Creating middle schools where every child can speak a digital language
Jade is a quiet 12-year-old girl who has been in my English classes here in Hong Kong for the past two school years. Because of her in-class demeanor, it took me by surprise when Jade off-handedly mentioned that she has over 4,000 followers on her YouTube channel. It turns out, Jade has been teaching many more kids than I have this past year through her online videos.
Jade has a privileged position in our society. Unlike many of her peers, who can only follow the channels of others, Jade has figured out how to mix words, images, sounds, and ideas to effectively communicate her message in her DIY productions.
We have so far arranged our society so that only a privileged few can successfully communicate in the language that is integral to the operation of our cell phones, tablets, smart TVs, and video game consoles. We ensure this continues to be the case by focusing on math facts and syntax when we teach digital programming classes in isolation from the rest of the curriculum, an approach that only appeals to a fraction of our student population. The result is self-evident: the present divide that exists between those who can instruct our devices what to do and those who can only be instructed by them.
Jade has crossed that divide and is fluent in speaking digitally. She is participating in creating a new kind of literacy.
Those who are fully digitally literate are able to read beyond the surface of electronic texts in order to understand how they function. To be digitally literate means that you can craft the words that express your ideas and then connect those words to other texts through a variety of media. The presentation of words has new meaning, as does the way in which the user interacts with the text. Words are increasingly experienced within an ongoing and interconnected digital conversation.
In an unjust society, only a small subset of the population will be able to speak in such digital conversations. In a just society, we will all be able to do so.
Schools have a central role to play in determining which type of society we will have. Providing opportunities across the curriculum for students to read and write digitally and to speak the language of technology is a defining issue of our time.
Inspired by Jade's example, my Year 8 English teaching team asked our students this year to create YouTube videos on any topic of their choosing. Essentially, we asked our students to create a visual essay. After about two weeks of continuous work time, in which students were absorbed in their tasks, I was amazed by the results. Many of the students in our international middle school are English as an additional language learners, and they often struggle with completing traditional essays. Yet out of nearly 50 students in my two English classes, nobody "forgot" to finish this assignment. Students who have been reluctant to participate in conversations were drawn into working with others by discovery of their shared interests and a desire to make technology do the things they saw it doing for others.
Our kids gained more because they had the power to create what they wanted in a situation where collaboration and conversation naturally led to a better product. For middle schools today, these 3Cs—choice, collaboration, and conversation—seem to be a particularly strong basis for allowing students to begin to speak digitally.
Another cornerstone in creating schools that encourage students to cross the digital divide is to acknowledge that programming languages are exactly that, languages, and should be taught as such.
I first contended this in a 2003 essay entitled "Teaching Computer Programming as a Language" (published in techdirections), based on my experiences teaching both entry-level programming and English courses. I wrote then that, "In the end, it is language that we are teaching, and that should guide the activities used in our programming courses" (Panell, 2003, p. 26).
Since then, much evidence in favor of my argument has accumulated. There was a study presented at the 2014 International Conference on Software Engineering in which researchers imaged the brains of students learning to program and found that as they wrote in code, the portions of the brain "related to different facets of language processing" were activated (Seigmund, et al, 2014). Another team of researchers, at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, tested the use of second language acquisition techniques (SLA) in the teaching of entry level computer programming classes and concluded that, "The results from this project show great promise for the utilization of SLA in introductory programming course content delivery" (Pierce, Griggs, Sun, & Frederick, 2017). I was gratified to see that the team of professors who carried out this latter study cited my original 2003 essay as a rationale for their work when they presented their final results last year (Frederick, Pierce, Griggs, Sun, & Ding, 2017).
The understanding that even complex variations of digital language, such as programming, are still language has great significance for how we teach this topic in our schools. For starters, it means that coding should be taught to a wider group of our students using the best techniques for teaching language more generally, and the earlier this teaching begins the better. This also should include a lot more conversation, collaboration, and building on interests that students already have when they come into class.
A case-in-point is a student named Riche, who enrolled in my elective entry-level web and app design course this year. He became fascinated when I showed the class how to use PhoneGap to put the apps they were creating onto the cell phones of their friends and families to test. Riche likes "memes," so he started making silly pictures with captions to send out as apps. Although his programs didn't really do anything, he was enjoying himself; I decided to see what would come of it. Next, he figured out how to make little apps that were practical jokes—they made a message pop up on the screen that said "ALERT: All of your cell phone files are now being deleted!" Since the program wasn't really doing anything harmful, I let him have his laugh. By the end of the course, Riche had found the code for a Tetris game online and was modifying it to reflect his own unique style for solving puzzles. By letting him build on his own interests, at his own pace, Riche discovered his digital voice.
The goal of patience in an inclusive approach is always to allow more students the time to develop the ability to be part of the digital discussion. A student-centered focus means that we provide opportunities for kids to choose to speak in the digital conversation, however they come to it, and whatever they hope to take away from it.
Middle school teachers should be at the forefront in providing our students with a collaborative environment where the language of technology is integrated into everything they do—as it will be for the remainder of their lives outside of school. Young people in schools should be able to speak digitally within all of the core topics of the curriculum. Children should be given the chance not just to use provided digital texts but to create texts of their own.
An easy entry point to creating texts in this digital conversation is an activity like the one I described earlier, where students create YouTube videos. This allows students to incorporate a wide variety of technologies and digital languages at a pace of their own choosing, and in a way that allows most teachers to be comfortable. Similarly, students could also create animated story boards to gain more knowledge of how to integrate words and digital media.
As they gain skills, students should be challenged to apply their knowledge in a variety of situations. They could create programs that simulate hunter and prey behavior for the science class. In literature, students could analyze both the story and programming of existing game apps with the intention of including these elements in their own creations.
In these ways, technological literacy becomes incorporated across the curriculum, turning school into a digital playground where kids are free to explore. Students could build their own calculating apps, write programs that model the growth of a population of microorganisms, and explore alternate twists to famous events by coding them into a game.
In a fully inclusive and just society every child will be given the opportunity to be part of the digital conversation. Students like Riche and Jade have already crossed over the digital divide, and now are able to speak. We can create that same opportunity for every child in our middle schools today.
Frederick, C., Pierce, M. B., Griggs, A. C., Sun, L., & Ding, L. (2017). Get rid of your student's fear and intimidation of learning a programming language. Retrieved from http://commons.erau.edu/publication/573
Panell, C.D. (2003). Teaching computer programming as a language. techdirections, 62(8).
Pierce, M., Griggs, A., Sun, L., & Frederick, C. (2017). Evaluating student perceptions and learning outcomes: Differences between SLA-aBLe and non-SLAaBLe introductory programming courses. International Journal of Management and Applied Science, 3(9), 92–95.
Siegmund, J., Kastner, C., Apel, S., Parnin, C., Bethmann, A., Leich, T., Saake, G., & Brechmann, A. (2014). Understanding understanding [sic] source code with functional magnetic resonance imaging. Proceedings of the 36th International Conference on Software Engineering - ICSE 2014, doi:10.1145/2568225.2568252
Christopher Dallas Panell teaches web and app design courses at Yew Chung International School in Hong Kong in addition to serving as the English Subject Lead for their flexible middle school model.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2019.
Facilitating rich discourse to engage students and develop confidence
Through education, teachers influence change in their students' mindsets, which in turn can help students become successful individuals (Yeager & Dweck, 2012). We believe that the best teachers guide, motivate, and inspire their students. Teaching mathematics effectively is crucial to developing students who can solve problems and persevere. In AMLE's position paper (2010), This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents, there is an emphasis on both Active Learning, in which students are engaged and are situated at the center of purposeful learning, and Challenging Curriculum, which promotes curriculum that incorporates students' ideas and questions. Here we consider how these characteristics can be employed in the mathematics classroom.
A Glimpse into a Mathematics Classroom
Students in the sixth grade mathematics classroom participated in a geometry unit in which the pedagogical focus was how we presented the lessons and promoted motivation through the use of growth mindset to help students feel confident and achieve success. Before starting with the lesson, we allowed time for students to express how they felt about the unit they were about to begin. Some students expressed feelings of being overwhelmed. Others, shared feelings of discomfort about geometry in general with statements such as "I feel ugh about it. Geometry isn't really my thing. It's a little confusing for me." This activity allowed us the opportunity to acknowledge students' feelings and assure them the goal was to create a positive mathematics learning experience.
Each lesson began with bell work in which students were to work independently for approximately two minutes before sharing their strategies with their shoulder partner. The task was to find the area of a shaded figure by applying knowledge about triangles and rectangles. Students needed to identify the information given to help them attempt the task and determine what was needed to be successful. They needed to develop a strategy to find the area of the rectangle and a triangle and then understand that the task was asking them to subtract both areas to find the shaded part. After working on the task and sharing with their partners, a whole-class discussion was conducted starting with the recording of all strategies used by the students. When the strategies were shared, students were asked to look around the classroom to observe how many of their classmates thought and attempted the problem in the same manner. This practice was used to ease student anxiety or doubts about the way they attempt mathematics problems. Then, students were asked to explain and try at least one of the strategies written on the board. Once a student demonstrated it, another student was encouraged to critique their peers' work. A different student was called to elaborate on what was shared and explain their rationale. Up to three students were called to critique their reasoning of others every time they worked on a problem.
