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.

Lessons From My Middle Schoolers – Part 1: They Want a Seat at the Table

It’s weird to think that for little over a quarter of a century, I have had the distinct honor of being a teacher to a delightful group of little people: middle schoolers. However, I suppose the term little people may not be entirely accurate as quite a few of them tower over me from the get-go. 

The term middle school tends to bring back horrible memories for adults and quite a bit of anxiety for the little people who are about to enter this new chapter in their lives. But I find that working with middle schoolers has made me a better teacher, listener, communicator, learner, curriculum designer, analyst, and all-around human-being.

Middle schoolers bring such life to a classroom. As each of them are going through puberty at different times during the school year, their emotions and physical growth come in spurts and plateaus. One minute they are on the verge of tears and the next they are laughing hysterically. They sometimes enter the class angry, and then like a switch, they are giggling and chiding each other. A few enter with a swag to their walk that they are trying on like a new piece of clothing—to be discarded the very next day as they try a different swagger. Some come with their own brand of particulars: five sharpened pencils lined up on the right side of the desk, color-coded brush pens for note-taking, or a small stuffed animal on their lap for comfort. Others come in a mad dash to beat the bell with a backpack that is partially (or in some cases not-at-all) zipped up—leaving a trail of pencils, papers, and whatnot in their wake. My personal favorite are the ones whose backpack or binder explodes all over the place whenever they open it. Even the solemn ones come with personal preferences. They only want to to write in black even when the task calls for color-coding terms. They don’t want anyone to see their face so they comb their hair in such a manner that only their nose is visible. These little people never fail to bring a smile to my face.

Because middle schoolers are children, some may want to write them off when they start to share their thoughts and opinions.

But that would be a mistake. 

While middle schoolers may not be able to clearly articulate what they are trying to say, they need to opportunity to practice their speaking skills. They need to not only learn how to frame an argument with evidence to back up their statement, but they also need to develop listening skills which only comes through practice.

The political and societal events of the past several years along with the increased connectivity and use of social media among middle schoolers have converged to provide middle schoolers with a platform from which to share their thoughts. Don’t get me wrong, middle schoolers have always had an opinion—video games, professional sports teams, bands/songs, you name it—but now they have access to issues that were normally the purview of adults. And because middle schoolers have grown up with technology in their hands, they are well-versed on how to find more information about a particular topic of interest. 

The problem, however, is teaching them how to find reputable sources. After all, we don’t need more people in the echo chamber (it’s already too crowded), but rather we need people who are capable and willing to look at all sides of an issue so that they can form their own opinion and clearly articulate their own thoughts.

Most middle schoolers have no problem jumping into a debate about things they are passionate about. They will use any and all means to argue their point to the point of death. I am sure many parents can attest to that fact especially if they have more than one middle schooler in their house at the same time. So, make no mistake, middle schoolers are not afraid to use their voice.

When it comes to political and societal issues, however, middle schoolers need to do more investigation and research if they want to clearly articulate their point without it coming down to a shouting match or physical blows. Their limited background knowledge about history, trends, and patterns is a constraint when having to think on the fly. 

They want a seat at the table. And I welcome their presence.

To be an effective communicator, middle schoolers need to be exposed to and diligently practice key literacy skills such as critical thinking, listening, speaking, writing, and reading. Although some may naturally develop these skills on their own or through mentoring by a parent or older sibling, in my experience, many middle schoolers lack these key literacy skills which put them at a disadvantage if they truly want a seat at the table for some of the big ticket political and societal issues of the day.

So, what can we do as educators to help equip middle schoolers with the skills necessary to be thoughtful participants in national and global issues? 

Enter —> Tools of a Historian.

The Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) has put together four tools to help students develop analytical skills:

  • Sourcing: Who wrote this? What is the author’s perspective? Why was it written? When was it written? Where was it written? Is it reliable? Why? Why not?
  • Corroboration: What do other sources say? Do the documents agree? If not, why? What are other possible documents? What documents are most reliable?
  • Contextualization: What and where was the document created? What was different then? What was the same? How might the circumstances in which the document was created affect its content?
  • Close Reading: What claims does the author make? What evidence does the author use? What language (i.e., words, phrases, images, symbols) does the author use to persuade the document’s audience? How does that document’s language indicate the author’s perspective?

Although these tools were developed for reading historical sources, they are equally valuable when analyzing video and images as well. The history teachers in my network are all aware of the SHEG resources, and we agree that students need to hone these critical skills if they want to be articulate when participating in a discussion for class or on social media.

Sourcing, corroboration, contextualization, and close reading have always been important tools when studying history—but these skills are even more important today with the proliferation of sources available online. We need to teach our students how to wade through the muck to discern whether a source is credible (or not) and whether a source will add value to the discussion (or not). 

My middle schoolers want a seat at the table. And it should be our collective goal as educators to ensure that they have the skills necessary to make good use of that seat.

The Other Side

The 2020-2021 school year came to a close for students on June 9 and for teachers on June 10. Needless to say, this was the most welcomed closure to the school year as everyone…I mean everyone…was tired.

Although I give props to my colleagues for persevering and to parents for sticking it out during a crazy, tumultuous school year—truth be told, it’s the students who truly deserve the props. After all, adults are better skilled to handle tough situations. We’ve learned from experience that with enough effort, grit, and a strong support system, we can and would survive tough situations. Children, on the other hand, do not have that experience within which to draw strength. And although many of us were dumbstruck with what was happening to us, around us, and outside of us during this pandemic, at least we were better equipped emotionally to weather this storm.

So, what was amazing to me was the depth of resilience within which my middle school students drew their strength. Their world, already topsy-turvy from being an adolescent, was completely and wholly shaken with the pandemic. As several of my students alluded to in their journal entries this past spring, they have not set foot on a school campus in over a year. 

Over a year.

Although about 55% of students eventually returned to in-person instruction starting in March 2021, a huge number still opted to continue with distance learning. Learning encumbered by wifi and device issues as well as finding a spot conducive to studying (i.e., quiet) was an everyday battle for the majority of my students. 

Our school deployed devices and hotspots until we ran out. And, if you’ve ever used a hotspot, you know how clunky they are. Add to the fact that we were using Zoom (bandwidth hogger) as the platform and you may have just an inkling of the barriers many students had to endure just to make it through the school day—let alone the entire school year.

I am sure many of my students do not realize the magnitude of their accomplishment. 

But I do.

My dissertation research focused on the barriers of technology integration into classroom practices. So, I am well aware of the barriers that challenge and, in some cases, prevent teachers from adopting technology as a medium of learning. First order barriers such as devices, access, infrastructure discourage teachers from integrating technology into their classroom practices (Ertmer, 1999). Second order barriers include beliefs, efficacy, skills, knowledge, and value to learning (Ertmer, 1999). Without overcoming the majority of these barriers, technology adoption is dead in the water.

However, due to the pandemic, technology served as the main medium by which teachers and students could connect. Thus, teachers had little choice but to quickly up their technology game, and students were met with the same dilemma.

Teachers worked diligently to prepare an engaging learning experience for their students. Parents rearranged their lives and homes to better serve as a makeshift learning space for their children. And the children logged in every day to their classes. Well, maybe not all of the children and maybe not every day. But most of them logged in every day to all of their classes—despite the wifi and device issues—in spite of the noisy shared work- and learning space—no matter how confusing the technology tools seemed to be—they logged in anyway.

That’s resilience.

If you are looking for examples of how to instill grit in students, look no further because the students learned it—they didn’t have a choice. The pandemic may have forced them to grow up much too quickly, but it also taught many of them that they have what it takes to come out on the other side. 

We made it.