Blog: Milestones

Awesome Awkwardness

18 Mar 2019

Awesome Awkwardness

Tonight, at my daughter's orchestra concert, right before the conductor appeared from the wings, a young man accidentally bumped his music stand. His binder tumbled down, his music spilling onto the floor. His stand partner knelt down, whisked his papers up for him, arranged it on the stand, all as the conductor walked out. There was a shared giggle between them, a sort of conspiratorial "well, that was awkward" moment, and with a flick of the conductor's wrist, the orchestra began to play.

As a voyeur to this episode, I was obviously pulling for the poor kiddo, but what struck me most was the tremendous grace that this girl afforded this awkward young musician. The fact is, the media often portrays teenagers and tweens as thoughtless, cruel, and unkind, yet I see daily acts of grace such as this. I'm not suggesting that there aren't bullies and rumors, cyber ridiculousness, and judgmental moments. Trust me, I have an eighth grader, so I know that these also are a reality.

However, many middle level educators count it as a part of our job description to meet these kiddos where they are and teach them to embrace their own humanity and the common experience of what Chris Dolgos, a Rochester, New York, member of my PLN (Twitter speak for Professional Learning Community) calls "awesome awkwardness" in his recent Tweet about middle level milestones. I love what Chris suggests here. Not only must we recognize that our students are trying to find themselves, they are also trying to shed parts of themselves they consider babyish. Chris uses poetry in his class to shape their experience of finding agency and voice.

If you've never watched "Being Twelve" that Chris suggests, you have to check it out! I was entranced by these students, and I'm already considering how I can begin my school year with eighth graders and make our own "Being Thirteen" video.

Marisa Aoki, a sixth-eighth grade math teacher, captures our role as middle level educators perfectly. What I love about her Tweet is that she both recognizes the inherent "mess" that is middle school, but also our real opportunity to help students through it. Those moments of vulnerability are so important for us to acknowledge, but there's more to it than that. For us to harness the power of our influence, we must also allow students to see us as vulnerable. I'm certainly not advocating for tears every time we might feel like it or burdening our students. Yet, I am suggesting that in for our students to grow into the people they have the potential to be, we must allow them access to adults who are thinking, emotional, feeling, and real.

I'm inspired by the grace that middle school students extend to each other regularly. In the midst of that "awesome awkwardness," we as educators can also find a way to connect with our inner middle schooler and be gentle with ourselves and each other.

Thanks for the great first interactive blog experience. Follow me on Twitter @MsAmberChandler and use #AMLE to share your thoughts on our next "Milestones" topic and I'll share with you our collective advice on: How can we, as teachers, help middle schoolers navigate the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence?

Published March 2019.

Introducing the Milestones Blog

4 Mar 2019

Introducing the Milestones Blog

When you tell people that you are a middle school teacher, do they give you an apologetic smile, or say "God bless you," or "Better you than me?" I've found that many people miss the beauty of the middle school world because they don't know the most defining characteristic of this age: students are reaching milestones almost weekly! It is actually hard to believe that the little guy who timidly walks in the door as a sixth grader will, in a matter of years, grow physically and emotionally in ways that are profound, and ostensibly leave a confident and capable teenager.

Physically, we know that even a year can make those first days of school pictures unrecognizable from the end of year slideshows. The inevitable voice cracks, awkward style choices, and the braces everywhere can take its toll on the kiddos and parents. I'm the mom of an eighth grader, and the crisis over the fact that she can't find the "right" black leggings, as opposed to the other five pair of identical black leggings, is exhausting for all of us. I haven't experienced the boy-in-the-middle yet, but I will next year when my son Oliver comes up to the middle. As educators, we can protect these students from each other, and even more importantly, from themselves. We have the power to model positive self-image, strong senses of self, and encourage them along the way.

Emotionally, these kiddos are struggling, but they are also so genuine, and real, raw, and courageous, that I am in awe of them. I love the conversations that we have while dissecting social class in The Outsiders or while they are stressing about taking their first mid-term. When you gain the trust of a middle schooler, there is no comparison to the loyalty they will give you. Recently, when my mother-in-law passed away, my middle school students were more at ease sharing their own grief with me as a means to commiserate and be empathetic to me. I'm so proud of all they go through and still they show up! Not to mention, statistics tell us that 1 in 5 kiddos have mental health issues. Guess who is often the first to do the sideline diagnosis that can lead to getting treatment? We are.

So, as I was trying to come up with a title and theme, I realized that "milestone" captures this age very well. This is going to be a column that explores those milestones, celebrating all that is magical about the middle, as well as tackling some of the issues that come along with the territory. Though I've taught middle school for more than 15 years, I'm going to need some help along the way, so I'm going to take to social media to hear from all of you! Be on the lookout for questions on Twitter from @MsAmberChandler, using the hashtag #AMLE. I'll be reaching out to some of the middle school thought leaders to help balance out our conversation. Please feel free to email me at, send me a message on Twitter, or leave a comment here for topic ideas, your thoughts on questions, and above all your expertise.

The first question I'd like to pose is this: In your grade level, what is a milestone that you have the privilege to observe and share in?

Published March 2019.

Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is an ELA teacher at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, New York, a recipient of the 2018 AMLE Educator of the Year award, and author of the AMLE/Routledge book The Flexible SEL Classroom. In this blog, Amber examines milestones that make teaching in the middle a truly unique experience, and shares ideas from middle level educators that ensure we reach every student, no matter what it takes. < blog home