This practice helped students make sense of their reasoning as well as that of others while deepening understanding of the skills presented. The following is an excerpt from the class using the mathematical practices of critiquing another students' reasoning:
Teacher: Let's see, Elijah can you explain what she did?
Elijah: Uhm…she did something wrong…she needed to divide the area of the triangle by two.
Elijah: She needed to divide the triangle in half.
Teacher: Do we all agree on that?
Teacher: So, you are telling me that you should divide the triangle by two? Is that it?
Teacher: Why is it that we need to divide by two?
Alanis: Because the triangle is half of a square.
Teacher: Because the triangle is half of a square. Kyra, what do you think of that? Agree or disagree?
Teacher: Why do you agree?
Kyra: Because if you take that triangle and you put it in one of the sides, it means you can have another one of it.
As the lesson progressed, students asked questions and shared their understanding of different strategies with their peers. By using effective questioning practices, students deepened their knowledge and articulated their own conclusions. Students who showed anxiety when trying to answer questions had the opportunity to gather their thoughts, listen to others before answering, and respond when they felt ready. This problem fostered a stress-free environment in which students felt at liberty not only to express their thoughts but also to accept their failures.
Before moving on with the lesson, the teacher assured the class how confident and proud she felt about their performance. She also used humor to express the need to challenge them more. This practice seemed to help students feel more confident and ready to do the mathematics at hand.
Teacher: All of you already know? WOW, then I should not even be teaching this lesson!
Before the challenge was given, students had the opportunity to reflect on their learning and the way they felt about the lesson. At all times, students demonstrated being engaged and responded enthusiastically to what the teacher proposed to them. An excerpt from the lesson is below.
Halie: I was kind of overwhelmed but now not that much, because I didn't know where really we were going to go to, but now that I know what I need to do it's kind of easy.
Emily B.: What reduced my overwhelmedness was how it was just like finding the area, but then just like adding another number to multiply to find the volume of the entire shape. It made things more simple to understand and see how to process it…it was just simpler.
Teacher: So, this is helping you? This strategy of seeing the floor first and then stacking it up is helping you?
Emily B.: Mhmm
Teacher: Ok, Kyra.
Kyra: I am not overwhelmed anymore because if you really just think about it…because with me and my brain it goes; ok, I see this problem…this problem looks hard, but then when you actually explain it, we see…and then you ask questions, show models…it's not that hard.
Teacher: Does that mean I can give you a challenge?
While students were describing how they felt about the lesson, they started sharing which strategies helped them the most. One strategy they liked the most when conceptually understanding how to find the volume of a rectangular prism was "the stacking strategy," because that is how they named it. This strategy was based on knowing that the volume of a shape can be given by finding the area of the base of the shape (a rectangle) and then "stacking" the same number of blocks or the same area given one on top of the other until the height had been reached. One of the students was able to connect this strategy of finding volume to a real world situation in which the first floor of a two-story house would represent the area of the base and the top floor would give the height. Another student, using this same idea, connected the same example to how the surface area of the house could be identified by how much paint or wallpaper the house would need.
During the challenge, students were encouraged to attempt to solve all problems given. Those who were able to get to the solution quickly were encouraged to use other strategies to support their findings. One significant thing noticed was how students persevered and showed strong effort when trying to solve the problem given. The prompt most students use is the use of positive language and the word "yet." The idea behind it is the belief that a student can change how they feel and the way they work on a problem by affirming that, even if they do not grasp the concept or strategy at that particular moment, they still believe they can understand it with a little bit more effort and perseverance. This strategy is called "The Power of Yet."
Through our experience, it is clear that incorporating more mathematical discourse and fostering a growth mindset belief in the middle school mathematics classroom can help students develop more confidence and achieve higher levels of mathematical understanding, which aligns with the Active Learning and Challenging Curriculum characteristics of This We Believe. Classroom discourse motivates students and promotes engagement in the classroom, and it encourages students to believe in their abilities, persevere into solving the problems given, and change the perceptions they might have of how they do mathematics.
National Middle School Association. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.
Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: when students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302-314.
Lynnette Sanchez-Gonzalez is a 5-9 mathematics High Impact Teacher and curriculum leader at South Seminole Academy, Seminole County, Florida.
Megan Nickels, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of STEM education in the College of Community Innovation and Education and College of Medicine at the University of Central Florida.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2019.
Improve learning and show students you value them by rethinking the physical space of the classroom
I hail from room 604, where the sign on the door reads "resource room." However, I actually teach sixth grade English language arts class at full capacity in this room, which was designed for small group support classes. Sometimes I feel like I am teaching an aerobics class in a shoebox, and some days it smells that way, too. What bothers me most is the frustration that has come from having to teach in a way that conflicts with my philosophy of education. I do not see myself as queen of a domain, but rather as a "guide on the side" encouraging student learning.
To create a student-centered classroom, I altered the physical setting: the geography of the classroom. Taking inspiration from Nancy Atwell's In the Middle, I re-organized my space for a writer or reader workshop. Room 604 has two "perks" I took advantage of: a long counter across the back of the room with good cabinetry built above and a substantial sized storage closet behind the whiteboard.
Creating Space for Student Use
The first task was to reorder the horizontal spaces in the room. There was a large table used for laying out papers and a good sized teacher desk on which my materials were scattered. Effectively used? No. I made these spaces available to students by clearing "my" teacher desk and eliminating many boxes filled with "someday" items that I believed I would use, but never did. Eliminating them was a no-brainer.
I could not change the size and shape of the room, or the number of student desks required, but I could "create" space by eliminating the teacher desk and two unused file cabinets and clearing a table. I now use a two-foot space of the counter for my workspace with laptop and incoming daily papers. The bulk of my curriculum materials, office paperwork, department resources, parent contact, and lesson planning are now organized in labeled binders in the overhead cabinets. The remainder of the cleared counter has become the student supply center where students have access to certain supplies they can use, borrow, or take without needing to ask permission. They begin to self-help, which I love, for it helps develop their sense of responsibility and maintains my sanity. The rest of the space along the counter has become workspace for students to work in small groups or individually.
I rotated the teacher desk and put it against the other table creating what looks like a fairly long dining room table where three or four editing partners can meet to collaborate on a writing project. Students love moving to this area. Rather than spread materials needed horizontally, I used wall space to hold folders with materials needed by students as they edit written work.
Creating a Library
The last area I repurposed was the closet, which has become a mini library. I discussed this conversion with my administrator beforehand. He supported the plan with these two rules to be in place: the light stays on and the door is always open. This 100 square foot area now houses a surprisingly large collection of age appropriate books, a table, and a standing height desk. A few students can work comfortably in the library reading, writing, or doing independent projects. The built-in shelves hold more than 300 books, ones I had accumulated over the years. The library is student-run as well. Volunteer "librarians" sort books and place them on the correct shelf, follow up with books loaned out, and maintain the logs. The librarians rotate regularly so more students can share this responsibility.
Making these changes also helped me link the geography of a classroom with body language. When I used the teacher desk, it was a geographic and physical barrier between my students and myself. I prefer that my posture expresses to them that they matter most. In 50 minutes moving among them, they sense that they are my top priority. This was worth the sacrifice of a desk and some creature comfort. By sharing with the students what I was doing and why as changes were being made, their buy-in was certain and appreciated. I believe that far too many teachers severely underestimate the young adolescent capacity to understand a greater purpose. They are already curious and asking "why," so why not show them how the clock ticks rather than just the face of the clock.
Re-imagining my classroom has led to these important results:
Students are valued and thrive in a student-centered classroom
My identity as a teacher has evolved from being a taskmaster to being a guide
Seldom used horizontal surfaces became valuable, functional spaces
Student independence and collaboration have both been nurtured
- The "geography" of my classroom now expresses my fundamental belief about the importance of students as individuals
This re-imagination of the classroom has greatly benefitted the total learning environment, with students' learning increasing.
How might you alter the geography of your classroom? While you may not have a closet, are there spaces that are underutilized? Can the space of the teacher desk be deemed for student use?
Consider taking steps to improve the learning environment of your classroom. The students will appreciate it, and certainly they are worth it.
Maggie Perkins is a sixth grade teacher at Campbell Middle School in Smyrna, Georgia.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2019.
Students share about their engagement in and ownership of their own play time
"Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play."
