The Young Adolescent State of Mind

The Young Adolescent State of Mind

What neuroscience reveals about our students and how we should respond

In This We Believe, the Association for Middle Level Education stresses the importance of understanding the unique developmental needs of our middle level students in designing appropriate learning environments and for understanding how those environments can contribute to or interfere with our students' learning. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health suggest that in terms of sheer intellectual power, the adolescent brain matches the adult brain, and the capacity to learn will never be greater than during adolescence. However, there are clear differences in how efficiently adolescents and adults carry out mental tasks.

Recent developments in brain research have revealed that these differences are directly related to developmental changes in the adolescent brain. Understanding where and how the adolescent's brain is changing and how these changes are reflected in the cognitive skills, behaviors, and emotional responses we see in our students is key to designing environments that accentuate and maximize the positive aspects of our students' developmental changes while minimizing potential difficulties.

The "Plastic" Adolescent Brain

We all know that the ages from birth to about age three are considered the most important for brain development. During this time, babies' brains are malleable, or plastic, and are shaped by experiences. Recent research has revealed a similar period of plasticity during adolescence. In his book, The Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, Laurence Steinberg (2014) reveals that adolescence is a remarkable period of brain reorganization and developmental plasticity—although the areas being reorganized and shaped during adolescence are different from those in childhood. The brain areas being reshaped during adolescence are the reward systems, the regulatory systems, and the relationship systems—what Steinberg refers to as the three Rs. This reorganization is rapid, accompanied by extensive modifications, and presents educators with exciting opportunities as well as reasons for concern. Knowing more about the changes occurring during this time helps us understand the abilities and vulnerabilities of the middle school learner and raises our awareness of the profound effect we can have on our students now and for the rest of their lives.

Implications for Teachers

Two areas of the brain are of particular interest in understanding adolescents' responses and behaviors in relation to rewards, regulation, and relationships. First, at the onset of puberty, changes in a number of hormones in the brain affect the limbic system, a group of structures deep inside the brain that work together and comprise the emotional center of the brain. Dr. Jay Giedd at the National Institutes of Health, as cited in the 2008 New York Times article, "The Child's Developing Brain," explains that these centers become hypersensitive and the capacity for creating emotion increases dramatically. Adolescents' desire for novelty and exciting experiences increases. Their sensitivity to opinions and evaluations by others (especially peers) increases. The nature and intensity of their relationships with peers, parents, and other adults—such as teachers—changes. As Steinberg notes, preadolescents experience and display higher "highs" and lower "lows" than older adolescents and adults. Quarrels and arguments are commonplace and only begin to subside as the adolescent nears physical maturity—which is likely well past the middle school years!

The adolescent brain is much more responsive to stress. The limbic system is important in helping us detect rewards and threats in the environment. Increased sensitivity in these areas results in adolescents' motivation to avoid threat and either fight, flight, or freeze. The freeze response, first proposed by Peter Levine, a medical biophysicist and psychologist, is a defensive response when the fight or flight responses are not possible. How often do we see our middle school students freeze in the classroom when they are embarrassed or when they make a mistake?

Other researchers have found that adolescents' brains process emotional information from external stimuli differently than the brains of adults. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd found that adolescents have difficulty reading the emotions on adult faces. The most dramatic age-dependent differences were with earlier teen years starting at age 11. When shown a series of pictures of adult faces expressing a range of emotions, all the adult volunteers accurately identified the emotion of fear whereas the adolescents saw shock or anger on the face of the adult in the picture. Knowing that our students may not be reading our faces correctly is such powerful information and can help us understand why our students sometimes respond in otherwise unexplainable ways.

Researchers have found that mood disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and most impulse control disorders such as conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorders first appear in adolescence. With the limbic system hypersensitized during adolescence, the reward centers are highly sensitive as well. Specifically, they are highly sensitive to the hormone dopamine, which creates feelings of pleasure and delight and increases pleasure-seeking behavior. As Steinberg states, "Things that feel good, feel better during adolescence … Because things feel especially pleasurable during the first half of adolescence—between puberty and age sixteen or so—kids this age go out of their ways to seek rewarding experiences" (p. 73–74).

The second area of the brain that undergoes significant change during adolescence is the prefrontal cortex. While the emotional areas of the adolescent brain become hypersensitive, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for self-control, problem-solving, making long-term plans, and judging risks, is still developing. Certainly, middle school students demonstrate thoughtful problem-solving and abstract reasoning. Yet, they also frequently exhibit difficulties with self-control and evaluating consequences of their actions.

The prefrontal cortex lags behind in development at a time when the emotional centers of the brain are hypersensitive and easily aroused. During early adolescence the prefrontal cortex is not very efficient. When adolescents are confronted with decisions, problem-solving, or need to self-regulate, many areas of the prefrontal cortex are activated, not necessarily the appropriate areas. Steinberg likens this process to turning on all of the lights in a room instead of just using a reading light beside the chair. Because of this inefficiency, the young adolescent must exert more effort and energy to exercise self-control and to problem-solve. Their boisterous behavior and loud and overly dramatic responses to seemingly mundane or common encounters may be attributed to this inefficiency of the prefrontal cortex. Furthermore, disruptions, distractions, fatigue, emotional upset, stress, and boredom increase the likelihood that they will have more difficulty problem-solving and exercising self-control.

Experience Changes the Brain

Scientists emphasize that the fact that the teen brain is changing and is in transition does not mean it is somehow not up to par. The capacity for learning at this age and a taste for exploration and limit-testing present educators with opportunities to create environments in which middle school learners can explore and experiment while helping them avoid behavior that is destructive to themselves and others. Because of heightened plasticity, the adolescent brain is predisposed to being shaped by experiences and these experiences are more impactful than previously thought. As teachers, we truly do have once-in-a-lifetime opportunities during the middle school years. Steinberg states, "Exposure to novel and challenging experiences during periods of heightened brain plasticity—like adolescence—actually may keep the window of plasticity open longer…this is how the brain maintains its ability to profit from future enriching experiences" (p. 36).

Our understandings of developmentally appropriate learning environments must change as our understanding of the uniqueness and needs of our students change. We should be mindful of new discoveries about adolescent brain development. They should compel us to design more supportive, yet challenging, learning environments. We cannot assume that all our students are getting the skills at home that are necessary to help them make more appropriate decisions or to be more discriminating in how they respond to others.

Armed with the information gleaned from our new understandings of the adolescent brain, we must act. We demonstrate our value and advocacy for our students by acting. We must be deliberate in how we structure learning experiences—making them engaging and challenging. We must be deliberate in how we interact with other adults and our students—modeling supportive, caring, and inclusive relationships. We must always be aware that our students may misinterpret our words and our actions. We should therefore seek to clarify our intent and to de-escalate situations that could be confrontational. When we act on new knowledge, we demonstrate our value and advocacy for our students.


Steinberg, L. (2014). The age of opportunity: Lessons from the new science of adolescence. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Interview with Dr. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, Frontline: Inside the teenage brain. PBS. Retrieved from

Nita A. Paris, PH.D., a former middle school administrator and public school teacher, is currently a professor of educational psychology in the Department of Secondary and Middle Grades Education at Kennesaw State University, Georgia.

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2019.
Author: Nita A. Paris
Number of views (10224)/Comments (1)/
It's More Than Books

It's More Than Books

Making connections with sports in the middle school classroom

When I taught middle school language arts, one of my students, Matthew, would complain that he was not able to give an explanation about or summarize the poems we were reading in class. However, every Monday he would spend the first part of class talking to friends about the NFL Sunday games. He would discuss the stats, the running backs, how the quarterback was reading the plays, the names of the plays being called, and then compare the teams in the league.

As I listened to Matthew's dialogue, I realized he indeed had the skills for my language arts class (i.e., analyze, summarize, explain) but only used them in relation to NFL games. I knew that a connection had to be made between Matthew's football-talking skills and the ones needed in my classroom.

Over the next few months, I began to connect the language and strategic thinking of sports to the academic language and strategic thinking of the curriculum. In making these connections, I helped make the learning environment inclusive and purposeful for Matthew and other students who shared his literacy skill set. To be inclusive of Matthew's interests, I needed to go beyond just including sports texts in my classroom; I needed to focus on the literacy skills and strategies at which my sports-minded students were already experts.

All teachers know the importance of connecting our students' personal lives to the content we are teaching to make the learning relevant and personal. Many students consider themselves an athlete or a fan of a sports team, so sports is one way to link students' lives to content area classrooms. Vocabulary, analysis, and evidence are three overarching parallels between students' sports metacognitive thinking and learning in the middle school classroom. These three connections offer the opportunity for a natural and organic dialogue to help students build on their strengths and make personal connections to classroom learning.


