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.

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. 

Silver Linings

Pixton Class Photos (Spring Semester)

To begin, my students and I started this school year completely virtual with rising cases in our county and, more specifically, the zip codes for our school. We all struggled with dual challenges between school/work versus our personal lives.

As we approach the end of the weirdest school year EVER, I find myself reflecting on how far my students and I have come.

I have taught 7th grade for the past 26 years so I know the trepidation that incoming middle schoolers experience. Perhaps starting school at home was a bit more comforting since they didn’t have to worry about (1) where their classrooms were, (2) how things were going to go in the locker rooms where they changed for PE, and (3) who they were going to eat lunch with.

But with that comforting thought also likely came concerns about (1) bandwidth/Internet connectivity, (2) how online learning was going to work, and (3) whether they would still fit in or not.

I think it’s safe to say that all of these comforts and concerns occurred for both my students and me at several points throughout this school year. In fact, I think we are still navigating some of those challenges even today: May 6, 2021.

What I’m most proud of this year is the persistence of my students. This year had not been easy for them. Many of them struggled with bandwidth, access to devices, completing assignments online without the immediate help of their teachers, but more importantly concerns about their family as some parents were laid off, others contracted COVID and recovered (while others did not), and monetary issues that affected housing and food.

How do I know this?

My students wrote about them in their Living History Journals.

What I love about middle schoolers is their lack of filter. Their Living History Journals are chock full of stories about learning how to skateboard, making their first cake, learning how to perfect their artistic skills. But these journals also contain heart-breaking stories of losing family members, unbearable loneliness, and in some cases outright despair.

These journal entries were the life-line between my students and me. I was able to gauge how they were doing as well as provide encouragement and feedback.

Make no mistake, reviewing these weekly journal entries has been quite taxing. I felt like I never caught a break in the grading/reviewing/planning/executing cycle.

However, I know that I am not alone in dealing with the declining health of a parent. The legal and medical decisions that have to be made have continued to overwhelm me. But when I start to wallow in self-pity, I remind myself that I am not alone in this. Many of my students have had to deal with issues of loss and death…and they don’t have the same support system or maturity of experience like me. So these Living History Journals have helped me to stand up a bit straighter because if my students can persevere, then I most certainly can.

This has been a tough 14 months. Nothing could have prepared us for this. But what I’ve learned is that through grace, love, and patience, we can all come out stronger as a result of this trying time.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, I feel as if my students and I are finally able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

We are going to make it after all. =)