A View from the Ground

In March 2020, most school districts in the US moved to fully online instruction as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. With this radical and unprecedented change, middle school teachers have had to adjust to the challenges of teaching young adolescents online, and meeting the needs of students who are developmentally “in the middle.”

Here we describe the efforts of two middle school teachers, Ariana (science) and Gina (math), to take their teaching online. When schools went online, Ariana and Gina began journaling weekly to document changes to their instruction, their concerns about their students, and their own feelings about this dramatic change to their teaching. The essay is organized around the essential attributes of middle level education as outlined in This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents; successful online schooling for young adolescents must be developmentally responsive, challenging, empowering, and equitable. Within each section, we draw from Ariana and Gina’s journals to provide examples of how some teachers are addressing these attributes.

Online Education for Young Adolescents Must Be Developmentally Responsive

Middle school is a crucial time in an adolescent’s development, and one’s middle school experience can have a dramatic influence on their future learning trajectories. In moving instruction online, Ariana and Gina reflected on the ways in which they worked to be developmentally responsive before the change and took action to figure out how to maintain these practices in an online environment.

For Ariana, an important part of being a developmentally responsive teacher is understanding where students are and how to get them where they need to be. Before the pandemic, she relied on classroom discussions to involve students in discourse around science topics, both for checking understanding and establishing norms for sharing ideas. With the switch to online learning, Ariana felt she lost the opportunities for exchange of ideas that she valued. One way to support discourse is through synchronous video class meetings, but relying too heavily on synchronous meetings can be inequitable. Challenging herself to find a solution, Ariana found Padlet, a virtual bulletin board where students can post audio, text, or video. Students can comment on their classmates’ ideas, and a discussion can occur in real time as students participate from their own computers. Ariana found it useful to encourage discourse between her students, and reading their ideas helped her make decisions about how to plan online meetings and lessons.

Gina also used technological tools to advance her teaching while still attending to her students’ developmental needs. She notes that for many adolescents, pre-algebra and algebra appear as a challenging new language. Asking middle school students to use new language for mathematical reasoning online calls for a teacher who anticipates these challenges and creates an environment in which students feel comfortable learning new things. Gina provided her students with a weekly video in Screencastify in which she guided students through the outline of the lesson and created short instructional videos on math content. She found that students began to anticipate the video as part of their new weekly routine. As a developmentally responsive middle school teacher, Gina recognizes young adolescents seek structure, especially during a time when their routine is disrupted.

Online Education for Young Adolescents Must Be Challenging

Young adolescents are rapidly developing intellectually and are increasingly prepared to grasp more complex ideas. Middle school teachers who understand this develop challenging lessons and engage students in active learning.

Stereotypically, active learning in science is associated with “hands-on” learning, which is difficult in an online environment. But the key to active learning in science is what students do with their minds more than what they do with their hands. Ariana engages students in wondering about everyday phenomena and using what they know to construct scientific arguments. She begins with a warm-up question through an asynchronous discussion board format where students can respond to the question and others’ ideas. In a recent lesson about human impact on the environment, the students were asked to describe what materials make up a Happy Meal™. After they shared their own ideas and responded to others’, students read an article explaining the natural resources that go into making fast food. While reading, they are challenged to make a list of all renewable and non-renewable resources used. Ultimately, students are asked to write an argument to address whether making a Happy Meal™ is good or bad for the environment using a graphic organizer for developing arguments. Students develop a claim, drawing on evidence from the video, and justify it using the evidence and scientific principles. This asynchronous background work sets the stage for a synchronous class in which students present and critique others’ arguments.

Gina recognizes that both mathematical language and concepts can be challenging and that students need opportunities to confront these challenges, particularly as the language and concepts become more abstract in algebra. Gina values rigor and believes online instruction must create a balance so students can feel confident about the content and challenged through productive struggle. Gina gives students opportunities to explore math concepts synchronously through class discussions and asynchronously using videos, images, and interactive programs such as Desmos and Geogebra. She sets the tone in synchronous meetings for students to discover mathematical concepts through their own exploration, peer collaboration, and discussion.

Online Education for Young Adolescents Must Be Empowering

Early adolescence is a time of uncertainty with respect to self-confidence, peer relationships, and independence. The social isolation and disruption of routine that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic can be particularly challenging for students who are developing quickly. Empathetic middle school teachers attend to their students’ socio-emotional development even in online environments and work to help their students imagine and construct their own future learning trajectories.

Ariana has found that the switch to online learning has been empowering for many of her students. As students take more responsibility for their learning, they are accountable to log in to the learning management system and complete assignments; there is really no way for the teacher to continuously remind all of her students. This level of responsibility, while potentially empowering, can be overwhelming for a student. To help support them, Ariana’s school created an “Online Agenda Book” that students can use, which gives them instructions for each day of the week. Ariana models the use of this resource with her classes in synchronous meetings and schedules individual meetings when students need more help organizing. This resource creates a structure that makes the organization of students’ time and work manageable. In the past, structures in the school have served this purpose. In the absence of school structures, but with adequate support, Ariana has found that students can become empowered to take control over what and how they learn.

Gina agrees that in this difficult time, students have learned a great deal about their own learning preferences, work ethic, motivation, and organization. Students do not usually have to fully utilize these skills until higher grade levels, but Gina sees her students doing it. During synchronous meetings, she continues to encourage students and congratulate them for handling the work for all of their classes. To Gina, a large part of empowering students when so much has been disrupted is finding ways to show she cares. She uses online platforms to keep in touch with students and their families, and she works with parents to help them assist their children.

Online Education for Young Adolescents Must Be Equitable

This We Believe calls for creating a classroom environment that is equitable for all students. The move to online instruction creates additional challenges for equitable education. While most students have access to computers or smartphones, Ariana and Gina teach in a large, diverse public school district, and some students lack the crucial time, flexibility, and resources that others have. Some may not have dependable Internet connectivity, and in some families there is only one computer or smartphone that has to be shared. In some cases, students have increased responsibilities at home and may have to help younger siblings with their schoolwork. Some may even have ill family members. Of the AMLE essential attributes, Ariana and Gina agree that creating equitable instruction online provides the greatest challenge. We assert that the pandemic, and the accompanying changes to teaching and learning, calls us as educators to be more attuned and empathetic to the diverse needs and challenges our students and their families face. This is a time that calls for maximum flexibility, and Ariana and Gina have worked hard to provide a variety of ways to engage students in challenging learning, communicate with students and families, and allow students to produce and submit assignments through diverse means. Great middle school teachers are understanding, empathetic, and flexible. The challenges of teaching online during the COVID-19 pandemic have reaffirmed for Ariana and Gina what they value as teachers and has provided valuable insight that will help them and other teachers meet the needs of young adolescents in a rapidly changing world.

This essay was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (IUSE:1712220)”

Daniel M. Levin is an associate clinical professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park, specializing in science education, teacher education, and middle school teaching and learning.

Ariana Lulli is a sixth grade science teacher at Parkland Middle School in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland.

Gina Ethe is an eighth grade mathematics teacher at Benjamin Banneker Middle School in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland.

J. Elisabeth Mesiner is a doctoral student in science and mathematics education in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland College Park. She focuses on middle school mathematics and science teaching and teacher education.