Middle school—6th, 7th, and 8th grade—is the most changeable time period for children. The student who leaves the building after 8g is very different from the 6th grader who entered the building 3 years earlier. And 7g? As one of my principals said, “There’s a special place in heaven for 7th grade teachers.”
(I think it probably has padded walls.)
I believe understanding this stage of physical & mental development helps us adjust our expectations for the behavior of these 11-14-year-olds, and observations I’ve made over the years have helped me create lessons for these students that are appealing and engaging.
Our newbies, the 6th graders, are just beginning the transition from the childhood mind to the adult mind. Their lessons still need lots of structure and step-by-step instruction, which diminishes gradually as the year progresses. They are still accepting of adult guidance, but because they are now more capable of reasoning, they want to know why they are being asked to do something. They’ve not yet grown out of their ‘elementary’ self and are still a bit fidgety, so lessons for these students need to be short, visual presentations broken up with small segments of physical activity.
If you want to understand a 6th grader, visit a classroom during a testing session. It’s non-stop motion, hands, bodies, legs, fidgeting constantly. With all this movement, you’re sure the room must be infested with bugs.
By 7g the body has settled down a bit, but everything—and I mean every single cell—in a 7th grader’s body is connected to their mouth. They can’t do anything without talking—not walking, sitting, listening, watching, reading, writing, keyboarding, looking for a book, eating, or even breathing. If they are awake, they are talking.
For a real treat, stand outside a restroom when a single 7th grader is in there.
I guarantee they will be talking, even though they are the only one there!
It’s also important to accept that 7th graders are intellectually brain dead. Their brains are so busy with all the physical changes happening to their bodies that there isn’t a lot left for complex mental exertion. We have to find interesting ways to recall prior knowledge—repeatedly!—and blend that into fairly structured lessons of new material which include plenty of actionable repetition so they eventually retain what they’ve learned.
For the 7th grader peers are everything and they must do everything in pairs (bathroom, locker, nurse, office), so give them physical activities with a partner, especially those that allow them to “discuss”. And one last thing… 7th graders are all orphans: parents are to be avoided at all costs—they’ll insist on Mom dropping them off a block from school in the pouring rain, just so no one sees them with a parent! (…which means telling them you’ll call a parent about behavior is met with disdain.)
The most startling change in middle school happens during the summer between 7g and 8g. When 8th graders appear in the fall, they’ve grown a foot and have become young adults. Their maturity is evident—they are less self-involved and more future-oriented—and they expect us to treat them with dignity. They bore easily and quickly, so lessons still need to be short, a combination of new learning interspersed with creative, independent activity.
As the school year progresses, 8th graders become more capable of complex critical thinking, especially with issues that are larger than themselves, so we can plan larger, longer, more global-oriented projects. Of course, they often revert back to childhood shenanigans, so there still has to be some fun and physical movement to keep them focused.
Middle School Library Lessons
What I like most about being a Middle School Librarian is that teachers are still willing to bring students frequently enough for continuity of lessons and the kids are old enough to use a variety of resources and technology tools. Also, these 3 years are a long enough period to scaffold lessons from novice to proficient, but a short enough period that integrating lessons into everyone’s curriculum isn’t overwhelming.
In middle school we can teach the same lesson to all 3 grade levels, but we need to make the presentation and activities very different. We can plan a similar type of project, but offering different tools for the products opens up a realm of creative possibilities for librarians, especially since by 8g students are 13 and able to use more online tools. An example is my Library Orientation for each grade level. 6th graders have a simple lesson to help them find and check out their first book in their new library, 7th graders partner up for a scavenger hunt to activate prior knowledge of the library and try some formats they weren’t likely to use before, and 8th graders use smartphones to view video book trailers—a prelude to their first ELA project—and to interest them in topical books they may not have considered before.
You can find my 6, 7, 8 Library Orientations in No Sweat Library Lessons, my TeachersPayTeachers store.
Variation between grade levels is also needed when teaching information literacy skills. I’ve written about how I use my Library Lesson Matrix to scaffold these lessons throughout subjects within a grade level and bridge the grade levels by using similar processes to introduce new skills and tools. These lessons must also be embedded with subject standards and content vocabulary, to support content literacy and the development of independent learners.
Developing Independent Learners
Middle school content encompasses the transition from simpler concrete lessons of elementary to the higher-level critical thinking students will be expected to use in high school, and it’s the ideal time to develop independent learners. We can’t expect our students to become independent learners by themselves; it is a logical extension of having learned and practiced, so we need to develop it by design, not by chance. We need to scaffold instruction and structure activities so students practice in a gradually more independent manner. Ultimately, we want students to structure activities themselves and apply processes individually.
Middle school students will not fully attain independence, but showing them how to become independent learners is part of our responsibility.
Student independence is relative to concepts studied, resources used, and maturity of the learner. One mistake teachers often make is to think that just because students can read, they can read and learn subject-area content with minimal further instruction. Actually, we need to provide instruction to specifically support content-intensive reading materials:
- teach reading and reasoning processes as a natural part of the curriculum
- vary concepts and organization among curriculum areas
- help students adapt to the demands of various resource materials
- guide independence relative to abstraction and complexity of materials.
Students will learn at a level that is consistent with their grade and what is studied if we organize instruction into 3 transitional types of activities: preparation, guidance, independence.
- Preparation gets the student ready for reading through predictions, curiosity arousal, Conceptual Conflict (what if or how did that happen?), and anticipation guides.
- Guidance activities teach how to apply reading and reasoning skills through extended anticipation guides and student self-generated questions. Self-questioning aids retention, and students need to be led through such activities so the procedures become automatic.
- Independence allows students to work on their own, applying what they’ve learned, yet able to rely on the teacher’s guidance when needed. Discussion models such as think/pair/share, accountable talk moves, and Socratic seminars give students a chance for interaction with peers.
Independence does not mean isolation; it has to do with who is in charge. We cannot be impatient for our students to be independent, nor limit the time they need for becoming independent.
In our middle school library we can’t depend on recurring visits to fulfill all three transitional activities, so it’s important to incorporate them into each and every library visit that includes a lesson. My Library Lesson Planner does that with Direct Instruction, Modeling/Guided Practice, and Independent Practice. When I show my completed Library Lesson Plan to a teacher—with their subject standards and content vocabulary—that includes these activities in a single visit, they regard me as a teaching professional and are more willing to collaborate then and in the future.
Some Final “Helpers”
Middle school students can be a challenge. There are days when they aggravate us so much we’d like to ship them off to an island somewhere. Then there are joyful days when we can’t imagine teaching anywhere else! To help handle the day-to-day stresses—both ours and theirs—here are some general reminders I’ve accumulated over the years:
- Stand still when you’re giving directions (don’t do 2 things at once)
- Be specific about what to do (what to have on desk, what not to have; thank them as they complete task)
- Control should be for purpose, not power. Correct misbehavior with the positive expectation, not the negative wrong. (“We don’t do that in this classroom because it keeps us from making the most of our learning time.” and “Thanks for [behavior that meets expectations].” Praise is a value judgment for what’s truly special or exceeds expectations.
- Go from student who gets it wrong to students who get it right, then back to student who gets it wrong. Ask a follow-up question to make sure they understand why they got it wrong and understand why the right answer is right.
- Reaffirm expectations: I am respectful; I am responsible; I am ready to learn.