Middle school: a cruel, amazing, funny, weird, horrifying and scary time of life for so many kids. For middle school teachers, many of those adjectives apply as well. As I sit listening to one of my 8th grade students explaining A Midsummer Night’s Dream to another student, all in her heavy NY accent and using teen-friendly language, I am amused and amazed. I get confused every time students read the play, yet I am confident that if I listened to this student, I would get it.
Last week my students asked me why I chose to teach this age. I responded honestly. I have taught all ages from 9/10 and up, and this is the age I chose because I love it. They didn’t seem to really believe me. However, I insisted that I decided years ago that I identify as a middle school teacher. My mother and I were just talking about this, and about how more and more, there is a middle school teacher identity that is different from a teacher biding his/her time until they can teach high school.
Here are just a few of the reasons I love teaching this quirky, strange, fun and funny group of kids.
Middle school students are brutally honest.
One asked me today, “Is that what your hair is like, Ms.Lopez, curly?” I said, “I guess, it’s wavy when I don’t blow dry it.” She responded, “I like it.” I trust that if she didn’t like it, she would have either told me, or remained quiet. I also trust that if my white hairs begin to show, or if I just got got a fresh dye job, they will also tell me. If my chin hairs are visible, or my concealer is not blended in, they will point it out. I trust this will happen because it always does. They will let you know, unlike some other ages who just want to impress and show love to their teachers. They have to keep it real by telling you the truth you didn’t want to hear.
Middle school students are funny, and you can laugh out loud with them.
The other day, I overheard a Latina student urging a classmate, also Latino, to forget about his recent breakup with a non-Latina. She exclaimed, “Ayyyyyyy! Come on, you’re Latino! You gotta go! Move on!” I pretended I didn't hear her and quietly laughed.
I have a class during which, if I forget to hide my phone, I will pick it up later in the day only to find hundreds of selfies in a “burst” that 2 of my students, (always the same 2) took, of themselves making faces. One day I found a video of one of those 2 students mocking me, staring at the class over my reading glasses, scolding them and telling them to finish their work. When I mentioned it to them in the next class, they imitated me again, and I laughed out loud along with them.
You can be silly with middle school students and they will still appreciate it.
I told my student teacher, Ms.Stephani, a few days ago that she definitely has the personality for middle school. A singer, she will sing directions to students when they are not paying attention until they finally listen: “Roberto, close your computer, close your computer, close your computerrrrrrr” in a catchy tune. They might laugh awkwardly and think she’s weird, but they listen.
It still works to threaten parent contact.
In middle school, families are learning to let go a little, and give their kids some independence over their school work/school life. However, that is not to say that if you contact them, they won’t follow up. I find that in 9 out of 10 cases, my students are still somewhat anxious to totally terrified that I will contact home with bad news. Using the app Remind has made family contact much easier for me, and the students know that I will send a Remind message on the spot if needed. One day a few weeks ago, I sent a parent a message about a student cursing in class. I know it was just a slip on the student’s part, but on the 3rd slip, I let the dad know. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for the student, this dad happens to work in our school. He showed up at my classroom door less than 2 minutes after I sent the message, finger crooked in a “come here now” gesture toward his kid.
Middle school students are not too old to show they need you
One student comes to mind right now. He is a gangly, fidgety, energetic student who is like a puppy in that his body is growing faster than he can keep up with it and his legs and arms seem to be all over the place. He will go up to male teachers and slap them on the back like they are old football buddies, and when he high fives you your hand will sting for a few seconds. He doesn’t quite know his strength yet. He complains pretty consistently about school, yet is almost never absent. This student shows up at my door maybe 3 or 4 times every day, whether he has class with me or not, to say hi to my student teacher and me. Sometimes it is between classes, and sometimes on his way back from the bathroom during a class. The consistent presence of some teachers, and some classrooms, are a grounding force for him, though he might not be able to articulate it.
There are perfect matches for every grade and every teacher personality. I feel lucky to have found mine.
Dear Adriene of Yoga with Adriene,
My student teacher and I are huge fans of your YouTube channel, Yoga with Adriene. We love your no-nonsense style and how you can laugh at yourself. We also appreciate all the different routines you have, such as: yoga for the neck, yoga for migraines, yoga for couch potatoes, and yoga for loneliness. Today, we decided to show our class of 7 middle school boys (who are learning English as a second language) one of your seated yoga videos to warm up at the beginning of class. We assumed that, like for us, a bit of yoga would help them get some energy out and relieve stress, while getting them ready for learning.
After that experience, we believe this is a whole niche your YouTube channel may be missing. We have talked about it and we would like to suggest a new routine for your channel: Yoga for Middle School Boys.