—Heraclitus (554 – 483 BC)
As middle school educators, we see a growing population of adolescents who struggle with executive skills and social problem-solving. We believe the struggle with both constructs is correlated with the reduction of play time and choice. At the middle school level, play time becomes less of a priority at school and less of a commodity outside of school. Students tell us their daily lives are prescheduled and that they are constantly programmed. These same students who express frustration about being overprogrammed demonstrate minimal passion for the activities that fill their days. The phenomenon of being overprogrammed inevitably impacts student choice and the practices of initiating, planning, and self-evaluating—three critical executive skills. To formalize our understanding of "the play deficit" from the perspective of an adolescent, we created an online questionnaire to elicit open-ended responses from our students. Two hundred and fifty-six students, ages 10-14, replied to these questions about play. Their responses iterated the need for play and emphasized the importance of student choice and ownership of "play time."
Student Feedback on Play
Our questionnaire began by asking students to provide their own definition of play and then posed questions about personal and daily choices that students make during their free time. Most student responses suggested that play should be fun and enjoyable. One third of the students included that play should involve a social component. This social element could occur in a shared physical space (being in the same room) or in the virtual world (online gaming, texting, FaceTime). A subset of students specified that play must include choice on the part of the child. Play is "doing whatever I want," "doing something fun for you," and "choosing who you want to do it with." One eighth grader indicated that play is not something adults value, "playing applies to messing around and doing things I enjoy that are looked down upon." It was surprising that several students were unable to define play in their own words. Nine students Googled the term play and copied the definition, while 10 students provided no definition at all.
The questionnaire went on to ask middle school students about the types of choices they are allowed to make on a daily basis. The most frequent personal choice reported involved food; what to eat and when. Other responses included the choice of when they study, what they study, and how much effort to put into studying. Twenty-three students (approximately 9%) stated they were not given the opportunity to make any choices for themselves during the day. One seventh grade student wrote, "I go to school, do homework, and go to sports activities," while another seventh grader wrote, "My days are busy. My free-time is late at night." An eighth grade student indicated all choices were dictated by adult permission, "I can make all my choices as long as my parents agree to it," while another eighth grader wrote, "I make what I eat, when I get homework done, things like that. Everything else is planned by school or parents."
When middle schoolers were asked to describe what they do in their free time, more than half of our students described engaging in electronic pursuits like gaming, playing on one's phone, or browsing or interacting through social media. Engagement in athletic activities including organized sports and "playing outside" was the second most common response, while screen time, watching TV, YouTube, etc. was the third shared response. Reading for pleasure as well as pursuing creative endeavors like writing or playing music, creating art, photography, and programming were rated next, and general statements of "hanging out" with friends, families, or pets were also mentioned. Only four students indicated that they used their free time to "relax" and 15 students indicated they did homework in their free time. One eighth grader wrote, "LOL what free time?"
Insights from Student Feedback
Student feedback provided interesting insight regarding difficulties with defining play. The wondering here is whether the definition of play is difficult, at this age, because the time for it is minimal or if students simply struggled to find ways for the meaning of play. When asked about elements of play, middle school students made a point to emphasize personal choice; they want autonomy. Those daily choices most often included what they consume and when and how they study. When given freedom of time, student choices fall in sync with what we know to be typical adolescent choice: gaming, screen time, organized sports, reading, and pursuing personal interests. In general, student responses suggested that middle schoolers have little time to engage in choice play because their time is predetermined by structured activities—activities that are planned and controlled by adults in their lives. This feedback speaks to the rationale behind our initial concern regarding the connection between play and executive functioning and social problem-solving. Lack of free time and lack of choice has limited middle schoolers' opportunities to initiate, plan, and organize. Presumably this lack of choice has also impacted personal investment and self-evaluation.
What This Means for Educators
As middle school educators, we must recognize the need for play in the lives of our students. We must make time for play inside, as well as outside of, the classroom. If your school has already built a mindset around the importance of play, you are on the right track. If not, then establishing this mindset and agreeing to the need for play should be the first step. The next step is to identify and protect time for recess; time that involves taking a break. During these breaks, students should engage in physical activity, mindfulness, or an exercise that includes reflection/process time. Screens should not be included as an option. Additionally, school leaders and teachers should identify practical ways to integrate play as well as student choice into their curriculums. If you are just beginning the implementation of "play" in the middle school classroom, choose projects that embed open-ended problem-solving that is student centered. Incorporate student goal setting and reflection into daily activities/assessments. If your culture of classroom play is more advanced, continue to include independent learning experiences that connect student choice with curricular objectives. These experiences are often referred to as design thinking routines and independent learning projects. Both constructs include creative thinking and planning between the student and the teacher. Ultimately, they allow for student autonomy, ownership, and sustained interest. The practice of thinking, planning, collaborating, and problem-solving will provide increased opportunities for students to develop executive functions and social problem-solving skills. Furthermore, it will allow students to make choices.
This research iterates the notion that play time for adolescents is critical. Defining what play time looks like for a middle school student and allocating time for play throughout the school day are important places to start. Allowing middle schoolers unstructured time to play without screens as well as personal choice within a structured educational program will engage and empower them. The more ownership students have in their learning the more likely they are to engage their executive skills and develop their planning, problem-solving, and reflective skills; skills that are necessary for a productive future.
Gray, P. (2013, September 18). The play deficit. Retrieved November 29, 2018, from Aeon website: https://aeon.co/essays/children-today-are-suffering-a-severe-deficit-of-play
Rhea, D. (2014). Give students time to play. Education Week, 33(22), 21. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/02/26/22rhea.h33.html
Walker, T. (2017). Teach like Finland: 33 simple strategies for joyful classrooms. New York, NY: Norton.
Jody Marberry, Ed.D. teaches math at an independent school in St. Louis, Missouri.
Mead Ploszay, MS, LPC is the middle school learning specialist at an independent school in St. Louis, Missouri.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2019.
A successful school year starts—and continues—with knowing well the students we serve
One of the highest forms of respect around the world is to prove to someone that we really know them, and that we see them as worth knowing. We can connect with the grumpiest of individuals when we prove such things, and, of course, we can respond thoughtfully to their challenges as well. Instead of generalizing widely, then, effective middle level teachers honor their students by getting to know them well, and they respond to them instructionally and successfully based on that knowledge. They don't limit students to the contours of last year's class, nor do they coast on stock lessons from years gone by. Instead, they tailor lessons and interactions to the unique learners before them, and they do it all year long.
That's the key, though: It's all based on extended efforts to know our students, for we can't teach blind to the students we serve. Beginning-of-the-year success as well as success throughout the year is based on diligent awareness of our students, including knowing them as they change throughout the year. So, let's build that capacity.
Eight Beginning of the Year Ideas
"The Best Way for You to Learn" Cards (Or done online via Google Docs or individual email before students arrive on the first day) — When students enter your room on the first day of school, they find an index card on their desks. They are asked to describe on the cards how they best learn your particular subject. In my classes over the years, students have been insightful: "Give me a lot of examples. I don't get ideas without examples," "If you write it on the board, can I get a copy?," "I need to see it, don't just tell me it," "Don't always ask me to do it online because we only have one online machine and it doesn't always work and my brother hogs it when it does," and, "Speak slowly, I get confused with a lot of noise and fast talking." To get the full picture, send home a card (or email request) with a similar prompt to their parents, asking them to reflect on how their child best learns the particular topic.
Letters to the Teacher from Students as their own Parents – Students write letters to the teacher describing themselves and how they best learn, but they do it under a pseudonym, their parents. Pseudonyms like this can be freeing: Looking through the lens of how they think their mothers and/or fathers see them, students have deeper insights and are more honest when describing themselves. Be sure to ask them to include only those things that would provide helpful insights in successfully teaching their child, not anything that is a private family matter. Most of the pseudonym parent letters include things like: weekly babysitting responsibilities for younger siblings, religious schools/martial arts schedules, students' interests/hobbies/passions, favorite foods, the degree to which they get along with siblings, the recent death of a family member/pet, they are brand new to the school this year, requests for teachers to be funny or let students be funny, books they love/hate, shows and games they like, and aspirations for future careers. Quite often, though, they describe previously unknown talents in music/gaming/arts/sports; regrets from the previous school year; deeper worries; allergies; things teachers do that they find uncomfortable, embarrassing, or frightening; concerns about the earth and politics, a book they are writing, that their grandparents live with them, they have their own YouTube channel, and more.
"In a Million Words or Less, Tell Me about your Child" – Offered to the www.middleweb.com community by educator, Deb Bova, 16 years ago, this classic technique resonated with my own students and still does to this day in middle school classrooms around the world. We recognize that parents are experts on their own children, and those insights are valuable to their children's teachers. So, we ask parents to describe their child in a million words or less, which is really saying: We recognize your expertise and love for your child. Share as much about your child and what affects his/her/their learning as you are willing to share from your unique perspective.