This We Believe states students and teachers need to be engaged in active, purposeful learning (NMSA, 2010). Many students are able to use the terminology of a sport in a precise way to describe a play, an event, or just a perspective on a game, so why not capitalize on this and engage students in active, purposeful learning?

A cornerstone of any middle school classroom curriculum is the vocabulary that students need to know. The hallmark of vocabulary mastery is when students are able to use the words regularly and own them. One way for students to achieve this mastery is to put word meanings into their own words. Importantly, students would be doing the same thing if they were discussing sports to someone who has never played it.

I would have Matthew explain something about football to one of his classmates who had no idea about the sport. He would use the discourse of the sport to explain a concept in plain, everyday terms. For example, he explained that a field goal is when a ball is kicked through two posts at the end of the field (end zone), and if it makes it through the posts, then that team adds points to the score of the game. The vital next instructional step was to discuss with Matthew that he could do the very same thing when he was learning new content vocabulary.

For example, in history, a student who is learning about ancient civilizations might try explaining Mesopotamia to someone who has never heard about it. "A long time ago this area was home to many civilizations because it was easy to grow food near two rivers" is much easier to remember than "a geographic area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that was home to many ancient civilizations due to its fertile land." The practice of explaining technical/discipline-specific terms in plain language helps students learn the content because they are able to make it their own while using a skill set they already have.


Matthew was able to watch a football game and use his metacognitive strategies to analyze what happened, how it happened, and what needed to be done to improve the plays the next time. This We Believe further states educators should use multiple learning and teaching approaches (NMSA, 2010) to ensure that students are challenged and learn from different angles. Hence, challenging students to use their metacognitive strategies comfortably to analyze the football game to then do a similar analysis in the classroom meets AMLE's call to approach the content from multiple angles.

In many ways, when analyzing a play or game, cause and effect analysis is being used by breaking down multiple steps based on knowledge of the rules of the game. This cause-effect analysis is a skill valued in any content area. For example, in science, students are often asked to analyze different processes, multiple steps, and relationships based on knowledge of scientific principles. Using their knowledge of air pressure, students can analyze a weather system as a series of cause and effect steps. Similarly, based on the basketball rules of two-point and three-point shots, a basketball play can be analyzed into cause and effect steps. Through an authentic dialogue a teacher can build students' ability to meta-cognitively analyze sports into confidence in their analysis skills in the middle school curriculum.

By using this technique, Matthew was able to recognize that being able to analyze is a skill that is evident in life, both in and out of school, and what he does in one part of his life is valued in another.

Supporting Evidence

Students frequently reach a conclusion or state an opinion but struggle to support the why or how with evidence. However, in sports, students often support their choices of players or back up a claim about a sport they watch. When a teacher is able to show a student that he or she is able to support their claims and opinions in sports, and that this skill is valuable in the classroom, a teacher is following a characteristic of This We Believe … that educators value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them (NMSA, 2010).

Matthew was a great example of this evidence-based argument skill set. After his favorite NFL team lost, Matthew was able to discuss the reasons his team lost (i.e., referee calls, missed field goals, turnovers that resulted in touchdowns for the other team). This ability to use evidence to support a conclusion is exactly the evidence-based argument that we want our students to make in our classroom. Matthew could not simply state there were bad calls in the game, but instead he needed to explain why the bad calls were made and what the results of the bad calls were. The same principle applies when making an argument in the classroom.

For example, in the language arts classroom, a student must be able to support a claim about why a character acted in a certain way or why an author chose a particular point of view. Supporting a claim is often done by comparing and contrasting evidence from multiple sources and using textual evidence. A teacher can build from students' evidence-based argument skills deftly used in sports to enhance the same evidence-based argument in the classroom.


By the end of the year, Matthew was able to use his sports skills in the classroom and do so without having to be reminded or made aware of the connection. I delighted in seeing Matthew realize his potential but also recognize that his football skills were applicable for and valued in the classroom. As teachers, we must remember that sports are not a classroom distraction but rather represent positive skill sets many students can use. If we are able to reach the disconnect between sports and academics early in a child's life by seeing our students' sports-minded skills as transferrable, we have the opportunity to close this gap and see successful students in all classrooms.


NMSA. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.

Pamela H. Segal, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of literacy at Towson University, Towson, Maryland, and a former ELA middle school teacher.

Montana K. McCormick, Ph.D. is an associate professor of literacy at Towson University, Towson, Maryland, and a former ELA middle school teacher.

Published in AMLE Magazine, Feburary 2019.
Author: Pamela H. Segal, Montana K. McCormick
Number of views (4259)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
Curriculum is Not the Answer

Curriculum is Not the Answer

It's about the people who bring learning to life

Ok, so before you start freaking out and telling me how important curriculum is in a school, let me preface this whole article by saying that yes, curriculum is a very important part of a school's program. The purpose of this article is to clarify the purpose curriculum should serve, expound on my experiences using curriculum as a panacea, and explain why schools are still, at their core, a people business.

What Should Curriculum Do?

Curriculum, in its ideal state, should define the learning and pedagogical priorities of a school. There is a vast difference between offering a course called Basic English and Female Superheroes in Literature. Which one would you rather take? The content of any curriculum should teach kids technical skills in the context of ideas and material that is interesting to them. Sorry to the "purists" out there, but I just don't see much use for teaching Shakespeare to a bunch of middle school students. If you want students to learn how to read more difficult and complex material, why not give them options that focus on material they can identify with and relate to?

Additionally, curriculum should reflect the pedagogical preferences of a teacher, school, or district. If a curriculum guide is filled with worksheets, pages in textbooks, and amorphous ideas about concepts, then you can readily imagine what that particular classroom will look and feel like. If, however, you have a dynamic curriculum that includes ideas for project-based learning, multiple means of assessment, is technology rich, and incorporates collaborative learning, then you can easily imagine an engaged and eager student body.

Are You an Expert or Something?

For four years I led the technology department at a technology magnet school. I believed, more or less, that if only I could find or write the perfect curriculum, that would solve every conceivable problem out there. My colleague, Robby, and I wrote a grant proposal that ended up getting funded for $20,000 per year for three years to write and develop a class called Innovative Minds, whose focus was solely on having middle school students use technology to solve real world problems.

We added courses in which students learned to code by developing their own video games; students built robots and programmed them to perform any number of actions; and students designed their own products using a computer aided design program that they saw come to fruition via a 3D printer. All of these were exceptionally cool ideas for curricula focused on having students learn difficult concepts in the guise of fun and interesting byproducts (games, 3D objects, apps, etc.). We were able to boost the demand for the school and become a model for how to use technology to enhance learning.

Teaching is Still a People Business

After four years of pursuing the curriculum path, however, we still continued to have gaps in achievement that were predictable by race. We had periodic disruptions to learning from students who were not engaged or interested in the course content (although to a much lesser extent). After several years ruminating on this I concluded that curriculum is not the answer. Yes, we had much better course offerings and content within those courses than just about any other school out there. Yes, we figured out ways to make courses relevant to student lives and gave them choices about what and how they learned. At its heart, however, teaching is still a teaching business. And I say this with the knowledge that there were excellent teachers instructing students in the aforementioned Innovative Minds program. The quality of the individual that the students see every day makes a greater difference in student engagement than the content they learn. Students will learn about dramatically less intrinsically interesting subjects if they believe in the adult in their classroom and know that the adult in their classroom believes in them. I can write the best curriculum in the world but if there is not a skilled educator who can shape those ideas to the specifics of each of their students on a daily basis, then I can already predict the results in that classroom.

As schools continue to look for ways to engage students as 21st century learners, by all means, examine curriculum and get the best of what's available. Don't forget, however, that curriculum alone will not magically improve a school. The deft hands of an expert are needed to mold that curriculum to the needs of the students in their classroom.

Peter Crable is assistant principal at White Oak Middle School, Silver Spring, Maryland.
Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2019.
Author: Peter Crable
Number of views (4048)/Comments (2)/
Help! My Students Write Like They Text!

Help! My Students Write Like They Text!

Using code-switching to improve writing

IMHO, LOL, OIC, OMG. If you've recently graded middle school or high school writing, chances are you've read terms like these; or my favorite, "wtf - idk" which also happened to be an answer on a student's quiz. As a middle school English teacher, I became more and more perplexed to see students using texting talk on their homework and classroom writing assignments; not to mention answers on the writing portion of the state standardized test. My students were not differentiating appropriate writing contexts. The answers written on the unit test were written the same way they invited their friends to hang @ *$ (Starbucks).