This routine should probably include the following poses:
We believe that Yoga for Middle School Boys would be appropriate for ages 12-14, especially. We have 7 middle school consultants who are very vocal and would be happy to help you plan this routine. We are certain that they would even be willing to be filmed doing this routine, dramatically recreating cat cow noises, screaming "ay fo!", and farting on demand.
Please let us know what you think of our proposal. In the meantime, we will keep following you and trying out new videos while observing our students add their own individual middle school twists to each pose while we stand there, looking at them in disbelief. Thank you.
A middle school teacher who has seen it all, and her student teacher who is learning fast to not be surprised by anything.
I am a published author. What?? I can hardly believe it. A lifelong dream of mine, realized. I didn't think my first book would be about teaching and education, nor did I think it would be nonfiction. When I was younger, I imagined myself an author of Nancy Drew type books. As I got older, I fancied myself a writer of memoirs, and maybe a book of poetry.
No matter - it happened in the best way. I am eternally grateful to my mom, Sonia Nieto, for believing in me and for taking me on this path. She guided me as we constructed our book together, figured out what our focus would be, and wrote together. Without being heavy-handed, she led me through the process of becoming an author.
Our book is a labor of love. The time we spent together on weekend retreats and long mornings at our favorite cafes is time I will treasure long beyond the publication of our book. I know that not everyone loves to spend so much time with their mother, and that many who would like to spend that time, cannot. I have many friends whose mothers passed away too young, and I know how fortunate I am to have mine by my side (literally - we are neighbors). The time we spent writing involved a lot of work and some pleasure as well. On our retreats, we always took naps, and always broke in the early evening for cocktails and a delicious dinner. Our mornings spent at cafes included tasty breakfasts or lunches.
Our book is also an ode to teaching and teachers. From one of the biggest fans of teachers I know, and from a teacher who has been in the classroom almost 25 years, we reflect on our beginnings as teachers, and explore topics such as writing, cultural responsiveness, ELL, public education, the importance of mentors, and curriculum. Many of my contributions to the book were originally published in this blog and revised for publication.
We both hope that our book will provide teachers and others some insights, and that it will be a statement in support of public education and hardworking teachers all over the country. If you would like a copy, you can order it here:
Would you rather get a root canal or go back to school to teach a full day after Christmas break?
Would you rather hear the dentist drilling to your core or the whining of your students when they realize they have to do school work again?
Would you rather smell the onion-y odor of middle school youth in the halls, or the medicinal minty scents of the dentist's tools?
These were actual questions I asked myself on New Year's Eve Day as I sat in the dentist's chair hearing his diagnosis: I needed a root canal.
The big question was: would you rather teach all day with tooth pain that makes you want to cry or scream, or get the root canal ASAP? I opted for the root canal.
In a strange way, I was relieved. I had none of the usual anxiety about going back to school after the break. I was almost happy to be facing the dentist first thing in the morning rather than my students.
It made me think. What was happening that I would feel relief to get a root canal on January 2? I realized that even though we had just had a good 10 days of vacation, it wasn't quite enough. In my case, I had appointments, errands, food shopping, and cleaning to do - so much so that I rarely had down time. Though I don't like the terms "me time" and "self-care", I understand that teachers really need both. And over my break, I didn't reserve enough time for either.
Our job is hard. Maybe, like a fellow teacher with whom I was talking the other day, one of the hardest. We do our job without enough time to collaborate and prepare. We deal with the neediest people, sometimes at their most vulnerable, day in and day out without enough training to do so. Social problems and mental health issues are growing, and work-creep continues. Budget cuts leave us without arts, languages, dance, counselors. It is all overwhelming and exhausting.
That is why today, while having my root canal and listening to a podcast, I actually felt relaxed. It shouldn't have to take a 2 hour dental procedure for this to happen, though.
I guess this is all to say this: teachers, take care of yourselves. We often put everyone before us, our families and our students. While it's hard to not do this, at the same time we need to be more deliberate about doing things that relax us or make us happy. Today at the gym, I was doing laps in the pool when in the lane next to me I recognized a long time guidance counselor from my school (now retired), mentor, community pillar, and family friend. When I asked him how he was, he said "Hanging in there. If I can do one thing a day that makes me happy, it's all good." Words to take to heart.
As teachers know, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas break are a test of our patience and sanity. It can be a challenging time for adults and students alike for so many different factors. Here in C-21, I am just trying to keep my curriculum going forward and the students in a semi-working and learning state. Not an easy task on December 17th!
