Maintaining the Middle School Experience during COVID-19

Educators today are facing one of their greatest instructional challenges. How do we create meaningful and appropriate content that meets the needs of our middle school students when we are apart? How do we try to recreate a classroom experience for students when they are not in the physical space with us? The short answer, we cannot. We cannot recreate the same experience; we must create an alternate experience.

Together, educators are reaching across boundaries, using each other as our best resource, and seeking to find a style that works for our students and for us. Middle school teachers comb through the mountains of resources to create a space where students can learn our content while keeping in mind what middle level students need. We, as middle school educators, know that we must form learning partnerships with our students and demonstrate empathy as we engage them in their academic learning experience (National Middle School Association [NMSA], 2010). We are trying to build this classroom experience while being miles away from our students.

So how does a middle school educator maintain the middle school experience while out of the middle school classroom? As we create, our curriculum must center on the needs and unique characteristics of the middle school student. The Association for Middle Level Education, in its foundational position paper, This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (2010) calls on middle schools to provide an education that strives to be developmentally responsive, challenging, empowering, and equitable. Because curriculum is the primary vehicle for achieving the goals and objectives of the school, the five characteristics that outline the attributes of curriculum, instruction, and assessment within a middle school model should be kept on the forefront of our minds.

  1. We value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them.
  2. We must engage our students and ourselves in active, purposeful learning.
  3. Our curriculum is challenging, explorative, integrative, and relevant.
  4. We use multiple learning and teaching approaches.
  5. We create varied and ongoing assessments that advance learning as well as measure it.

Understanding the developmental characteristics of adolescents provides the foundation for a developmentally responsive curriculum that meets their needs and is flexible to their learned experience. Curriculum created within the walls and outside of the walls of the school should embrace this experience.

What does this look like as they experience a loss of instruction, an absence of friends, a disruption to their lifestyle, and feelings of uncertainty? We should not shelter the students from fear of COVID-19; instead, we should embrace their interest and the relevance of the topic by layering this into the middle school model. How do we do this?

  • We center our curriculum on their emotional and academic needs. (characteristic 1).
  • We focus on activities that center around questions developed by both the teacher and the students so that all are engaged in their learning (characteristic 2).
  • As teams, we create valuable learning experiences through exploratory questions that integrate the different content areas (characteristic 3).
  • By creating open-ended questions and embracing the different technology tools available, we vary how we approach both teaching and learning (characteristic 4).
  • Our culminating project demonstrates their understanding of what they have learned through their interdisciplinary tasks (characteristic 5).

Using the lens of the four attributes of the middle school model and the five characteristics of curriculum, instruction, and assessment created in this model, we can create an interdisciplinary unit that is relevant to our students today. By using activities such as suggestions from the list in figure 1, teachers can create an interdisciplinary experience that focuses on the world around them and their own experiences with COVID-19.

These thematic activities give students the opportunity to engage in problem-based learning centered on this event that is playing a dominant role in their lives. In addition, AMLE (2020) provides platforms and resource sites on their COVID-19 resource page.

Possible Curricular Activities

Content Area Activity
Opening engagement
  • How is the community working together around COVID-19? What is the role of mathematicians? Scientists? Journalists? Food pantries? Musicians?
Social Studies
  • Compare and contrast the reactions of the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and COVID-19. How are they similar and different from one another?
  • How did we use the results from history to impact our decisions of today?
  • Analyze maps and the spread of COVID-19. How has geography and population size affected the spread of COVID-19?
  • How has COVID-19 affected the economics of regions?
Language Arts
  • Look at primary and secondary sources from the Spanish Flu epidemic. How can your writing today capture the feelings and experiences of our current epidemic? How can you create other modes of primary sources other than a written account?
  • What is the role of the media in epidemics?
  • What is the role of social media in the spread of information about COVID-19?
  • Argumentative Writing- If you were governor, would you close schools/issue a shelter in place?
  • How are communities responding to COVID-19?
  • What can data tell us about the spread of COVID-19?
  • What is the role of graphs when explaining key components of COVID-19?
  • How can you combine different information from graphs to display information and inform others?
  • What is the economic impact that a pandemic can have on a business, community, or individual?
  • How do illnesses spread?
  • What is the reasoning behind flattening the curve?
  • Why is social distancing an effective strategy when battling an epidemic like COVID-19?
  • What is the role of a vaccine? Why do we not have a vaccine for COVID-19?
  • How does my immune system work?
Social Justice
  • How are people disproportionately affected by COVID-19?
  • How has the hoarding of supplies affected communities with fewer resources?
  • How do linguistic differences affect the access to pertinent information?
Digital Citizenship
  • What is the role of technology in an age of social distancing?
  • How can obtaining information from multiple sources help me gain better facts about COVID-19?
  • What are some of the emotions people experience during this pandemic?
  • What are ways to handle stress in situations like these?
  • How can we focus on gratitude during times of stress?
  • How do find/help resources for both physical and emotional needs?
Culminating Project
  • Newspaper designed in Microsoft publisher, Smore, or other platform
  • Make a movie or news broadcast using Screencast-O-Matic, iMovie, Flipgrid, BrainPOP movie maker, or another platform

Figure 1. The middle school model embraces problem-based learning and inquiry. These questions could be starting points of an inquiry model.

As we create curriculum to meet their content level needs, we must not forget that its development must be grounded in an understanding of the middle school child. By focusing only on the content areas in our activities, we know we are missing a key component of the middle school model. We know that students need opportunities to see each other and us. They need connections, as do we. We create experiences through Zoom, Google Hangouts, and other applications because we know what our students crave at this age.

We all need connections and relationships. We know that at this point in their lives, their adolescent minds need someone to help guide their experiences. They need a space in which they can voice their thoughts and fears and ask questions with a group who is experiencing the same feelings within the same space. They need advisory.

So what can advisory look like in a time like this? We must provide supports for stress and anxiety. While creating spaces that focus on questions relating to content, we must also create spaces to address their social-emotional questions. Just as many schools cut advisory due to time and budget constraints, we cannot allow this to happen in our middle school remote learning communities. During this challenging time for our students, we can help them navigate some of their feelings through proactive lessons about stress, anxiety, and change.

While looking through the hundreds of resources, remember this, you are your students’ best curricular resource at a time like this. We must hear our students’ voices, allow their needs to guide remote experiences, and be unafraid to think outside of the box as we think outside of the classroom walls.

Helen Brandon, a 2020 Illinois teacher of the year finalist and TeachPlus Fellow, teaches mathematics, science, ESL, and bilingual education at Bloomington Junior High School, Bloomington, IL. She has taught middle school for 15 years and is passionate about connecting curriculum to the needs of her students and their lived experiences.