We learn a tremendous amount of information from these informal essays from parents, fully "dimensionalizing" our students as individuals instead of seeing them merely as one more project to grade or slotting them prejudicially into societal stereotypes. There's a real person there, full of connections beyond what they present in our classrooms! In addition, parents are grateful for the opportunity to express how they see their children as well as that their children's teachers are interested in the observations. They become an important part of their children's education team here, which is always a plus. Interestingly, many parents have never had to sort through their thinking about their children, and as one parent put it, they find the activity "cathartic." Education World wrote about the positive impacts of the Million Words activity here: www.educationworld.com/a_curr/profdev/profdev080.shtml and the original conversation back in 2003 that explores the idea and how it helped teachers teach more effectively is archived here: http://www.middleweb.com/wp-content/uploads/
Interest Surveys – These can be done online or on hardcopy, of course, but the point is to fill out our perceptions of the individuals in our classes. The prompts or questions must not be invasive, of course, and students always have a right to skip any prompt if they don't feel comfortable responding to it. Prompts might include:
- Favorite book from childhood
- Farthest point you've traveled away from home
- Recent movie you enjoyed and what you liked about it
- Favorite place to be and why
- Favorite food/music/sport
- Organizations/Teams/Clubs to which you belong
- Someone you admire and why
- Two common activities you do after getting home from school
- A responsibility you have
- A wish you have for someone else
- What you want to do for a career
- Describe yourself as a friend for others
- A health or academic goal you are setting for yourself this year
You can also add some more creative prompts to help students express a bit more of themselves:
- If you could swap places with any animated, Marvel, DC Comics, Anime, Manga, or gaming character, who or what would it be and why?
- List at least 20 things/characteristics that don't describe you. Start with, "I'm not…."
- Compare a teacher from your past in terms of a particular food. For example, you might consider your fourth grade teacher as being like a pepperoni pizza because…, or that your kindergarten teacher was mango because…
- What is something you've always wondered how it works?
- Describe something about which you hold two different opinions – You can see it one way, but you also see it another way.
- If you could write a book about your life, what would the title be?
- What do you find impossible right now?
- If you could go back two years ago and give yourself some advice, what would it be?
- Which book character would you most like to meet and why?
- Which book character is most like you and why?
- Name something in your life, small or large, that surprised you.
- Describe something about which you daydream or are curious.
Learner Profiles – Ask the guidance department, team, or school to maintain a hardcopy or online, password protected folder on each student. As information about students is gathered by teachers during the year, they post it to the folder. Most student management records systems and gradebook software have this capacity. This is almost a crowd-sourcing approach: The English teacher finds out a student is interested in dance, dirt bikes, or Fortnite, and the physical education teacher finds out the same student has a strong affinity for one political party, social justice, or has a brother with muscular dystrophy. These insights are added to the student's Learner Profile as they are discovered, and any teacher challenged by how to make the instructional process more meaningful and effective for the student can draw upon this information to adjust learning as needed. If anything is truly confidential or private, we can keep that in a separate folder housed in an alternative and secure location.
The Learner Profile includes any factor that affects students learning positively or negatively. These might include: family dynamics, frequent moving from town to town, socio-economic factors, IEP or 504 considerations, equity challenges, English language challenges, learning disabilities, gifted/advanced designations, physical health, emotional health, nationality, diet, religious affiliation if important to the child, technology access/comfort, multiple intelligences, comfort/proficiency in the arts, level of self-efficacy, personal background or experiences, leadership qualities, ethics, gang affiliation, personal interests and passions, sports or music participation, sense of humor, small group work success or lack thereof, weekly schedule, social media footprint, politics, pregnancy, Anthony Gregorc Scale findings, Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory findings, adults in the building who seem to have a good relationship with the student, home and work responsibilities, ADHD, Tourette's Syndrome, Asperger's Syndrome/Autism Spectrum, hearing impaired/auditory processing challenges, visual impairments, sexual identity/orientation, speech and Language Issues, behavior/discipline concerns.
Reading Autobiography (Or an autobiography for Science, Math, P.E., Art, Writing, Coding Gaming, World Language, Social Studies) – Ask students to prepare a Reading Autobiography or one regarding the subject you teach, telling the story of how they learned it (to read, in this case) from the earliest to the most recent memories, from the smallest moments to the most profound, who guided them, favorite and not so favorite moments, and the insights discovered along the way. Imagine such a story revealed in mathematics, art, learning to play the drums, how to code, or in the study of science or history. Every time I've done this with students and no matter the subject I teach, I find out more about my students than I do from typical autobiographies.
Six Word Memoirs – Gosh, there are books, websites, articles, Twitter chats, and memes dedicated to this simple, yet intense technique. The basic idea is to write the gist of a memoir regarding something in only six words as Ernest Hemingway reportedly did: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." We can't use five or seven words; it has to be six. Other samples include, "Need more friends or more hobbies," "My entourage asleep in his crib," "Some shoes will take you anywhere," "My greatest ideas involve duct tape," "Books. Music. That's all I Need," and, "Hobby became job. Seeking new hobby." For more of these and ideas, check out: www.sixwordmemoirs.com/teens/. Once you're familiar with the way of thinking, write some of your own. Then imagine students writing the six-word memoirs for how they feel toward anything important in their lives, how they learned a particular topic, how they felt last year as a student, as a musician or performer, as a writer/reader/scientist, or as an American or whatever culture they are.
The interesting part of six-word memoirs is not the memoir itself, as clever and insightful as it may be. It's the students' elaborations upon them, explaining them in writing or orally to others that is the most expressive element. Be sure to leave time, structure, and facilitation for that component.
Problem-Solving Tasks - Give students tasks to solve that require collaboration with others. It may be as straightforward as building card houses with playing cards, building the highest tower they can using only 20 straws and 10 inches of masking tape, or. solving complex puzzles together. We can also use those Project Adventure and Low Ropes Initiatives tasks, such as working together to move a coffee can full of water from one X to another X without spilling a drop, and without touching the can, working in a group of eight, with each person holding a different piece of fishing line tied to the can's rim circumference. We also have all those great warm-up activities, like asking students to line up in ascending order according to birthdays without talking and perhaps, while blindfolded. In each of these, there's a lot of give and take, problem-solving, initial frustration, listening (and not listening), risk-taking, leadership/follower behavior, and more. We learn a lot about our students.
A Caution on "Get to Know" Activities and the Beginning of the School Year
I stand by what I wrote in a 2002 piece about the first weeks of school in this same publication:
Our students enter our classrooms in the first month of school with the
inclination to do well, to think in a scholarly manner, and to produce
great thoughts and works. They are a grade higher, they reason, more
advanced. Things will be challenging, and this is a fresh start. As
their teachers, we need to ride this momentum wave as far as we can. The
expectancy and ability are there; all we have to do is get out of the
With each period during the school day of nothing but endless school
forms, get-to-know-you activities, and reviewing classroom protocols, we
kill that excitement. Students grow increasingly disillusioned. We've
missed a golden opportunity for them to dive into the subject material
with neurons firing on all thrusters. It's probably the most significant
time of the year to hardwire students' minds to embrace our subjects,
and we don't want to miss it. We still have to get to know the students,
ask them to fill out those forms, and teach them classroom protocols
such as where to turn in projects and where to go during a fire drill,"
but we need balance.
So, mix academics with Get-to-Know-You activities. Each day of the first
weeks of school, make sure students learn something brand new in your
subject area, not just something they are reviewing from last year. Add
to this one or two new forms to complete, one get-to-know-you activity,
or one or two new classroom protocols and you'll have a pretty good
period…They may never admit it publicly (though many have privately),
but after two months off from anything cerebral, students welcome the
mental engagement. They're doing something purposeful. Teach from the
very first day.
Way More than Eight Ideas for Getting to Know our Students throughout the School Year
We can keep up with students via their online portfolios and social media presence as appropriate. We don't want to invade their out of school private space, but it IS a source of information when necessary. Many students have their own 6-second vines, YouTube channels, Instagram accounts, and websites.
Particularly helpful in getting to know students, though, is time together working on something important or tough to do. For examples, I have found more about individual students when collaborating with them on one or more of these activities than I did with months with them in the classroom:
Hiking a mountain together from early morning until dinner time
- Doing a full-day or longer service project together
- Co-authoring an education article or two for publication
- Building and maintaining the school's website
- Becoming a sponsor for students' clubs, sports, or extra-curricular activities – School newspaper/literary magazine, Odyssey of the Mind, debate club, sleepover Science Night, sports intramurals
- Participate in an extended, outdoor, environmental education experience
- Planting and tending to a school garden or farm
- Building and maintaining a program of recording children's books with middle school readers for the local elementary school students
Robert Sternberg's Intelligences – We can also assess students throughout the year in terms of Sternberg's intelligences: Being creative, analytical, practical, and wise. It's amazing how much we come to know about students when we're purposefully seeking evidence in each of these areas. For more, start here: www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/
Myers-Briggs Personality Type Inventories – Based on the theories of psychological types described by C. G. Jung, these inventories help teachers and students understand how they are processing and interacting with others and their own schooling. We find out if they lean more to extraversion or Introversion, if they focus on sensing information or intuiting information, if they like to emphasize logical thinking or to prioritize people's feelings and circumstances first, and whether or not they prefer to decide things right away (judging) or to remain open and fluid with new ideas (perceiving).
