Ten to Teen: Game-changing Middle-level Strategies

By Mary Kay Sommers
Principal, May/June 2013

Imagine if classrooms had the same appeal for a 12-year-old as playing Angry Birds on an iPad. Students would be intently focused to win. I’ve seen it happen, and the tips in this article can help you achieve these results.

In the classroom, the game is no longer about teaching content and skills, but about teaching individual students to achieve at high levels and be prepared for their world. Schools are cautiously becoming more innovative in spite of the “old game” of high-stakes testing now being used to evaluate teachers and principals. Middle-level students are often torn between their social and emotional needs and the imposed goal to learn.

How do we motivate all children to succeed? Vision, skills, and principal support are needed to design learning that captures student attention and provides motivation, especially at the middle level. In that setting, all students can be motivated to achieve at higher levels. Strangely, the highest-performing students, who can be skilled memorizers, find these open-ended approaches frustrating, while their peers can quickly adjust and excel using their untapped strengths and creativity.

Game-changing strategies, with examples from schools in Fort Collins, Colorado, and West Lafayette, Indiana, are outlined below.

High-engagement learning design. Educators ensure that every child is actively engaged in the learning process using different groupings, locations, and peers/mentors. For example, in social studies, students are given replicas of Revolutionary War battle documents written in Old English through which they determine specific criteria such as political position, audience for the writing, apparent bias, and validity. Students present their findings with their peers determining “truth” from the strength of the evidence.

Empower students. Teachers give students choices, clear expectations, and support so that they can feel successful. Students must also feel that teachers respect them and believe they are capable and valued so that they are comfortable taking high level risks.

For example, in one school, the teacher determined the interests and reading Lexile level of struggling readers. Then, at parent conferences, the students identified motivating books, and the team set reachable reading goals. As a result, students who previously lacked success became intensely motivated and were now reading two to three grade levels above as a result of their being empowered to design their learning strategy.

Problem-solving approaches. Students’ natural curiosity and sense of worth can motivate them to create new solutions. At one school, students used reading, science, and technology skills to identify a real-life problem. They had to research all aspects of the problem and design a plausible solution. As a result, a 13-year-old Colorado boy found a new solution to the flooding problems in North Dakota, and subsequently presented his idea to that state’s governor for consideration!

Integrated concepts and skills. Standards are addressed in multiple content areas through relevant and motivating tasks. Online access to successful, integrated units and to professional development may be needed to help teachers who are new to this approach. One collaborative unit had students listen to and reflect on The Island of the Blue Dolphins, exploring Native Americans in social studies, and investigating marine biology through video conferencing with an international park service.

Resources beyond textbooks. Information is more accessible and appealing when it is gained through channels such as technology, interviews with local or international experts, or access to real-world documents. Students also learn to assess the validity of alternative information sources, which is an important life skill. For example, a group of students at one middle school were interested in learning Presente 3D in order to teach school staff how to incorporate 3D into their lessons. Several staff members quickly included this technology in their teaching the next day. Most teachers were anxious to follow the leadership, vision, and expectations of their students.

Periodic assessments for re-teaching. “Just in time” learning is accomplished through quick assessments and learning modules. Teachers are still responsible to ensure that the core standards and skills are being learned.

Facilitators of learning. I believe most teachers are able to design learning in these innovative ways. Teachers who are eager to work this hard to make it happen need principals who will support them and treat them like professionals. Principals must develop creative schedules in order to provide sufficient time for teachers to design and evaluate such learning. Some teachers will need more support, while others will be eager to assist their colleagues. Sometimes teachers need the principal to intervene with the district to use technology and systems because IT has restricted accessibility. Teachers need to know the principal trusts them.

Addicted to Learning
The impetus for innovative instruction extends beyond academic results. The conclusion recently reached by the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education suggests that our students and our schools must be assessed for student growth and school improvement on these currently unmeasured “soft” skills. Basic skill testing will serve more formative purposes.

Imagine learning through a gaming and collaborative atmosphere where students are highly engaged and self-motivated to seek answers, develop needed skills, and solve real-world problems. They may appear addicted to a learning experience when structured with immediate, unemotional feedback and quick accessibility to direct instruction. Teachers are open to learn with and from students and other unexpected “teachers.”

When learners feel success is achievable and they feel personally valued and respected for what they can accomplish and create, then the motivation to produce at new levels is a natural outcome for both students and teachers in this new game of education.

Mary Kay Sommers, a former elementary principal and past president of NAESP, is an educational consultant based in Fort Collins, Colorado.


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