It should be part of an official middle school teacher evaluation form: "Effectively breaks rules and bends conventions for the instructional goodness of his/her students." Indeed, one of the most underreported characteristics of an effective middle grades teacher is that he/she knows how and when to deviate from the traditional path—the one most typically taken—to keep students engaged, inspired, learning, and guessing, and to fulfill the promises that a successful middle school is "challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant" and its "educators use multiple learning and teaching approaches" (from This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents, 2010).
During my first month teaching eighth grade, I broke and bent rules to accomplish those lofty goals, but I also went off the beaten path to help myself survive and grow as a teacher. I was notorious for over-preparing my lesson plans, writing them out like scripts on my yellow legal pad each week and then filling in more detail the evening before, just to make sure I had my timing down and could anticipate my students' needs, questions, concerns, and responses.
I even made time at the end of each lesson for the heralded "ticket out the door" activity (attached), so my students could write down a brief summation of what they had learned. For the first week back, my eighth graders followed suit with the last five minutes of class: they wrote out their tickets, clipped them on the classroom door and left with glacier-like speed to their next class. By the second week, we had compulsory fire drills, so I ran out of time to do them with certain classes.
By the third week, something happened that made me pause, scratch my head and think back to the characteristics of young adolescents (and my own eighth grade behavior). Fewer and fewer tickets out the door were being completed, until only a few sheets fluttered sadly from my clipboard. I wondered why the students would choose not to do something that was such an easy grade.
And then I remembered what young adolescents do when they catch on to a pattern. Some students see a pattern and relish in the routine, a welcomed place that is comfortable and familiar. Other students see a pattern and they see boredom and an opportunity to push back, deviate, and rebel against the conventional.
I also had to acknowledge another reason why my students weren't turning them in. They were writing them for only one audience: me. As social beings, young adolescents want to be heard, to share, and to know what their peers think. I had taken that opportunity from them through this independent work they turned in to me.
Realizing this, I admit I was a little angry, but I wasn't frustrated at my students' lack of interest in the "tickets out the door." I was upset that I had become predictable. I had followed the path of least pedagogical resistance. I had taken the road most taken, and not made a bit of difference.
So I sat down with my yellow legal pad, a pen, and Vygotsky and Lounsbury at my side, and figured out a new way to hold students accountable for their learning, to keep them engaged in their learning, and to keep them guessing about how they were learning. I created the following "ticket" game plan to make this all happen, which I also randomized to keep my students guessing:
Tickets (Out the Door) & Clip It!
Ticket in the Door
As a warm-up activity, students came in and wrote down what they learned from the previous day and predicted what we were going to learn next. This made them summarize, infer, and use environmental text (i.e. what was written on the front board). They then had 3-5 minutes to pair up and interview another student about his/her summarization and prediction. Finally, they would turn them in.
Ticket in the House
When I saw eyes glaze over or felt we needed a break from a "push" of content, I would ask students to fill out a ticket that summarized what they had learned and what they felt about it thus far. Sometimes, I would ask for feedback about the lesson: what's working, what needs help, what review do we need, etc. Other times I would ask for descriptions: if the lesson was a food/animal/song, what would it be and why? I gave them 3-5 minutes to pair up and interview another student about his/her summarization, feedback, and description. If I could see that the conversations were really cooking, I would ask students to share out.
Because I had students who wrote summarizations that sounded exactly like my lesson plans, I sometimes asked them to craft haikus about what they had learned at the beginning, middle, or end of class in order to get their creative batteries charged and to work on the higher end of Bloom's taxonomy (analysis and synthesis).
Daily Dialogue Tickets
To keep the sharing and socializing structured and focused, I created interview pairings and had students talk to each other about specific questions on specific days of the week. We did these either at the beginning or end of the period, and students focused on:
- Monday: What did we learn in class?
- Tuesday: What helped you learn best today in class? What did you do to help yourself?
- Wednesday: If you had to rate your performance in class so far this week, what would you give yourself and why? How will you keep up the good work or how will you improve by Friday?
- Thursday: How could you apply what we learned in class today to something in the world outside of school?
- Friday: What did we learn this week and how did you feel about that topic? What question(s) do you have? OR How does what we learned relate to the Essential Question?
In an effort to get my students to tell what they had learned in class and communicate this at home, I asked them to write a postcard about our teaching and learning that week. They were then to take it home and give it to a parent, guardian, older sibling, relative, etc., who would read it and write back to them. Not only did students write more completely about their learning on these postcards, but they also wrote more carefully because they were writing to a different audience!
Body of Knowledge Tickets
I wanted my students to not only share what they had learned, but to reflect on the process (or body) of their learning. Therefore, on this ticket, students worked from head to toe:
- Head: What have I learned so far? What's in my head?
- Hand: What helped me learn? Who or what gave me a hand (and how)?
- Stomach: How do I feel about what I've learned so far this week? What does my gut say?
- Feet: What's next? Where are we moving next in class?
The multiple tickets I received after making these new options were packed with greater, richer ideas. Perhaps more importantly, they illustrated that learning blossoms when we make it creative, collaborative, social, and joyous. And perhaps most importantly, they showed me that middle level pedagogy should be about engaging students by disrupting our comfort zones, bending our guidelines, and breaking our rules.