Lessons From My Middle Schoolers – Part 3: Middle Schoolers are Perceptive

It is a mistake to assume that one can pull the wool over the eyes of a middle schooler. Oh sure, you may be able to get away with it for a little while, but make no mistake, middle schoolers are perceptive. They can see through facade of a fake smile or disingenuous praise. When they walk through the doors of a classroom, they are looking at the bulletin boards, the way the desks are set up, and the teacher’s body-language. And, they can tell what kind of learning experience they will encounter in a classroom based on the climate set by the teacher

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is not a new term. But it has been in the forefront of edu-speak over the past several years, and more importantly, as a result of the pandemic. One of the organizations that I rely on to keep abreast of research on SEL is the Collaborative for Academic Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) website. Introduced to this website several years ago by a good friend (@scottpetrie), I keep this website on speed-dial (I know I just dated myself) as it offers a plethora of strategies to help develop social-emotional skills.

But beyond using the resources from CASEL, I also believe it’s just as imperative to look at the work by Dr. Hardiman: Brain-Targeted Teaching. I was introduced to Dr. Hardiman through my doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins. I regularly go back through her book The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st Century Schools (2012) to remind me of important considerations to help me help my students.

I gravitated towards her research because it’s practical. Now, this blog post isn’t going to go in-depth on all six brain-targets, but rather I want to focus on Brain-Target One: Establishing the Emotional Climate for Learning. Target One addresses the interplay between emotions and learning.

“Positive emotion has been shown to improve learning outcomes” (Hardiman, 2012, Loc 874). 

Hardiman (2012) postulated that “setting the emotional climate for learning may be the most important task a teacher embarks on each day” (Loc 1016). Research on the effects of poverty and stress on learning and cognition revealed that stress has a negative impact on the overall development of the child (Hardiman, 2012). Although we cannot control what happens outside of the four walls of a traditional classroom, we can (and should) work to establish a warm and welcoming environment for our students. 

It’s important for teachers to set a positive tone for the classroom. This can be accomplished by simply smiling and acknowledging when students enter the room. Some teachers like to stand at the front door and high five their students as they enter. Others may circulate through the room as the students amble in to greet them and ask about their day. I’m the type who walks around the classroom to catch up with students, taking note of their body-language (i.e., easy laughter, bounce in their step,  slouching, scowling face, clenched hands).

When the bell rings, I always greet them, and I expect a collective greeting in return. During the class period, I continue to circulate the room to chat with students, give feedback on their work, answer questions, etc. During the pandemic, I missed being able to individually greet each child and read their body language as they came into class. To address that gap, I put together a Google Form that asked students how they were feeling at that moment by selecting from four different emojis. I always watched the responses come in during the first few minutes of class which was extremely informative. But more importantly, it alerted me to which students might need a bit of extra help, a kind word, or more time to complete an assignment. I collected these responses every single day for the past year and a half during the pandemic.

So you can imagine how touched I was when several students wrote in their last Living History Journal just how much they appreciated (1) an adult asking them how they felt and (2) that someone cared about how they felt every day. It’s no jump to speculate that many students experienced a stressful home environment during the pandemic. I read about it in their journal entries, but I also knew from my own experience living during the pandemic. The unknowns were so hard to live with…for everyone.

But this brings me back to Dr. Hardiman’s point about the importance of establishing a warm and inviting learning environment for students. Students cannot learn when they are not emotionally connected (1) to the teacher, (2) to their peers, and (3) to the learning content (Hardiman, 2012). I cannot say that I was successful in establishing this every day, but it was something that I put high on my To Do List because middle schoolers are perceptive. They didn’t live in a bubble that the pandemic was only happening to them. But I think that (at least I hope that) they looked forward to coming to my class because I was always interested in how they were doing that day—that remains my first and most important priority when it comes to teaching.


Hardiman, M. (2012). The brain-targeted teaching model for 21st-century schools. Corwin.

Opportunity for Change

When I was studying for my doctorate, we read a book called Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform by Tyack and Cuban (1995). This book focused on the fact that although educational reform has been a topic of discussion among various stakeholder groups for well over a century, all of the promises and reform measures adopted have not made significant changes to the grammar of schooling (i.e., self-contained classroom, subject-matter courses, age-based grading and placement; Tyack & Cuban, 1995). In other words, very little has changed in how education is conducted in schools.

The pandemic forced K12 education to quickly pivot from in-person instruction to remote emergency learning (see Barbour et al., 2020). Without a doubt this was a significant change in how instruction was delivered to the majority of students enrolled in public K12 education. The speed with which this changed occurred was as unprecedented as the pandemic itself. 

Schools had to quickly address the mode of instruction from the school perspective: Paper packets sent home? Prerecorded video segments broadcasted through public television? Acquisition and purchase of online curriculum and lessons normally used for online academies and/or for credit recovery purposes? Asynchronous classes? Synchronous via Google Meet or Zoom?