It was 2005, and almost every one of my 140 eighth graders had their own cell phone; much of the time it was a model newer than mine. In my school district, the majority of discipline referrals between 2006 and 2008 were written due to student cell phone misuse. The clever students were able to text answers to a student in another class by blindly texting from their hoodie pockets. Students who could escape teacher view would take a photo of someone else's completed work to copy later. Sneakiness had a new platform. Confiscating cell phones meant calls l8r (later) from angry parents. My colleagues and I were fighting a losing battle and our students were ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing).


The greatest challenge from cell phones was the birth of text talk. It was the first decade of the 21st century and the plague of textspeak was spreading. Textspeak is not limited to a few localized, quirky acronyms; sociolinguistics accept textspeak as its own genre of reading and writing. The texting language has become so ubiquitous that phrases are being included in dictionaries as an accepted word in the English language. The pervasiveness of texting among adolescents has even earned the term "youth code" because it is the primary language of America's modern youth (Durkin, Conti-Ramsden, & Walker, 2011).

Those most affected, by far, are adolescents. Kids between the ages of 13 and 17 send an average of 3,364 text messages each month, which is more than any other age group (Cingel & Sundar, 2012). This doubles the amount of text messages sent by adults aged 18–24, which is 1,640. Text messaging is becoming the most preferred method of communication, as exhibited by the 200,000 text messages sent per second across the globe (Grace, Kemp, Martin, & Parrila, 2013).

Chances are, if you teach in secondary education, you are currently dealing with a similar issue. You are not alone. Across America, middle school and high school teachers are simultaneously banging their heads against whiteboards. They are frustrated by the lack of capitalization and punctuation; with each missing vowel their discouragement grows.

There is hope for the English language and optimism for our moldable students. The answer, however, may be one that you aren't quite ready to accept. The remedy isn't in a new and improved cell phone school policy, screen surveillance software, or reinstitution of spelling curriculum. It's in the adjustment of educator attitudes and our understanding of the evolution of language.

Everyone is a new language learner despite cultural demographics, age, or situation. Humans are constantly learning new words, phrases, and terminology, and being exposed to new dialects and accents. Essentially, textspeak is a new and acceptable language constructed by its authors to meet their communication needs. This may be heartbreaking news for the classroom teacher. I know my high school English teacher would roll over in her grave if she thought a lowercase "i" had become an acceptable practice in English language. However, textspeak isn't any different from other practices that have created an efficiency in communication.

It's Like Old-Style Communications

Think of the telegraph. This was a turning point for communication. When communication is costly or cumbersome, abbreviations are necessary. Morse code is a prime historical example. Stenography, or shorthand, also was invented to expedite communication. In 1837 an educator by the name of Sir Isaac Pitman developed the most widely used shorthand system based on omitting vowels; the most popular strategy used in textspeak. A stenotype machine was also invented, which used a keyboard and required the operator to use all fingers and thumbs. Hmmm, that sounds familiar.

Various connections can be made between shorthand and texting. Nearly 300 research studies have been done on the reading and writing of shorthand. The results indicate that, "Good readers of shorthand were also good readers of print," (Anderson, 1981, par. 3). One study (Bloom, 2010) found that there was an increase in the reading ability of children when they began texting, which again illustrates that an individual must have a solid understanding of language in order to manipulate it creatively.

Language in Context

As educators, we tirelessly teach students to identify the speaker's tone and the author's purpose in a text (major components in the Common Core Career and Readiness Standards). Similar to identifying the author's tone, digital natives are well rehearsed in recognizing virtual body language, or the voice of the author in a text or an email.

Our job is to teach the appropriate utilization and further students' understanding of language in context. It's not necessary to know all the latest terms in textspeak. What's important is that educators are open to the possibilities of translanguaging and the depth of learning that various codes can bring to a classroom.

Code-switching is the skill of transitioning back and forth between formal and casual registers of language depending on context and setting. In an academic setting, which relies on technology, lines between codes can become blurred. This is especially true as more schools are moving to one-to-one technology programs. Students' academic work is now being housed in the same platform used for their entertainment and social exchanges. This can create blurred lines for adolescent brains.

Teachers need to give explicit instructions about the type of language that is appropriate to use in each classroom platform, like discussion board forums or online communications between classmates. Negotiating the code or allowing students to help decide which rules of language will be followed during certain class activities can assist both students and teachers.

What Can Teachers Do?

Teachers are encouraged to adopt a new flexible attitude towards language and permit students to journal, communicate, and brainstorm in textspeak during appropriate times. If students are journaling, or collaboratively brainstorming for a research project, then their primary mode of communication should be acceptable. For middle and high school students this will most likely not be standard English. Students may find it easier to get thoughts out if they do not have to translate to formal language during the brainstorming process.

A common teaching practice for students who are learning English is to allow them to think and initially respond in their primary language. Asking students to identify what type of language in which they "think" will help them to identify their primary language.

Primary language, usually defined by what language you speak everyday or were taught by your parents, does not have to be limited to English, Spanish, or Arabic. Drill down to the actual dialect and register in which students communicate. That is the space where their primary language lies; it's the voice they hear when they think.

During a research writing process, students will read excerpts from articles and peer reviewed journals. Examine the writing of these documents with students and contrast the language used with your classes' previous work. How does it differ from higher academic writing? What does the writing style, vocabulary, word choice, and tone say about the author? Students quickly identify the expert tone of the formal writing style, and the credibility easily given to works with specific and well thought academic word choice. This can be done in every subject area and with any writing assignment.

Translating text calls on a student's highest order of thinking. In order to translate, one must decode, read for meaning, synthesize the information, formulate ideas, then reassemble the information in a new way, while keeping in mind appropriate vocabulary and tone. This function is an excellent form of formative assessment to gauge the depth of student understanding. One way to engage students in this task is to ask them to review recent text messages, or chat history. Ask them to rewrite the message as if they were writing it to the principal or an employer, all the while reviewing the discussion on language registers.

It's not easy to allow students to comfortably express themselves, while preparing them for a professional world built on written and verbal communication. The key is in understanding the evolution of students and their language, and to constantly be ISO (in search of) strategies to support our textspeaking learners.


Anderson, R. (1981). Research in shorthand and transcription. The Journal of Business Education. 23(6).

Bloom, A. (2010). Texting aids literacy: Study confounds popular prejudice. The Times Educational Supplement, 17.

Cingel, D., & Sundar, D. (2012). Texting, techspeak, and tweens: The relationship between text messaging and English grammar skills. New Media Society, 14(8), 1304-1320.

Durkin, K., Conti-Ramsden, G. & Walker, A.J. (2011) Txt Lang: Texting, textism use and literacy abilities in adolescents with and without specific language impairment. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 27(1), 49-57.

Grace, A., Kemp, N., Martin, F.H. & Parrila, R. (2013). Undergraduates' text messaging language and literacy skills. doi: 10.1007/s11145-013-9471-2

Jennifer French, ED.D. is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment at South Vermillion Community Schools, Clinton, Indiana.

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2019.
Author: Jennifer French
Number of views (6102)/Comments (1)/
Redefining Learning Without Computers

Redefining Learning Without Computers

Repurposing available tools in new and innovative ways to transform learning

We've all had those days when technology doesn't cooperate, leaving that innovative lesson plan we've worked so hard on to fall apart. I crafted a differentiated lesson using a popular web-based educational technology (ed tech) software for a drawing unit. Enthusiasm quickly dissipated when 32 of my 36 students couldn't even access the Internet.

As I reflected on this disastrous day of teaching, I was reminded of an ed tech reality that presents a popular dilemma: using netbook laptops does not necessarily produce learning in the classroom, using expensive tablets and LMS systems do not guarantee learning in the classroom, and teachers cannot simply substitute technologies for traditional instructional methods and expect results. Results come from transforming instructional learning experiences to engage students on deeper levels and give significance to content.

Obstacles in Ed Tech

Reflecting on days like the one above has motivated me to share a positive experience that illustrates how it's possible to weave technology into classrooms to achieve mastery and engagement. The following examples illustrate that despite roadblocks we too often encounter, teachers can successfully integrate technology to transform instruction.

Many educators do not realize that any tool repurposed to achieve a more efficient and engaging learning experience is educational technology. A piece of paper repurposed for use as an argumentative brochure is technology. A whiteboard used as a hands-on "chalk talk" symposium is technology. Educational technology does not have to involve high-end computers or tablets—any device used for instruction can be repurposed as new technology. Having a misunderstanding of educational technology is common, often causing hesitation and a general sense of overwhelming pressure.

Fear and failure are inevitable as teachers expand their instructional repertoire. Educational technology is no different. Take for example the collapse of my LMS drawing unit. Innovative, yes, but successful in reaching and engaging all of my students, definitely not.