In social studies, my beginner students are (fairly) engaged with a task-based project on an African country. This was part of our continent study of Africa, which I recently rolled out. On the first day, my students watched a slideshow of beautiful, colorful, amazing photos of glittering cities, modern skylines, clean streets, and smiling and healthy looking people studying, shopping, working, and going to school. The students had to decide which continent each photo showed. At the end of the slide show, surprise! They found out that all of these amazing photos take place on the continent of Africa. One student, who is from Korea, knew that they were all in Africa. When I asked her how she knew, she said that her father traveled all over Africa for his work, and she had seen many photos of his travels. Another disbelieving student shouted, “Miss, that can’t be Africa! Everyone knows they are all poor and it’s only desert there!!”
I knew I couldn’t get angry at this student, because this was his perception and probably what he had been taught by media images for years. I had a huge job ahead of me, teaching about 50+ diverse countries in the 2nd largest continent, and I had more undoing of stereotypes than I thought.
The other comment that alarmed me, made by another student, was, “Why should I want to study Africa, anyway? I’m never going to go there!”. Now, this student’s own country was a colony to which hundreds of thousands of slaves were taken, and which has an ethnic blend of African, Taino, and European ancestry.
I challenged both of these students on their notions of what Africa is like, telling them how diverse it is, and how indeed, there are huge modern cities, and much more than deserts, animals, and jungles and, I told them, who knows if you will go there or not one day!
The next task in the roll out of my curriculum for this unit was, freestyle and without looking at any maps or globes, to draw the continent of Africa. The results were amusing, and even the students laughed when they compared their drawings with reality. They wanted to vote on who did the best, and unsurprisingly the student with the closest rendition of Africa was from Cape Verde. A few weeks later, after studying many different political, physical and other maps of Africa, we repeated this exercise, and the results were much better. My students were coming along.
We then looked at a map of Africa, published by Boston University. In it are all the places that could fit inside Africa: the whole continent of Europe, and the countries of China and the United States (including Alaska). The students were wide-eyed. I hoped that they would begin to understand the immensity of the continent.
This week, the students began their quest to find out more about a country in Africa. They were each tasked with convincing my student teacher that she should travel to the country they are reporting on, and just to make the stakes a little higher, she will actually choose one of them. Because I know that my students will have to find the information on their own in order to really believe it (middle school students have a healthy amount of skepticism, even about what their teachers tell them!), they will each delve into finding out what makes their country interesting and special.
At the end of this unit, I’ll have the students reflect on what they learned. We will watch the slideshow once again, and perhaps instead of shocked faces that the photos were all of Africa, they will shout out, “That photo is in Lagos!” and “That one is Nairobi!”
In any case, in 4 days, we will have a much-needed retreat from our beloved students and schools. Hang in there, teachers! We got this!
As teachers, we often underestimate how students will react to the things we say or do. I have been surprised many times over the years when former students make comments such as, "I remember you always said -----", or "I will never forget that time you told me ----". And sometimes, the students we think we might not be reaching at all are the ones who remember us the most.
I have a class that is small, but quite loud. One of the students, who punctuates everything she says with a little scream, and is not ever afraid to express her opinion, regularly calls me her second mom. I can count on a daily hug from her as she passes my door. We played Kahoot in class the other day, and this student didn't have her Chromebook (we are a 1:1 Chromebook school). Not wanting her to miss out, I lent her my phone on which to play the game. At the end of class, as she handed her phone back to me, she showed me with delight all the pictures she had secretly taken of me, in addition to several selfies of herself. At least it was on my own phone, not hers, so I know she couldn't actually post them anywhere. I don't have to guess with this student - I know we have a connection, and it helps to keep her engaged in class.
In a not-so-clear cut example,a few years ago I had a class made up of half very vocal and half very shy students. One of the quieter, shy ones always started every assignment 20 minutes later than everyone else. He always appeared to be in his own world, and I didn't think he was listening when I spoke. I wanted to light a fire under him to show what I knew he knew. In fact, all of his teachers were worried about his lack of engagement and low work output.
At the beginning of the school year, I had tried something new; I showed a slideshow explaining the class guidelines, and I added a slide that said "I believe in you: you are a good person, you are appreciated, you are part of this community". I told each class that as corny as it sounded, it was true. They half-smiled at me, not really seeming to believe it.
The quiet and shy student who was disengaged had an emotional crisis that year. Shockingly, he named me as an adult in the building he would feel comfortable speaking to. I don't know if my corny "I believe in you" slide had anything at all to do with this, but something had made him feel at ease in my class.
