In the crucial middle school years, what do students make of the assessments they receive concerning their academic progress—from teachers directly, or via standardized tests? What encourages them to take the risks involved in real learning, and what holds them back? In their book, Fires in the Middle School Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from Middle Schoolers (New Press, 2008), WKCD authors Kathleen Cushman and Laura Rogers call on students’ own words to offer ideas on that subject to teachers of the middle grades. Here we present an early excerpt from their chapter “Helping Us Grow into Confident Learners.”
How they are doing in school affects middle school students’ sense of themselves. They are newly able to measure themselves through the eyes of others, their peers, and their teachers. They are eager to feel confident, even when they feel out of balance in the rest of their lives. They want their teachers to stick with them, to help them feel successful even when they don’t yet know if they can be.
In every interaction kids have with you and with the school, they are looking for information about themselves as learners. Whether from classroom placements, from grades or test results, or from offhand remarks, they often draw conclusions that discourage them.
“I feel dumb, I feel bad inside, because they put the other people in smarter classes. They’re putting them way over there, and they’re smarter than me, but we’re both [learning] the same skills and we’re both getting the same grade. It makes me feel different.” —Tiffany
Challenge, Plus Encouragement
Middle schoolers realize that their academic work is now more difficult than it was in elementary school. They want clear and forthright communication from you, letting them know whether they understand or misunderstand the material. They need you to convey that information in a way that does not feel patronizing.
“When a teacher calls on you and when you’re talking they’re like, “Right, right.” Then if you say something wrong, the teacher’s like, “That’s right, that’s right, but I’m not looking for that.” Tell me if it’s wrong or not, you know? You don’t want them to tell you you’re doing bad—but you don’t want them to tell you you’re really good, when you’re not.” —Alma
Middle schoolers need both your challenge and your support. Tiffany says she would be more interested in Egypt if her teacher connected the class material to the things she knows and enjoys.
“A boring teacher doesn’t have actions to what he or she reads or says. She comes in and says, ‘Turn to page seventeen, start reading it, and write a paragraph about what is a fact.’ You got to make it fun, like: ‘Today, we’re going to do ancient Egypt. We’re going to write about what happened back then. How they used to build their homes and what they used to eat.’ And then tell you, ‘Just get working and then we’ll read it all as a group and then share our answers.’” —Tiffany
You can pose learning tasks that are just out of reach, and let students grapple with them for a while. Offering students lots of practice with the new skills they are learning communicates your belief that in time they will get it right.
“The way the teachers teach, that’s what made me want to act more mature. I can remember my [English] teacher in eighth grade. He stayed on us about doing our essays and stuff. Nobody liked essays, but now it’s my favorite subject. Writing an essay. I could write one in about five minutes, because he taught us the formula so many times, really trying to get it across.” —Brian
Coach Us Through Mistakes
They appreciate your clear and candid feedback, but they need it to come in the friendly tone of a good coach.
“In middle school I had a math teacher and she wouldn’t sugarcoat it for people. She would actually sit you down to look at all your grades, and show you what would happen. She would bring you down to reality, give you the straightforward of what would be the end result. But the way she would speak about it, you wouldn’t be hurt or offended, you’d have a good mindset.” —Geoffery
You can also support your students’ learning through the mistakes they make. If you maintain an encouraging stance, they will find it easier to accept your corrections.
“When you learn from your mistakes, you find a way to do something better. If you get something wrong, a teacher could just explain to you why it’s wrong and why what she’s saying is correct.” —Canek
“I’m not scared about my mistakes. A lot of people are, and I think that it’s something they have to get over, and just realize, ‘I will have a lot of mistakes.’ It’s the teacher’s job to give them constructive criticism of what they can do. I’ve known some teachers who do that.” —Alma
A climate of “learning from mistakes” will develop in your classroom as you yourself acknowledge your mistakes, admit what you don’t know, and tell the students what you wonder about. When you say, “Oops, I made a mistake, let’s try again!” students hear, “It’s okay to make mistakes as long you correct them.”
Show Us What Works
Kids need to hear your honest and specific appraisal of what they do well on a regular basis, and not just what they still need to work on.
“I had a paper graded and they just marked the bad stuff and didn’t point out the good stuff that I wrote. It just made me feel bad about myself. Teachers should say something positive to motivate the student to do better. When they correct papers they always mark the stuff that’s wrong, and just say, ‘Improve on that, fix that.’ They should say some stuff that will help the student feel better about themselves.” —Daniel
Middle schoolers won’t necessarily see their mistakes as an opportunity for learning new skills and information. They are just as likely to interpret your corrections as a critical judgment about themselves. Simply not knowing how to do something makes them feel vulnerable. So how you approach them makes a big difference in terms of whether or not they can hear and understand what you’re saying.
“If you’re struggling in a class, the teacher should come up and ask if you two [student and teacher] can work on something, so that you can improve. It’s easier for me to do one-on-ones, so I can ask as much questions as I’d like without worrying about being embarrassed, or looking at the clock. It’s really important for the teacher to tell the student that the student isn’t dumb, other kids are struggling also. It’s good to repeat [those] things that you should remember, even though it might be annoying.” —Carmela
Even when teachers try to minimize the importance of standardized testing, middle school students still feel as though the tests are judging them personally. This raises their anxiety at the same time that it taps into their strong beliefs about fairness.
They shouldn’t criticize the children, because it’s not our fault what we’re not learning that’s on the test. My friend’s school teaches a lot of stuff and gives a lot of homework, so they learn more. The school I go to takes forever to explain stuff on one page. They don’t teach that well. If they gave tests based on what you learn, that would be a good judgment. If they give stuff based on what they think you should know, I don’t think that’s right. —Amelia
Kids may know something, but they tend to forget when they’re nervous. Sometimes when I take a test, maybe I forget at that moment, but after the test, it might just come right off my hand. It depends on how you feel that day. —Kenson
During a test, you get so nervous and you lose everything, it’s just a little weird. Because once you’re done with it, you can say, “Oh, I remember that,” but you can’t go back to those tests that you’ve taken. I think they should just use your regular testing from school. —Javier
If you don’t know a word on the test, they’re not even allowed to tell you what the word means! If a question really revolves around that one word, you can’t really answer it to your fullest ability. —Daquan
There was a question that we hadn’t even learned yet, and I was a little confused. The teacher said, “Oh, don’t worry about it—just take a wild guess because we haven’t talked about it.” I’m not going to take a wild guess, because this affects me, and it affects what the state is going to know about me. The teacher said, “It’s my fault that I haven’t taught you this yet,” but I said, “Well, you should prepare us for what’s going to happen.” —Javier
It doesn’t make sense. They base everything on how you do on testing, like what high school might want you when you get older. What if you don’t do so good, but you’re really, really smart? —Kenson
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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”
– Deborah Meier, educator