problem" among their peers, and an additional 26 percent say it's a minor problem… "Honestly, I've had more students this year hospitalized for anxiety, depression, and other mental-health issues than ever," said Kathy Reamy, school counselor at La Plata High School in southern Maryland and chair of the NEA School Counselor Caucus. "There's just so much going on in this day and age, the pressures to fit in, the pressure to achieve, the pressure of social media. And then you couple that with the fact that kids can't even feel safe in their schools—they worry genuinely about getting shot—and it all makes it so much harder to be a teenager."

More disturbing still, Flannery cites a study published in Clinical Psychological Science declaring that between 2010 and 2015, "the number of teens who felt 'useless and joyless' surged 33 percent. The number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent." She follows these statements with reference to the work of San Diego State University Professor Jen Twenge, who says social media has played a significant factor here: "[Teens] say things to a screen that they would never say face to face, things like 'you should kill yourself.' And many studies have found that increased social media use actually makes people feel more socially isolated. It also disrupts sleep, which is related to mental health."

In her own article for The Washington Post in 2017, Twenge writes,

[W]hile conducting research for my book on iGen, I found that teens now spend much less time interacting with their friends in person. Interacting with people face to face is one of the deepest wellsprings of human happiness; without it, our moods start to suffer and depression often follows. Feeling socially isolated is also one of the major risk factors for suicide. We found that teens who spent more time than average online and less time than average with friends in person were the most likely to be depressed ... Teens are also sleeping less, and teens who spend more time on their phones are more likely than others to not be getting enough sleep. Not sleeping enough is a major risk factor for depression…

Interested educators can read more of Twenge's perspective here:

While many middle school students can develop anxiety and panic disorders, it's becoming even more prevalent in our society as students move into high school and college. In their August 27, 2019, Harvard Health blog, "Anxiety in college: What we know and how to cope," Nicole J. LeBlanc and Dr. Luana Marques claim anxiety in colleges is widespread. They cite the American College Health Association Fall 2018 National College Health Assessment, stating that, "63% of college students in the US felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year ... 23% reported being diagnosed or treated by a mental health professional for anxiety in the past year." They continue their commentary, focusing on the biggest trigger for anxiety:

The sharpest increase in anxiety occurs during the initial transition to college. A recent study demonstrated that psychological distress among college students—that is, their levels of anxiety, depression, and stress—rises steadily during the first semester of college and remains elevated throughout the second semester. This suggests that the first year of college is an especially high-risk time for the onset or worsening of anxiety.

What might this mean with students transitioning to middle school, or from middle school to high school? For helpful articles on how to help students transition to middle school and from middle school to high school check out the sections on transitioning at, "Transitioning Young Adolescents from Elementary to Middle School - Research Summary" by Casey Dianna Gilewski and Monica L. Nunn, and "Preparing Students for the Transition to High School" by Vanessa Scanfeld, Sean Robertson, Leah Weintraub, and Vincent Dotoli. Also see my article, "The Middle/High Years/Movin Up to the Middle," (

LeBlanc and Marques add that,

In the US, some research shows a decrease in psychological well-being among adolescents over the past several years. It's not entirely clear what is causing this trend, though research shows a strong association between time spent on electronic communication (social media, smartphones) and reduced well-being among adolescents. Electronic communication might interfere with adjustment to college if it replaces healthy coping behaviors like exercise, face-to-face social interactions, and studying.

How Do We Respond to Students Having a Panic Attack at School?

No one policy, program, or act will solve the problems of increasing rates of anxiety and panic disorders among our students or help those who currently experience them. Collectively, however, multiple responses from educators can have a positive impact. Let's look at some of the possibilities:

  • Conduct professional development for faculty on anxiety and panic disorders.
  • If rising anxiety and panic experiences are affecting learning, socialization, test performance, and self-efficacy, or limiting the student's success in significant ways, it is time to seek a professional's help. First, we contact our school counselors, if we have them, and from there, we may need to get the student to see a medical professional.
  • If a doctor diagnoses an anxiety or panic disorder, students may be treated with psychotherapy called, "cognitive behavioral therapy" which teaches students healthy ways to adjust thinking, behavior, and reactions as episodes begin or to keep them from happening in the first place. This may include exposure therapy, too, in which students spend short periods of time in the anxiety-inducing situations, but with support, then the time periods slowly increase over time until the anxieties in those situations subside. In severe cases, doctors may prescribe medications, including benzodiazepines (like Xanax) to calm students.
  • During the anxiety or panic attack, avoid the urge to comfort the student with the phrases, "It's not a big deal," "It's just part of being in middle school," or worse, "Everything is going to be fine." The student knows these are not true and that these attacks aren't normal. And now they've lost trust in you. Empty platitudes aren't balm; they don't comfort or respect the student.
  • Create a hotline texting app that connects the student directly to a school counselor, social worker, or psychologist as available, and promote it to students regularly. If they ever feel out of control, depressed, overly anxious, dysfunctional, suicidal, and need a listening ear and genuine support, they text a simple code to a particular number and a qualified adult advocate will respond within a few minutes.
  • As we can, we help students learn techniques to mitigate and control rising anxiety or panic attacks. We can provide a quiet, private space to do this, if needed, or help them use some of these techniques at their classroom desk as episodes rise. Some of those helpful techniques include:
    • Breathing deeply
    • Recognizing the panic attack and calling it what it is (this helps the person realize that it’s temporary and will pass)
    • Closing eyes to minimize external stimulation
    • Practiced mindfulness, focusing on specific sensations in and around the body
    • Relaxing muscles, focusing on one muscle or small group of muscles at a time
    • Focusing on an object in the room
    • Thinking of a comfortable, soothing place
    • Some forms of light exercise (endorphins release into the bloodstream and calm the mind)
    • Repeating a mantra
    • Smelling lavender (this has a calming effect in some people)
      Paraphrased from

In her article, "Anxiety in the Classroom – Another Learning Disability?," (, Paula Prentis, a licensed social worker specializing in child and adolescent health, wellness, and development suggests:

Instead of offering security, offer skills. For instance, if a student avoids school, create a context for him that values him being there. In one example, a student became known as the school pet expert. He never missed another day because he was valued for his knowledge of pets, something for which the teachers and many classmates counted on him. He felt "good enough."