We never really know what our students are taking in and how our words or actions influence them. We can only hope that we are that "go to" adult for some students, or that classroom where they feel like they can let out their breath and be themselves. In my school district, teachers work hard at making those connections with kids, and I would wager that most kids feel "seen". In fact, one teacher who had my son and daughter in two different classes expressly makes it one of her goals to make sure her students are "seen".
I had a few teachers who "saw" me - whether they knew it at the time or not, I don't know. I see them once in a while for coffee, and I tell them, lest they didn't know a the time, what a huge influence they had on me when I was a high school student.
Sometimes the connections teachers and students make are obvious. At other times, we have to have faith that, where the connection is not so clear, the impact we have will still be long lasting. We all have that power as teachers.
I recently attended the annual Western Mass. Writing Project's annual Best Practices conference, held at UMass Amherst, the home of our local National Writing Project site. As every year when it is time to sign up, I did not relish the thought of spending a Saturday indoors, away from my family and the multitudes of weekend errands and activities that needed to be accomplished. And, just like every year, I left feeling uplifted, energized, and reminding myself that THIS is why I love the WMWP and the NWP. By the way, the National Writing Project and its sites are NOT only about writing, and not only for ELA or writing teachers! All teachers pre-k-college and beyond can and should participate.
I've written other posts about the WMWP and the NWP, and it's because I am always awed by the power of teachers working together and teaching each other. At the conference, the morning started with warm greetings, cider donuts and coffee. I checked in, got my conference folder and reviewed the workshop options. At this conference, the majority of workshops are led by the new teacher consultants, the title participants of the Summer Leadership Institute earn when they complete the intensive 3 week program. The first workshop I went to, though, was led by two veteran members of the WMWP. By 8:40, we were writing and by 8:50 we were discussing the myth vs. the reality of the American Dream, and how to use the PBS film "American Creed" in the classroom. By the time the session ended I was already full of ideas I wanted to implement in my classes next week.
My next session was about writing with your students every day in a writer's notebook. While I already do this with my students, the workshop presenter reminded me of useful tips for using the notebook in class, such as decorating it so students can make it their own and express themselves. We tested out 4 different prompts as if we were students ourselves. I relaxed into the writing, treasuring the time to sit quietly with my thoughts and paper. In my favorite prompt of the session, we were instructed to write a break-up letter or a love letter to someone or something. I wrote a love letter to the pool at my gym, which I recently rediscovered and has brought me a peaceful outlet, and has reminded me of my love for the water.
At lunch, we heard a keynote speech from Kelly Norris, a local English teacher who has just published a book, Too White (Bedazzled Ink Publishing binkbooks.bedazzledink.com/books/books-t/too-white/). She talked frankly about her book, a memoir, which chronicles coming to terms with racism and white privilege throughout various experiences since her childhood. It was thought-provoking and honest.
Also at the luncheon, I was honored to receive the Pat Hunter Award for Outstanding Teacher Leadership, which is given in memory of Patricia Hunter, a teacher who was one of the founding members of WMWP. She died in 1999 and I never got the chance to meet her, but I admire her legacy as a teacher leader and advocate. When the award was presented and I said a few words to the crowd, I mentioned how meaningful the award is, coming from what I consider to be my professional home. And it's true; teaching can be isolating, maddening, exhausting, and infuriating. Yet every time I attend a WMWP meeting, conference, or other event, my belief in teaching, public education, and our world is reaffirmed. It's always hands-down the best PD teachers can be involved in, and I am convinced the main reason is the model of teachers teaching teachers. Valuing what teachers already know and can contribute to helping and teachers just makes sense.
You won't regret it: RUN, don't walk to your local site! www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/doc/findasite/home.csp
In my town, Columbus Day has officially been Indigenous People's Day for several years. The movement to make this change started with students at my school who researched and then advocated for this change first with our school committee and then with our Town Meeting body.
In an effort to present to my ELL students the story of Columbus from a more socially just point of view, a few years ago I wrote the text I wanted them to read, in a way that facilitated their understanding of it. Today I am excited to share the link to this lesson, just published by Teaching for Change. I hope it comes in handy for those who are teaching about this topic this week or in the future!
Here's to all the brave and curious critical thinking students out there. Our future depends on you!
You will find the article/lesson at this link:
Third week of school, and finally teachers and kids are settling into the routine: get up, go to school, go home, go to sleep, repeat for 180 days. This year I have 3 preps, which are actually 6 classes; 3 of them are academic language development sections, and the other 2 are the English and Social Studies I've been teaching for years. Only this year, those 2 classes are different. Very different.