Some middle schools don't want students to get hung up on labels at such a young age, and there is merit to that argument. I've seen the inventories facilitated thoughtfully in some middle schools, however, and they've become a helpful tool not to label students, but as a source of knowledge for generating effective responses to challenging students. There are dozens of books on the connections between learning and MB Personality Types, even one on how best to teach writers depending on the dynamic between a teacher's type and that of his students. Check out www.myersbriggs.org
Reflective Coaching Questions – Similar to Cognitive and Instructional Coaching questions, these are open questions designed for students to reflect and share their thinking, not for teachers to judge or telegraph their opinions to students. We're trying to build their ownership of their learning, but also find out where they are in learning process. Here are suggested questions and starting stems:
- How's [X] going? You were concerned/happy with _____ last time.
- How do you think it went?
- What was your goal there?
- What do you mean by….?
- Tell me more about…
- What have you done in the past, and what was the result?
- Why did you choose….?
- How does that further your goal?
- Describe a time when this was successful for you.
- Tell me what excites you about this.
- When you do this again, what will you change?
- What does that tell you? Is there anything to that?
- How will you begin? What will you need for that?
- Can you give an example of….?
- Imagine yourself at that point in the project – What will be going through your mind?
- What have you tried?
- How would you like this to be different?
- What did you see classmates or the teacher doing (or hear them saying) that made you feel that way?
- What do you recall about your own behavior during the lesson?
- How did what you planned compare with what you did?
- And what else?
- Was this effective – How do you know?
Paraphrasing Students' Thinking Back to Them for Response – If we want to find out more about where students are in their learning, we can paraphrase what we heard them say or record and ask for confirmation or clarification on whether or not we heard correctly. This often develops into a great back and forth that helps us truly see where students are regarding their learning. Paraphrasing prompts include:
What I hearing you saying is…is that correct?
- Let me make sure I have this correct…
- In sum, then, you are worried that…
- Do I have that right? Did I hear that correctly?
- It sounds like you're saying that…
Get up to Speed on the Unique Nature of Young Adolescents – Middle schooler are unique: They are not elementary school students, nor are they high school students. So, what do we know about their differences from these other groups that affects how we facilitate their learning? We might identify wonderful student interests, strengths, preferences, and more, but it's not worth much if we are developmentally inappropriate with the young adolescent mind and how it works. Let's keep up professionally with what we know about middle schoolers as a group. Start with these sources:
"Middle School, not Junior High" published in the January 2016 issue of this magazine
- This We Believe Publications
- Research Summaries from AMLE
- Middle School Journal
- RMLE Online (Research in Middle Level Education
- Middle School: A Place to Belong and to Become by Laurie Barron and Patti Kinney
- Research to Guide Practice in Middle Grades Education edited by Gayle Andrews
- What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know, Third Edition by Dave Brown and Trudy Knowles
- Anything written by John Lounsbury, Carol Ann Tomlinson, Nancy Lesko, J. Howard Johnston, Paul George, Kenneth McEwin, Nancy Doda, Mark Springer, Gordon Vars, Jack Berckemeyer, William Alexander, Vince Anfara, Jim Beane, Sue Swaim, John Swaim, Tom Gatewood, Kathy Wood, Kim Campbell, Debbie Silver, Dedra Stafford, Monte Selby, among others.
By the way, this element also includes getting up to speed on the specific nature of students with unique needs. In order to really know a student identified as gifted, for example, we have to develop a mini-expertise in gifted students and their education. We do the same when we have students in our classes who are autistic, have learning disabilities, are struggling with depression or panic anxiety disorders, are children of alcoholics or parents addicted to opioids, are homeless, have Tourette's Syndrome, are English Language Learners, or any other element of their lives that may affect their learning.
Make Assessments Revelatory, i.e., Disaggregate to Reveal Story – Disaggregate test, quiz, project, and performance grades and scores into individual standards. That's right, provide a separate score or grade for each standard or proficiency. Students can demonstrate very different proficiency profiles across multiple standards, yet all end up with the same mathematical average or score based on how the teacher aggregates them all into one mark. These students are telling very different stories about their learning, however, and as a result, teachers should respond differently to each of them. They can't do that, though, if the input data is not disaggregated. If we want to know our students, our assessments must reveal their story with the content.
Technology Apps and Programs – There are many apps and programs that can really help teachers know their students. Some will help provide students with clear feedback as well. A starting list includes: Google Docs, Socrative (www.socrative.com/), ScreenCasting, and any audience response system in which students have the capacity to respond electronically to prompts.
Self-Monitoring Techniques that Show Teachers where Students are in the Process – When students complete self-monitoring tasks, they reveal quite a bit about their thinking and feeling regarding the classroom experience and their learning. To find out more about how our students are doing we can:
- Use a Likert scale (Place an X on the continuum: Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Not Sure, Agree, Strongly Agree) and ask students to explain why they feel as they do.
- Video students working or demonstrating their proficiencies and ask them to analyze what they see in relation to the instructional goals.
- Ask students to reflect on, "I used to think…, But now I think…" Examples: "I use to think "fake news" was a modern invention, but now I think it's been around since the first Continental Congress." "I used to be suspicious of anyone who wasn't from my culture, but now I think that people in other cultures have the same fears and hopes as me and my culture. Maybe I shouldn't be so nervous around them."
- Fill-in-the-blank or responding to self-reflection prompts. These are done in an effort to get students to recognize when they do and do not understand content:
- Reflection Letters -- Student completes work in class or at home. An exemplar of the assignment is placed on his desk or shown at the front of the room or on his Chrome book. The student then writes a letter to the teacher (or his parents) comparing his work to the exemplar, noting where it matches and where it does not, or in some cases, where it exceeds the exemplar.
- Ask students to maintain reflection journals or learning logs, asking them to respond to prompts like:
Besides informing our instructional decisions, knowing our students provides other benefits: First, it's more meaningful for us as we work with real and fleshed out individuals, not assumed caricatures. Superficial black outlines become richly colored and textured portraits, and this is simply more compelling. Second, it's hard to dismiss those whom we know well, they fire too many neural networks in our brains to be avoided. While it's easy to be indifferent to people and circumstances with which we are unfamiliar, we gravitate readily towards complex, multi-dimensional humans we understand, and this summons within us strong compassion and advocacy for each student. It's more than finding agency, it's experiencing joy.
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 www.amle.org/store. His new book,
Fair Isn’t Always Equal (second edition) (Stenhouse Publishers), was released in 2018, and his other new 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 August 2019.
Why it's not worth getting into a struggle with students
It was the summer of 1998. I lived in a two room apartment with my now husband. The shower was in the kitchen. We drove clunker cars, scrounged change for take-out, and let me tell you, we were living our best life. We were young, naive, and ready to take the world by storm. I had just finished my master's degree in literature with an emphasis on southern disenfranchised female authors. Maybe not so surprisingly, my new degree was not opening doors for me, so I decided to enroll in the University of New Hampshire teacher education program. The program was pretty progressive, and so my first class was an "outdoor encounter" kind of thing where they drove about 30 soon-to-be educators into the woods of Vermont, dropped us off at the base of a mountain, and told us that we'd be picked up here on Sunday. During this "outdoor encounter," we were supposedly going to get our first lesson in being a teacher. I was ready to change the world!
What did I learn? I needed to quit smoking, for one. The hike was way outside my comfort zone and ability level. Luckily, a big burly guy named Sturgis carried my backpack for me. I learned that balsamic vinegar improved the quality of almost everything, since we were cooking all of our meals over a fire. I learned that despite my brave front, I was pretty scared that my life wasn't really sorting itself out as I had planned. Granted, a master's degree in literature was probably not the greatest plan, but I was beginning to doubt that I was ready for the real world, which was nipping my heels.
On the second night, around the campfire, a veteran teacher was sharing his words of wisdom about classroom management. Most people wanted to know how to keep everything under control. At the time, I was ridiculously naive to the fact that I could ever lose control of a class. I learned the hard way later that summer while I taught summer school, and it almost drove me out of teaching. Only half listening, I heard Charlie say, "The truth is, you just can't pick up the rope. If you do, it is a tug of war. The fact is, if you get into a battle with a kiddo, and you win, then you really lost. Right? You've lost the relationship and the potential for learning. You are also a bully because you used your authority for harm. On the flipside, if you pick up the rope and get into a battle, and you lose, well that's really bad too. Then, you were just outsmarted by a child, and you've lost all your credibility as an authority. If you remember nothing else, remember, you can't pick up the rope."
All these years later, I share this story with student teachers, new teachers, and those who have transferred from the high school. The middle is a place where we are continually taunted to pick up the rope, right? Don't you have days where you are just certain that your students are doing things just to get your reaction? They probably are, and that is why it is imperative that you don't pick up that rope! A tug of war is one of the quickest ways to wreck any good thing you have going in your class.
