9 Proven Ways to Get Kids to Succeed in and Love Middle School

By Betsy Langer (Middle School history)

Middle school parents know that it’s just not realistic to expect their sixth-graders to sit still, stay quiet and focused, and listen to a teacher for 50 minutes. At Waynflete, we know that middle schoolers need a special kind of classroom—one based on realistic academic, social, and behavioral expectations about where they are developmentally. They also need teachers who love teaching kids their age, who find ways to manage a classroom without saying “shush,” and who teach the essential skills that help students organize their work, their thinking, and mostly importantly, themselves.

Here are a few examples of essential classroom techniques and skills that help kids thrive in the rite of passage known as middle school:

1. Student Engagement: the best way to get kids’ attention

At Waynflete, middle school has evolved from the “junior high model” to one that rewards student energy, engagement, and active participation, rather than good behavior. Students are introduced to middle school with a real archaeological dig, where they get their hands dirty and learn the painstaking methods of historical detection. They take a virtual cruise up the Nile—with stops at “The Crocodile Café”—and examine online data from real archaeological sites. There is often a hum in our classrooms—the sound of students who are excited about learning.

2. Getting Everyone Involved—By Design

A class depends on the combined energy, creativity, and intellect of the group. We organize our classrooms in small pods of desks where students can collaborate easily in small groups and respond to each other as well as to the teacher. Because all students are expected to participate, we build opportunities into each class to help quiet, reticent, or anxious students succeed. Smaller class sizes combined with cozy classrooms—some with fireplaces, rugs, and sofas—make it easier for students to raise their hands or stand in front of the class to speak. We want all our eighth-graders to be comfortable in situations where they are asked to lead a class, participate in a debate, or discuss content.

3. Collaboration Versus Group Work

At Waynflete, students are shown the difference between mere group work and true collaboration. They learn how to contribute—not to be the one who does all the work (or the one who sits by and lets others do it). We give middle school students chances to collaborate across all content areas. Students brainstorm about the best way to solve a math problem, for example. They also work in large groups to collect specimens from a nearby pond, and then individually examine and identify what they observe through a microscope. Collaboration is a great way to channel the natural chattiness of your average middle schooler, and it’s a valuable skill in the workplace.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Be Boring: tools for organization

Waynflete educators love teaching the fun stuff, but they don’t neglect the old-fashioned skills that are essential to learning and developmental growth at this age—planners, binders, and their modern equivalent, Google Apps. One author describes the weekly planner as “the radar” that helps middle schoolers navigate the world. Organization can be a real challenge for this age group. That’s why the school day at Waynflete begins with homeroom advisors helping sixth-grade students organize class notes, handouts, and homework papers in three-ring binders.

Studies suggest that organization and good routines reduce student stress and enhance their readiness to learn. We devote time in each class to developing good work habits. Students fill in nightly homework assignments, write or set themselves reminders about specific deadlines, and fill in a monthly calendar for long-term assignments. Sixth-graders learn and practice these skills and then refine them in seventh grade. By eighth grade, they are using these skills without supervision.

5. Note Taking: organizing the evidence

Recording information as you read from a text or take part in a discussion is an essential organizational skill. The act of note taking not only deepens students’ understanding of what they’re studying—it enables them to use it to form arguments and support them in class discussions. At Waynflete, we teach the linear note-taking method, in which students are asked to identify and “chunk together” key words and ideas. They practice this format in history and Latin classes and quickly learn that the format required for science labs is actually another version of linear note taking.

Working from this solid foundation, students learn how to write topic sentences and five-sentence expository paragraphs—eventually leading to the creation of a research paper with a thesis, supporting points, and convincing evidence.

6. Memorization and Recall

Absorbing, cataloging, and retrieving information is essential for mastering material. At Waynflete, we discuss learning preferences and styles in our classes, then teach students to employ techniques that will maximize individual success. Our students learn to visualize material, create mnemonic devices, and make old-fashioned flash cards. In eighth grade, we memorize sections of the Constitution with songs, and write raps and chants to learn the bones in the skeletal system.

7. Watching for Cues/Focus

Middle schoolers love their devices. But recent research warns that devices may be making it difficult for today’s young students to concentrate. So focus is a primary concern for all educators. At Waynflete, teachers are constantly evaluating the balance between screen time and “old school” paper-and-pencil skills. Our sixth- and seventh-graders take research notes on index cards while eighth-graders learn to use digital note cards. Educators use verbal cues to help students transition to classroom conversation, emphasize the significance of making eye contact with a classmate who is speaking, and stress the importance of being still so a presenter can focus on their topic instead of a fidgeting classmate.

8. Teach Them to Teach Themselves

How many times have you been told that your child asks too many questions? We all want our kids to learn on their own and to discover that they can teach themselves. Asking questions is the first step. In fact, the best lesson plans often begin with great questions.

9. Maximize the Moment, Pace, and Tone

Middle school was historically seen as the stepping stone to high school. But middle school can be designed to allow 11-to-14-year-olds to develop at the right pace. Waynflete’s middle school teachers know that this is a time to allow for joy. They teach students the importance of taking time to just be. They focus on the moment, not on the transitional nature that “the middle” can be.

Waynflete’s entire middle school meets in a weekly assembly to celebrate accomplishments in the community, share music, perform skits, and make announcements. Assemblies are also a time to stop, breathe, and enjoy time together. We want to concentrate on the experience of the “middle learner,” not the student who is always preparing to move on.

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