With American schools spending billions of dollars on classroom technology, the fear of failure cannot handicap teachers as they plan their learning experiences. Educators need to buy in to the idea that through the use of technology (computers as well as whiteboards), they can meaningfully redesign and redefine learning to further engage and connect students to the world around them.

Transforming lessons using educational technology is ideal. But what if your school doesn't have access to computers, multimedia software, cameras, wireless Internet, or resources on ed tech? Redefinition is still possible.


Redefining Learning without Computers

By transforming ed tech in our classrooms, we can completely redesign learning experiences, making them more meaningful for our students. To support this shift, Dr. Ruben Puentedura's Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition (SAMR) model presents a way to weave all levels of ed tech seamlessly into our curriculum. The end goal for the SAMR model is to redesign instruction by providing students higher levels of understanding through educational technology while making connections to 21st century learning skills. The model is a laddered progression between substitution, augmentation, modification, and redefinition. No rung of the ladder is necessarily bad to stand on; teachers will spend time on each step no matter how ingrained technology is in their curriculum.


In October 2016, six teachers in my building had committed to collaboratively organize a Community Night event that led to redefined learning experiences throughout the grade levels. These projects represented a diverse sampling of technology in the classroom: there were multimedia PSAs created using computer technology and animation platforms, five-foot tall painted murals, and 213 ceramic bowls created with the intent to raise money. Not every teacher used traditional technology to showcase student learning; teachers repurposed available tools in new and innovative ways, redefining the educational experience for our students.

Science Fair

To showcase sixth grade student success and mastery of science curriculum, students worked in pairs to create a project relating to content. This project required students to substitute books for digital research to expand content knowledge, modify poster boards to illustrate their learning through visual media, augment the Google Drive system to collaborate with their peers digitally, and supplement traditional invitations with tweets sharing information about the event.

In other words, the science teacher used various forms of technology to create a completely new task that was previously inconceivable and provided greater learning than a test. The majority of these projects used repurposed materials found in a science lab to prove their findings; expensive technology, again, not necessary.

Hunger PSAs

To engage the eighth grade class, teachers focused on reading articles and doing math activities on the statistics of hunger locally and throughout the country. To extend learning beyond the confines of an assessment's rigid structure, students created public service announcements focused on hunger issues, connecting course content to meaningful real-world issues. Teachers redefined iMovie and other web-based technology to provide a project that was previously inconceivable without access to technology. Students' PSAs and other multimedia projects were displayed on a projector during Community Night.

Empty Bowls

The hunger epidemic is an unwanted guest in the homes of many of our district's students. To reduce and eliminate hunger in the community, the students and I organized an Empty Bowls Fundraiser to raise money to donate to the local food bank. Empty Bowls ( is a community-based service project in which students create a bowl out of clay, then host an event where family, friends, or people from the community come and purchase a bowl. With the purchase of a bowl, they will be given a meal of soup and bread, and 100% of the proceeds benefit a charity working to end hunger. Guests are asked to keep their bowl as a symbol of the empty bowls around the world.

To inspire student creativity and compassion, art students discussed the issue of global and local hunger. Students brainstormed how they could make a difference in the fight to end hunger and participated in the planning and organization of the event. Each grade had different inspiration for the design of their bowls; all required research and brainstorming. I integrated technology intermittently through the project, augmenting demonstration videos as differentiated instruction and modifying the students' sketchbooks to be interactive "inspiration boards." Students redefined their own learning with non-digital technology as they found new uses for everyday art room materials: toothpicks to carve designs in their bowls, the texture a popsicle stick makes when it's pushed into the clay, using a PVC pipe to cut perfect circles as decorations, and so on.

Instruction was on all levels of the SAMR ladder throughout this process. The Empty Bowls project was a tool I redesigned that allowed for the creation of a completely new task: redefining content (how to use clay) into an empathetic, powerful learning experience for students (no expensive computers or tablets necessary). Student learning was pushed beyond the content knowledge of clay building and the art curriculum to actually organize an event that demonstrated the students' ability to connect old and new learning while developing an important empathetic perspective.

Pulsera Project

To build on the art students' hunger study, the seventh grade Spanish and social studies teachers teamed together to design a learning experience based on the economic disparity between five dollars in America and Central American countries. Instead of writing an essay to assess mastery of these concepts, teachers redefined the learning experience by letting students collaborate using various forms of technology to illustrate their understanding of the wealth imbalance. Students created multimedia projects such as murals, animation videos, and digital infographics to demonstrate what they learned about the value of a dollar and costs of living.

Additionally, students sold bracelets through the Pulsera Project (, a nonprofit organization that educates, empowers, and connects Central American artists with students in more than 1,600 U.S. schools through the sale of colorful handwoven bracelets, or "pulseras" in Spanish. Seventh grade students set up a sales table during lunch for a week leading up to the Community Night event, selling bracelets to their peers. The majority of sales came from the constant flow of guests who attended Community Night, purchasing bracelets from the brightly decorated table run by volunteer students.

Again, learning was augmented, modified, and redefined through the use of traditional technology (i.e., netbook laptops) and repurposed tools that became new technology (i.e., large paper rolls used to create murals). In a cross-curricular effort, teachers redesigned a unit focused on currency and Spanish cultures into a significant learning experience that pushed students to connect their classwork to the outside world and implement real, positive change.

Community Engagement and Technology

With the complete transformation of learning and instruction across the building, Community Night was a tremendous success. Teachers and students raised more than $3,000 to aid local and global efforts to improve living conditions and provide essential food items to those without. The building was abuzz with family members, students past and present, the city's mayor, local newspaper reporters, and district personnel. The turnout was greater than that of fall parent-teacher conferences. And to think, the technology used to make this Community Night experience possible varied dramatically—from online design platforms to a bag of clay. The teachers in my building truly understood that educational technology can be anything substituted, augmented, modified, or redefined to design a deeply meaningful learning experience for students.

SAMR Model Resources

Dr. Ruben R. Puentedura's, "SAMR: Beyond The Basics"

Introduction to the SAMR Model.

SAMR Model - Technology Is Learning.

Ellen Gessert is a middle school art teacher in Milan, Michigan, currently working towards her Master's in educational technology through Michigan State University.

The author wishes to thank the following editors and contributors: Lindsey Segrist, Elizabeth Kur, Stacy Sutter, and David Schmittou.

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2019.
Author: Ellen Gessert
Number of views (1552)/Comments (0)/
Humor? Yes, Please!

Humor? Yes, Please!

Embracing humor in the classroom invites creativity, reduces stress, and enhances retention

"Laughter is the shortest distance between two people."
– Victor Borge

In my first year of teaching, I taught kindergarten. There are moments from that year that parallel later moments teaching middle school because in both, students are figuring out the spoken and unspoken protocols of school and society. They'd often interpret things mistakenly and literally, channeling Peggy Parish's famous Amelia Bedelia character. My colleague teacher that first year told me this story, and it reflects many of the gentle, yet humorous, misunderstandings my middle school students in later years expressed:

On the first day of school, the kindergarten teacher said, "If anyone has to go to the bathroom, hold up two fingers." A little voice from the back of the room asked, "How will that help?"

We can see that uncertain student sitting at a back table asking the question in complete sincerity. The insensitive path, of course, would be to join the student's classmates who laugh at the clueless inquiry, or even if we don't join them, to say nothing when they laugh at their classmate. No one wants to be laughed at. It's never appropriate in any situation in any middle school at any time to laugh at the incompetence or lack of awareness of any student. Yeah, I know this is a large, unequivocal statement, but wow, it's true. Even if a student laughs along with everyone else in the moment without knowing what is so funny, he is using it to mask humiliation and to prove he belongs.

The misunderstanding is funny, however. One of the elements of humor is the surprise disconnect between something understood or expected, and what actually happens or is said. In a situation like that of the kindergartener, we might smile in acceptance of the misinterpretation, gently clarify the raised fingers as a signal for the need to use the restroom, and move on as if it was completely normal to misinterpret a direction and no big deal to get clarification. We might even express a discreet gratitude to the student a few minutes later for calling our attention to the erroneous assumption of clarity on our part, thereby showing respect for the student's careful attention.

Humor can be an awkward thing in the classroom, as it is risky: Will what we think is funny be funny to our students? Will our joke "bomb" or hurt feelings? Do students have the life experience to understand the humorous connection we make? Should we mention this funny thing publicly or keep it private between us and the one student? If we are light-hearted or silly in one moment of the lesson, will we come across as not serious enough about learning? If students laugh, will we lose control of the class? Is this humorous moment advancing students' learning or is it taking time from our studies that we don't have?

