A student assistant program opens up opportunities for students and teachers.
“So, you’re saying you think the length of the pendulum is the most important variable affecting its frequency. Do you have data you can show me that supports this?”
A question like that is common in sixth grade science classrooms across the country, but in my classroom, I’m not the one who is asking those questions—my seventh and eighth grade student assistants are!
As a middle school science teacher for 29 years, I get defensive when I hear someone criticize middle schools or middle school students. So when my son became a high school freshman and started making negative comments about his middle school experience, I asked him to be specific about what caused those negative feelings.
There’s only so much teachers can do about the physical and emotional complications of young adolescents, but one of my son’s complaints caught my attention because it’s something that teachers do have control over: choice.
Knowing What They Know
Most middle schools offer students some academic choice, but not what my son would deem real choice. You can choose any language as long as it’s French or Spanish. You can choose any music class as long as it’s guitar or music appreciation. My son saw how much real choice awaited him in high school.
This “choice seed” sprouted in my mind during the summer months and took root when our superintendent spoke to district staff at the beginning of the next school year about famous people who experienced failure early in life, only to triumph later on. One story he shared was about rapper and songwriter Eminem.
Eminem’s personal struggles with drugs and poverty left him so discouraged he dropped out of high school. I started wondering whether he would have stayed in school had he been given the choice and opportunity to focus more on his interests and talents at school.
That gave me an idea. I could not only provide the one-on-one interaction my students needed to learn and understand science, I could also provide students with choices—and an opportunity to pursue something they loved.
My plan was to give seventh or eighth grade students who had strong science knowledge and ability and exceptional interpersonal skills, an opportunity to move out of one of their current classes and into one of my sixth grade science classes to help me ensure all the students were learning.
When I pitched the idea to our building curriculum coordinator, she immediately enlisted the support of the assistant superintendent to run the program as a pilot. But the burning question was this: What class would seventh and eighth graders drop to become a student assistant in sixth grade science?
A fundamental element of my philosophy is that every class should be a potential receiver and a potential donor. In other words, no class is inherently more important than another. If Eminem showed great passion for music in middle school, and this passion kept him healthy, why couldn’t he drop one class—such as science—so he could spend more time in music? In the long run, how detrimental would it be for a student to miss an entire year of sixth grade science?
My philosophy is one thing; reality is another. I realize it is a rare middle school that would allow an exceptional trumpet player to drop math to become a student assistant in music. However, at Londonderry Middle School in New Hampshire, students can drop certain classes without having to make them up.
Our school provides more physical education minutes than the state requires, so students can opt out of PE and still meet state requirements. Music has no minimum minutes required per year, so music is another class students can opt out of to become an assistant.
Maddy and Jordan, my first student assistants, dropped physical education and general music, respectively. After a short time, Jordan and her parents decided that the student assistant program was so positive that she opted out of PE, too. Consequently, she became full time in my science class.
(Both Maddy and Jordan are involved in sports in and out of school, so dropping PE was a logical choice. Were they out-of-shape students addicted to video games, I would not have given them the option of dropping PE.)
Benefits and More
At the beginning of the year, two of my five classes had a student assistant (Jordon full-time and Maddy half-time). These students had recently completed my curriculum and had demonstrated high levels of understanding. Consequently, the sixth graders in these two classes received much more attention and feedback about their thinking than students in the other three classes.
With the help of these assistants, I could answer those questions I had struggled with: What is each of my students thinking? What do they understand? What concepts are they struggling with? Although I alone may not be able to interact one-on-one with each student during our 50-minute class, I can enlist the help of my assistants who can ask the questions, provide the guidance, and encourage the students in the classroom.
Halfway through the school year, we added two more student assistants. Jillian was a seventh grader who opted out of chorus. Her chorus days were opposite Maddy’s PE days, so now the science class had an assistant every day. Cassidy was an eighth grader whose music and PE periods did not coincide with my science classes; however, Cassidy’s Advanced English teacher allowed her to miss most Monday and Friday classes so she could assist in my science class. Even though it had been two years since Cassidy was in my class, she had retained nearly all the science content!
In Their Words
Who gains more from this program—my students or my student assistants? I’m not sure, but I do know that both groups benefit. Here are some thoughts from the assistants and their parents:
Maddy: I started off struggling to know how to approach the students in a helpful, resourceful way, and now I am asking them questions, giving advice, and helping them the way Mr. Stith helped me last year. I have learned how to tailor questions to meet specific needs and how to do so without telling students the answer.
Jordan: Being a student assistant is one of the best opportunities I have had in my academic career. It has reinforced my love of science and has been a truly rewarding experience. In addition, I have become so attached to the class, and I can’t imagine my year without them. As a result of these kids and the program, I have discovered my passion for teaching and am now seriously considering pursuing a career in it. I learned so much from this program, and I doubt I would be the person that I am without it.
Jordan’s Mom: I have seen personal growth in Jordan. She has matured and has grown more confident in herself. She has always enjoyed science and done well in her studies, but this role is reinforcing all that she has learned and allowing her to help others understand and learn. She thoroughly enjoys the responsibility and the ability to work with students from a teacher’s perspective.
Jillian’s Dad: As a parent, I think it is wonderful that young students are given the opportunity to assist in the classroom. It not only allows students to “see” the material for a second time, it also allows them to practice important leadership skills and gain personal confidence. In my personal experiences in high school and especially college, being able to explain something to another student was the best way to reinforce my own knowledge of the subject.
To the Future
Several of my colleagues and administrators have observed these student assistants in action and have come away impressed. When given opportunities to take part in high-level leadership positions, middle school students will thrive and grow.
As we explore the possibility of expanding the student assistant program, scheduling will likely be a major barrier. However, as educators committed to maximizing the middle school experience for all students, we will find ways around the barriers.