The world keeps changing, today's classrooms (especially mine) are more like a Starbucks, and the work our students can do is pretty amazing; however, they will still be kiddos. They will still try to see how far they can push you, or in this case pull you. Instead of picking up the rope, remember that ego is everything in these adolescent years and provide students with a way out, an escape route. When they are getting ready to lose face, change the state of your classroom. Lighten up. Send the student on an errand. Switch gears or take a brain break. Do whatever you can in your power to let the student escape the encounter with their dignity intact and address the issue privately with the student. Those heart to heart moments can be amazing, and they are opportunities for growth for everyone. Remember, you are on the side of the student, so you can't be in a tug of war.
Amber Chandler is the coordinator of alternative education and interventions for Frontier Central School District in Hamburg, New York. She is a National Board Certified ELA teacher, the 2018 AMLE Educator of the Year, and a member of the AMLE Board of Trustees. Amber is author of
The Flexible SEL Classroom: Practical Ways to Build Social Emotional Learning in Grades 4-8.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2019.
Synthesizing text into a new format helps readers relate to content
Much of the writing we assign our students is public writing—writing to communicate with others. Writing-to-learn is personal writing, writing that helps students increase comprehension of texts—fiction and nonfiction—in all disciplines. Reader response compels readers to interact with the text and makes visible for readers and their teachers the depth of text comprehension. This is the ninth in a series of columns on scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching a variety of reader response strategies before, during, and after reading.
Effective after-reading response employs a text reformulation strategy in which readers reconstruct text read into another type of text. This synthesis, a critical thinking skill that involves putting together assorted parts to make a new whole, helps readers in all disciplines not only relate information learned, but rethink the meaning of this learning and connect new learning to other learnings and their developing views of their world.
The Importance of Comparing and Contrasting
We go to the grocery store to buy a product. There are multiple varieties, so we need to "read" them, comparing them to decide which one to buy. First, we must determine the basis of comparison we will employ such as cost, size, value, company reputation, and ingredients. Sometimes we choose the more expensive brand because the ingredients are healthier; sometimes we choose the cheaper store brand because the ingredients are exactly the same and in the same proportions. At times, the packaging of the more expensive brand is sturdier and will keep the product longer. Or the contents are organically grown.
As informed citizens, we compare and contrast constantly. We decide which politician will garner our vote, which route to take to work, which outfit is most appropriate for a particular activity. Comparing-contrasting is a decision strategy, one that is crucial to teach our students. It requires the engagement of critical thinking, such as analysis, to discover subtle, but important, differences and unexpected similarities between two subjects as adolescents learn to compare and contrast in meaningful ways to make informed decisions.
And although comparative thinking is a natural operation and essential to learning, research shows that most students have a difficult time making use of comparisons. However, when learned, this structure helps them organize both new and known information and develop their ideas, especially about what they have read. Comparing and contrasting based on text read is crucial for deeper understanding, and readers need scaffolding to determine important information and organize it. One way of doing so is by writing poetry in two voices.
Poetry in Two Voices
Probably the first example of poetry in two voices was Paul Fleischman's Joyful Noise: Poetry in Two Voices, which compared the lives of insects. One example is the poem "Honeybees," in which the similarities and differences between a queen bee and a worker bee are revealed. In poetry in two voices, poets write from two perspectives, comparing and contrasting. Items or content that are similar are written directly across from each other and are read simultaneously; the contrasting details are written on separate lines and read one at a time, in whatever order the writer determines more effective. Or, the material can be written in the manner of a Venn diagram with the lines pertinent to both entities written in the middle. Examples of both formats will be shown in this article.
Students can compare two texts or compare elements, such as characters, settings, events, or ideas within a text or they can compare elements within a text to themselves or the world at large. When students compose poems in two voices based on the content they are learning, they are examining and analyzing similarities and differences and going back to the text and reformulating the text into another genre. They are interacting with the text (Roessing, 2013). Read aloud by two people, these poems take on the power of their voices. Many times after taking part in reading their poem, or listening to it being read by two other voices, students want to revise so the poetry most effectively communicates their message.
As a reading strategy, two-voice poetry requires students to return to text multiple times, looking at what was read from divergent perspectives.
In ELA classes students read many texts in different genres and divergent forms. To create their poems, they can compare and contrast characters from within a text to determine their similarities and differences and, more importantly, the consequences of those similarities and differences. In Langston Hughes' short story "Thank You, Ma'am" there are two characters: an older woman, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, and a teenager named Roger. Their lives unexpectedly intertwine when Roger attempts to snatch Mrs. Jones' purse and she decides to take him home and teach him a valuable lesson. While on the surface, these two appear to be very different, the reader finds that they are not. The importance of that connection and their similarities comes out when crafting a poem in their two voices (see figure 1).
ELA compare and contrast poem
Another way two-voice poetry can be employed is to compare and contrast characters from two texts, illustrating the commonalities in the characters despite their "residence" in a separate text and setting and reflecting the universality of conflicts that characters face. Some examples are shown in the social studies section below. Many secondary teachers pair canonical texts with modern texts, and writing a poem in two voices between characters in those paired texts would illustrate their commonality while acknowledging the difference in their lives and experiences.
A third way students can employ poetry in two voices with literature is by comparing and contrasting a character with either an actual person or with themselves, connecting even more closely with the text. One student, a reluctant reader, discovered a strong personal connection with Lonnie from Walter Dean Myers' novel Hoops. See figure 2 for an excerpt from his poem in two voices "Lonnie & Me" (Roessing, 2009).
ELA compare and contrast poem
Comparing oneself with a character from the canon may serve to illustrate to students that modern life presents similar conflicts—although events may differ—and illustrates that we all have more in common than one may assume.
In a sixth grade world cultures class, students studied traditional cultures through Cinderella variants. The teacher reviewed the familiar French fairytale Cendrillion, and compared it to the Grimm brothers German variant, Aschenputtel; these two tales are similar since they both derive from traditional European cultures. The teacher then read Lily, a Japanese variant, and the class compared the stories based on the nine motifs common in Cinderella tales, such as the mother dying, help from a magical agent, a test of identity, and a happy ending. Students compared the cultures based on their background knowledge and as reflected in the tales. Next, small groups of students each read a variant from a different traditional culture from Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America; charted the motifs; and prepared and presented a puppet show of their variant to their classmates (Roessing, 2012).
As a last step to compare and contrast traditional cultures as part of their world cultures studies, students were introduced to poetry in two voices. They were paired with a student who had read a different variant and tasked with writing a poem in two voices as their Cinderella characters. The teacher first created and presented an example based on the French and German Cinderellas (see excerpt from the poem in figure 3). Because the students' tales were so different from each other, she next showed them an example of a two-voice poem from two very different cultures, based on Aschenputtel and Lily (see figure 4).
Social Studies compare and contrast poem
Social Studies compare and contrast poem
The students, in pairs, then wrote their own poems in two voices following the examples. The student poem about the heroines in two of the oldest variants, Yeh-Hsien, more commonly known as Yeh-Shen, from China, and Rhodopis, the Egyptian Cinderella, is seen in figure 5. While they may not appear to have much in common, readers were able to discover and analyze the importance of their similarities.
Social Studies compare and contrast poem
Taking poetry into an eighth grade science class, the teacher used this method to review plate boundaries. After introducing poetry in two voices with examples from other disciplines as well as a simpler science poem comparing apples and oranges (Roessing, 2013), students were assigned to review their textbook and notes and were given the choice of collaborating with a partner or working alone to write a poem in the voices of convergent and divergent plate boundaries. Madelyn and Morgan's poem is found in figure 6. Employing this structure for the first time, the science teacher commented, "The two-voice poem is appealing because it provides a concise, creative avenue for students to show they understand the differences and similarities between two concepts."
Science compare and contrast poem
There are countless opportunities to employ this type of poetry in science, many times leading to poems in three voices, and in mathematics classes to examine and review math functions and concepts, such as fractions, decimals, and percentages.
When students compare and contrast, they use multiple reading and thinking strategies:
- Processing information
- Exploring higher-order thinking
- Using a specific thinking structure
- Making decisions
- Making connections among multiple literary elements, real life events, people, places, objects, ideas, and concepts.
And when students write poetry in two voices, they are comparing, contrasting, collaborating, reading, writing, and speaking in a creative and fun manner.
Climo, S. (1989). The Egyptian Cinderella. New York: HarperCollins Children's Books.
Fleischman, P. (1992). Joyful noise: Poems for two voices. New York: HarperCollins.
Grimm, J. & Grimm. W. (2010). "Aschenputtel." In Grimm's Fairy Tales. Mineola, NY: Calla.
Hughes, L. (1986). "Thank You, Ma'am." Impact fifty short stories. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Myers, W.D. (1983). Hoops. New York: Laurel Leaf Books.
Perrault, C. (1999). Cinderella. Translated by Anthea Bell. New York: North-South Books.
Roessing, L. (2009). The write to read: Response journals that increase comprehension. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Roessing, L. (2012). No more "us" and "them": Classroom lessons & activities that promote peer respect. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Roessing, L. (2013). Writing to learn: Using poetry in two voices. Middle Ground, 16(3).
