The Art of Managing Middle School Students
Squirrels. That is what causes me to think of them. At one point in our lives, we were all that age, and we were all similar to squirrels. Have you ever taken the time to watch a squirrel? Zoom in, hold the freeze button for two seconds, flick the tail, then do it again. The key to becoming an effective teacher of middle school students is to capture and maintain their interest for longer than just those few seconds. It takes a tremendous leap of faith and trust to believe that something like that is conceivable.
Teachers quickly realise that it is hard to talk over middle school students, and while acting like a “dictator” may gain compliance for a short period of time, in the long term, it simply fosters ill will and passive disobedience when you turn your back on them.
My experience has shown that pupils in middle school benefit greatly from positive compliments and healthy relationships. Having a good time, letting your hair down, and discussing personal experiences that are relevant to each other are all great ways to create relationships. On the other hand, getting to know the preferences and abilities of the students develops a relationship that enables you to challenge a student to achieve more than they would have been able to achieve without that connection (thanks, Flip Flippen). But despite all of this, there are moments when their erratic behaviour is too much to handle. At this point, you should employ your hidden weapon, which is distraction.
IN THE CLASSROOM
I remember a circumstance from a long ago when my class of middle school pupils was working in groups. I could see that they were getting off course because side-bar dialogues were growing up all over the place. Therefore, I ordered them to “Páranse,” which literally translates to “stand up,” and then I began asking them in Spanish to point to and touch a variety of objects that were located around the room and on the walls. I was able to get the pupils chatting again (in Spanish) by first asking them, “What is this?” (en inglés: Qué es esta?). It didn’t take more than a few minutes to get everyone’s attention back on the task at hand, after which we were able to proceed.
I would occasionally get their attention by complimenting and rewarding a group with “Avispas” (the school mascot stamped on a sticky note used for extra credit). The statement “This group is aware of what they are supposed to be doing…!” was made. As soon as I done this, the other groups understood what was going on, and I was freed from the obligation of constantly reminding them to pay attention and get to work. It is incredible to see how diligently students will work in order to earn something as little as an additional credit post-it note, a funny sticker, or a smiley face stamp on their paper.
ROUTINE AND SURPRISE
Middle school students benefit from having routines and structures in their lives (thanks, CHAMPS), but they also benefit from being able to be spontaneous and obtuse (out of the blue surprises). Students in middle school want a structure that will give them something to look forward to, such as a monthly “auction” activity in which they can place bids on various items using their “Avispas” (extra credit post-its). The novelty pencils and pens, sticky pads, erasures, and other little odds and ends that I picked up at various conferences and workshops are among the things that I have contributed to this cause as donations. Additionally, I talked to school counsellors as well as the Gear Up College Reps on campus, and in most cases, they provided me with a lot of college gear. In addition, I always had a surprise bag available for them to bid on. I would go to the local convenience store and buy individual packets of candy like the sour pickle balls (the students loved them!) and spicy tamarind candies in order to up the stakes and spice things up (literally) (favorites in south Texas). The question “When is the next venta (auction)?” was a perennial favourite among my students. We never failed to have a nice time together, even if I had to constantly inform them that I did not understand what they were saying and force them to do so in Spanish. When the pupils entered the classroom, they were greeted by the sight of numbered envelopes affixed to the wall (I had to put them way up high to keep curious students and students with sticky fingers from handling the goods). Students were required to react in Spanish when I asked them questions in Spanish, such as “How much for envelope number seventy three?” After they had won the auction, I would ask them, in the same manner as in the game “the price is right,” whether they desired to exchange for the mystery bag or keep what they already had. The students appeared to get really invested in this, and they appear to have forgotten that the auction was conducted entirely in Spanish, which was the intention all along.
Jokes and riddles that I made up on the spot and that were frequently confusing helped me bring the pupils’ attention back (once they get the punch line in Spanish). When I noticed that the process of learning was becoming tedious, I discovered that sharing a (perhaps somewhat exaggerated) personal narrative was really effective, even when done in Spanish. There is a possibility that some of my students truly believed that I was a matador; but, the vast majority of them went along with my stories because they found them entertaining, they could make fun of me, and it diverted their attention.
My whole life, I’ve been under the impression that the best method to maintain order in the classroom was to have a solid lesson plan, but when it comes to the unruly pupils at the middle school level, you need to have plan A, plan B, and even a diversion lesson Z. It is essential to keep in mind that middle school students can be quickly agitated and scared, but they can also be easily drawn into the learning process if clear expectations, clear behavioural boundaries, and wacky, fun, active learning experiences are provided.