Let's Give It a Try
It's worth exploring the possibilities, however. Here's an attempt at middle school humor I made years ago while teaching life science (You have to say the punchline aloud for it to work): "What did the German cytologist (someone who studies cells) exclaim when he dropped the microscope on his foot? Ack, mitosis broken!" [Amidst your applause, let me remind you that I'm here all week ... Tell your family and friends.] Puns, humorous mnemonics, and funny interpretations of words work well in a middle school classroom. They are relatively easy to generate, which is fun for students, and they give students permission to play with language, both of which are positives. I know in our geometry lessons we sometimes go off on a tangent, but we're coming at it from a different angle, right? It parallels what we do in other subjects. Do you get the point? … Again, I'm here all week.

Middle school students love anything that challenges conventions, too, particularly if it's humorous. As we teach them the power of conventions, we can ask them to play music with a 4/4 time signature using a weird new syncopation, and demonstrate how it completely changes the piece. We can ask them to not account for proper lab procedures in an experiment, thereby invalidating any results. We can ask them to realize the power of punctuation with these two examples (and to write their own versions!): "Let's eat, Dad!" vs "Let's eat Dad," and the classic,

An English professor wrote the words, "A woman without her man is nothing," on the blackboard and directed the students to punctuate it correctly. The men wrote: "A woman, without her man, is nothing," while the women wrote, "A woman: without her, man is nothing."

Suddenly, here in the middle of this column, I have to ask you, the reader: What does this depict?


Stumped? It's the middle of nowhere. Hah! I am seriously too funny for this magazine.

Wow, that was a jarring, non-sequitur moment. It was silly and seemingly had nothing to do with this column's flow; it just appeared. Absurdism and random insertion of something unrelated to the topic—but later found to be related to the topic or somehow insightful—actually play well with middle school students. They hold attention, pulling wandering minds back into focus, and they're fun. And if we've used them before, they create an unspoken anticipation for the surprises to come. Try to find a way to incorporate a non-sequitur, absurdist experience into your lessons once or twice a week. Here are some examples you can use in the middle of your lesson:

  • Stop mid-sentence in your explanation of something and declare in a newscaster's voice, "We now interrupt today's lesson with this breaking news report: [Insert something about which students need reminding] We now return you to your normal class programming already in progress. [Pick up with the rest of the sentence you interrupted earlier as if nothing happened.]

  • Teach while holding an umbrella over your head, as if it were raining only on you. Don't say anything about it. If a student comments on why you're holding it indoors and it's not raining, tell him that in your reality it is raining and that you'd kindly like him to be careful where he walks as he is splashing through puddles right and left. As you walk in the classroom yourself (and be sure to do so), step over and around imaginary rain puddles, and occasionally stick out a hand, palm up, to see if it's still raining. There's a child-like playfulness here that catches students unaware and invites imagination. In some cases, it even makes them nostalgic.

  • If you're at the front of the class and have to sneeze, and there's a whiteboard with important information for students behind you, sneeze as exaggeratedly as you can, leaping backwards simultaneously, landing with your arms sprawled out in different angles against the wall, as if the sneeze was so powerful it blew you back there. From your "splatted" position against the whiteboard or bulletin board, grow curious about where your hands landed or your fingers are pointing. Lean in to those elements, take on the character of a detective and declare to the class, "Hold up now—I wonder if this might be a clue to something important!"

  • At the end of homework or assessment questions on content, throw in a question about something completely unrelated, but interesting to answer. For example, after several math problems or social studies reading comprehension questions ask, "If you had a superhero power, what would it be and why?" "For what do you have more use in your life: parallel or perpendicular lines?" "What advice would you give someone just starting middle school?" "Describe a time when you laughed so hard that what you were drinking at the time came out of your nose."

  • When writing sentences or equations on the front screen or whiteboard, insert something bizarrely unrelated to the content, such as a picture of an apple saying, "Howdy!," a student's name, or a favorite movie line, in the middle of what you're writing and smile when someone notices. Later, work whatever you inserted randomly into the lesson into the later content meaningfully.

  • If you have the same set of rituals and lesson sequence every day, once or twice during the year, do the rituals and sequence backwards.

  • In the middle of a lesson, start dancing in a recognizable dance move to a tune only you can hear in your head. A student whom you recruited prior to the lesson to join you comes up, dances with you for 30 seconds, then he returns to his seat and you continue your lesson as if nothing were awry. Note the increased oxygen in your brain and that of the student's.

  • On the extra credit section of your next test, write the classic prompt, "For extra credit, define the universe. Give three examples."

Satire and parody are also appealing to middle school students as they begin to perceive the fallibility of adults and institutions yet need a constructive way to make sense of these new perceptions, and not take the disillusionment too seriously. They also like to poke fun at things long thought unassailable, exploring the possibilities of rising cleverness. Here's one by Marielle Cartier, executive director of Alliance for Canada's Audio-Visual Heritage from the 1990s, that usually gets them started (Note: To modernize this a bit, change, "CD-ROM," to, "a folder or two on your smart phone"):

Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge Device

The "BOOK" is a revolutionary breakthrough in technology: no wires, no electric circuits, no batteries, nothing to be connected or switched on. It's so easy to use even a child can operate it. Just lift its cover! Compact and portable, it can be used anywhere—even sitting in an armchair by the fire—yet it is powerful enough to hold as much information as a CD-ROM disc. Here's how it works ...

Each BOOK is constructed of sequentially numbered sheets of paper (recyclable), each capable of holding thousands of bits of information. These pages are locked together with a custom-fit device called a binder, which keeps the sheets in their correct sequence. Opaque Paper Technology (OPT) allows manufacturers to use both sides of the sheet, doubling the information density and cutting costs in half. Experts are divided on the prospects for further increases in information density; for now BOOKs with more information simply use more pages. This makes them thicker and harder to carry, and has drawn some criticism from the mobile computing crowd. Each sheet is scanned optically, registering information directly into your brain. A flick of the finger takes you to the next sheet. The BOOK may be taken up at any time and used by merely opening it. The BOOK never crashes and never needs rebooting, though like other display devices it can become unusable if dropped overboard. The "browse" feature allows you to move instantly to any sheet, and move forward or backward as you wish. Many come with an "index" feature, which pinpoints the exact location of any selected information for instant retrieval.

An optional "BOOKmark" accessory allows you to open the BOOK to the exact place you left it in a previous session—even if the BOOK has been closed. BOOKmarks fit universal design standards; thus, a single BOOKmark can be used in BOOKs by various manufacturers.

Conversely, numerous bookmarkers can be used in a single BOOK if the user wants to store numerous views at once. The number is limited only by the number of pages in the BOOK.

The media is ideal for long-term archive use. Several field trials have proven that the media will still be readable in several centuries, and because of its simple user interface it will be compatible with future reading devices.

You can also make personal notes next to BOOK text entries with an optional programming tool, the Portable Erasable Nib Cryptic Intercommunication Language Stylus (Pencils). Portable, durable, and affordable, the BOOK is being hailed as the entertainment wave of the future. The BOOK's appeal seems so certain that thousands of content creators have committed to the platform. Look for a flood of new titles soon.

The Instruction Impact of Humor

In his article, "Using Humor in the Classroom" (, NeaToday writer, Robert McNeely, reminds us, "When teachers share a laugh or a smile with students, they help students feel more comfortable and open to learning. Using humor brings enthusiasm, positive feelings, and optimism to the classroom." He continues with comments from researcher and author of Using Humor to Maximize Learning (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2007), Mary Kay Morrison, who says, "We're finding humor actually lights up more of the brain than many other functions in a classroom. In other words, if you're listening just auditorily in a classroom, one small part of the brain lights up, but humor maximizes learning and strengthens memories."

Former high school English teacher and graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education's Mind, Brain, and Teaching, Sarah Henderson adds to this neurological and learning benefit:

Essentially, humor activates our sense of wonder, which is where learning begins … Neuroscience research reveals that humor systematically activates the brain's dopamine reward system, and cognitive studies show that dopamine is important for both goal-oriented motivation and long-term memory, while educational research indicates that correctly-used humor can be an effective intervention to improve retention in students from kindergarten through college.

And even more interesting for middle and high school teachers, Henderson asks us to,

[C]onsider the research showing that adolescents tend to release more dopamine and have more dopamine receptors than adults. Because of their hyper-responsive dopamine reward system, adolescents may be uniquely primed to react positively to educational humor. Try telling a funny story or allowing your students to come up with humorous examples in their projects or discussions. Teach Like a Pirate [Dave Burgess] has some great ideas for enhancing the humor in a high school classroom. (

In his article, "Humor: An instructional strategy to rejuvenate mundane teaching," Professor Ranan Bala (Man in India, 96(5):1271-1276, Serials Publications, June 2016) cites the research declaring humor as a good way to lower stress:

It can help in reducing student anxiety, upholding attention and improve learning outcomes (Gorham & Christophel, 1990; Korobkin, 1998; Wanzer & Frymier, 1999; White, 2001) … Humor can be profitably utilized to communicate inherent classroom rules, building rapport and developing understanding between the instructor and the students (Proctor, 1994).