I have this class of mostly boys this year - it's the kind of class where you might linger in the hallway a few more seconds than usual just to avoid going in because you know the chaos that is in store. The kind of class where on the FIRST day, you threaten to call home, and on the second day, you do it. By the second week they have permanent assigned seats. And the kind of class where you have already heard unexpected words and expressions, such as "Mr.Testicles" and "vagina", and where sometimes all that is heard are fart noises by way of the armpit or raspberries on the arm, and all manner of animal noises all the time. The kinds of class where you spot one kid switching from raspberries on the arm to kissing his own arm, and where if you turn your back for one nanosecond, things happen. The kind of class where, when I took out puppets for a conversation activity, one student had the Ernie from Bert and Ernie thrusting his hips forward, "dancing". It's the class where you have to write instructions on the board, act them out, read them aloud in 2 languages about 7 times, and show them through interpretive dance. And where, on day 2 of school, one student lets out a full 10 seconds of actual fart and doesn't bat an eye.
The day I had them for 3 hours in a row in 85 degree weather inside the classroom and 93 outside was the day I wanted to cry, and began to seriously question if I should keep teaching.
Luckily, it's also the kind of class where, in the first 2 days they have already called you "Mami" and "Titi" by mistake several times because they feel comfortable. And where they tumble in, all over each other, because they are happy to be there. It's the kind of class where, when the bell rings for the next class, they want to stay with you. They call you "Missy" affectionately and are fascinated by animal fights, dinosaurs, and volcanoes. They have random facts in their background knowledge which they love to share. They love reading out loud to each other in their beginners' English. They still respond to threats of phone calls, texts, and emails home. They love games and are playful, and raise their hands all the time to answer - when they remember to raise their hands and not shout out answers. At least they're engaged, and not tuned out.
This is the kind of class that makes you, as a teacher, step up your game. You have to be 100% prepared for every class, no winging it here. No down time or spare time at the end of class. I have had to rethink everything I was going to teach, and instead look for highly engaging material and activities that are also at their level. After the first day I learned I had to plan breaks, insert games, walk outside, and make sure they have transition time. Slowly, we are making progress. The animal noises and raspberries on the arm continue, but I am learning to ignore them. Focus on the bigger behaviors and ignore the small ones. I'm trying out my PBIS skills by praising whenever possible ("Excellent use of your eraser!").
I know there will be lower points than the 85 degree in the classroom day, just because, well, that is how it always works. With teaching, you feel like you are making great progress, and then something happens to make you feel like you are the worst teacher ever. I'm holding on to other days, though, the ones where you see your students happy and engaged, and know they are learning, and you know you went into the right profession.
To all those teachers who have classes like this, hang in there. We need you! There will always be bad days, but hang on tightly to those good ones.
The knot in your stomach gets tighter and tighter, as if 2 tiny beings are pulling on either end, as the days seem to fly by, each one more quickly than the last. Your nights get shorter, and you wake up more often. When you wake up, you have a harder time falling asleep. Your brain is suddenly wide awake even though it's 3 AM and your body tells you it's still time to sleep. In your waking hours, you spend hours on YouTube or Pinterest, looking for fresh ideas and engaging activities. You are excited and anxious at the same time. Your dread builds up while you also look forward to this first day. You are a teacher, and it is back to school time once again.
Some of us have had many "back to schools". In fact, my good friend Dave, who just retired, has been going back to school for a good 57 years. This will be his first year ever NOT going back to school. He plans to spend the day in a nearby bookstore, leisurely reading his book and not thinking about the students coming through the door. He promises to bring me coffee once in a while this year, though he says he will not stay to visit, and definitely not to sub.
People who are not teachers marvel at the fact that teachers have 2 months "off". However, teachers everywhere know what really happens. We use large chunks of the summer to prepare for the following year, meeting with other teachers and going to professional development workshops. We teach summer school. We attend conferences. We work at other jobs to make extra money. I know - we are lucky, too, to have unstructured time at home with our families or by ourselves, recharging for the following year. But by the time the summer comes, we need it. In fact, I need a good three weeks before I start feeling like a normal human again. By the end of August, I think I might have the energy to face 400 seventh and eighth graders once again.
As August comes to a close (and I know many teachers have been back to school for a few weeks already), teachers, take a deep breath. It's going to be fine. The anticipation is often the worst part for me, and once my students walk in, I'm excited to be there once again. Students, try not to be nervous. It's a new year, with new possibilities for excitement, learning, friendships and growth. Families, as you send your kids off to school, keep us in mind. We work hard to make every day count for our children. Work with us, not against us. Administrators, support your teachers, listen to them, value them. Unions, thank you for all you do for us; stay strong!