Let’s Create Classrooms Focused on What Makes Adolescents Special

This article is part of AMLE’s showcase of work by aspiring middle grades educators. The author, Ashley Wilson, is an AMLE student member majoring in Education at the University of Richmond. We welcome student perspectives, and encourage those in teacher preparation programs to submit articles to membercenter@amle.org. Learn more about AMLE’s Collegiate Middle Level Association and other opportunities for students.

Let’s face it. We’re operating in an outdated system of schooling. Emotional suppression, standardization, and compliance have been prioritized when the young adolescent human nature is actually diverse, personal, and creative. How do we fix this systemic issue? We need to leverage the disruption of the pandemic to refocus our middle grades classrooms to serve adolescents and their unique learning needs. This can best be accomplished through enhanced educational programming that uses creative movement, explores different career and educational paths, and incorporates artistic learning in the classroom to create high-engagement, low-stress environments.

Classrooms should be challenging, not cutthroat. But so many of our practices force students to compete against each other – including through standardized testing, advanced class placement, and other stressful tactics. Classrooms should instead be high-engagement and low-stress, with the voices of adolescents themselves in the forefront. One way to engage adolescents is through creative movement and artistic learning. Adolescents are “neurobiologically primed to engage in creative and artistic behaviors,” including activities such as graffiti-style art, collaborative projects, sketches, scripts, and performances. Music can be used to develop voice, art to express ideas visually, and creative movement to grow self-expression through learning. Overall, these methods help students develop their voice and explore how they want to impact the world.

Classrooms should also allow students to explore career and educational paths instead of instructing students on the path they should take. Apprenticeships, internships, and job shadowing allow students to stay engaged in their preparation for the future. These experiences

encourage “on-the-spot behaviors and good decision making” that form new neural connections and increase academic performance. Additionally, students should have opportunities to explore career paths and interests through after-school organizations, class options, leadership programming, and more. Using varied approaches also allows for the flexibility needed to empower students to explore all the interests they may develop.

I anticipate that some may have concerns about changing a system that has been around for centuries. But it’s a system designed to create productive citizens, not necessarily creative and critical thinking ones. Research by change-agents Washor and Mojkowski shows that “a restrictive school structure, culture, and curriculum” can lead to student disengagement, increased dropout rates, and decreased preparation for life-long learning. We have the knowledge to change this outcome. We should take the initiative to prioritize creating learning environments full of movement, creativity, and flexibility. Failure to do so will lead to graduates who are not prepared for post-secondary life, and dropouts who feel as if they had no other choice.

As a society we need to change how we look at education. Students shouldn’t be forced to conform and hide what makes them human – creativity, imagination, and diversity. We shouldn’t just look at school as a place to learn, we should look at it as a place for students to grow. As we allow students to learn in responsive settings, we might just stumble across leaders who will change the world we live in for the better.

Ashley Wilson is a first-year student at the University of Richmond in Virginia. She is a Richmond Scholar and Oliver Hill Scholar and plans to major in Education and minor in Psychology. She can be reached at ashley.wilson1@richmond.edu.


  • Armstrong, T. (2016). The power of the adolescent brain: Strategies for teaching middle and high school students. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Washor, E., & Mojkowski, C. (2014). Student Disengagement: It’s Deeper Than You Think. Phi Delta Kappan, 95(8), 8–10. https://doi.org/10.1177/003172171409500803