  • We teach in a developmentally appropriate way. Middle schools aren't junior versions of high school (see, "Middle School, not Junior High," (, nor are they just extensions of elementary school. They are unique, and teachers should have specific expertise when teaching this age group. This means we spend considerable time and energy on teaming, exploratory programs, and teacher-advisory programs, even when they are not popular with those untrained in middle school research. All three have a strong, positive effect on student emotional growth and sense of belonging.
  • For students who need structure and regular procedures, provide them, but also sit with them ahead of time and talk through those moments in the day or days ahead that will not be as structured and normal. Identify specifically what irregular, unstructured thing is going to happen and the specific steps the student can take to navigate the irregularity constructively.
  • As mentioned above, build and maintain a robust and responsive transitioning program from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school. Seriously, this is one of those times when thoughtful proactive work on the front end prevents all the unnecessary trauma on the back end for both students and their teachers. Schools with such programs never regret spending the time and energy in developing them.
  • Do not, do not, do not ask students to drop fine and performing arts classes, technology classes, or any other class or extracurricular activity in which they are passionately interested and feel safe in experiencing. Quite often, these are a collective oasis that gets them through the day feeling normal, capable, and invested in life. And yeah, that means we don't take students out of these experiences in order to double-up on math or reading classes in preparation for state or provincial exams.
  • Overtly teach students executive function skills (time management, impulsivity/distractibility control, decision making, moral and abstract reasoning, responding constructively in social situations, and more). Students can't use skills and tools they don't have, and wow, training in executive function sure does help in middle school. Among others you may find helpful, my article with suggestions on how to do this is on my website.
  • Invest the time and energy in all those positive school climate programs and elements, and make sure it's happening in all areas: hallways, classes, buses, bus stops, playgrounds/fields, locker rooms, cafeteria, and online. This includes social-emotional facets as well. Make sure teachers trained in their subject areas see the value of gaining expertise in the emotional development of their students. It's what professionals do, and given what we know about young adolescent development, it is educational malpractice to remain indifferent to it or incompetent in it.
  • Develop a dozen or more constructive descriptive feedback techniques and use them frequently instead of judgement or evaluation. Good descriptive feedback does not invoke ego or self-preservation; no one is threatened. It invites students into their own learning and builds self-efficacy. There are wonderful books just about feedback. Let's read them and assure hope and growth.
  • Pull back from the autocratic/didactic approaches as much as possible and facilitate more student choice. Choice feeds autonomy and the sense that what students want matters to the teacher.
  • Allow students to rehearse tests, speeches, conversations, and presentations a day or two ahead of time in order to visualize and experience what it will be like, where the rocky and smooth parts occur, what they will be seeing from their position in the room, what the materials will feel like in their hands as they recall the things they want to say, etc. It really helps.
  • We can't say this enough: Make recovering from mistakes and failures compelling and doable. Yes, allow re-do's and re-takes for full credit. If we're concerned about how to teach responsibility when we do this, I respond to that concern in Fair Isn't Always Equal, 2nd Edition (Stenhouse Publishers, 2018). I'd also suggest my articles on why students cheat and plagiarize (and how to recover from them), on redo's, on the fallacy of always preparing students for the levels above, and more at All articles are free to download and share.
  • Confront and dismantle the systemic racism, sexism, classism, and gender orientation biases that are perpetuated by the unaware majority. Yeah, I know this is a big thing, but it makes you think: If we're spending all this focus on helping students cope with severe anxieties and panic disorders, we should also be thinking about what's at the root of many of those stresses instead of just telling students to deal with them. Looming huge among them are the micro and macroaggressions and structural limitations experienced daily by children of a different color/culture/gender/sexual orientation, or by children who are underresourced, overweight, or the sons and daughters of alcoholics and opioid abusers. What a devastating waste of everyone's time and student potential it is to slap a tiny band-aid on a forefinger when the real issue all along is the massive heart attack. To get started, consider faculty book studies with any of these books:
    • Gullo, Gina Laura; Capatosto, Kelly; Staats, Cheryl; Implicit Bias in Schools: A Practitioner's Guide, Eye on Education, 2019
    • Kay, Matthew R.; Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom, Stenhouse Publishers, 2018
    • Mayorga, Edwin; Picower, Bree; What's Race Got to Do With It? How Current School Reform Policy Maintains Racial and Economic Inequity, Peter Lang Publishers, 2015
    • Oluo, Ijeoma; So You Want to Talk about Race, Seal Press (Hatchette Group), 2018
    • Pollock, Mica; SchoolTalk: Rethinking What We Say About – And To – Students Every Day (Laying a Foundation for Equity), The New Press, New York, 2017
    • Stevenson, Howard C.; Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences That Make a Difference, Teachers College, 2014

  • Finally, let's put information into the hands of students and their parents. If they want to know more, support others, or, if they are afraid they are developing serious issues with anxiety, panic, or depression, get them the support they need. In addition to what the school, district, county, and city services provide, remind them of the following:
    • Call 911 if they or someone they know is in immediate danger
    • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For Spanish speakers, use 1-888-628-9454
    • Crisis Text Line - Text “HELLO” to 741741

We breathe in and out, aspire to great things, stumble, get insight, learn to forgive, aspire again, stumble again, then rise to greet yet another day. We can do this because we have versatile skills honed from years of experience and the assurance that comes from having made it to our adult years relatively intact: There are grounds for optimism. Young adolescents aren't there yet, however, and their rocky, narrow path along the cliff's edge may fall away at any moment, or so it seems to them.

Let's respect those peaks and valleys of youth and remain empathetic to their journey. Where we cannot be empathetic, let's be informed and helpful, and at the very least, do no harm. At the very best, dismantle that which limits anyone. Let's prove to students daily through word, action, and culture that they are valued as they are, that they are enough. Then, let's show them that the dynamics among learning, anxiety, courage, doubt, happiness, and hope remain throughout life, and they are not alone as they make their way through it. Our belief in them and the power that comes from true connection with others in our lives, especially when we are struggling, never wane. Both are something permanent.

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from His book, Fair Isn't Always Equal (second edition) (Stenhouse Publishers), was released in 2018, and his latest book, Summarization in any Subject: 60 Innovative, Tech-Infused Strategies for Deeper Student Learning, (second edition) (ASCD), co-authored with Dedra Stafford, was just released.

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2020.
Author: Rick Wormeli
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