He also cites research on the connection between humor and student creativity: "A study conducted by Roeckelein (2002) reveals that, 'Humor facilitates creative process and stimulates children to think out of the box, view things from different and unusual angles and finally come up with new ideas.'" When it comes to higher education, professors of pharmacy at Southern Illinois University, Dr. Therese Poirier and Dr. Mirand Wilhelm agree:

Appropriate use of humor can enhance retention, increase learning, improve problem solving, relieve stress, reduce test anxiety, and increase perceptions of faculty credibility. It also enhances students' attitudes toward the faculty member and can make the faculty member more likeable. "Use of Humor to Enhance Learning:
Bull's Eye or Off the Mark,"

American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, March 2014

In a fascinating study on instructional use of humor (Garner, R.L. "Humor in Pedagogy: How Haha Can Lead to Aha!," College Teaching, 2006), Garner demonstrated the clear improvements to learning that occur with the use of humor. Here is how University of Maryland doctoral candidate, Robert Eagen, describes the Garner experiment in his October 30, 2011, blog, "The Benefits of Humor in the Classroom" (

Garner [explains] ... a study he performed looking at the effects of humor in asynchronous distance learning and discusses the merits and hazards of using comedy to teach. The study involved 114 students who watched a series of three forty-minute recorded lectures on research methods and statistics. Both the experimental group and the control group watched the same recorded lectures with one exception. Three humorous stories or metaphors included in each of the lectures in the experimental group were seamlessly edited out of the control group's lectures. The subjects were asked to rate the presentations after watching each one and again after finishing all three. After finishing all three lectures, the subjects were assessed on their retention of the material presented ... Students indicated in the "humor" group that the information was communicated more effectively ... Further, the students in the experimental group were significantly more able to recall and retain the knowledge from the lectures.

In his June 2012 article, "Humor is a Test of Character: Why Our Classrooms Need More Joy and Laughter," Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court Correspondent for The Economist, Steven Mazie gathers all the research into coherent focus for us teachers:

The idea is not for teachers to take on the additional burden of being stand-up comics … It is for educators to appreciate that unmitigated solemnity isn't a prescription for success, and to find some ways to bring humor into their students' educational experiences.

And for us in middle or high school, in particular, there is instructional "gold" in the use of classroom humor. Mazie writes,

As Wallace et al. relate in a recent study of adolescent development: [T]eachers' use of humor played a role in how students perceived being known by that teacher. To effectively use humor required shared experience and a certain level of nuanced knowledge of that student's personal history. In turn, a kind of reciprocity in attention and respect developed between students and their teachers … A classroom culture where laughter thrives can break down social barriers and enable closer relationships among students and between students and their teacher. It is, in Stephen Colbert's words, a 'lubricant of social interaction' that teaches toleration and good citizenship. What you find funny, says Colbert in this uncommonly earnest clip, is a test of your character." (

We don't need to be comedians, as Mazie says, but we can be open to humor in our classrooms, embracing it when it happens by accident, orchestrating it when it is sorely needed to liberate, relax, and connect students to content and one another. "Don't smile until Christmas," is one of the worst pieces of teaching advice ever uttered. "Smile from day one," is the stuff of community and effective instruction.

Whether you use it in the classroom as an ice-breaker or in a lesson about checking to make sure your intended audience understands abbreviations and cultural references, or you just want to laugh on your own, here's one more, tailor-made for young adolescents (It has bathroom humor!) to make you smile.

The story goes that on February 10, 1960, Jack Paar, the then-host of "The Tonight Show," told a joke based on an innocent mix-up involving the initials, "W.C." The NBC censors cut it from the broadcast, and as a result, Jack Paar quit as the host of, "The Tonight Show." See the sidebar for that funny story Jack wanted to tell that has since gone on to become a classic in many middle school classrooms.

The W.C. Story

An English lady visiting in Switzerland was looking for a room and she asked the schoolmaster if he could recommend one. He took her to see several rooms, and when everything was settled, the lady returned home to make final preparations to move. When she arrived home, the thought occurred to her that she had not seen a “W.C.” in the place. (A “W.C.” is a “water closet” or a bathroom.) So, she immediately wrote a note to the school master asking if there was a W.C. in the place. The school master was very poor in English, so he asked the parish priest if he could help. Together they tried to find the meaning of the letters, W.C. The only solution they could find was “Wayside Chapel.” The school master then wrote the following letter:

My Dear Madam:

I take great pleasure in informing you that the W.C. is situated nine miles from the house in the center of a beautiful grove of pine trees surrounded by lovely grounds. It is capable of holding 229 people, and it is open on Sundays and Thursdays only. As there are a great number of people expected during the summer months, I suggest that you come early, although usually there is plenty of standing room. This is an unfortunate situation, especially if you are in the habit of going regularly. It may be of some interest to know that my daughter was married in the W.C., and it was there that she met her husband. I can remember the rush for seats. There were ten people to every seat usually occupied by one. It was wonderful to see the expressions on their faces.

You will be glad to hear that a good number of people bring their lunch and make a day of it, while those who can afford to go by car arrive just on time. I would especially recommend your ladyship to go on Thursdays when there is organ accompaniment. The acoustics are excellent, and even the most delicate sounds can be heard everywhere.

The newest addition is a bell donated by a wealthy resident of the district. It rings every time a person enters. A bazaar is to be held to provide for plush seats for all, since the people feel it is long needed. My wife is rather delicate so she cannot attend regularly. It is almost a year since she went last, and naturally it pains her very much not to be able to go more often.

I shall be delighted to reserve the best seat for you, where you shall be seen by all. For the children, there is a special day and time so that they do not disturb the elders. Hoping to be of some service to you.

The Schoolmaster

Decades ago, I wrote about how much I loved being a middle school teacher because we are on the front lines of humanity at its most honest, curious self. As our students progress into whomever they will become physically, emotionally, and intellectually, they sometimes process knowledge and respond to life in humorous ways. We extend an empathetic hand and accept them as they are, demonstrating daily our commitment to share the path forward, including how to find the funny and joyous in life. Classrooms devoid of humor and joy confirm insecure students' worst fears: that they are alone, there is nothing worth knowing, and it doesn't get better. Learning and connection don't happen in places like this, and middle schools are fundamentally about both.

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from His 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 in AMLE Magazine, February 2019.
Author: Rick Wormeli
Number of views (8754)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
Mrs. Chandler, I Have This Idea…

Mrs. Chandler, I Have This Idea…

Independent reading assignments open students' minds and hearts

One of my favorite days of the year is when I give students their first independent reading assignment. I believe the best way to keep the love of reading alive is for students to read what they love and share their experience with their peers in a way that is novel and doesn't detract from the experience of reading itself, but instead deepens it.

When I hand out the menu of options, I share some examples of what others have done before them. I watch as my self-proclaimed "theater geeks" bubble over with excitement that they can write a skit, do a monologue, or design a set for a scene from the book. They can barely contain themselves when I tell them about my student a few years ago who staged a wake for a character in the book who had not had a proper funeral, at least according to my student.

As I tell them about the sheet music a young pianist handed in, along with an audio file that she had created, I can see the musicians begin to wonder what they might play to accompany their book. I encourage them to use Garage Band, confer with their music teachers, and create music that reflects the climax of the book, or maybe is a great resolution of the story. For those less talented at composing, they have the option of creating an "album" of music to accompany the book—a mix tape for a generation whose playlists are always handy.

I have sculptures in my room, paintings, drawings, and plenty of videos of acoustic sets my students have performed or scenes they'd recreated. There's a short parody film, a longer video of students acting out a scene from Divergent, and copies of monologues students have written and performed.

The art and music teachers in my building love seeing the excitement students bring to their task, and I love how careful my students are to capture just the right emotion or focus on a specific symbol. It is an amazing chance to collaborate across the curriculum when we can help children translate the emotional responses they have from reading into art or music. There's always a detractor here or there, but I show them the written response where students reflect on the entire experience of creating as a response to reading, and I usually have converts to this way of thinking. Most importantly though, I have what I call "full contact" reading experiences that deepen learning while building the social and emotional needs of students as well.

In a few weeks, I'll have a student come up to me and say, "I have this idea ..." and we'll have an amazing conversation about their independent reading. I'll end up approving something that I can't quite get my mind around, and teachers in my building will help a child's vision develop. Independent reading can be an amazing portal into the hearts and minds of our students if we are willing to loosen the reigns of control long enough to allow responses that are more than reading logs and response questions.