Schroeder, A. (1994). Lily and the wooden bowl. New York: Delacorte.
Sierra, J. (1992). "Yeh-Hsien." In Cinderella. The Oryx Multicultural Folktale Series. Westport, CT: Oryx.
Lesley Roessing taught middle school for 20 years before becoming the founding director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and senior lecturer in the College of Education of Georgia Southern University, Armstrong campus. Lesley has published four professional books for educators, as well as chapters and articles on literacy. The ideas in this column were based on The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension (Corwin, 2009).
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2019.
Veteran teachers share ideas and advice for teachers new to middle level education
In the spring, right before and during testing in a middle school, teachers were asked to share some advice for beginning teachers. Note that the end of the year can be challenging. The stress associated with teaching plays out in many ways. And don't forget the stress students experience by just being young adolescents. We know that teachers pass through multiple phases of teaching including anticipation, survival, disillusion, rejuvenation, reflection, and back to anticipation. When you add stress levels to mandates and expectations, evaluations, and performances tied to how well students perform on end-of-grade and end-of-course exams and a middle school building can feel weary. Those who are inside on edge may feel worse.
So, when teachers were asked to share their best advice, I wondered whether the challenges of a school year coming to a close and the challenges of young adolescents reflecting on and sometimes acting out in their own world might leave a damp view. However, in what appears to be a rainbow lighting the sky, these teachers, in their final days of classes remind us of the power of purpose and the magic of what it really takes to be a teacher. Their comments fell into three categories.
Relationships matter. Relationships are the spiritual foundation of classroom management. First and foremost, the relationships you have with every stakeholder are important. When you walk into a middle school, chances are there will be a warm and caring adult greeting you. Get to know them. Ask about their family, their health, how their weekend was. They bring the best sunshine to everyone. (They also know everything. Trust them.)
Get to know your teammates. They are the ones who will guide you with school protocol: rituals, routines, problem solving. Look to them for advice. Get to know your students' parents. While the parents may not have had the advantages you've had, they love their children, and although they may support their children to a fault, like the advice says, keep lots of documentation and communicate with them often. Get to know your students. They are social beings. They are not afraid to dream big; they have ideas and interests, get to know them. The more you know about them, the easier it will be to cater lessons to their interests, their learning styles, their cultural differences.
- Make friends with the janitor and the secretaries. They will be needed so much.
- Be consistent with all students, otherwise the students will call you out on it!
- Build relationships with your kids! Ask them what they like and don't like. They love that!
- Be true to who you are; kids want to see your personality, and they want you to be genuine.
Structures matter. There is a lot of research suggesting rules, rituals, and routines are the structural foundations of classroom management. Teachers suggest that consistency in a classroom is critical. One of the strengths of a team is that a group of teachers can establish common rules and expectations, celebrations, and recognitions. Your team leader will be a great resource for you. When thinking about structures and methods, your best advice will come from teachers in your building. If you are on a team, connect with your team leader and team members. If you teach a content, consider working with a teacher who is teaching the same grade level.
- Do not discount the "old" methods. Just as we are taught to respect the elderly, respect what was done before the pendulum swung and wait for it to swing back. Embrace them, but add your own spice.
- Watch experienced teachers ... sit in their classroom, if possible, during your planning.
- You are not alone. There are all sorts of people in the school (and outside the school) that want to be helpful. Find or create connections by looking for the people who smile a lot.
- Watch the cool things other teachers are printing or making copies of and make copies for yourself.
You matter. Teaching is hard work. It is valuable work. You have to take care of yourself physically, socially, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally. A simple exercise is to consider each of these characteristics. Are you eating right, getting enough sleep, drinking lots of water? Do you have a friend and a professional learning network? Do you have a routine that allows you to stay centered? And are you aware of emotional intelligences and how to monitor them? By taking care of your needs, you will be more equipped to take care of the needs of your students.
- Expect the unexpected and be adaptable.
- You will make mistakes and it will be ok. Learn from them.
- Don't try to do everything at first. Pace yourself.
- Don't panic! Keep calm ... students sense panic.
- Don't take student behavior personally; there's almost always a heartbreaking reason behind the things they do.
- The first year is really hard! You will get better! We have all been through this!
- Your education is so valuable; however, your true education is about to start. Learn from mistakes and do not dwell on them.
- Treat others as you would want someone to treat your own children.
- Set clear boundaries with your students.
- Find an organizational system that works for you and make notes for each lesson/unit about what went well and what needs your attention. Follow your data closely.
- Be consistent.
- People will tell you to not work so much, that you will burn out. It's personal preference. I worked crazy hours my first few years, but it was what I needed to feel prepared and successful. Do what feels right for you.
- This is a profession. It's a hard job; this job is not for the faint of heart, or feeble minded. You must remain the adult, and keep in mind they are just kids. People say that they are just a product of their surroundings. This may be true, but remember you are part of those surroundings. You must keep your head at all times, because you can impact a life far beyond what you can imagine. They will come back after college and say "You helped shape who I am" or "I was able to do [fill in the blank] because you inspired me!"
- My last piece of advice is just that when you teach they learn, however you instruct, inspire, impact, develop—they grow, not only as students but as people, and that's the real part of this job ... the best part.
Veteran teachers in your school are an amazing resource. They know curriculum, they know kids. Do not hesitate to reach out to them. We are better when we work together. Our kids are better off when we work together. Good luck on the journey!
Nancy Bell Ruppert is a professor at UNC Asheville (NC) and past-president of the AMLE Board of Trustees.
Published July 2019.
Building empathy through experience
Forty billion hours; not thousand or even million ... 40 BILLION. Women and children in Africa spend 40 BILLION hours walking to gather water every year. They walk for hours to obtain water that's not even safe for their families. Water that breeds waterborne diseases like typhoid, cholera, and dysentery.
When 11-year-olds hear these statistics, they say "wow, that's a lot of time," and then move on with their day. There's no connection because they simply can't relate. They walk 17 steps down the climate-controlled, flat hallway to get safe, cold, and maybe even fruit-infused water immediately out of the faucet. It's their norm, it's their everyday. They don't have to climb over thorn fences, trip over rocky terrain, or dodge animal and human predators.
When I started at Detroit Country Day School six years ago I did the water lesson in our Africa unit. I showed my students videos of women walking for water, I bombarded them with staggering statistics, and involved them in dynamic discussions. I thought it was a truly epic lesson, but I realized quite quickly that none of those things really impacted them in a meaningful way. The issue was so abstract and far away (a literal ocean away), it wasn't even a second thought for them.
Year two, I had a different plan. A plan to build empathy and understanding, connection. I wanted to create an experience they wouldn't likely forget. I planned a water walk for the sixth graders and have been doing it ever since. I have a lot of crazy ideas as a middle school teacher but this one seems to be achieving the goal and giving students the opportunity to connect on a deep level with someone they have never met before.
We ask for teacher volunteers every year, and teachers who have never seen it before often ask "What is this water walk? Do they just walk around with buckets of water?" That's not necessarily the whole picture. They engage in exercises of understanding, building hope, and developing ideas to help with the worldwide water crisis.
Let's run through a typical water walk day which starts at 7:00 am. My teaching partner and I are knee-deep in waders in the Rouge River to fill up 64 buckets with river water. Thankfully we have students who help in the process so we are not out there all morning. The buckets are full (with minimal face-planting in the river), the villages and rest stops are established (Tanzania, Algeria, DRC and Nigeria), and hopefully, just hopefully, the sun is shining. The journey is about to begin.
Students walk down in their country teams and start their journey for water. They walk about a quarter of a mile to get to their village where they engage in discussion questions. Discussion questions such as: Compare your walking experience today to what they might experience in your country. What obstacles might they face along the way? What obstacles have you faced along the way so far? After they have thoughtfully reflected on their questions as a team, they are off to continue their trek to find water. While on their journey they discuss three questions: How might your life be different if this was your everyday? Brainstorm an invention to help bring clean water to more people. And my personal favorite, how can we help the world water crisis as 11-year-olds from suburbs in Michigan?
The students stay in their country teams to find their water; always together. They walk about a mile to their "resting spot," where they engage in more pointed discussions, guided by the questions at their rest spot. Comments such as "This is so boring, we're just walking!" are frequent. But ... that's exactly. The. Point. They're building empathy and they don't even know it. When they are at their resting spot, the discussion shifts focus to how they would use water if they could only gather 10 gallons (the average American uses 100 gallons of water per day, per person).
After they rest (they are very much eager beavers to get to their water at this point), they are on their way to gathering water from their water source. They gather their buckets and off they go. The initial feeling of the kids? Excitement! Anticipation! They just want to grab their buckets and get back to their village. After about 500 feet, their enthusiasm fades quickly into agony. Dramatic, teenager angst. Shoulders are hurting. Backs are sore. Hands are cramping. Their conversations start to shift and that's when the real character building takes place. They start talking about how terrible this is. How they hate this. How they would hate to do this every single day. And that's the moment. THAT IS THE MOMENT. There's the connection. The lightbulb moment. When they rest, they have to rest as a team, carefully setting their heavy buckets down as to not lose water, which would mean less water for their "family."