Then there was the issue with accessibility of instruction from the family perspective: Would families come to school to pick up the paper packets? Would the school mail the paper packets home? If so, how would the paper packets be turned in to the teacher? What if the families did not have a device or enough devices (multiple children in the same household)? What about Internet connectivity? 

Additionally, the schools also had to consider the technology knowledge and skills of the teachers who were suddenly thrust into a situation that their credential programs did not prepare them for. Teacher knowledge and skills of technology spanned the entire spectrum from expert to novice. Soon came the questions, which technology tools would be easiest to implement? Were these technology tools user-friendly for the teachers, students, and families? Who would provide technical support if something went awry? Granted many districts employ teachers on special assignment, but their knowledge and skills of technology integration likely mirrored that of the teachers in the trenches. Thus, many teachers were thrust into the role of “instructional MacGyvers” (Barbour et al., 2020)—myself included.

The bottom line is that teachers were forced to change how they delivered instruction; students were forced to change how they viewed and participated “doing” school; parents and caregivers had to figure out how to create a learning environment at home while also balancing their own familial responsibilities.

These were all changes that affected how schooling was done, and the changes were enacted within a few months and in some cases days. 

But will these changes persist as we come out of this pandemic? 

I hope so. 

It is my hope that some (if not all) of the following changes will take root in K12 public education:

  • Incorporating technology tools for collaborative learning
  • Allowing students to conduct independent projects
  • Supporting creative means to demonstrate learning
  • Flexibility in pacing and learning
  • 1:1 student to device ratio

As a teacher who has diligently pursued and championed the integration of technology for meaningful learning, it is my hope and desire to see technology used not only as an emergency measure for content delivery, but as a partner for meaningful learning in general. It’s also my desire that the lessons we’ve learned over the course of the past year and a half will be the motivation needed to make changes in how schooling is done in K12 public education. 

We can and should be doing better by our students.


Barbour, M. K., Hodges, C., Trust, T., LaBonte, R., Moore, Bond, A., Kelly, K., Locke, B., & Hill, P. (2020). Understanding pandemic pedagogy: Differences between emergency remote, remote, and online teaching [Report]. State of the Nation: K-12 E-Learning in Canada.

Tyack, D. B., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lessons From My Middle Schoolers – Part 2: They Want a Purpose for Learning

I chose to teach at the middle school level because I just love that age group. They are constantly straddling the fence between child and teenager. Many of them look for approval from an adult figure while also pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable (or not).

Middle schoolers are also refreshing because while they have a filter, many of them tend to trip over that especially when curiosity takes hold of them. Some of my favorite inquiries over my career include questions such as “Are you having a bad hair day?” and “Did you not sleep well last night? You don’t look well.” Believe me when I say that these queries came from a good place—they were not meant to be malicious. 

This lack of filter also extends to academic work. Middle schoolers know when they are being given busy work. Assigning 100 math problems for homework can easily be construed as busy work when 20 problems would probably suffice for practice. Answering questions at the end of a chapter in the history book is another assignment that would likely be perceived as busy work if it doesn’t result in some type of application of that knowledge when they come back to class the next day. 

Now they may not tell a teacher that they think the tasks are busy work, but they certainly talk about with their peers. And in my case, many of them wrote about it in their Living History Journals, but some just flat out tell me that they are being given busy work. They won’t tell me the teacher’s name (and I never ask), and they have no problem telling me which class it is—I guess they don’t realize that at a small school it’s easy to identify who teaches what and who’s giving busy work or not. 

Middle schoolers can easily switch from the people-pleasing child to a surly preteen in 0.1 second. And that switch can be quickly triggered when they feel as if the academic work they are being asked to do seems like something just to keep them busy. 

This is why it is imperative to design learning experiences that are meaningful. The definition of meaningful learning that I am using here stems from the work by Jonassen and colleagues (2008). Their research specifically focused on meaningful learning with technology. In this case, they propose that in order for learning to be meaningful, it must be active, authentic, constructive, cooperative, and intentional (Jonassen et al. 2008). While they focused on meaningful learning with technology, I believe that their research is relevant no matter if technology is used or not. 

For example, instead of assigning a 100 math problems for homework, why not assign two or three problems and then have them look for an example of that formula or skill being used at home or in their parent’s workplace? Why not bypass the questions at the end of the chapter in the history book, and instead have students find an example of a similar instance in current events and explain the parallel(s)? Maybe even give students a choice on how they want to demonstrate their learning? 

Middle schoolers know that they need to follow the directions of their teachers. They understand authority. But more importantly, they want to do something that is meaningful. Nobody likes busy work—and middle schoolers are no different. 

Yes, it takes more work to design learning experiences that are meaningful. But aren’t our future leaders worth it?


Jonassen, D., Howland, J., Marra, R. M., & Crimsond, D. (2008). Meaningful learning with technology (3rd ed.). Pearson Education.