Amber Chandler is an ELA teacher and the ELA department chair at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, New York. She is a 2018 AMLE Educator of the Year and was recently elected to serve on the AMLE Board of Trustees.

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2019.
Author: Amber Chandler
Number of views (3380)/Comments (0)/
Tags: Reading
Four Ways to Help Students Be Their Best Selves

Four Ways to Help Students Be Their Best Selves

How educators can help students repair damaged relationships and make behavioral changes

The eighth-grade girl approached Tom Adams in the cafeteria. "Dylan just asked out Samantha as a joke," she said. "Now he's laughing about it with his friends, and Samantha is sitting at our table crying."

Adams, the principal of Newfane Middle School in Lockport, New York, was furious. "Of all the misbehaviors a student could engage in, this was particularly brutal," he told me. Dylan and his friend Travis had carefully planned the whole thing, even telling Samantha in advance that Dylan liked her. When Dylan asked her out in the crowded lunch line, however, Samantha was hesitant. "Are you serious? This better not be a joke."

Dylan insisted he was sincere, so Samantha agreed to go out with him. But by the time she returned to her seat, she could hear the boys laughing loudly. When Adams heard what had happened, he hauled the boys into his office. "I saw red. I was feeling anger more than any other emotion, and I started in with questions. 'How could you? What does this say about you as a person?'" But then he paused to take a few notes on his iPad and saw a tweet he'd read the night before. He glanced at it again and decided to change course.

I'd never met Adams, but the tweet was mine. I'd written, "Don't ask a child if they've been mean to other kids—they'll just deny it. Instead, say, 'I'm curious—do you think you've been your best self lately?" There was a story behind the tweet. One of my students—a 12-year-old girl named Casey—had told her friend Donna that she was done with her. Casey said, "It's not just me—no one likes you." Donna made her way to my office, where she fell apart. She cried so hard she had to lean against a wall for support.

Like Adams, my instinct was to come down hard on Casey, who initially seemed more defensive than remorseful. "Do you have any idea how annoying Donna is?" she asked me. "She won't take no for an answer, she butts in on every conversation, and she's always there, hovering." I suppressed the urge to say, "Seriously? I remember when Katie did that to you in fifth grade. You were miserable, and I don't understand how you could do that to someone else." But that would have gotten me nowhere, so I took a different approach. I said, "When Donna told me what you said, my first reaction was confusion. I didn't think it sounded like you at all. You've always been so kind and thoughtful." And then I asked her the magic question, "Do you think you were your best self?" Casey immediately dropped her defenses. "No, not really. That's not who I want to be," she told me. She was upset with herself and wanted to make amends.

Adams took a similar tact with the boys sitting in his office. He took a deep breath and started over, adopting an inquisitive tone. He then asked the boys that magic question. Later that afternoon, he wrote me a note to let me know that inquiring about their "best selves" promoted better dialogue and a heightened sense of reflection. He wrote, "It changed the tone of the entire event. Conversation and tears flowed, and we were no longer talking about character flaws, but about how to make things right, how to live up to what we already possess—the best version of ourselves."

We both had come to the realization that even subtle shifts in language make a difference when you're interacting with middle schoolers. They're acutely aware of the imaginary audience and sensitive to both real and perceived slights. They have to believe that we care about them and want to help them, and they need to feel redeemable. Here are four ways educators can tweak their approach to help students repair damaged relationships and make lasting behavioral changes.

Be intentional about word choice.

Every child wants the adults in their life to see them in a positive light, and that's especially true when they make mistakes. They read your reactions, looking for signs of disappointment or judgment. They miss nothing and operate in polarities. They think you love them or hate them, find them worthy or inadequate. They don't think or emote in shades of gray.

If kids believe their character is in question, they get stuck in shame. A little guilt can be productive, but shame is paralyzing. If they conclude they're "bad," they lose their sense of agency. As researcher Brené Brown (2015) explains, "Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we're flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Something we've experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection." That's why it's so important to be curious rather than accusatory, to ask questions instead of lobbing accusations. Be wary of using words like "should" that carry judgment, and avoid language that assigns blame. Don't say you're "shocked" or "appalled," for example, or use phrases such as, "I can't believe you did that." Similarly, sarcasm, name-calling, and threats are unproductive and only serve to humiliate students.

Be thoughtful about body language and tone.

When you focus on a middle schooler's behavior and highlight their inherent goodness, they're able to see a way forward. A child who feels unconditionally accepted—flaws and all—feels and behaves better. If you want to convey positive regard, pay attention to your body language, facial expressions, and inflections. Kids notice when you shift your body away from them, avert eye contact, raise your voice, or adopt a biting tone. Instead, look them in the eye, ignore distractions, and listen intently to their version of a story. If they feel heard and validated, they'll be willing to engage in problem-solving.

Build social capital in advance.

It's much easier to talk to a child about mean behavior if you have a pre-existing relationship. If you've already built social capital, kids will default to trust and have an easier time considering your perspective. As restorative justice trainer Chuck Saufler (2011) stated, relationship-building is at the heart of everything. "When we rely on genuine curiosity, empathy, and caring, we help students improve relational skills, while also improving their connection with us and to school." Try to get to know your students before you have to troubleshoot. Ask questions about their extracurricular interests, friends, and academics, and greet them in the halls. You'll have an easier time appealing to their emotions when they hit a rough patch.

Ask targeted questions

Research shows that if you want students to adopt new patterns of behavior, you need to involve them in the problem-solving process. Don't simply issue directives and impose consequences. Borrow from restorative justice practices and guide students through a series of reflections. Ask, "What happened? What went through your mind at the time? How do you view the event now? Who was affected by your behavior? What do you need to do to repair the damage?" They won't be able to restore a relationship if they don't understand how their behavior impacted someone. They also need to connect with the person they wounded and find out what they need to do to make them feel better. Coach them through the process and keep it collaborative.

Adams and I exchanged a few more notes. In one, he shared that he'd had positive follow-up conversations with the boys' parents. Ultimately, we came to the same conclusion: When we get it right, kids will do everything in their power to live up to their best version of themselves.


Brown, B. (2015). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York: Avery.

Saufler, C. (2011). School climate, the brain and connection to school. Retrieved from


8 Tips for Schools Interested in Restorative Justice

Defining Restorative

Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C. and a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD. She is the author of Middle School Matters (Da Capo Press, forthcoming 2019) and a frequent contributor to The Washington Post. She also writes the weekly Career Confidential column for PDK, Intl.

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2019.
Author: Phyllis L. Fagell
Number of views (10076)/Comments (1)/
Tags: Guidance
After-Reading Response: Using Found Poetry for Synthesizing Text

After-Reading Response: Using Found Poetry for Synthesizing Text

Found poetry encourages readers to choose important details from text that they can use to demonstrate and share meaning

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 seventh in a series of columns on scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching a variety of reader response strategies before, during, and after reading.

The past writing-to-read columns have focused on before-reading response (preview response) and a variety of during-reading response strategies and types: employing response starters, double-entry response, marginal notes, notepassing, and visual response or drawing through the text. Equally important is after-reading response, response that takes readers back to the text for synthesis and increased learning. This column and the following columns in the series will share a variety of strategies for employing after-reading response across the disciplines.

Effective after-reading response employs a text reformulation or "text re-write" strategy where 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 it to other learning and their developing views of the world in which they live.

Found Poetry

One mode of reformulation is to create found poetry. Poetry was defined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge as "the best words in the best order." That being true, poetry can help readers look for the "best" or most important words or details in a text and use their "best" or most effective terms to analyze and evaluate the text to show their learning. Putting words in their best order is not only a writing skill but also an analytical skill and a way to combine what students learned with what they already know and make new meaning.

Found poems take words, phrases, and details from existing texts and cause readers to modify them, reorder them, and present them as poems, much as one does when creating a collage. This can result in learning and showing understanding in new ways. A classic found poem consists exclusively of words from the outside text(s), but in the interest of true synthesis and showing one's learning, the found poetry employed in after-reading response writing includes some of the reader/writer's own thoughts about the text. Other decisions of form, such as where to break lines and spacing, are also left to the poet.

Writing found poetry involves determining the important details in a text and the ways in which perceiving and even recording these details leads to increased comprehension of the text and its meaning.

To create their found poems, readers read through the text once, possibly annotating or using marginal notes as they read [see AMLE Magazine. 6(1), 2018 for writing to learn with marginal notes]. They then return to the text and highlight important or significant details—words and phrases—analyzing the text and employing critical evaluation skills. As they reflect and respond to the text, readers use those words and phrases to create a found poem, adding any necessary words to make or determine meaning.