Some teams rest more than others and that's ok, they're together. It builds such a sense of community because they are in this experience with each other. The buckets weigh about eight pounds when filled with water, one on each arm. I often get asked "What if they can't make it? What if they're too heavy?" Kids are great like that. They always make it. We had a team this year take on some of their teammates' water load by pouring her water into their buckets to lighten her burden and increase theirs. Humility. Kindness. Selflessness.
Back up the hill with their water. Back to their village. Back around the track. You get the idea. By the time they are done with their experience, they don't want to do it again, ever. The students receive an envelope that says whether or not the water they worked so hard to gather and carry back to their village was safe or not. Three-fourths of the teams receive envelopes that state their water contained bacteria that caused water-borne illnesses such as typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. When they get their envelope and we have a big group discussion, that's when the frustration comes out. The students walk all that way and the water they gather isn't even safe. Over the years there have been many tears in this circle discussion. Not tears of pain but tears of tremendous feeling. Tears of extreme exasperation. Tears of feeling helpless.
When we start the lesson, we tell the students we are not doing this so they feel pity for the women and children who walk for the water. We want the students to see the crisis from another person's perspective. Gain some humility. Overcome adversity. Brainstorm inventions and ways they can make a difference with the water crisis. Experiencing some discomfort over the course of an hour allows our students the chance to build empathy towards someone who starts their day in a very different way.
One of the students reflected on the water walk: "This activity was so impactful because it showed us what obstacles people have to go through to get clean water. It's one thing to read about something, but to actually do it leaves a huge impact." And that about sums it up; character development and content fused together to create an unforgettable experience for our students and hopefully one that they will carry with them throughout their lives.
Jennifer Caylen teaches at Detroit Country Day School, Beverly Hills, Michigan.
Published July 2019.
When a teacher's advisory game leads to a lesson learned
New clothes, new friends, and new advisory classes were in motion, which meant the new school year was underway! And, as true for some years, an imbalance of boys and girls seemed to be the general configuration that semester. It was no surprise to find my advisory roster included 12 boys and only 4 girls; a tremendous disadvantage for the young ladies in seventh grade that particular year.
As a way of building relationships between my students—and knowing the majority of my boys played football—I decided to use the NFL angle to engage the group. It was the mid-90s and Troy Aikman was a rockstar for the Dallas Cowboys, so unbeknownst to him, he would become an unsuspecting ally in my game-plan for building relationships at the middle school level.
In the beginning, I used knowledge of football, players, and events to motivate team-building. Our table groups were named after NFC and AFC teams; current events often revolved around sports updates and highlights; and a fantasy football school-wide competition was established to promote friendly class competitions.
Slowly, I began name-dropping Troy as my "secret boyfriend." The students would giggle, roll their eyes, and basically indulge me in this pseudo-relationship. On many Tuesday mornings following a Monday night football game I would share fictitious conversations I had had with Troy about his game performance and any secret signals he had sent through the TV to show his love and devotion. And as one might expect with young adolescents, mysterious love notes suddenly would appear on my desk "from Troy," complete with Dallas Cowboy ensignia stationary.
The kids were all in and LOVED every moment of this game! They often asked me to relay messages back to Troy as well as invitations to visit our class. I always responded with, "Well, he is pretty busy, but I certainly can ask!" And, as unconventional as this tactic might seem, it truly built peer relationships and bonded our advisory for the year.
As the class "Advisory Mama," as I was affectionately referred to by my students, I often attended events outside of school to support my kiddos. I would cheer them on from the sidelines at sporting events, bring cupcakes to birthday parties, and helped supervise cookie sales for local scout troops. I was even invited to a pet rabbit's funeral, but reluctantly (and secretly relieved) had to decline! In addition to the non-academic responsibilities, I participated in my share of IEP meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and counseling interventions when needed for any of my kidlets. It was at one of these support meetings that my most embarrassing and humbling experiences as an educator transpired.
It was early December, when our school counselor called a convening of teachers, administrators, and support staff who worked with Lucy* (*name has been changed) to discuss her progress, and set new goals for the second semester. As Lucy's advisory teacher I attended the meeting more for moral support, and to attest to her cooperative nature and positive disposition as a learner. Each member of the group took turns sharing Lucy's progress as her parents nodded and smiled.
When it was my turn to share, I echoed many of the team's sentiments and highlighted what a privilege it was to have their daughter in my advisory class. The parents just stared at me. No head nods, no smiles, no comments shared, in fact their body language actually looked somewhat hostile toward me. I was confused, but simply "passed the ball" back to the counselor to wrap up the meeting. As the principal proceeded to thank all participants for coming, and asked the family if there were any last comments or questions, the mother sat up straight and said, "Yes, we would like to have a final word with Ms. Cameli."
The group instantly was silenced by the tone expressed. My body stiffened and I sucked in my breath. Why did they want to talk to me? There's nothing academically-related to advisory, therefore no goals were set on the IEP. And, I had nothing but positive comments to share about their daughter. What could they possibly want? My head was spinning. "Sure", I finally exhaled, "What can I help you with?"
The counselor, unsure of where this conversation was headed, paused the group and excused the other teachers. The principal and counselor remained as I spoke, "Please let me know how I can continue to support Lucy", I invited the parents to share. Their demeanor lacked a friendly vibe, although their daughter sat next to them smiling ear-to-ear, not in a Cheshire cat sense, just her normal happy self, oblivious to the potential conflict.
Her mother broke the silence, "Lucy tells us you know Troy Aikman...", Her husband then interrupted, "...and, we would like you to get us his autograph."
Well, if there was ever a time I needed a proverbial rock to climb under, this was it. I literally could not speak. My principal stood up from the table to leave and gave me the you-got-yourself-into-this-mess-have-fun-getting-yourself-out-of-it look, as the door closed behind her. The counselor was stifling her snickers by trying to sip tea, but had to turn away from the table to compose herself. And as I sat facing these very determined parents who were expecting either an NFL autograph or a viable explanation, I turned every shade of red under the sun. "Um," was literally all I could muster at the time. "Well, it's … um", it was as if I had lost all ability to compose rationale thoughts or interact with human beings. I was dumbstruck.
"Well???" Lucy's mother prodded, while her father leaned his large statured build and tattooed forearms across the table.
"So ... we have been using the NFL as our theme for team-building this year," I tried to explain, "And, well, as a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, I reference Troy … um … Aikman, as a role model for the kids." My words were choppy and I was beginning to sweat. The parents' eyebrows were raised in unison, hanging on my every word waiting for an explanation. "So," I continued, "as a way of personalizing the experience, and to increase enthusiasm for the theme, I pretended to know ... um … Mr. Aikman." I swallowed hard.
"So, you lied to the students?" the father challenged. The mother's eyebrow hiked up another quarter inch.
Realizing this conversation was going south fast, I tried to regroup by inviting Lucy into the conversation, "So, Lucy", I smiled and pleaded, "You do know I'm just playing when we talk about Troy Aikman in class … don't you?" I silently begged, prayed, and sought a higher-power to get me out of this mess. "Oh, sure," the bubbly child responded. I looked at her parents who were not swayed an inch by their daughter's response. So I tried again.
"It appears we have had a slight misunderstanding, and I apologize for any confusion this may have caused Lucy, or either of you," my heart was beating out of my chest as I awaited their response. Her father readjusted in his chair and then just looked down at his hands, but her mother continued to glare. "Well, we just don't think it's right for a teacher to mislead or exaggerate stories since our kids look up to YOU...," she emphasized the last word with a punctuated tone, "...and, if you don't know someone famous, you shouldn't pretend to know them!"
I nodded emphatically, profusely apologized, and did my best to assure these skeptical parents that I would be more responsible with my team-building activities, as well as the characterization of who I knew outside of our small town, while the counselor stood up to see the family out to their car.
By the time the counselor returned, I was a puddle of sobs and blubbering my humiliation while she tossed me a box of tissue and began laughing hysterically! She walked me back from the emotional cliff I was teetering on and got me to giggle at the whole event. The fact that one of our darling students somehow convinced her family that a beloved Advisory Mama was dating an NFL star quarterback, took the "ordinary" out of what should have been a routine IEP meeting!
As the year wrapped up and football season (thank goodness) was on hiatus, Troy naturally faded into the background and eventually off the radar for the students. But what remained was a hard lesson learned, humility acquired, and a long-lost love note tucked into my teacher's planner "from Troy" that will forever be a keepsake from the most memorable faux pas in my middle level teaching years!
Sandy Cameli, Ed.D., long time middle level advocate, currently serves as an educational specialist for the Hawaii Department of Education. She facilitates Na Kumu Alaka'i - Teacher Leader Academy (TLA) and publishes its blog: http://tlahawaii.blogspot.com/.
Published June 2019.