Directions for Writing Found Poems for Synthesis

  • Read through the text.
  • Return to the text and highlight only important words and phrases.
  • Refashion, reorder, and/or reorganize those words, phrases, and details you chose into a poem.
  • Decide on the most effective format. Poetry doesn't need to rhyme; it can be free verse. Think about line endings or line breaks, formatting, and spacing.
  • Add necessary words and thoughts of your own to make meaning, showing analysis, connections, and inferences you have made.
  • Add a conclusion: the theme (author's message) or your own understanding, the point you took from the article.


This strategy takes readers through the critical thinking taxonomy of analysis, evaluation, and synthesis and teaches readers to look for and then determine important, not interesting, details. Considering the found poetry responses, teachers can ascertain what and how readers read and comprehended and whether students are able to determine which details in a text are critical.

Disciplinary Example—Science

Students read the article "The Kind of Face Only a Wasp Could Trust," a short article that explains how the black splotches that naturally occur on female paper wasps indicate strength and status on a social hierarchy that allows them less work. Wasps who cheat with fake splotches (paint applied by researchers) are harassed as social fakers under a zero tolerance policy.

One student read the article through and then highlighted the words and phrases she found important: (The sample below with terms highlighted (bolded) is from the first paragraph):

Paper wasps establish hierarchy within the all-female colony. After female wasps mate, they fight each other to establish their rank; the higher it is, the more egg laying and less work they have to do. [Researchers found] a lot of fighting is not necessary because the wasps signal their strength and status with the number of black splotches on their bright yellow faces—more splotches denote higher status.

When finished, she made mindful decisions to write her found poem in free verse format and designed her poem to show her understanding of the article. She then added a thoughtful conclusion that illustrates an understanding she realized from the article:

Black Splotches (naturally-occurring) on yellow faces
Signaling social status for the female wasps, Giving less work for those higher in the hierarchy, Signifying body strength.

Revered - always.

Cheaters lying (painted-on splotches)
Indicating sign of weakness, Causing harassment; Zero tolerance for social fakers.

Caught - always.

Paper Wasps or Human—It doesn't pay to lie.

Disciplinary Example—English-Language Arts

In an eighth grade English-language arts class, students were reading Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories. For one of the pivotal chapters in this fairytale about the importance of "stories that aren't even true," Jen wrote a found poem, capturing the details and power of the climax and showing her comprehension of the significance of this event:

Haroun's Wish

The ocean pure, unpolluted,
So many different colors, shining white lights,
To ruin an ocean, you add Khattam-Shud,
The dark ship,
A plug.
The poison blends, creating the death of story.

What was in his pocket? Wish-water?
Happening by a process too complicated to explain,
The minutes p a s s e d.
Concentrating—the WISH.
The sun rises on Chup again.
The ship fizzles away.

Things can return to what they were.

Disciplinary Example—Social Studies

And as part of a study of 9/11, social studies students read articles, watched videos, and read novels about the events. As a final text, they read an article, "I Was 11 on 9/11." In this article Emily Sussell who, on September 11, 2001, had been a sixth grader in a school near the Twin Towers, recounts the events of that day from her point of view then and ten years later.

Teachers used this appropriate article as a final text to synthesize student learning. Students used found poetry to determine the details that were important in understanding how these events affected young people who were their ages at the time of 9/11 and how these events may have impacted their futures.

September 11, 2001

2001: Fourth day of sixth grade

Was in the shadows
Of the Twin Towers

8:45: A crash

We evacuated school
The feeling of heat on my face

10:28: North Tower collapses

Safe—us, but not others


The Pentagon attacked

In Shanksville airline passengers save
the White House or

The nation and the world is
3,000 people were
Many people

2011: Twenty-one years old

More grateful.

I and a nation changed.

Other students, such as sixth grader Isabella, focused on many of the same words and phrases, also including such details as

21 years old,
that dark day
is still a big part of her life.

Isabella also added a conclusion that showed her interpretation of the article: You never know how much you have until you either lose it or risk it.


Text contains many and diverse details and facts—some true, some interesting, some critical to understanding. To increase comprehension and become proficient readers, students need to be able to distinguish the facts essential for understanding and learning, not only in informational text, but also for following, comprehending, and analyzing fictional texts. While determining important details may appear to be a during-reading response activity, readers cannot establish what is important until the text has been read and the author's purpose and message ascertained; therefore, this strategy must take the reader back to the text. Found poetry not only encourages readers to choose the most important details, it gives them the opportunity to work with those details to show the meaning they took from the text and share that learning with others.


Modigliani, L. (2011, September 5). "I was 11 on 9/11." Scholastic News Edition 5/6. Retrieved from

Netting, J.F. (2005, February 6). The kind of face only a wasp could trust. Discover Magazine. Retrieved from

Rushdie, S. (1991). Haroun and the sea of stories. London: Granta Books in association with Penguin Books.

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, February 2019.
Author: Lesley Roessing
Number of views (8166)/Comments (0)/
Tags: Reading
Weaving Gratitude into the Fabric of Everyday Learning

Weaving Gratitude into the Fabric of Everyday Learning

Practicing gratitude is one tool that can help students deal with anxiety, depression, and loneliness

iGen, a term used by generational researcher Jean M. Twenge (2017), is used to describe children born between 1995 and 2012. In her book, Twenge analyzed large data sets to understand the struggles and hopes of this rising generation. iGen are the children who now fill the seats in our middle school classrooms.

As iGen must negotiate the unchartered demands of the digital age, Twenge poses the question of what we can do to protect children from anxiety, depression, and loneliness, all of which are traits on the rise, and researchers have connected this rise to the influx of technology. Knowing that iGen faces these challenges, what can we as educators do to counteract feelings of isolation and loneliness?

Practicing gratitude in education is one pathway to help students with anxiety, depression and loneliness. In Ann Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are (2011), Voskamp challenged herself to find 1000 things she is grateful for amidst the duties, stress, and burdens of everyday living. In the same way she challenged herself to uncover what she is grateful for, how can we include gratefulness in our classrooms as a tool to foster community, connectivity, and happiness? How can gratitude in the classroom move beyond an obligatory pre-Thanksgiving assignment and into the fabric of everyday learning? Here are some ideas:

Discover gratitude. Before we can ask anything of our students, we must first embark on a gratitude journey of our own. Consider what you are grateful for in your personal and professional life. Who are the people in your life who bring you joy? What are the things you are grateful for? Where can you choose to see beauty in imperfection, and where can you choose gratitude over indifference or bitterness? Take time to slow down, put the phone down, observe your immediate surroundings, and document what you are experiencing.

Model gratitude. As you travel on your own journey of gratitude, begin to model gratitude for your students. Often, we speak to students; instead, make a pedagogical choice to speak with students. Share with your students about the people, things, and even challenges for which you are grateful. As you share your own stories of gratitude, this opens the door for mutual humanization, which consequently lays the groundwork for transformative learning (Freire, 1972, 1998).

Embed gratitude in curriculum. Consider embedding gratitude in your curriculum. For English courses, regularly provide students with opportunities to journal about what they are grateful for using sensory images and descriptive writing. In science, connect inventions and innovations to gratitude for modern conveniences. Encourage your students to seek or cultivate a sense of awe and wonder at the marvels of geography, weather, and nature. In math, connect concepts to real world applications that keep us safe and healthy. In history, connect the stories of the past to the stories of today. Cultivate gratitude for how the sacrifices and lives of others have strived to make our world more fair, just, and equal for us today. In P.E., cultivate gratitude and amazement at what the human body is able to do. In art and music, embed gratitude for these tools of self-expression and creativity.

Cultivate a community of gratefulness. When you take attendance each period, invite students to respond with something or someone they are grateful for rather than just responding "here." Engage in regular activities of gratitude such as writing thank you notes to class guests, providing opportunities for students to report specific examples of their gratefulness for one another, setting aside time to discuss and express gratitude for empowering school leaders, kind peers, and helpful school personnel. Cultivate a community that begins to see the people and things that are invisible and forgotten. Challenge your students to not only see them, but to be grateful for their presence.

When gratitude is present in personal identity, curriculum, and classroom community, it's a powerful tool to actively resist anxiety, depression, and loneliness in a fast-paced digital age, and helps set the stage for authentic, transformative, and connected learning and living.


Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Herder and Herder.

Freire, P. (1998). Teachers as cultural workers. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Twenge, J. M. (2018). iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us. New York, NY: Atria International.

Elizabeth Yomantas, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of teaching and the director of clinical practice at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Before beginning her work in higher education, she was a middle school English teacher.

Published January 2019.
Author: Elizabeth Yomantas
Number of views (5967)/Comments (1)/
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